Pruning the Rose-tinted spectacles by Fr Jonathan Munn.
I love the eloquence of his writing and his vast culture not only in the sciences and mathematics, but also in art and beauty. He quips at me for “cruelly” accusing him of Romanticism. We all have our “classical” rationalistic tendencies, as I have, but he certainly has an attitude to the world that would involve the imagination, a love of nature, freedom of spirit and a yearning for something out of the common. That being said, we are in 2017, not 1817, but there are certain parallels between the two years two centuries apart.
The Romantics did tend to look with nostalgia at the medieval period, because it preceded the Renaissance that brought the classical spirit and rationalism, stifling the elevation of the human spirit and the whole person – the heart.
I ought really to point out that the hankering for a “golden age” is shallow and delusional. But, that doesn’t mean that we have to accept everything that is modern because it is modern. I remember a visit to the chapel of Pusey House in Oxford with Dr Ray Winch, and he brought my attention to the Comper baldachin over the high altar. Why something in classical style in a Victorian reproduction of a medieval church?
Dr Winch’s conjecture was that it is what might have been had there been no Reformation in England and architecture evolved as it did in France and other countries. I was introduced to a notion of retro-futurism, on which I have written. In about 1880, you build a copy of a fifteenth-century collegiate church of modest size, and then you fast-forward to about 1580 in the hypothesis that there was no Reformation in England. Another example of retro-futurism is doing a pastiche of what we thought things in the twenty-first century would look like as imagined in the 1960’s. The reality is more conservative than the imagination. I was always fascinated by Jules Verne with his prodigious imagination in the world of science and technology, a kind of modern Leonardo da Vinci.
I did something like the same thing. As I was fitting out my chapel, I was almost “obsessed” with the Arts & Crafts aesthetics of William Morris and others up to about 1914. Itself, it was an exercise in retro futurism with the medieval era as the inspiration but a new idiom that produced Art Nouveau and a reaction from the Victorian aesthetics of the age of the machine. It all added up even if it was pastiche and “fake”.
I think we would be in for a big surprise if someone transported us back to the 1520’s somewhere in southern England. Yes, we would get the Use of Sarum, but probably very sloppily celebrated in a forest of popular religion and devotions, something like the Roman rite in a southern Italian parish in the early twentieth century. There would be other aspects like the absence of medical care and sanitation. I would imagine that people smelled like pigs except when they had a swim in the river, perhaps. So 1520 is hardly a golden age, but that era was building beautiful churches and the Reformation and Counter-Reformation hadn’t happened.
We can’t go back in time, but we can take the best from different historical eras, just as we do when we play the music of long-dead composers or look at paintings by dead artists. The Romantics did not recreate the middle-ages, but they did seek human values of before the Renaissance and the downward slope of human spirituality to materialism. They found principles for art and architecture which they would develop and interpret, rather than inventing something entirely new and founded on rationalism. Thus, the notion of retro-futurism, which is imperfect as everything human is imperfect.
Like in our children’s fairy tales and fantasy cinema for adults, we live a moment of magic and wonder. It is perhaps in these moments when God is most present and we relate to a world outside our own. This for me is the essence of Romanticism as in the books of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien.
Christianity is something of a fairy tale, not because it would be false or untrue, but because it appeals to those childlike instincts for myth, beauty, wonder and a vision of heaven. I would say, let it be so, and I have no care for postmodern brutalism and so-called “realism” which speaks only of man’s base instincts.
I am thankful that Fr Jonathan has written as he has expressed himself, because as always, progress is made in our new movement which seeks to be above liberalism and conservatism.