Christian Romanticism for the 2020’s

I have several times mentioned an important distinction between the Romantic movement per se which extended from the mid eighteenth century to about the same point in the nineteenth. Its causes are found in the Enlightenment and man’s quest for a mind above materialism and intellectualism, a strong desire to express the imagination.

Romanticism had a dramatic effect on Christianity, which was more or less moribund by the end of the eighteenth century, discredited and abandoned, a relic of state moralism and control of the population. It did not introduce any new beliefs nor did it contest old ones. It was to Christianity what a vehicle is to its load: it influenced the way ideals were thought and expressed. A part of this expression was medievalism and the quest for the pre-Enlightenment was at the same time as maintaining a high intellectual foundation. Another emphasis was on the spiritual and not the ecclesial support of temporal authority. Romanticism was profoundly humanist and optimistic, even in its darker moments, laying out an aspiration of hope and a poetic / allegorical way of seeing God. It is light years away from the fundamentalism of the Reformation.

In the Romantic world view, which is perfectly relevant in our own early twenty-first century, the individual person can experience, be moved, blur the distinction between myth and reality. Thus we find another notion of truth in the German school of Jena, for the foundation of truth is transcendent and as beyond us as God himself. This has been a blinding revelation to me after my experience of authoritarian and Aristotelian Catholicism.

One of the most powerful experiences of my childhood was standing on a pier facing the sea in northern Portugal and watching the arrival of a very black thunderstorm, strong winds and a rising sea. My mother was very anxious that I should not be in any danger and wanted me away from that vantage point. I would later identify with that feeling of anger, of Sturm und Drang, sometimes of dark and irrational fantasies seen in horror films. At last, I understood these currents in me, why I was fascinated by Africa and jungles (though I have never been there). This force of nature is an icon of God, and it is a mistake to blame God for anger if we become angry ourselves. We participate in this universal consciousness.

What Romanticism will do for Christianity is to engage the whole human person, particularly in its liturgical action and notion of tradition. Some of the Germans, like Schleiermacher, emphasised our human experience over the reality of God. Liberalism was in some ways related to Romanticism, but was more far-reaching in its criticism of Christian doctrines and traditions. Perhaps theological liberalism took more influence from the rationalism of the Enlightenment than from Romanticism. This idea of personal and emotional experience would also be expressed in various forms of Protestant and Catholic pietism, seeking miracles and experience of the sacred. The trend for the occult and mediums at the end of the nineteenth century was another expression as it is today in the New Age movement.

The Romantic is attracted by beauty, fine art, music and sympathy for his world view. If the Bible is appreciated, it is for its beauty and poetry. I believe that a resurgence of this world view would bring renewal to a Christianity that is addicted to oppressive political authority and a system of apologetics that has failed to convince anyone for more than two hundred years. I am not inventing anything new, but rather bringing an old idea into our own times and experience.

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1 Response to Christian Romanticism for the 2020’s

  1. Stephen K says:

    The Romantic is attracted by beauty, fine art, music and sympathy for his world view. If the Bible is appreciated, it is for its beauty and poetry.
    I think I am a Romantic.

    … a resurgence of this world view would bring renewal to a Christianity that is addicted to oppressive political authority and a system of apologetics that has failed to convince anyone for more than two hundred years.
    I think I share this belief.

    Some of the Germans, like Schleiermacher, emphasised our human experience over the reality of God.
    I think I know what you are saying here, although I would say that all reality, including the ‘reality of God’ is perceived and articulated in terms of human experience. Even our speculative theses or abstractions are ultimately modelled on the humanly perceptible. That is why the idea of a one true God may be a paradox, since it only finds existential expression in the individual personal engagement – ‘of the whole person’ – of which there are necessarily myriad instances, even taking into account the similarities across multiple minds.

    I like the idea of The Blue Flower. I am looking forward to walking in the meadow blanketed in its blossoms.

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