The Concept of Co-inherence
In the Writings of Charles Williams
The theological writings of Charles Williams, though original and strangely compelling in concept, are, none the less, difficult. The difficulty sometimes arises from stylistic matters, but more often than not it comes from either using old terms in novel ways, or from the creation of new terms altogether. The centerpiece to all Williams’ theology is a concept he called Co-inherence.
The term Co-inherence was coined by Williams to denote a universal spiritual principle that worked itself out in the material realm in various ways. If we had to come up with a definition of Co-inherence it would read something like, “Things that exist in essential relationship with another, as innate components of the other.”
In considering how human kind comes closest to the unity of God in the three persons of the Trinity, Williams talks about, “A likeness to the manner by which it exists.” (Figure Beatrice. 92). He goes on to explain,
That manner is said to be by ‘co-inherence’ of the Divine Persons in each
other, and it has been held that the unity of mankind consists in the analogical
co-inherence of men with each other …” (Figure of Beatrice. 92)
Another example that Williams talks about is Mary as the Mother of Jesus. He says,
The Incarnation, or rather the Motherhood of the Incarnation, is the
function for which we were created …” (Figure of Beatrice. 92)
When he says “we” he means all human kind. The Incarnation of Christ within the womb of Mary gives us an example by analogy of the co-inherent type of existence we should be living on the planet.
Another example of Co-inherence is in becoming, “Inheritors of God, and fellow inheritors with Christ.” (Romans 8:17). We do this by accepting for ourselves (appropriating) the sacrifice of Christ on the cross made on our behalf. As Paul writes,
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who lives, but Christ
lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the
Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.
(Galatians 2:20 NASB)
By accepting Christ’s death on the cross for ourselves, we participate in that death (being made dead to self) and in his resurrected life (being made alive in Christ). It is an act of Co-inherence between ourselves and Christ.
Other examples of Co-inherence in the natural and spiritual realm include the two natures of Christ (human and divine), the presence of Christ in the Eucharist (however you want to define that), the workings of the state (but especially of the city), all forms of love, and finally a woman’s physically bearing a child to the point of birth. All these Williams thought involved the working out of the idea of Co-inherence.
Williams used three other terms in regards to Co-inherence. Sometimes he would use these terms interchangeably with Co-inherence, and other times they would be referred to as sub-categories.
The first of these terms is Exchange, by which he meant the process of living with each other through the sharing of tasks and responsibilities. Examples include people living in a city (especially London), the members of the church seen as the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:12-30), the idea of the empire in the Arthurian poems of Williams, and Jerusalem as the city of God (Revelation 21).
The second of these terms is Substitution, or Substituted Love, by which he meant the process of bearing one another’s burden. Through an act of love we can quite literally take over the cares, anxieties and even the physical pain of another. This is of course tied up with the central mystery of Christianity, being the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross.
The last of these terms is Romantic Theology. This idea is that all worldly aspects of love are but a reflection of heavenly love, and as such ultimately point the lover toward God. The greatest literary example of this is the figure of Beatrice in the works of Dante.
A related idea to Williams’ concept of Co-inherence is that of the Way of Affirmation. Rather than rejecting the world as corrupt and therefore evil (as in asceticism) one should begin with the notion that the world is good, and that we can transmute the various aspects of this good world into a Christian vision of creation.
Chronological Bibliography of Works by Williams on Co-inherence
Outlines of Romantic Theology … / ed. Alice Mary Hadfield. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990. [originally written 1924]
Descent into Hell. London: Faber & Faber, 1937.
[the novel which perhaps most clearly presents Williams’ ideas of Substitution and Exchange]
He Came Down From Heaven. London: Heinemann, 1938.
[last three chapters: V. The Theology of Romantic Love (repr. Hefling 68-90).—VI. The Practice of Substituted Love (repr. Hefling 216-230).—VII. The City]
“The Order of the Co-inherence” in Charles Williams: An Exploration of His Life and Work / Alice Mary Hadfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. (174)
[originally written 1939 ; repr. Hefling 149-150]
The Descent of the Dove. London: Longmans, 1939.
[a history of the church whose dedication reads: “For the Companions of the Co-inherence”]
Religion and Love in Dante: The Theology of Romantic Love. Westminster: Dacre Press, 1941. (Dacre Papers ; 6)
The Way of Exchange. London: James Clarke, 1941. (New Foundation Papers ; 2)
[repr. Ridler 147-154 & Hefling 204-215]
“The Redeemed City” Dublin Review (Oct. 1941)
[repr. Ridler 102-110, Hefling 151-163]
The Figure of Beatrice: A Study of Dante. London: Faber & Faber, 1943.
Anne Ridler (ed.) The Image of the City, and Other Essays. London: Oxford University Press, 1958.
Charles Hefling (ed.) Charles Williams: Essential Writings in Spirituality and Theology. Cambridge, MA:
G. L. Prestige. “Co-inherence” last chapter in: God in Patristic Thought. London: S.P.C.K., 1952.
[Williams called this, “The clearest exposition I know of the theological definition of the Divine Life [of the Trinity] in this sense” (Figure of Beatrice. 92n)]