and related thoughts on The Way of Exchange.
The poem below is a major revision of the July Poem of the Month, “The Curse of Co-Inherence.” As I worked through this poem with a critique partner, I realized that the focus was wrong. Rather than being a primarily positive poem in which the narrator is some kind of hero, the more honest approach was to explore the narrative persona’s fear of getting entangled in the other person’s pain. This, I think, is central to my confusion about Charles Williams’s doctrine of Co-Inherence—or, more specifically, to the application and practice of co-inherence he called “The Way of Exchange” or “The Doctrine of Substitution.” So here (and also over on the Coinherence List, a yahoo group) I’m going to write a bit about my three biggest problems with the Way of Exchange, and see if anyone has any thoughts.
You do NOT have to be a Charles Williams scholar to chime into this discussion; you need not have ever read his stuff or even heard of him. I’ll start by summarizing his doctrine. Basically, CW believed that all human beings (and especially all Christians, but only especially because they’ve been taught about it in their theology, not because they have any kind of corner on the market) are part of one another: We are members of one body. Whatever happens to one happens to everybody. So far, so good. But he took this belief to a literal extreme that I don’t think I’ve encountered anywhere else: we are a whole just as the Three Persons of the Trinity are one. God is Three; God is One. The three Persons exist in a loving relationship, yet are one single entity. So, he postulated, are we. This is Co-Inherence.
I’m OK with that, I think. But then there’s the practical application: The Way of Exchange. In this practice, people contract with each other to carry one another’s emotional or physical burdens for each other. Then they do it. So, let’s say one person has grief over the death of a child, and another has acute physical pain from an illness. The invalid agrees to suffer the grief, and the bereaved parent agrees to take on the bodily agony. And then they do it.
This is absolutely beautiful in CW’s best novel, Descent Into Hell. And I love it. It just thrills me! But I have 3 very serious questions about the use of this Doctrine of Substitution, as follows.
1. Is it Biblical? CW based this doctrine on the command to “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of God” and on Paul’s exposition about how we’re members of one body. That foundation is clear to me, and thus I think I understand and assent to Co-Inherence. But where does CW get the idea that we can literally take someone else’s burden? Did Christ take all our burdens on Himself all at once on the cross? So why should we need to do it now? I think that the response has something to do with our calling to live like Christ, to “be Christ” to other people—but I still feel a bit uncomfortable, as if enormous spiritual arrogance is required to practice this Way.
Also, the whole idea that Christ’s Atonement is a Substitution (and thus the model for our small ones) might possibly be just one way of viewing what actually happened, metaphysically, on the cross. CSL pointed out that all our descriptions of the Atonement (judicial: He served our sentence for us; economic: He paid the price for all our sins; legal: He fulfilled the law in our stead…and so on) are metaphors. Yet every one of those “metaphors” depends the idea of substitution: Christ exchanged Himself for us. So perhaps that is where C gets it; but I still have a hard time making the leap from Christ’s once-for-all substitution that covered the sins of everyone (or at least of the Elect!) to the idea that we should and can therefore make personal substitutions.
2. Is it possible? I do not really see how this sort of Substitution could really work. It seems a sort of New-Agey mind-over-matter. Just because I think about, say, my husband’s toothache and wish I could take the pain instead of him, why should my thought do anything to the physical nature of reality? I know, I know; this sounds like a naturalist/materialist objection to miracles in general. Of course the Lord is able to answer my prayer (even about that toothache exchange) however He pleases, and to violate the natural laws He laid down. Didn’t He do things like that in the Old Testament? Yes, but… But I don’t know what, except that I have a hunch it doesn’t work that way. Is this just my lack of faith?
Well, let’s come at this question from a different angle: Has anyone done it? Have you ever sat down with a suffering friend and contracted to take his or her pain? Did it work? How did it work?
3. Who would ever dare?
Now, this finally gets to the heart of my thoughts and concerns, and also to the poem. I am something of a physical and emotional coward, and I don’t see how I would ever dare to take on someone else’s pain—I can’t even deal with my own. Yes, that’s part of the point: it’s easier to have someone else’s (just like how you can always think of the answer to somebody else’s question, but when you’re on the spot and it’s your turn, you can never think of the answer!). CW seemed to believe that when you offered yourself in a sacrificial, substitutionary way, Christ took most of the pain away and you were basically just imagining the other person’s suffering. So it kind of works itself out. But I am not fond of physical pain or mental agony, and I don’t know if, when it came down to brass tacks (is that the phrase?) I’d seriously make that commitment to take the other person’s, if it was really bad. Like burning at the stake, as in CW’s novel. I just couldn’t do it.
Christ could do it for me. But until I was convinced that it worked and was Biblically sanctioned, I’m sure I couldn’t make that leap.
And who could be spiritually arrogant enough to be such a hero? How dare anybody say, “I will be Christ for you in this situation; I will substitute my [better?] body and mind for yours and I will bravely shoulder your terrible burden even though I will then feel all your anguish.” Seriously! Who could do that?
It isn’t like that in Descent Into Hell. “But that’s fiction.” If I meet a doppelganger, then maybe I’ll be convinced that “this isn’t nonsense either.”
So, please, share your thoughts! And here’s that poem, much more honest now (I believe), and more about these struggles than about the nimbus of glory CW gives to Exchange in his writing—because he already did that.
The Curse of Co-Inherence
Do you see this skin, this arm? It is mine,
unmarred, unscarred. Cut it as you do yours. I
will not flinch, unless you do: it’s only vanity
that makes you think you are alone. You are not free
for arrogance, do not have leave to think your hand
is only yours. Your wounding enters me, you know.
I hold your sorrow, yet I wonder: Do you even know
what you are cutting, crying for? Here, here, take mine!
Take it—whatever it is—turn away those empty eyes
and use my tears to seal your weeping veins.
And yet, I fear this union, for the chill that freezes
you has blued and blanched my ministering hands.
Therefore I offer any-, everything, to stay your hand.
I give and try to give, hoping hard that nothing
hollow echoes your insides, shouts in your mind—
or mine. My willing and unwilling brain, my eyelids,
rivet to your, to our, agony. I blink in vain
and wonder how to warm you, yet stay free.
It’s a wonder anyone escapes the freezing
force of so much sorrow, that there are hands
free from bruises when every body knows
the blows that fall on every other flesh. My
fingers shrink in terror from transferred pain; my eyes
sting and blink away from the blue veins
showing through your cold skin, the veined
scars in wandering lines. Keep your cuffs over your freezing
wrists while I struggle to exchange my healthy hand
for yours. For there are lines, lines of some unknown
way chalked up between each ecstasy and mine,
each horror and yours and every body’s; a way that I
can take to comfort you. There need be no more “I”
for isolation; there is one human heart whose veins
in symbiotic cycle feeds the needy on another’s hope and frees
the freezing with another’s feverish vitality. From feet to hands
to head, through every grieving molecule, no
part is only yours; no blissful atom only mine.
You know, whatever tears you weep fall from twelve billion eyes—
but only I am near at hand. Do not let me sacrifice in vain.
Here, here: put on my sweater, lest I freeze.