Christian Romanticism

We don’t seem to see an end to the depressing binary dialectic between “cultural Christianity” and conservative Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodoxy, especially in the American scene. This side of the Atlantic, outside imported American religion, Christianity is decaying like its empty churches. It appears strong in its mass popular expressions like pilgrimages and the cult of the Pope, weak when it has to depend on faith and devotion rather than cultural belonging.

I have written a few articles on Romanticism, or related to that theme, about which I claim no expertise. I have read but little of the poetry of Keats, Shelley and Coleridge, to say nothing of William Blake. I have only a fairly superficial knowledge of Wesley and the Methodist movement. To our friend Patrick Sheridan‘s disappointment, I have not yet got on to reading Tolkien. My sensitivity lies more with music than literature, but above all, the Romantic outlook on life is more philosophical than any particular fashion or artistic expression. Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance gets it down to the bare bones. Typically, the Romantic cannot relate to technology as a Classical person does. I am quite technically minded and have good perception of mechanical functioning, space, distance and speed. I drive a car and sail a boat and enjoy both. I have worked in organ building and understand how those instruments work. I can find out what is wrong and work out a way to repair the fault. The difference is that I stop at the boundary between the practical aspect of life and the understanding of the physics and mathematics of engineering. That is why my mind shuts down faced with pure mathematics or abstracts. It is a matter of the way we relate to purely rational matters on one hand and our imagination and feelings on the other. I am more drawn to art and beauty than to science. My curiosity is attracted by certain aspects of scientific knowledge, but I can only go so far.

We live in an essentially Classical world, but one where the rational underpinning is eroding away. We encounter the thinking behind Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – science breaking the bounds of reason and proportion. Only today, I read about the prospect of genetically modified human embryos intended to be implanted in women and brought to birth. Prometheus Unbound to be sure! In Pirsig’s summary, I identify classical elements in my own being – my aptitude with mechanics, spatial perception (necessary for driving a car and marine navigation) and ability to work with my hands. The problem of science that goes mad (like the Frankenstein archetype) is the lack of reason and decent proportion. Our genre of science fiction cinema is full of the same theme to this very day.

On the other hand, many aspects of modern life exasperate the Romantic: bureaucracy, administration, the corporate spirit, the increasing role of the machine, computers making decisions in the place of humans. Our concern is the dehumanisation of life. It is nothing new since the Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam engine. Many things are best left to intuition and human judgement. One example that is current in my life is coastal navigation: using a sighting compass, portland plotter and chart (or GPS) or lining up landmarks by eye – for example if you want to know whether your boat is advancing against the tidal current in relation to the land. Sometimes, we have to use instruments and do it scientifically. It is more pleasing for the Romantic to do it with human spatial perception and visual observation.

Some things can only be done scientifically using the appropriate machinery, and many things can only be done by a human and in a normal human relationship. This is the drama of bureaucracy and administration, when what should be dealt with in terms of human relationships and decisions is done by machines or people behaving like machines. Such a system is oppressive, heavy and expensive – and deathly. I think of the way our churches operate. I prefer ones where humans are in the loop – behaving like humans. The Romantic stereotype is what men often associate with women – everything decided by whims and emotions, changing in a heartbeat. La donn’è mobile, as we hear in Verdi’s Rigoletto, sung to the immortal melody by a tenor. We indeed read of the many turpitudes of Lord Byron and Shelley’s reckless seafaring, which did him in. Imagination and emotion cannot stand without the use of reason and knowledge. We find that we are both Classical and Romantic, but with a penchant towards one end of the scale or the other in varying degrees.

This is the Romantic, ultimately the ability to be human rather than a machine. There are several Romantic movements in history, represented respectively by William Blake and Coleridge, then by Keats, Shelley and Lord Byron among others of the period roughly between 1790 and 1815. Another Romantic period came almost exactly a hundred years later reacting from the industrial nineteenth century and the arrogant belief in progress and ended in the blood-drenched trenches of the Somme and Verdun. There are lights in the twentieth century like Tolkien. What is significant is that Anglo-Catholicism was a direct consequence of Romanticism as was the modern revival of monasticism in France and other European countries. Some of us are plugging into the same socket as we become disillusioned with the system that destroys the planet, makes people poor and dependent and which delights in war and domination. We represent the period that is falling between about 1990 to the present day.

Romanticism in all its historical expressions tends to be in a state of tension with any classical “orthodoxy”. It tends to share many themes with the old Gnostic thread in Christian history. Every religion has its dogmatic and institutional aspects that represent suspicion of mysticism and the inner life. Christianity has its parallels with Shiite, Sunnite and Sufist Islam in Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Gnosticism / Monasticism. We find the same thing in Judaism and probably also in Hinduism and Buddhism. Religions have to adapt to the human persons to whom the system of belief is offered, ostensibly for that person’s good. Religions have divided and split along these lines, because this is what humans are like. In a way, what this article is about is Christianity for Romantics or sufficient flexibility in the Churches for such a temperament. Actually, that is too much to hope for from a bureaucratic institution, but not from small Churches or groups or friends.

Not every aspect of a Romantic reaction is very orthodox in institutional and ecclesiastical terms. Many themes of Romanticism hinge on darkness, death and the mal du siècle I touched upon yesterday when dealing with acedia. Jung emphasised the “dark side” or the shadow in his psychoanalytic work. Some of the old Romantics got involved with occultist practices and Spiritualism. Much of nineteenth century German Romantic philosophy borders onto a more pagan than biblical notion of God and the universe. We have only to introduce ourselves to the works of Hegel, Schleiermacher and Schelling in particular. Biblical orthodoxy needs to be challenged and seen differently – and it is the way our fundamentally Jewish faith could be opened to the Gentiles and all peoples of the world. It suffices to read St Paul!

