The following article is an attempt to provide a vision for Romantic Christianity and explain why such a vision is needed in modern society. It is not complete at this time, but I would appreciate any comments.
Due to the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century and the Enlightenment of the 19th, life in the developed Western world has suffered a significant decline with regard to depth, substance, and meaning. Materialism and consumerism are the driving forces behind our actions, and spirituality is viewed as apart from the "real" world of our daily lives. Many of us adhere to a doctrine of rationality in which objective reality is the only true basis for existence. On the other hand, we increasingly have those who shun the scientific view in favor of a non-rational approach characterized by attachment to the sensational, to supernatural phenomenon and/or an unquestioning adherence to religious doctrines. Additionally, we have the recent influence of Postmodernism, whose adherents shun any attempt to arrive at absolutes, no matter what method may be used. Most of us would probably not fall completely into one of these categories, but nevertheless, their influence on our lives is pervasive, causing us to live in a state of duality in which our spiritual lives (if indeed we have them) are not integrated with our entire existence.
Since the effects of industrialization and the triumph of rationalism have increasingly secularized our consciousness, we need elements of Romanticism to help bridge the gap between spirituality and modern life. Romanticism was an artistic movement of the 19th century which emphasized imagination, nature, individual experience, the goodness of humanity, the primacy of values over structure, and the importance of the emotions. The Romantics reacted to the rigidity and rationalism of the Enlightenment by focusing on individual expression and emotion. By integrating Romantic traits with our Christianity, perhaps we can begin to formulate a new paradigm in which spirituality can play a greater role in modern life.
The problem with spirituality today is that it is made powerless by the "spirits of the age" such as rationalism, materialism, relativism, and unthinking supernaturalism. Even when we do seek spirituality, it is seen as a way of fixing our lives and not as basis for our existence. We keep our secular outlook while employing spiritual principles to put a band-aid on deep wounds which need a much more thorough remedy.
Let us make clear from the beginning that the purpose of this essay is not to posit Romanticism as a cure-all for everything that ails us as Christians. The contention, rather, is that our current spiritual climate could use a good dose of Romantic thought to bring it out of stagnation. Moreover, this work is not an attempt to be reactionary and does not claim that the past was in any way utopic. Our modern state of spiritual consciousness certainly has its positives. For instance, we have risen above many prejudices, superstitions, and corruptions that have plagued the life of the church for centuries. One only has to read a little about the church of the Middle Ages to see this point.
Additionally, there is no attempt to idealize the Romantic movement of the past and create a shrine around it. The purpose is to build upon Romantic thought to provide vision for the future. It should be apparent by now that not all concepts associated with Romanticism will be considered. In fact, the term Romanticism is so ambiguous that it can mean almost anything to anyone. Consequently, there are characteristics (which I believe constitute the best that Romanticism has to offer) mentioned above which provide a focus for subsequent discussion.
With all that behind us, let's move on to the task at hand. As our society struggles between the influences of modernism and postmodernism, we must seek out a human spirituality that is quite wary of both, yet at the same time will transcend them and point to an existence that goes, as Aslan states in C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle, "higher up and further in."
"For me, imagination is essential--because what I believe is not in the realm of fact. At night, I go out to the most gorgeous view of the sky and wonder that the Maker of all these galaxies-- and those fifty billion other galaxies we just discovered--came down to be one of us. You can't put that into language of fact." Madeleine L'Engle, from interview by Dee Dee Risher in The Other Side Online (www.theotherside.org), Mar-Apr 1998, Vol. 34, No. 2.
Imagination is important because through it, we are able to commune with God at a deeper level. Webster's defines imagination as "the act or power of forming mental images of what is not actually present." We know through scripture that God is always present with us, but we must take the initiative to sense his presence. Humans, through their free will, have separated themselves from God for so long that he no longer seems to be present. Especially in our modern age, egoism and materialism have so enveloped us that our consciousness is centered in the temporal and the unreal. Consequently, we must make deliberate efforts to transcend our shallow perceptions and imagine the utter grandeur, greatness, and bigness of an eternal God.
