Tuesday 3 May 2016

Christianity and the absorption of Romanticism

If we wind-back over two hundred years to the beginnings of the Romantic movement in the West - to that great upwelling of human creativity and aspiration that is associated with the likes of Coleridge and Wordsworth and reached its culmination in the person and works of Goethe - we can see that it was addressing real and deep problems in Western Christianity, and indeed in Christianity up to that point.

We can also see that Romanticism on the one hand never went away but has always since been present - and on the other hand that Romanticism never got any further, indeed it never again got as far as it did in that first wave. Compare the 1890s, or 1960s resurgences of Romanticism with the original to measure the partiality, feebleness and corruption of later Romanticism - yet the impulse has never left the West.

Romanticism was indeed deflected and corrupted - especially into atheism and a focus on sex; but its original aspiration was not just good but in fact necessary: the assertion of Imagination to heal the alienation that had overwhelmed Modern Man with the advent of the Scientific Revolution from the 1600s and the dualism described by Descartes.

Christianity did not accept or include Romanticism, indeed ever since Romanticism Christianity has been fighting the long defeat against secular Leftism; and almost the only Christians who have survived as Christian have been those who rejected Romanticism and have remained alienated - those with materialist attitudes to the spiritual, those with a spiritual attitude to bureaucracy, those who accept the 'literalism' of the scriptures as if they were science textbooks (by some theoretical and dead version of science where it is a series of true statements).

These are harsh words to use against those who are desperately maintaining a glimmer of light as all around is engulfed in darkness - but the fact is that Christianity is not-good-enough; the deep problems it had when Romanticism arose remain and have hardened. It is possible that the alienated literalism of the strongest remaining types of Christianity is a double-edged sword: a defence against being dissolved in the evil relativism/ nihilism of modernity - but also a defect that guarantees continual shrinkage and eventual defeat.

By this account, the greatest success of Secular Leftism is to keep Christianity so continually on the back-foot that in fighting to prevent its absorption by Secular Leftism (which has been the fate of all mainstream Christian churches in The West) it has been unable to Romanticize itself - because that is what is required: Christianity must itself absorb Romanticism.

We need to do the mental exercise of re-winding two hundred years and absorbing, and Christianizing, the impulse of the Romantic movement.

This is done by purpose. Romanticism was all about process, but lacked purpose - because it came to reject Christianity. Christianity provides the purpose which can be used to organize Romanticism, to keep the good and reject the bad - and error, corruption and sin are shed as there is movement towards the goal.

In a sense, the lesson of the history of Romanticism is that purpose is almost-everything. Life is - or should be - a much more creative thing than was envisaged by The Age of Reason, a much more heartfelt and instinctual and spontaneous thing than envisaged by the Age of Enlightenment, a much more loving thing than ever was known to the logical Middle Ages.

Above all, Life should be One thing; and our reason, understanding and thinking must include that Life is One thing. Romanticism is, should be, that reorganzing of our reason, understanding, thinking... and then grasping and assimilating it by the Imagination.

Men are intrinsically imperfect beings, prone to error, prone to sin - but Romanticism saw that this was a feature not a bug: we are made this way (by God) for a reason, and a vital reason. For Christian Romanticism, life was not about a perfection of being and our failure to be it; but about the process of living, striving, creating, loving, erring, sinning, repenting and everything else... But all guided and shaped by Christian purpose.

It is the purpose which makes Christian Romanticism Good. Romanticism saw that it was a metaphysical error to suppose that good and evil could be separated in the actual human condition: they can and must be distinguished, but they cannot be separated - always both are there.

Always and inevitably both Good and evil - therefore this is part of God's plan, therefore it is necessary and not to be regretted or extirpated. We cannot be 'good' every inch of the way, therefore we are not meant to be good every inch of the way - we are meant alwyas (and every inch of the way) to aim at good.

(To be of Good Purpose, to be working for God's plan - a 'plan' which is more like organic growth and development toward establishing and maintaining a dense and diverse ecosystem, than it is like an engineering blueprint to be 'implemented' by Project Management).

