The Descent of the Dove by Charles Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A good friend of mine once called Chesterton’s Everlasting Man “bullshit history.” He meant it in the best way possible. A similar label could be applied to this volume by the famously-forgotten lost Inkling, Charles Williams. I’ve written about Williams’ wonderful yet at-times-exasperating fiction here before. He’s difficult to classify. Like Chesterton, he sort of slips through the cracks by his works’ tendency to resolutely resist any pat classification. His fiction is not fantasy. Neither is it realism. I’ve heard it classified before as “theological thriller,” but if that makes you think of Frank Peretti then you’re still in children’s church. When I heard that Williams had written a history “of the Holy Spirit in the Church,” I tracked it down in Olivet’s library. (Note to Nazarenes: according to the old library card still stuck in it, this copy was checked out by “Dr. Parrott” in 1975. I wonder what he thought of it. And why he felt he needed to sign his name “Dr. Parrott.”)
The Descent of the Dove is not a history of the Holy Spirit. It’s a history of the Holy Spirit in the church. Big difference. I thought I might get a study of how the church has understood the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, throughout its history. Which would have been fascinating. How did the early church come to understand the vague admonitions of the post-Resurrection Christ and the strange happenings of Pentecost? Whence the Filioque? Stuff like that.
I’m sure there’s a study like that out there somewhere, but this is not that book. This is much more along the lines of Chesterton’s Everlasting Man. Because for Williams, of course, the history of the church itself is the history of the Holy Spirit active in the church. So what we have instead is a much more straightforward and less surprising work: an intellectual history of Christianity, unencumbered by detailed analysis of doctrine or careful study of primary texts. Which is fine. Williams wasn’t a historian. He was a literary scholar and a writer and a Christian, and this book– again, like Chesterton’s Everlasting Man— is a very intelligent, very erudite man’s apology for the church.
Apology as in explanation. How did the church get to where it is today? What forces and ideas shaped it throughout its history? This is something like modern “worldview” talk; reducing history to broad strokes and generalizations. Not necessarily a bad thing. The big picture. The sweep of history. Williams is understandably Western-centric without being exclusive. He has a grasp of the implications of ideas, even if he plays fast and loose with their origins or evolution. The motivating factor, the explanatory agent, throughout all of this is of course the vague and subtle and undeniable direction of the Holy Spirit.
If Williams has one theme he wants to sell, it’s his idea of co-inherence. This comes into play in his novels as well, and for all the enjoyable ink he’s spilled on it, I’m still not sure what it means. It revolves around the idea that humans and the Divine can share and experience the qualities of one another. Christ took on our pain and our shame through his crucifixion. His divinity co-inheres with the Father. His divinity somehow also co-inheres with us. When we take on the pain and burdens of others (through empathy or prayer or something more mystical, I’m not sure), we co-inhere with each other. It’s a suitably slippery theme that Williams can trace it throughout the history of the church. I’m not saying he’s wrong. I’m just saying its a vague and slippery idea.
If I sound like I’m faulting Williams for trying to nail jello to a wall, I’m really not. This was a very enjoyable and well-crafted book, if you simply enjoy it for what it is: intellectual history by a guy who wrote very well, thought very well, and could hold his own with the likes of Tolkien and Lewis. But historians like to work with concrete dates and events and texts. Scientists like concrete concepts and evidence. Intellectual history sort of floats over both of these, much more the literary creation of a literary mind (an interpretation of history and the evolution of the church) than pure scholarship. More art than history.
Which is, again, okay. In the end, all we really have are our own interpretations of history. Our own ideas of how we got to where we are. Read this book to get Charles Williams’, which are probably worth more than most.