I Knew It!

In the light of my most recent update of a comment on my Post-Enlightenment posting, I made a quick search for a relationship between Romanticism and the Scriptures, struck as I was when reading the Sehnsucht of German Idealism into a couple of psalms.

I found this blog posting on History and Spirituality by Alvin Petty.

Romanticism in Religion

Posted on November 25, 2011

What is romanticism in religion? It is relying as much on irrational mystery, mysticism, myth, intuition and the depth of the soul’s feelings as upon rational thought and explanation. The rational and irrational must be balanced in wholesome religion. The irrational romantic elements are missing in much of religion and life today and we are the poorer for it.

In the West we want a religion of knowing, explanation, thinking it is the best. (Protestants are especially bad about this.) The rational is very important but without the irrational elements of romanticism we live in an unstable house of cards. Religion is a balance of knowing and unknowing, even in the Bible. God may speak from the cloud clearly as to what we should do but we are never allowed to penetrate the cloud and fathom the mystery that is God. We just don’t know.

The great geniuses like Einstein seem to intuit the universe’s secrets with mystical feeling long before they discover the rational formulas that explain more of the universe. They feel the universe in their soul as a lover feels the approach of her beloved long before they ever see and touch each other.

Our religion desperately needs to cultivate this kind of romanticism. It will mean our enrichment and certify the validity of our lives. Neglecting the irrational of romanticism produces what we have today, a rash of Bible thumpers with a chapter and verse answer to every problem. These aristocrats of arrogance dismiss the deep feelings of the soul with a wave of their hand. They know everything. Thus, they cave in the well of joy.

In romantic religion, God is everywhere. He is found in nature and thus nature is loved and cared for by the worshiper. The awe and mystery of God is felt in sex which is a wonderful part of created nature and is to be guarded and nurtured with awe.

Romanticism does not demand an explanation of God nor rely upon dogmatic creeds about Her. God is and is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. This is enough for the romantic faith for no one could ever explain fully the Eternal Mystery. If one could, then God is too small for our worship. Romantic religion feels and experiences God. It focuses not on explanation but appreciation and thanksgiving.

In romanticism myth is abounding and necessary. All myth is not literal history but is meant to teach some great truth. The myth of the virgin birth of was a story form of proclaiming Jesus’ greatness as a master of men. Stories of virgin births can be found often in ancient religious and political literature. But always they are a literary device to introduce us to great personages who transformed history. This is important because unless the church learns to deal honestly with the framework of legend and myth that permeates all sacred literature, including the Bible, the Bible’s influence for this generation will be lost.

Romanticism mystically feels the inner truth of all miracle stories that seem supernatural without taking them as literal history. It draws the meaning from them and puts it into practice in everyday life. After all which is better, believing that Jesus walked on water as an article of faith or practicing Jesus’ faith and way of life that enables one to rise above the emotional storms of life and walk on towards good goals? Which, in the adversities of life, will do you and others around you the most good? Which do you think God would most prefer you to produce?

The real miracle of Christmas is that Christ, his attitudes of justice and love and all his teachings, can be reborn in us. We simply must trust the Mystery and yearn for Christ to live in us and through us. This is the true Christmas faith.

Someone contemporary seems to understand what I have been trying to get together in my “Blue Flower” theme. Fundamentalist Christianity really does seem to be a house of cards as does a lot of Roman Catholicism for children. Once something comes undone, everything comes tumbling down, and that would be a pity given the real message of Christ – exactly what drew me to Catholicism and the priesthood.

Miracles do happen and incurably sick people are healed, in the Gospel and in many documented cases at places like Lourdes. There are also the interior miracles, for which I am thankful because I have never knowingly seen a physical miracle like a blind person suddenly able to see or a cripple throwing away his crutches and walking like a healthy person. For me, I am more impressed by the spiritual meaning of being blind and being given my sight through faith. Such things will be criticised by rationalists and the scientifically-minded, which is only to be expected. Fair is fair.

I have discussed it many times: the balance between faith and reason on which Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI wrote and spoke copiously. There has to be as much use of our rational faculties as accepting the unknown and mysterious. We cannot all be mystics, like St Seraphim of Zarov or the Curé d’Ars shining with the light of the Transfiguration, but we can learn to be ourselves, human and contemplative. Most people in our time (or perhaps at any time) are not Romantics but are happy to have their place in the collectivity and give priority to human relationships. That is necessary. Some of us are intensely aware of a longing for something that is not of this world, like a romanticised idea of the middle ages as present in our entire Pre-Raphaelite movement in England as well as German philosophy.

This little article is music to the ears, a refreshing confirmation of my intuitions and desires. The Abbot of Triors once exhorted me to transcend the ideologies of both left and right in the Church – and do what monks do: seek God. I haven’t to listen to the rantings of Bible-thumpers claiming that the Romantics were heretics or sought to create a new religion to replace Christianity. I haven’t to listen to “true Church” devotees and converts to Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy. I haven’t to heed the “diversity” politics of sneering ideologues driving the world to our ruin. The bleakness of Judeo-Christian monotheism is warmed and quickened by this breath of the Holy Spirit of Romanticism and the quest for this particular Holy Grail (not the actual chalice Christ used, but what it symbolises – and not what Dan Brown thinks!).

