We sometimes hear about “rewilding” areas of land that have been used for agriculture. Their owners, for good or bad, decide that it would be best to plant some trees and let nature do what it wants. There are two sides to this one, and this is not the subject of this posting. The term rewilding is used in an analogical way to describe Christianity in its “natural” state as is found in Eastern Orthodoxy in remote places and seemingly in medieval western Catholicism before the Reformation. It is an interesting concept, reflected to some extent in Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, and in some of my own experience in French country parishes where the priest adopted a traditionalist position but as having been the curé of the parish for so many years since something like the 1950’s.
One thing that had always grated with me was what happened to Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, since the Reformation. It had to be reformed on both sides, rationalised, systems of apologetics and catechesis constructed to justify the position being defended. Rationalism arrived to an extreme with Descartes and the supernatural was utterly separated from the natural. This system of Deism, the notion that God pressed the start button and disappeared from the natural world including humanity. Only a step further lay atheism and materialism in science and human life. Only now, in the thought of men like Rupert Sheldrake and others, is materialism being challenged in science as consciousness becomes a credible concept as preceding matter.
We have been aware for a long time that institutional religion is nearing the end of its shelf-life. Go back a hundred years to the poignant story of a young priest in a spiritually barren part of the world in the Journal d’un Curé de Campagne by Georges Bernanos. If I were not a priest belonging to some kind of Church, I ask myself what would attract me to attend services at my local church. The building is something like 11th century, but spiritually dead, and for a very long time. I find the same thing with the traditionalists, mostly political reactionaries and monasteries are largely like the Army: you leave your personality behind you to become a part of the collective. Is that true asceticism? An abbot even admitted to me that monastic life is Communism! Is Christianity so ill that it was never true in the first place? It is a temptation to ask that question, until we consider the alternatives! We are indeed confronted with the cheap grace criticised by Bonhöffer as he considered the state church in Germany blithely going along with Hitler.
I discovered the notion of Romantic Christianity (or Christian Romanticism) through asking myself what revived the corpse to some extent in the nineteenth century. English Romantic poets like Keats and Shelley were quite hostile to Christianity, influenced as they were by the Enlightenment all in claiming human imagination and a profound meaning of death. Not so with Germans like Göthe, Hölderlin and Novalis. There was a line of thought and spiritual aspiration from Jacob Böhme and others in early Lutheranism. Russians like Nicholas Berdyaev latched onto this early Idealism and Romanticism. I went this way while I still a student at Fribourg, unable to cope with the secularism of the institutional Church or with the aggressive apologetics of the traditionalists and conservatives. At a time when I was very ill at ease, I consulted a psychotherapist in Lausanne. His remedy was not a course of drugs, but simply reading Jung, Soloviev and Berdyaev. I found the books at the University Library or buying them from bookshops in England, and I still have and read them. I came to appreciate the Ressourcement of some of my professors at the university and to understand things in a new light. The good psychotherapist saw that I had no money, and he didn’t charge for his consultation. I was lucky to go to the right one! I found stability through getting rid of cognitive dissonance. I kept my mouth shut when I went to Gricigliano, though my “Modernism” didn’t go entirely unnoticed! I had books by Tyrrell on my bookshelf…
I discovered this dialogue between Rupert Sheldrake and Dr Mark Vernon, a writer, psychotherapist and former Anglican priest.
Dr Vernon has his own website and a course on Romantic philosophy. This is the first time I have encountered this person. After watching the video, I went to his site and, lo and behold, he shows his interest in Romanticism. What I call Romantic Christianity or “Romantia Christiana” is only a part of a wider vision. Romanticism in its strictest historical meaning is expanded onto a much wider base than simply the reaction against the excesses of the eighteenth century. The concept comes up again and again in history as an analogy of a whole Weltanschauung beyond the cultural vacuum at a popular level and resulting barbarianism, on one side, and materialism or Deism on the other.
These two academic gentlemen speak of “full strength” Christianity as opposed to the watered-down caricatures asking for inclusion in the secular and “woke” sphere. It is not the “hyper-masculine” political ideology of some Christians, but a more profound and mystical approach, a rediscovery of medieval values as expressed in the beauty of our churches and cathedrals, the continuation and perfection of music and choral services. We should not be afraid to take inspiration from esoteric Christianity, from René Guénon and others I have encountered here in France. There is a form of Gnosticism which is compatible with Christianity, especially the Alexandrian Fathers. Jung developed some of those ideas into ways to heal the wounded human soul, through self-knowledge and integration.
