Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity

Grace, Necessity and Imagination: Catholic Philosophy and the Twentieth Century Artist

The 2005 Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge

Lecture 1: Modernism and the Scholastic Revival. January 20, 2005.

Yet the artist’s work is inescapably a claim about reality. It is not, that is to say, a new world depending on the play of an individual psyche any more than it is the expression of a specific project of the artist’s will. ‘Poetry is ontology’, Maritain asserts in his essay on ‘The Frontiers of Poetry’, it has to do with our knowledge of being itself. Any poetic utterance, any visible or tangible object made by art, is already a metaphysical statement. The argument seems to be roughly this: art is not a matter of deciding to create this or that pattern, because that would reduce it to an act of will; but if it is more to do with intelligence than will, it is bound to be exercised in relation to what is actual, since intelligence, in Maritain’s philosophical scheme, is necessarily oriented towards being. The practical intellect is a way of ‘coping’ with what is actually there – that’s what makes it practical. Art therefore shows what is real in some sense; it shows something other than its own labour of creation.


The artist first listens and looks for the pulse or rhythm that is not evident; but she cannot do any sort of job if she refuses to work with such pulses. Maritain’s own word is ‘pulsions’, a notion he discusses in the last two of the lectures, and whose definition clearly causes him some trouble. He wants to argue that what lies at the root of specifically poetic labour is what he calls a ‘musical stir’, an intuition of something like rhythm. And this ‘intuitive pulsion’ is what is most essential to poetry. Poetry has regularly worked with the music of actual sounds, the patterning of words in rhyme or metre, but modern poetry does not assume that this is necessary. Instead, modern poetry pushes us back towards the deeper ‘pulsions’ – which seem, from the examples Maritain gives (from Baudelaire and, a little strangely, given his attention to strictly verbal music, Hopkins), to be something like units of imaginative sense, clusters of feeling or even ‘knots’ of imagery and cross-reference which can never be captured simply in the music of sounds. Perhaps the haiku would be a paradigm of what is at the centre of composition thus understood.



Maritain’s leading themes (emphasis added):

    1. Art is an action of the intelligence and thus makes claims about how things are.
    2. As such, it invites contemplation; that is, it sets out to create something that can be absorbed by intelligence, rather than a tool for use in a project larger than itself.
    3. Thus the canons for understanding art must relate to the integrity of what is being produced, not to goals extrinsic to this process of labour.
    4. When art engages the will by its own integrity and inner coherence, we speak of its beauty; but beauty cannot be sought as something in itself, independent of what this work demands.
    5. By engaging us in an unforeseen pattern of coherence or integrity, art uncovers relations and resonances in the field of perception that ‘ordinary’ seeing and experiencing obscure or even deny.
    6. Thus art in one sense ‘dispossesses’ us of our habitual perception and restores to reality a dimension that necessarily escapes our conceptuality and our control. It makes the world strange.
    7. So, finally, it opens up the dimension in which ‘things are more than they are’, ‘give more than they have‘. Maritain is circumspect in spelling out the implication of this, but it is pretty clear that what this means is that art necessarily relates in some way to ‘the sacred’, to energies and activities that are wholly outside the scope of representation and instrumental reason.

Lecture 2: David Jones: Material Words. February 3, 2005.

He is describing what he takes to be a peculiarly Celtic dimension to what he is after – ‘a certain affection for the intimate creatureliness of things – a care for, and appreciation of the particular genius of places, men, trees, animals, and yet withal a pervading sense of metamorphosis and mutability. That trees are men walking. That words “bind and loose” material things’.

If you cannot place a perception, a specific thing, in the context of its resonances and formal echoes, you cannot place it at all. As a matter of fact, because artists know more than they think they know, they continually do ‘place’ percepts and things in these ways. But making sense of what this is has become obscure. Someone has to locate his poetry more openly in relation to what makes significance occur. And so the work begins with the priest at the altar: ‘We already and first of all discern him making this thing other’ (49).

Lecture 3: Flannery. February 10, 2005.

Some of her most pungent observations are to do with assumptions about ‘Catholic art’ which insist that such art should be edifying and moral; this, she argues, plays straight into the hands of critics of the Church who hold that dogmatic belief incapacitates a creative writer. On the contrary: ‘The Catholic writer, insofar as he has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.'(MM 146) And this means that the Catholic writer is precisely someone who cannot rule out any subject matter; belief adds a dimension to what is seen, it does not take anything away (150). ‘The Catholic fiction writer is entirely free to observe. He feels no call to take on the duties of God or to create a new universe…He feels no need to apologize for the ways of God to man or to avoid looking at the ways of man to God’ (178). This imposes on the Catholic writer a dangerous task, since she has to deal with matters that may indeed be ‘occasions of sin’, subjects that expose the worst in humanity. And while ‘to look at the worst will be for [the writer] no more than an act of trust in God’ (148), it may be a source of danger for the reader.