The Romantic Christian will find God everywhere, even in the night, darkness, the indeterminate and the mysterious well of nature and humanity. Our author mentions sex. Being something of a British prude, I won’t go into that – but I have already written about sensuality and true ἔρως (I don’t know what is false eros other than perhaps the use and degradation of persons for the sake of lewd and selfish lust).

I have studied scholastic philosophy and theology, and have been shocked by its claim to understand and prove everything that is to be known about God and the doctrines of the Church. I come to believe that it is not important for everything to be literally true, or that we need to contain everything in our books, creeds and codes of law and living. As the Bible doesn’t contain everything (as St John himself says), the Church knows only a small segment of everything there is to be known and experienced, and which is still to be revealed. I think my approach to God should be like making a sea passage in a very small boat like the one I sail. From my time at university, I discovered the Russian philosophers and Jung, and now I connect the dots as I discover German Idealism and Romantic philosophy. I was also introduced to Dom Odo Casel (not the man, dead since 1948, but his work) by my liturgy professor and made the link with the liturgical theology of the Orthodox tradition. It all goes together in a vast Platonic universe of great beauty. Reams of pages are written, as Dom Casel did, to stress the unicity of Christianity in relation to the mystery religions of Greece, Rome, Persia and Egypt – which continued in Gnosticism and some modern mystery schools. There were other deities who were born of virgins and who rose to life after their cruel deaths as martyrs. These are myths. Were I to say that about Christianity, my Bishop would have to censure me for heresy! But, I would bring out the question of priority between historic and literal truth and the inner spiritual meaning. In Casel’s thought, the mystery religions were part of God’s way to prepare for Christ, the true Son of God and incarnate Word. Das Christliche Kultmysterium is a meditation of singular beauty. I recommend it to my readers, in German or in the English translation The Mystery of Christian Worship – as you can. My copy is in English.

I do believe that Romanticism will help us refine our notion of mythology, allegory and analogy. Stories don’t have to be literally true, but they convey deep meaning to us. This will be the case of the Brüder Grimm or the great works of Tolkein or C.S. Lewis. I am presently reading Lewis’ autobiographical Surprised by Joy, in which he discusses his own yearning for the Flos Caeruleum and its profound meaning.

Maybe the author of the article is playing fast and loose with the central dogmas of our faith like the Resurrection and the miracles of Christ, something I cannot approve as an (Anglican) Catholic priest. I am perhaps unjust in my suspicion. These dogmas have several layers of meaning for us baptised Christians. Their meaning is often excessively narrowed. The real Romanticism of the middle ages is certainly expressed in the lives of the Goliards and the poetry and ballads they wrote and sang up and down the land wherever they travelled. I am with Novalis as he sought to portray a myth that inspires the human spirit and imagination even whilst glossing over the Inquisition, human cruelty, short lives, war and disease among the many things all humans have to suffer in our lives.

The idea that a new Christian Romanticism is not merely my own pipe dream, but a vision shared by a number of people in our times, is an inspiration to pursue this work of my life and priestly vocation. I do believe that a few souls are with me in this work.

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5 Responses to I Knew It!

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I can’t find any works by Dom Odo Casel online in a quick search, but if he died in 1948, most of his works will be out of copyright next January (though which translations that may include is another question…).

    For what it is worth, I too got the impression “the author of the article [may be] playing fast and loose with the central dogmas of our faith like the Resurrection and the miracles of Christ” – if so, to vary a familiar saying, I think ‘his Romanticism is too small’, or to take another image, he is needlessly and clumsily wielding a stump on the subtle lines of Romanticism’s fine sketching on reality, blurring them to no end.

    Lewis’s friends Tolkien and Dyson effectively brought him to the conviction that true myth became Fact with the Incarnation, which Lewis later wrote about in the September 1944 essay, “Myth became fact”, and which Tolkien wrote about in a poem which has a nice little Wikipedia article dedicated to it, “Mythopoeia (poem)” and later in his essay, “On Fairy-Stories” (which also has a useful Wikipedia article of the same name).

  2. James Russo says:

    What do you mean by the comment about Catholicism?
    Fundamentalist Christianity really does seem to be a house of cards as does a lot of Roman Catholicism for children.

    • What do I mean? What I say. It is a problem of catechesis and getting as many people as possible to get to some depth and not remain with superficial concepts. Whilst this is so, many teachings and ideas are easily refutable – and a person concludes that materialism is the only truth. As a national average, the rate of French baptised Catholics going to Mass on Sundays and feasts is 2-5%, about the same as for Anglicans in England going to Church of England services. Not all the blame can be put on ordinary people, but also the institution.

      Of course, you may be a Roman Catholic and feel offended. Dont be offended. Be challenged!

  3. Jim Russo says:

    Thank you.
    I am RC but was not offended; I was curious as to your meaning.
    My experience here in the US is much different from what you observe in France. Mass attendance for adults and children is far higher than the 2-5% you mention although not as high as it had been a decade ago.

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