Romanticism was the seed of Anglo-Catholicism and the desire to recover aspects of the pre-Reformation Church discarded by Protestantism as reactions to human corruption and sinfulness were extreme and intemperate. It created an aesthetic movement in England that was unknown to European counter-reformation Catholicism. It is this sensual element that would appeal to certain persons who would challenge traditional Christian moral teachings. However, it is a phenomenon that has contributed to so much that is good and wholesome.

Some of the more “totalitarian” Evangelical Christian tendencies identify a new strain of Romanticism as their enemy, opposing conservative or right-wing political ideology, fundamentalism, the dominant and predatory instincts of some human beings and the anti-humanist aspects of asceticism. Oddly enough, the “totalitarian” dimension is as opposed to rationalism and the classical spirit. It is almost a third “leg” in our thought about the different types of persons that exist. Like in a pack of dogs, you have the dominant alphas, the bullies and the psychopaths, and the rest of the animals who get a few scraps when the big boys are full and sleeping it off. I have always understood Christ as a Romantic, one who sought to bring man or the finer spirits out of that kind of spiritual slavery into a new existence founded on spiritual knowledge, love and beauty.

One of the books that has most marked me was one I bought as a student at Fribourg University – Bernard M.G. Reardon, Religion in the Age of Romanticism published by Cambridge University Press in 1985. We had a riveting course of lectures on nineteenth century Liberalism by Fr Guy Bedouelle OP, and the theme of Romanticism came out at every corner. A new world had to arise from the ashes of the French Revolution, as from the wars of the twentieth century and the spectre of that unholy alliance of secularism and Islam. This book deals essentially with the German Romantic philosophers, but also with French liberals like Lamennais, Ernest Renan and the scientific insights of Auguste Compte. The movement grew as the nineteenth century brought us progress and gigantic technological achievements. The human spirit gave us the Arts and Crafts and pre-Rapahelite art. It also brought us something to live and hope for.

Romanticism manifests itself in our own world, because the movement never entirely went away. There were the 1960’s and the Hippie world. It isn’t the kind of Romanticism that would attract me, but the philosophical lines run parallel with the reaction against the twentieth-century establishment – which in reality ran along the same lines as that of the previous age. The Hippies returned to nature, sang songs and wrote poetry. They took consciousness-altering drugs like LSD and acted not very differently from some of the excesses of Lord Byron or Coleridge. Some of those things they did were foolish and self-destructive, but they challenged an order that those people perceived as inhuman and threatening.

The discovery of texts of proven authenticity in the 1940’s at Nag Hammadi in Egypt was a milestone, giving us insight that proved to be so different from the polemics of the Church Fathers. They don’t overthrow the canonical Scriptures with which we Christians are familiar, but we are brought to be aware that there are many things in heaven and earth that are not dreamt of in our philosophy – to quote Shakespeare. Our “system” is incomplete, as is the classical system of human reason or the “prison warders” of fundamentalist religion. If there is more, then we want to know. We run the risk of growing out of our children’s clothes, but that is life. We aspire to higher things. I have often written on my fascination with the writings of Nicholas Berdyaev, the Russian philosopher who sought to harmonise the insights of Christian gnosticism with his Orthodox faith. He wrote of an “aristocracy” of the spirit. This is not a privilege of birth or money, but a vision that motivates a few of us away from collective human stupidity and ideology.

If I say I would like to encourage a Christian Romantic movement, I warn my readers that it could never be a church or even a common-interest group. It cannot work as an organisation, a system or an institution. If we wish to belong to a Church, we join one. I belong to a Church as a priest, and it represents the ordinary exoteric life of Christians who attend church services, read the Bible and other writings from the Fathers, Saints and other authors of value and do charitable works in the world. Esoteric religion concerns individuals and the mystical life. Every attempt to found an esoteric church has failed or is fraught with fault lines. Very few people have the maturity to go beyond the ordinary ways of life. What we can do is to share experience and knowledge, so that others can make of it what they can and wish. Like Christianity itself, it is a leaven of knowledge, love and beauty in a hostile world. We answer hatred with love, evil with good, war with peace. That is Christ’s way. That is our vocation.

As many of us as possible need to write literature and poetry, compose music, paint images on canvas, make statues and beautiful things from all natural materials like wood, stone and metal. We need to love nature and go to the sea in ships, go on long hikes in the woods and mountains, ride bicycles or motorcycles. There is still plenty of it left despite the greedy folk corrupting and polluting it with plastic, oil, chemicals and nuclear waste. We are often told to mortify our imagination to avoid sins of thought. That is folly! We might as well be put in prison at birth in case we should be tempted to commit a crime! Art and human beauty are the product of imagination – and they are not sinful. Beauty is an icon of love, and love is an icon of the invisible and transcendent God. It isn’t about copying and aping the styles of other historical periods, being pastiche. We will always be accused of such, like those musicians who hate music as they hate harmony and counterpoint. Everything we do is original and an expression of ourselves contributing to humanity even if we are following a sense of tradition and obedience to laws and rules.

One thing I have discovered about myself. I am not a leader – I am too introverted for that. I recognise my ideas and impetus in many things that have happened over the years. It is of no concern to me that my role goes unnoticed. Some good is done and I don’t matter. This is another aspect of Romanticism. We don’t fear death. We just go on with life in faith and hope, giving love and beauty to all who want them. It is the same thing with this blog. I just sow the seeds and others will reap long after my body is returned to the earth. That is the essence of Christianity and Romanticism. Let others bully and dominate! But that is not the way of Christ. If we stay faithful to our vocation, we will never fail or falter.

Pray for me that I may never fail…

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