Monday, April 11, 2011

Five People You Meet in War in Heaven

Charles Williams certainly tests the boundaries of what I think I know and believe. I don't know all the answers to the questions he asks, but I know I like the questions. Here are five characters from War in Heaven that present particular challenges.

Prester John All through the High Middle Ages and Europe's Age of Discovery, Christian Europe shared and pondered rumors of a hidden Christian kingdom somewhere in Asia or Africa. Its priest and king, the reputedly ageless Prester John, shows up in War in Heaven as the protector of the Holy Grail. Everyone he meets recognizes him but can't remember where they have met him. At one point he identifies himself as the "Precursor" -- as the Baptist, Galahad, and Mary all rolled into one. One of the themes of the novel is that a person with the right mind can see God in any created thing, even in another human. At that moment, the thing is both God (because someone sees God in it) and yet not God (because it is created). The phenomenon invokes one of Williams's favorite phrases: "This also is Thou. Neither is this Thou." I understand and have this experience often, but are John the Baptist and Mary, Galahad and Prester John, a handclasp and the Holy Grail really on par with each other in this regard?

Archbishop of Fardles The Archbishop represents part of what is most attractive about Buddhism to me. He is said to live with a serenity for which "contentment" is too mild a word. At one point, Williams even talks about his "detachments," a word that seems to allude directly to Buddhist doctrine. The good clergyman likes to quote Ps. 136, with its persistent refrain, "For his mercy endureth forever." The refrain in that Psalm responds to both celebrations of creation and remembrances of death. Both are mercies, indeed. But are we to be content with both? The Archbishop rests in faith even when he feels that God has abandoned him, because this feeling also, he says, comes from God. Can we truly be content at these moments? Are we supposed to be content at these moments? Or does God intend them to drive us toward harder questions and deeper faith?

Gregory Persimmons The former publisher serves Satan because he is angry. But the Archbishop says that anger will not lead people to Hell, since it is a sign of intense desire. Instead, he helps direct Gregory to the End of Desire, Jesus Christ Himself. For the Buddhist, the "end of desire" means its annihilation. For the Christian, "end" means rather "goal." When we finally see God face to face, our desires will not go away; we will instead rest in the enjoyment of their perpetual fulfillment. So our desires ultimately should lead us to God, and, yes, I can see that anger might point to intense desire and frustration at the world's inability to fulfill it. But does anger always lead people up to God?

Lionel Before Gregory knows anything about the End of Desire, he makes a hobby out of manipulating people with temptations to power. But near the end of the book, he expresses his frustration with several people on whom his enticements don't work. The detached Archbishop falls in this category of course. But so does Lionel Rackstraw, a man so convinced that the universe is cruel, he walks through his day vividly envisioning disaster to himself and his family just to prepare himself for the inevitable. Worldly power has no charm over a man who only wants out of the world. The Archbishop just sees Lionel's problem as an exaggerated form of blessed detachment -- a longing for death, which will only bring him into God's presence. I understand that despair can lead a person to God; I think for instance of the man who came to Jesus saying, "I believe. Help Thou my unbelief." But does God's mercy over everything mean that everything is good, even despair? I know He called all of his creation good, but despair is more a product of creatures than of the Creator, isn't it? (And isn't it actually an absence -- as darkness is the absence of light -- rather than a product of either God or man?)

Bastesby Gregory says that children should be taught to do no wrong. Then he grabs Adrian and tries to offer him to Satan. Poor Vicar Batesby, who constantly quotes fractured scripture, defines goodness the same way. He likes the good people, whom he recognizes as those who don't steal or murder. Kant also bases morality on a negative principle that says, essentially, don't do anything you wouldn't want everybody else to do. It sounds almost like the Golden Rule, except that it doesn't tell us what to do, only what to avoid. I enjoy seeing this tepid but popular view of morality exposed, but I find it puzzling and sobering to be reminded that both men of the cloth and diabolists can espouse it.

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