This can be a paralyzing prospect, a Medusa that turns the writer to stone, in O’Connor’s forceful image (cf 187). It can only be dealt with by the asceticism that concentrates on what is actually to be done, the logic and integrity of the work to be made. To ask about possible moral consequences is to interrupt this integrity. But the paradoxical point is that if the writer urgently wants to lay bare a moral universe or a dogmatic structure, she has to do so exclusively in the terms of the work itself, not by introducing a moral excursus or by holding back because of possible undesirable results in a vulnerable reader. Of course, she would say, the work is propagandist in the sense that it claims truthful vision and seeks to recreate that vision in the reader; but it must do this by not interfering in what is seen. Belief, remember, adds to vision and does not subtract; the plausibility of a work of fiction dealing with humanity’s relation to God is inseparable from its refusal to make easy or tidy up the data of a recognizable world. On this, it is worth quoting her at length:

‘This means that [the work] must carry its meaning inside it. It means that any abstractly expressed compassion or piety or morality in a piece of fiction is only a statement added to it. It means that you can’t make an inadequate dramatic action complete by putting a statement of meaning on the end of it or in the middle of it or at the beginning of it. It means that when you write fiction you are speaking with character and action, not about character and action (MM75-6).’

Here is her clearest statement of what Maritain’s aesthetic means applied to fiction; and one of its interesting corollaries is that the retreat from fictional narrative of the visible presence of a narrator focuses us more directly on the actual task of fiction. In an important sense, the narrator must not ‘speak’; the action and the character must.


Doing justice to the visible world is reflecting the love of God for it, the fact that this world is worth dying for in God’s eyes.


For O’Connor, the artist takes the risk of uncovering the world within the world of visible things as a way of ‘doing justice’, confident because of her commitment that what is uncovered will be the ‘reason’ in things, a consonance that is well beyond any felt harmony or system of explanation but is simply a coherence and connectedness always more than can be seen or expressed.

[Lloyd: But does this take the brokenness (i.e. fallenness) of our world seriously enough? Is it not the case that, even below the level of the visible, there is a profound and tragic incoherence and disconnectedness to our world? ]


To arrive at the point where the world can be truthfully named in its relation to God involves some grasp of the world as object of pointless, ‘futureless’ love; it must therefore involve levels of bewilderment, deep emotional confusion and frustration in the process, even a blurring of the boundaries between love and rejection (since we are frightened of replacing ordinary human affection with this radical and disabling love).

Lecture 4: God and the Artist. March 3, 2005.

You have to find what you must obey, artistically; and finding it is finding that which exists in relation to more than your will and purpose – finding the depth of alternative embodiment in the seen landscape, the depth of gratuitous capacity in the imagined character (when what you want to imagine will not come) and so on. Imagination produces not a self-contained mental construct but a vision that escapes control, that brings with it its shadow and its margins, its absences and ellipses, a dimensional existence as we might call it. The degree to which art is ‘obedient’ – not dependent on an artist’s decisions or tastes – is manifest in the degree to which the product has dimension outside of its relation to the producer, the sense of alternative space around the image, of real time and contingency in narrative, of hinterland. As we noted with Flannery O’Connor, the artist looks for the ‘necessity’ in the thing being made, but this ‘necessity’ can only be shown when the actual artistic form somehow lets you know that the necessity is not imposed by the hand of an artistic will but uncovered as underlying the real contingency of a world that has been truthfully imagined, with its own proper time and space, its own causality and coherence.

I don’t intend to argue that only Christian theology can make sense of art; but the tradition I have been examining would claim that theology has, as we might put it, a story to tell about artistic labour which grounds certain features of it and challenges it to be faithful to certain canons of disinterest and integrity. That this helps to foster art which is intensely serious, unconsoling, and unafraid of the complexity of a world that the secularist too can recognise might persuade us to give a little more intellectual house-room to the underlying theology than we might at first be inclined to offer

Reviews of Grace and Necessity

Daniel B. Gallagher, “A Canterbury Tale.” First Things, April 2007.

Rt. Revd. Lord Habgood, Church Times, Nov. 2, 2006.

David Jasper, Literature and Theology, Sept. 1, 2006.

Michael Lloyd, New Blackfriars, Oct. 19, 2006.

Charles Miller, Art and Christianity 46 (April 2006).

J. F. Declan Quinn, Seanchas Ardmhacha: Journal of the Armagh Diocesan Historical Society, Vol. 21/22 (2007/2008).

Robert Royal, “Art Comes for the Archbishop.” Image 49 (Spring 2006):

“Art is thus not the Promethean exercise of genius, or emotion, or intellect that is wholly in possession of itself, as many artists themselves have believed since the Renaissance. Williams chooses to look at modern artists who benefited from the kind of analysis he outlines and who rejected what Eric Gill called the “art nonsense” that usually hovers around artistic circles.”

“There is in all real art a certain gratuitousness, akin to the gratuitousness of God in making a world that is not necessary except insofar as it proceeds from love.”

Pierre W. Whalon, Anglicans Online, Aug. 14, 2005.

Rowan Williams on Art and Theology

Paul J. Contino, “Fyodor’s World,” review of Williams, Dostoevsky, in America: The Jesuit Review, Mar. 2, 2009.

John F. Deane, “A Conversation with Rowan Williams,” Image 80 (2014).

“Faith and Image: Rowan Williams and Neil MacGregor discuss the significance of images in the lives of the faithful.” Art and Christianity 75 (Autumn 2013).

“Charles Miller on a pastoral reading of Rowan Williams’ Reflections. Art and Christianity 54 (Summer 2008).

Jane Barter Moulaison, “The Secret Fire at the Heart of Earthly Reality: The Theological Vision of Rowan Williams.” Touchstone (January 2010).


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