It was many years ago, I was in my mid-twenties, when a book was suggested to me: Descent of the Dove, by Charles Williams. Williams was a member of the Inklings, that famous Oxford literary circle of which C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were each a part. A man of modest origins, he overcame his humble beginnings to become a successful novelist, poet, and translator (notably of Kierkegaard), admired by T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Lewis, who attributes to Williams’ work the inspiration for his own novel, That Hideous Strength. I confess, I have read none of his other works (which according to one critic are “really pretty bad”); and that is a curious thing, for I have kept my dog-eared copy of this quite singular mystical work that he produced. I would never recommend him to anyone without a number of caveats–he was a bit of an “odd duck” with some strange notions that make of his theological musings something best read in the spirit of poetry (a la William Blake) than that of theological dissertation. I suppose I’ve hung onto it because of its essential message that the Spirit of God is actively at work in the world and through time, even in the midst of the disastrous and tragic events of history (e.g. the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottomon Turks led to a late medieval explosion in learning as scholars fled to the West; this in turn birthed what we now call, “The Renaissance.”). This observation was equally true of the private lives of individuals, adversity and tragedy bringing unexpected graces and unanticipated opportunities.
However, it is Williams’ adherence to the ancient doctrine of the early Church Fathers that he referred to as co-inherence that has truly had a hold on me since I first read his meditation on the history of the Church.
I don’t wish to be overly theological about explaining this, so I will try to put plainly what Williams meant by co-inherence. It is used by him in reference firstly to the Holy Trinity. God the Father and God the Son live in essential relationship to each other and are innately a part of each other even as they retain separate identities. This is reflected in the Catholic teaching that the activity of any one person of the Trinity is inherently the activity of the other two persons even as from a human perspective we only experience it as the action of one of the three. For example, Jesus cleansing a leper is what human beings saw, but in that activity the Father and the Spirit were equally at work. For Williams, the Holy Spirit is the very expression of the relationship: the Spirit is the medium of God the Father’s love for God the Son and vice versa that makes this co-inherence possible.
Yet this idea is not restricted to the divine. Humanity, made in the image and likeness of God, has its own instance of co-inherence, and that is seen in the fact that a human being is both an individual and a member of a community (family, tribe, nation, etc.). What I do on my own is an expression of universal humanity as much as what a whole tribe or nation might do, whether to the credit or disgrace of human beings as a species. And we are spiritually bound to each other. Ideally it is love that makes the immaterial connection among us, and Williams thought that romantic love was the human analogue for divine love. Sadly, in our fallen state, a malevolent spirit can also serve as the medium by which we co-inhere one to another. That’s what grabbed me as a young man and helped make sense of the evils of history, and how Hitler, Stalin, Mao, et al. could come to exercise such power in a world that in my experience seems to be filled with basically nice people trying to be decent.
What Pentecost then expresses is the coming of God’s Spirit as that which binds us to God and to each other as it dispels the evil forces that too often exercise control over us as both individuals and as communities. As Williams wrote, “The apprehension of this (order), in nature and in grace… should be now our chief concern.” Extending this “order” is then our task, and maintaining this order among us as well. God’s Holy Spirit is an ordering Spirit, but not ordering in the manner of totalitarian government. The Spirit is what God breathed upon the waters of chaos and in doing so brought out of it Creation. The Holy Spirit orders for the sake of life, to free us from chaos and give us true liberty.
We remember that at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, the Spirit was seen to descend upon him, “like a dove.” Jesus’ messianic activity in the world occurs with this spiritual connection to God the Father having been explicitly made. The Church comes into being in like manner, when corporately all who had been baptized then have the Spirit descend on them at Pentecost, but not as a dove, for what is seen are “tongues of fire.” This makes explicit the connection of the triune God with us, the Church both as a community of believers and as individual disciples. With that comes many risks for God. For as the world sees in this a claim to a profound connection, we as members of the Church can scandalize Christ by our misdeeds or glorify Him by our virtuous endeavours. On my own, I can discredit the faith just as through working with others we have have the potential to demonstrate the power of the Holy Spirit to remake the world as a better place. This has indeed been the case of the Church, and for everyone who has ever called themselves “Christian.” Williams only regarded the Church itself as “half converted” and the disorder we see in her history is evidence enough; the full conversion, of the Church and humanity was and continues to be the work of generations to come. As Christlike as the Church can be, its faults, foibles and failures tell us it still has a long way to go, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t on our way!
