Wednesday 22 September 2021

Walter Scott and the failure of Romantic Christianity

Sir Walter Scott's dates were 1771-1832 - much the same as the life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). But if Coleridge stands as an example of how our spiritual life in the West could (and should) have gone towards a fully-integrated Romanic Christianity; Scott is representative of what actually happened to the British culture at large. 

Scott was a very devout Christian - a Presbyterian as a child and Episcopalian as an adult. And he was also a great Romantic - whose influence (both via long narrative poems and dozens of novels; also his widely-read collection of Border Ballads) was international and lasting. 

But the Christianity and Romanticism were kept rigorously separate. It is startling to read in the account of the ballad Thomas the Rhymer, how Scotts assumptions were entirely and unconsciously dedicated to 'explaining away' all the supernatural and prophetic elements of the poem and the author's life. The hypothesis that True Thomas really was a prophet, or really had some kind of an encounter with elves, is not even entertained. 

Scott was, in this respect, entirely an 'Enlightenment' rationalist. And he embodied the duality, the schism, between Christianity and the romantic, which has persisted since - until Christianity has dwindled to very little public significance. 

I mean that magic, mysticism, enchantment, animism and all such - are rationalized and explained away; being both excluded-from, and regarded as hostile-to, Christianity. 

By such maneuvers, Christian life began to be regarded rationally, objectively, sealed off from the whole range of human experience - and became ever more wholly external. The romantic, which was about intense personal experience and gave life meaning at a micro level, was regarded as merely fictional - and psychological. 

A serious Christian like Scott might also be a romantic, but on the assumption that the romantic element was merely a kind of entertainment, a commercial exercise, or an historical document; without reality or relevance for the serious things of life.  

Later - the two split even further apart; so that the archetypal romantic became anti-Christian (as with Byron, or the New Age) and the serious Christians anti-romantic (as with those modern evangelicals who regard Tolkien and CS Lewis as literally demonic). 

The split between Christianity and romanticism is a version of the split between objective and subjective: for serious Christians the faith became 'objective' - i.e. external, public, logical, something to be 'followed' - while Romanticism was merely subjective, and to be explained-away. 

And for those who believed in Romanticism, there was an attempt at thoroughgoing subjectivism/ relativism and living by instinct - which explained-away Christianity along with science and all other attempts at objectivity.  

Consequently, Romanticism and Christianity both became partial and ineffectual. Church Christianity is now almost wholly secular and bureaucratic; Romanticism is quasi-therapeutic, commercial and recreational.

There might be some unconscious integration of the two; for instance, one suspects that Scott had a 'real' interest in the supernatural - that at some level his interest in Thomas the Rhymer was based on the possibility that the supernatural elements might somehow be true... 

But lacking any conscious and explicit acknowledgment and theorization of such an integration; 'modern Man' (since Scott's time) cannot achieve any effective reuniting of inner life. 

It was the project of Rudolf Steiner and then Owen Barfield to provide a conscious and explicit theoretical basis for healing the the subjective-objective, Romantic-Christian split. This, they largely achieved - and our task now is to put the theories into action in our own everyday lives. 

1 comment:

SanSaba1 said...

Inspiring, as a writer I've been thinking about this constantly as of late.