But we must turn to his work. What is the vision that flares over everything he wrote? It cannot be boiled down. In his preface to All Hallows’ Eve, T. S. Eliot remarked that what Williams had to say was beyond his grasp, and perhaps beyond the grasp of any known genre of literature. Williams had to dart at it like a hummingbird. But what is this It?
For a start, we may say that Williams thought of himself as a wholly orthodox Anglican. He exulted in the dogmas and creeds of the ancient Church (although the fact that he never made his peace with either Rome or Constantinople, with both of which he was enamored, is quite typical of Williams’s elusiveness). Readers may notice that I said he “thought of himself” as wholly orthodox. I think we may say that he was: but the following paragraph may throw light on this seeming quibble.
He was asked in 1943 to contribute to a symposium on "What the Cross Means to Me." Here are his opening lines:
"Any personal statement on such a subject as the present is bound to be inaccurate. It is almost impossible to state what one in fact believes, because it is almost impossible to hold a belief and to define it at the same time, especially when that belief refers not to the objective fact but to subjective interpretation. A rhetorical adjective will create a false stress; a misplaced adverb confuse an emotion. All that can be hoped is that a not too incorrect approximation may eventually appear. And anything that does appear is, of course, to be read subject to the judgement of the Christian Church, by whom all individual statements must be corrected.”
Now all of that is inexpugnable. But besides the entirely legitimate matter of Williams’s pointing out that he has been asked to address the question of what the Cross means to him, the attentive reader may descry in Williams’s syntax and phraseology a very agile sort of what I can only call demurral. He stays on the orthodox shore: but he seems to dance on it. For more light on this delicate business, we may go on to what he undertakes to say in the essay itself.
He is speaking of God’s having created the world, and of the credibility of that notion. He then mentions human freedom, with its corollary that we may choose not to obey God. "But it is not credible that a finite choice ought to result in an infinite distress. . . ." Here we have the problem of eternal punishment for human (finite) sin. Flat orthodoxy would, of course, have to hold that both Sacred Scripture and the Church have always taught the doctrine of Hell. And, to be fair to Williams, he never actually calls this into question.
In fact, he goes on to treat of the Cross, not only in an orthodox way, but with an agility that most readers would find quite astonishing. Speaking of Caiaphas and Pilate, he says that they were "each of them doing his best in the duty presented to them. The high priest was condemning a blasphemer. The Roman governor was attempting to maintain the peace. . . . They chose the least imperfect good that they could see. And their choice crucified the Good."
Williams’s ruminations on the Cross take the form of his stressing that God subjected himself to his own law. To crucify him — "This was the best law, the clearest justice, man could find, and He did well to accept it. If they had known it was He, they could have done no less and no better. They crucified Him; let it be said, they did well. But then let it be said also, that the Sublimity itself had done well: adorable He might be by awful definition of His Nature, but at least He had shown Himself honourable in His choice."
And one more sentence: "Our justice condemned the innocent, but the innocent it condemned was the one who was fundamentally responsible for the existence of all injustice—its existence in the mere, but necessary, sense of time, which His will created and prolonged."
We cannot reach a fair conclusion on Charles Williams’s theological orthodoxy on the basis of a few fragments of a single essay. He wrote many essays, and two whole books (He Came Down From Heaven and The Forgiveness of Sins) on "theology." I put the word in quotes since no theologian I know of, except Hans Urs von Balthasar, has ever registered much interest in Williams as a theologian. And I mention von Balthasar only because he sought me out, not because of any eminence of mine, but because he heard that I had studied Williams, and he wanted to talk about him. (He—von B., that is—in the course of the evening gave me a snapshot of himself with Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. He said it was his favorite photo of himself, if that throws any light on anything.)
Readers may just barely taste, in the quotations above, the "flavor," if we will, of all of Williams’s writings. By his agile syntax, and his carefully chosen vocabulary, and his (mostly subtly implied) demurrals, he hops along just in front of the Inquisition. In Williams’s case, it would be the Genevan, not the Dominican, inquisition that would find itself apoplectic. Williams always sails very near the Catholic wind. But—typically—he never would submit to Rome.