As of late we have experienced a manifestation of a dark and malevolent spirit. This is no superstition to put the current crisis down to a cause that is a combination of malevolence, greed, and spiritual malaise. That we know that the callous disregard of the Communist Party of China for the international community of nations and its own tyrannical impulses toward the people so unfortunately governed by it are at the root of the spread of the disease. Even in the midst of the current world crisis, they are using our distraction from matters other than the lockdown and the incalculable damage it is doing to crush the liberties of Hong Kong and threaten the freedom of Taiwan, fellow Chinese who simply cannot abide the cruel authoritarianism of the one-party state headed by Xi Jinping.
There are many in the “free” nations of the world who are complacent, and complicit, putting the prospect of material gain ahead of ethics. Universities have been showered with money, corporations enticed with access to markets (and that includes major media conglomerates who provide us with “news” but also look to exhibit their movies in the cinemas of Shanghai and Guangzhou), government rectitude undermined by powerful lobbying. Popular love of the cheap goods that stock the shelves of superstores has been our common contribution to this. I have rehearsed this from the ambo before. We know this is not right, but are at a loss as to what can be done. With whom then do we “co-inhere” — with those brave enough to protest and resist and risk arrest (and worse), or is the spirit we live in one that plays to our fears, greed, slothfulness, etc.? And we must not be mistaken in believing that our attitude toward this situation can be compartmentalized, isolated, quarantined. It will infect other aspects of our lives to the detriment of our communities. The viral aspect of this spirit has been amply demonstrated in human history, and it has been the catalyst of downfall.
At this Pentecost, this anniversary of the Church, we must recollect what has been given to us in the descent of the dove, in the gift of the Holy Spirit: a great countervailing force that is like a light that the darkness cannot overcome. We have received by God’s Spirit, on the one hand knowledge of the truth that troubles us and makes it uncomfortable to simply go along, but on the other there is the energizing Spirit that fills us with the confidence to speak a universal message of true freedom in Christ, and proclaim the invincibility of the Gospel. If we obey that great impulse from God through Christ in the Holy Spirit, we elevate humanity brought low by the despicable actions of those animated by dark forces.
This means a consistency in our lives as individuals and as a community of believers in our words and actions such that they conform to the Gospel, and so do not give aid or cooperation to evils both minor and great. We ought to exercise a fundamental expectation of truthfulness and moral rectitude from our civil and ecclesiastical leaders, and ourselves. Whether or not leadership conforms to this expectation, we should, “for to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” How does the Spirit manifest itself in our lives? Williams, toward the end of his book advocated for special confraternities dedicated toward the raising of our collective consciousness, with a good measure of contrition as well. The answer to the dilemma of Williams’ day, that of Nazism and Soviet totalitarianism, was for the Church to again feel “intensely the strange energies which we call contrition and humility and doctrine (true, if difficult, teaching)” so that “it will be again close… to the Descent of the Dove–It’s only difficulty will be to know and endure [the Spirit] when he comes, and that, whether it (the Church) likes it or not, the Messiah has sworn that it shall certainly do.”
In my own ministry I understand I must work to remain rooted in humility, practice contrition and only teach the Apostolic faith, resisting those spirits of the world that would have me do otherwise. To yield, to surrender, would be to break the spiritual connection both with God and with you; to exchange it for another spirit that would be happy enough to compensate me with another lesser communion, and incorporate me, not into Christ’s body, but into the fallen world. By grace we will “endure” the coming of the Holy Spirit into our lives, and by that same grace come to gladly “drink of the one Spirit,” so as to be truly free to speak of God’s deeds of power.