When we imagine, both our hearts and our minds are at work. We don't just feel, but we concentrate on things which bring depth of feeling to us. Imagination has little in common with sensationalism, and at the same time, is no friend of rationalism. Rather, imagination is a way to bring heart and mind together to provide joy and meaning to our existence. Christian Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined joy as "a fruitful union of the sensuous and the intellectual - the highest expression of life's intensity."
Our feelings by themselves may bring us short-term happiness, but imagination, when utilized properly, brings us joy that transforms our character. Rationalism in itself may bring us security and order, but does not provide value and meaning. Imagination gives us the capacity to see beyond objective reality and seek the value of that which is good. That is, of course, if we have a sound basis for distinguishing between good and evil. That's where Christian scripture comes into play. Through the precepts of Christian thought, we are able to "baptize" our imaginations and think on what is lovely and pure. The laws of God are utilized, not as ends in themselves, but as guides to keep us from straying into what is contradictory to goodness and life. The law may be the sign on the road that tells us which way to go, but it should never be considered the road itself. In our day the road to spiritual fulfillment has quite a bit if scenery -- Christians stuck on the sides of the road who have made altars around roadsigns.
This last point is one of great consequence to modern conservative Christians. Although there are signs of emancipation, much of evangelical Christianity is still mired in a faulty view of the law's (scriptural mandates) purpose. This unnecessary veneration of the letter of the law is probably a result of many factors, including a Reformation heritage and the reaction by conservatives to the modern challenges of rationalism, liberal protestant theology, and even Romanticism. The problem is that when reaction takes place, our character becomes largely based on the reaction itself. For instance, the Protestant Reformation reacted against the excesses and unbridled authority of the established church through emphasis on the written Word. Although the criticisms were highly justifiable, the unintended result is a church which has (in many of its branches) elevated the scripture to the point of de-emphasizing or excluding other means of revelation. Every time a church "reacts" and forms another sect or denomination, essential elements of the spiritual life (community relationships being the most important) are left behind due to the overemphasis on the issue at hand. When the law is seen as paramount, the problem becomes even worse, since interpretations of the law will undoubtedly differ and severance of ties will be deemed justifiable based on who is truly following the law and who is not.
Part of the trouble evangelical Christians have with imagination has to do with King James scripture. The word imagination is often used in a negative sense, such as when we are told about "casting down imaginations" in II Corinthians. At the time of the King James translation, the word imagination had a negative connotation that we no longer subscribe to today. In our modern sense the word is very neutral. You will notice in the New English translation of the Bible that the word "imaginations" in the Corinthians passage is changed to "sophistries." In the New International version, we have the word "arguments" as a replacement. Of course, there is no denying that imagination can be detrimental if used improperly. If we let our imaginings wander in dark and perverted directions, then we only place ourselves in bondage and separate ourselves from a life of freedom and joy. Again we must emphasize the importance of scripture as a guide. We are told to think on things that are lovely, pure, and of a good report. When we are uncertain just what is pure and what is lovely, we have scriptural precepts as our guide. We don't find some isolated passage (such as the casting down imaginations one) and build a doctrine around it. Rather, we take the body of scripture as a whole and allow it's values to so permeate our consciousness that our minds will no longer consider moving in directions that contradict life. Then our imaginations are free to discover greater heights of God's beauty and mystery.
How, then, do we go about using our imaginations to become closer to God? We must first realize that any suggestions given here are just the tip of the iceberg. We should never limit our imaginative potential and always look for new horizons of the imagination. We must knock on the doors that are revealed to us. For they will be opened.
We could start with nature itself -- God's handiwork. As Madeleine L'Engle so eloquently stated in the quote at the beginning of this section, nature speaks of the awesomeness of God. The stars, the mountains, the sea, forests, natural wonders -- to contemplate the wonders of creation will help to stir our imagination. Unfortunately, our churches do not have sunroofs.
