aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Towards a higher vision of the body and sexuality

In my last blog post, I wrote about the problem facing the orthodox party in The UMC.
For the struggle within The United Methodist Church, this means we can’t just be against things, even against them nicely. We can’t just say we disapprove of the various identities and practices of the sexual revolution: we must again theologize the body, relationships, and identity in the light of God.

Having said this, one might suppose that I knew what I was referring to, that I had a witness to share that might help lead us out of the blind end we've stumbled into. Well, I do. But I'm not sure that most people can follow me where I'd lead them.

For if you're really looking at a radical, orthodox, transformative theology of the body, relationships, and identity, then what you're looking for is in the poetry of Charles Williams, esp. Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars. Williams also has a number of prose works to his credit, in which much of his thought is avouched in ordinary, if highly literate, sentences. But if you want to see the thing not merely explained, but demonstrated, then you want to read his Arthurian poetry.

The idea of teaching a class on poetry to a bunch of traditionalist/evangelical/orthodox United Methodists boggles my mind. Especially for those who think "I Can Only Imagine" profound. This is not mere snobbery on my part. Each to his own, said the farmer when he kissed his cow. Some people are moved by some things, and other people are moved by other things. Not everyone gets high on word music. All I can say is that Williams's poetry is beautiful, profound, and brilliantly orthodox.

To take a sample of the teaching (not the story) at random, the "Prelude" to The Region of the Summer Stars begins,
Irony was the Fortune of Athens; Rome came
to pluck the Fortune of Athens, and stand embattled
as in arms, so in mind against evil luck.
A few wise masters devised for the heart
a road from the universe into dematerialized spirit,
but most prattled cunning preventive doctrine;
till on a day from a hill in the middle of Athens
where men adored Irony the unknown lord,
Paul sent over Athens and Rome his call:
'Whom he ignorantly worship, him I declare.'

The crooked smiles of the Greeks
fled from their faces while thorned-in-the-flesh the Apostle
against their defensive inflections of verb and voice,
their accents of presaged frustration, their sterile protections,
named in its twyfold Nature the golden Ambiguity.
Then for the creature he invented the vocabulary of faith;
he defined in speech the physiological glory
and began to teach the terms of the work of glory.
The young Church breakfasted on glory; handfasted,
her elect functioned in the light. But the ancient intellect
heard, delaying and playing with its archives, and demurred
that pain was easy, and completeness of belief costly,
and flesh too queasy to bear the main of spirit.

The converted doctors turned to their former confessions,
the limitary heresiarchs feared the indiscretions of matter,
and the careful Nestorius, coming to befriend peace,
preached in Byzantium. Before the sermon was at an end
the metaphysicians, sitting to note him, heard
from the City the roar of burning and bundled torches
rise through the fixed stars: Theotokos, Anthropotokos;
his disciples shrank from the blood-stream where the full torches
ruddily poured round the eikon of Mary-in-blessing.
Professing only a moral union, they fled
from the new-found bounty; they found a quarrel with the Empire
and the sustenance of Empire, with the ground of faith and earth,
the golden and rose-creamed flesh of the grand Ambiguity.

Like all poetry, this means many things. But it points out that the Incarnation is not a one-off thing, a mere expedient for Christ to solve our problem. We are incarnate, too. Our bodies are Images of God, clear or stained as they might be. The material body of Christ illustrates the sanctity of the creation.

This brief passage also shows that a lot of people are uncomfortable with that. We want to hedge round the body -- both its appearance and its appetites -- with rules. We, like the Greeks, would prefer to talk about Spirit, rather than Body. This, of course, leaves open the possibility of both a heretical asceticism that rejects the body as incapable of salvation AND a heretical dualism that indulges the body precisely because it is irrelevant to salvation. But Christianity is precisely a religion of both the Body and the Spirit, with material Images everywhere.

Williams is not blind to lust, nor to identities that pervert the identity given by God. He understands (and discusses at length) the fact that "falling in love," while a very real and important experience, does not end the question of what a relationship is to be, but only begins it. We "fall in love" all the time, with one person after another. There is still the question of whether one is to seek marriage or not, then whether to seek marriage with this person or another, and then, of course, the whole question of how to live out the relationships (romantic or commercial or neighborly as it might be) within the whole web of relationships which constitute the City, which is the Body of Christ.

Over and over, Williams talks about exactitude: "everything is itself and not some other thing." To understand the Creator in the creation is more than to feel the Creator in the creation. The wood of Broceliande is a mystical forest that borders Logres. People who go in there are -- changed -- even if they don't understand what they've experienced. And Carbonek, the castle of the Grail, is beyond it, but only beyond a certain part of it. Most people who wander into the wood (have a mystical experience) come back as either inarticulate, or as cranks. From "The Calling of Taliessin,"
Dangerous to men is the wood of Broceliande.
Hardly the Druid, hardly a Christian priest,
pierced it ever; it was held, then as now,
by those few who in Britain study the matter of the marches
that there the divine science and the grand art,
if at all below the third heaven, know
their correspondence, and live in a new style --
many a mile of distance goes to the making:
but those fewer, now as then, who enter
come rarely again with brain unravished
by the power of the place -- some by grace dumb
and living, like a blest child, in a mild and holy
sympathy of joy; but the rest loquacious with a graph
or a gospel, gustily audacious over three heavens.

And there is much else. The Wesleyan doctrine of Sanctification and the practice of watching over one another in love is here shown in action, which reminds us that Wesley didn't invent these things: they are part of the whole experience of the Church, when the Church is really succeeding at being the Church. Williams refers to this in many ways, but the most prominent is probably "Co-inherence." The three Persons of the Trinity co-inhere in each other; the two natures of Christ co-inhere in each other; Christ and the Church co-inhere in each other; and each person is to co-inhere in each other person, to varying degrees, bearing one another's burdens, and more than that, bearing one another's joys. The alternative to co-inherence is incoherence, in which each person strives for mastery of another, and each part of a person's soul is at war with the other parts of the same person's soul, and nations are "a storm of kings at war." Meaning is drowned out by the conflict.

Anyway, it would behoove those who are looking for something better than mere rules (however scriptural or wise) to offer to people today to consider immersing yourself in the poetry of Charles Williams. My copy is three works in one, Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars together with Arthurian Torso, C.S. Lewis's critical guide to the poems.

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