This is of course what God Himself does - in our lives, to reach good involves bad - for example self-denial, suffering, hardship: only via these bad things can good be reached. So in our own lives. It would be fatal to try and extirpate all bad things - indeed that is the underpinning error of that Secular Leftism/ Liberalism which seeks above everything to eliminate suffering. It is fatal, and it is also paradoxical and impossible - we need to set-aside such futile hankerings. 

What God wants is not a paradox, but a direction. We take our mixed selves, living our mixed lives, and point them in the proper direction - and that is true and attainable and non-paradoxical Goodness; that is the Christianity we most deeply need: A Christianity which has absorbed Romanticism - a Romantic Christianity.

[For clarification of the nature and origins and fate of Romanticism, a start could be made with: http://www.owenbarfield.org/romanticism-and-anthroposophy ]


William Wildblood said...

You're a prophet, Bruce. You certainly fulfil the function of one in that you call us back to truth. What Christianity lacked, or more probably lost, was a sense of the spirit and it was this that Romanticism supplied through the imagination. What Romanticism lacked was a proper understanding of the spiritual viewed from the level of the spiritual (rather than the ego) which it was why it could descend into nature worship and self-indulgence. Put the two together as in people like St Francis and St Columba (amongst many others) and you have the perfect combination.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William "You're a prophet, Bruce. "

Thanks! - So, maybe I need to grow a beard...

I agree we need to have people like those Saints, but also we are in a different psychological (and spiritual) place from them and with a *much* greater sense of self-consciousness (indeed, a nearly total self-consciousness) - so I think we need to move forward to something only rarely achieved (for example by Goethe) which includes the modern self-consciousness *as well as* the older spirit and imagination. This is (or would be), as I understand, closer to the divine than the unselfconscious immersive spirituality of the past.

William Wildblood said...

Perhaps but not a goatee!

I choose those two almost at random and mainly because of their strong affinity to Nature coupled with the sense of heaven, both seen in the light of a deep devotion to God. I agree that we are in a different, much more self-conscious, world and cannot imitate the past. That is our great problem and great opportunity.

Brick Hardslab said...

To prepare the right field for this we need a collective imagination that looks towards the good and the beautiful. A return to art that uplifts. Beautiful architecture, paintings, sculpture, movies, and literature that extols beauty and truth. Modern art from the most expensive painting to the most plebeian tv show is ugly, hateful and lying to us.

Even the pagans had better art than we do. It is time to reclaim the human unconscious and public places for beauty, truth, and goodness. We can make things that point to Heaven. Only the enemy and his willing minions desire us to look towards the muck and mire.

David Balfour said...

@ Bruce and William:

"I think we need to move forward to something only rarely achieved (for example by Goethe) which includes the modern self-consciousness *as well as* the older spirit and imagination. This is (or would be), as I understand, closer to the divine than the unselfconscious immersive spirituality of the past"

I take it what you are referring to here Bruce is what you are pursuing in your current studies to fully realise the nature and scope of what might be termed a 'final participation,' which if I have understood you correctly is the reintegration with the divine consciousness experienced before the fall in Eden minus the ego and modern self-centredness but still retaining all the *good bits* of individuality? At this point presumably we would have grown sufficiently by theosis to progress to post - mortal life in good shape spiritually?

Tony said...

Interesting thoughts, Bruce. I think you're right to sense a growing divide between romantics and technocrats. A few reactions: "Imagination" sounds too antique to me to get much purchase in the coming robot era. Romano Guardini was a Catholic romantic -- but he ended up sounding very pessimistic about the direction of western culture. My own view is that Christians are pretty much back where they started from. What made them persuasive back then? The collapse of the dissolute and self-loathing Empire around them. That, combined with their alternative example of community, vitality, and love.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - You already may be referencing it in your comment - but I wrote something about the goatee beard:


@David - Yes, Final Participation - although maybe not exactly as you describe it. It is indeed very hard to summarize briefly what it means.