We should indeed discover the world of Radical Orthodoxy, C.S Lewis, Owen Barfield and Christian Romanticism. As institutional Christianity withers and dies, a new wave of spirituality might bring about a revival of liturgical beauty and experience of the Divine. It has certainly given me a new meaning of my priestly vocation, even when I am sailing along the dark cliffs of northern Brittany, like Nietzsche in the Alpine mountains or forests. A very interesting intuition is that of panentheism (as opposed to pantheism). The word comes from the Greek πᾶν – all, ἐν – in, Θεός – God. The divine intersects every part of the universe and also extends beyond space and time. Unlike pantheism, which holds that the divine and the universe are identical (all is God), panentheism maintains an ontological distinction between the divine and the created. God is present everywhere and in the time in which we live. This is an important notion that detaches us from the dry absolute distinction between nature and the supernatural that we find in the Scholastics and Nominalists.
Another vital characteristic is the love of music and beauty. Modern secular institutional Christianity is based on the anti-aesthetics of post-modernity and post-humanism. As early as 1912, Arnold Schönberg abolished the rules of mode and harmony and began a movement of chaos and ugliness. He would write on the basis of the chromatic scale, and so the notes seemed to be completely random and dissonant to the ear. Artists like Picasso (yes, I know that collectors pay a fortune for his works) destroyed form, and some works in art galleries were even created by a person with a known name throwing a tin of paint at the canvas. Is it cynical, anti-culture (Cancel Culture) or what? It brought Impressionism to its final reductio ad absurdam. I live in a time when what we used to call pop music in the 1960’s has driven the final nail. It is overbearing and intolerable, yet dominates entertainment and the experience of going into town.
Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote:
Plato contemplates the encounter with beauty as the salutary emotional shock that makes man leave his shell and sparks his “enthusiasm” by attracting him to what is other than himself. Man, says Plato, has lost the original perfection that was conceived for him. He is now perennially searching for the healing primitive form. Nostalgia and longing impel him to pursue the quest; beauty prevents him from being content with just daily life. It causes him to suffer.
These are the words of a Romantic, one who seeks the divine through the visible and audible icon of beauty and musical harmony. One of his better-known quotes is:
The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.
Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendour of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history.
If the Church is to continue to transform and humanise the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection?
No. Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place where beauty—and hence truth—is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of hell.
There is no doubt that the world is becoming the first circle of hell, a state of anxiety in which nuclear Armageddon is not excluded, where our own “side” is as immoral and dark as that of Putin. The light is there for all to see, just asking us to walk towards it and become transfigured.
I was an undergraduate at Durham, with its majestic cathedral and great tradition of music. My faith flourished there in a way it never has elsewhere. A few years later, I became a Roman and entered seminary. After a few years of scandals, authoritarianism and ugly liturgy, I left, brokenhearted. I have pined for my old faith since.
Faith will survive where it leads to beauty (both aesthetic and spiritual). God, in his kindness, spare us from what is all too human in the Church.
My blog is here to put out an alternative message of Christian spirituality in beauty and intimacy. Romanticism is a part of the picture, but the world view can be expressed with other words too. Words and slogans don’t matter. Realities and concepts do.
I first came across the idea that consciousness precedes matter in a Hare Krishna publication about 40 years ago.
I think the idea is becoming more mainstream in the scientific community too.
I watched ‘Rewilding Christianity’ last night. interesting, but given that for 2000 years Christians have been acting as if believing the right set of doctrines is the most important part of Christianity I wonder can it ever be more than a fringe activity?
Christianity is a “fringe activity”, which pales in comparison to making vast amounts of money, warfare, stupid politics and “plastic humanity” (trans-humanism). The “rewilding” movement will never be popular because it isn’t “trendy”.
Yes, Christianity is a fringe activity these days in Western societies, but even within Christianity rewilding sounds like a fringe activity.
What do you suggest?
I don’t have anything to suggest. I suppose ‘rewilding Christianity’ will attract small numbers of people, like the Prayer Book or ‘Celtic’ Christianity, but be completely ignored by most people.
That sounds reasonable enough. Perhaps American mega-churches are the future, but it is not something I can relate to…
I’m sorry to tease this one out and appear to lack respect in your regard. I wrote my article in regard to an ideal world, which this world is not. I consider the deteriorating political and economic situation of just about everywhere in the world, the incompetence and irrelevance of politicians, the reign of Money. Culture is gone, civilisation is collapsing, institutional Christianity has nothing to say or teach this world of toxic psychopaths. We will be lucky to come out of this without a nuclear war. To compound things, this era has no parallel in history with the abundance and technology we have come to take for granted. We live in a time of alternative “truths”, all contradicting each other – the “fog of war”. My romantic musings have no place in the “reality” of this modern world, but in the interior world of each of us. I think it is better to die in idealistic “illusions” than in the nihilism of the smoking ruins of our cities.
Were culture and civilisation more secure at any other time?
It depended on who you were. Mozart and Bach lived in the 18th century. So did rum-sozzled mariners who raped women as soon as they got ashore. Is it the civilisation of the elite or the “unwashed masses”? I read people who are nostalgic for the 1960’s and 70’s, but I am not. It was a period when I was in my teens and 20’s, and it sucked as the Americans say.