(More on this topic later)
The Will To Value
It is interesting that we are told to love God with our hearts, minds, and souls. If we were to leave one of those aspects out, then our love would not be complete. In order to have just an inkling of who God is, we must learn to apprehend him with our emotions (considering the heart as the seat of the emotions), our intellect, and in the depth of our existence. This is where Romanticism comes in. We take the Romantic tendencies of imagination and the will to value, allow scriptural precepts as our guide, and set out on our journey to know and love the Source of our life.
Is this what characterizes Christian life today? Unfortunately, the answer is no. We have the overly rationalistic approach which takes the life out of our spiritual walk and turns Christianity into mere humanism or in some cases, a psychological panacea. On the other hand, we have the approach which avoids rationalism through a shallow type of emotionalism which seeks ecstatic experience above all else or the legalistic approach which advocates conformity to doctrine as an escape from rationalism. What we need is a more balanced approach, which leads us to our next attribute of Romanticism: the will to value.
"...the ethics of Romanticism is impelled by a will to value in the face of a prevailing reduction of value." Laurence S. Lockridge , The Ethics of Romanticism
In Ayn Rand's Romantic Manifesto, Romanticism as an artistic movement is defined as "art based on the recognition of the principle that man possesses the faculty of volition." Rand goes on to state that if man possesses this volition, or "will to value," then it follows that the crucial aspect of his life is his choice of values. If man does not possess this will to value, then his life and character become determined by forces beyond his control.
This is precisely what is happening in modern culture. Our will to value is not being utilized, and we become controlled by the forces of a society which tells us what to value through various forms of media. In some cases we use rules as a substitute for values, and at other times we simply do not order our lives around values because we so are caught up in the flurry of activity that we fail to reflect upon our values, if indeed we have formulated them in the first place.
The effect of this lack of volition on our spirituality is debilitating. Much of current Christian teaching seems to place more emphasis on conformity to rules than on the value of love. This is unfortunate since love is the common thread that holds us together with our God and our fellow humans. Our greatest commandment as Christians is to love God and love our neighbors. The world in which God entered in the form of Jesus was a world based around laws. Through the Great Commandment, Jesus effectively shifted the focus from a law-based religion to a spirituality based on values. When we value, we are able to put the law in perspective. We abandon the void of secularization and relativism, but instead of reacting against it with rules, we transcend it with values. We don't react against rationalism with unthinking emotionalism and fanatic supernaturalism, but we put rationalism in its proper place by utilizing it as a guide to help us act upon our values in life circumstances.
In order for something to be valued, it must be desired. Therefore, volition takes us out of the realm of blind obedience to the law and adds an emotional aspect. In order to make love a value, we must desire for love to be paramount in all aspects of our existence. It is not enough to follow a rule of love, for love transcends all rules. The only way we can truly be made perfect in love is to desire love above all else. If we are imperfect in any way, it is because we do not desire love sufficiently. We may claim that we desire love above all else, but our lives tell a different story. We allow selfishness, pride, and anger to dictate our actions, or we even allow positive values such as peace, kindness, and righteousness to supersede love. These and other positive values can only be properly ascertained and followed while viewed within the context of love. Moreover, we often confuse motive and action when we automatically assume that our action constitutes an act of love. We may arrive at what are popularly thought to be "acts of love" through means other than love itself. For instance, we may give money to the poor and take satisfaction that we have loved. However, this act may be done from scores of other motives that have nothing to do with love. We may give simply because it is the proper and accepted thing to do, or just to pacify someone who is soliciting our contribution. We may also do it to cover up our guilt for something we did wrong, or perhaps to be seen as "loving" in the eyes of men. Though we can't possibly be lovers of God without performing acts of love, we must not assume that acts commonly thought to be derived from love are always done out a love motive.
If we are to seek love God above all else, then we must learn to love our fellow human beings. Jesus prayed that we become one, as He and the Father are one. Does this mean that we are to become one with the murderer, the rapist, or the child molester? Aren't some of these people just plain evil? Don't they deserve punishment? It's very difficult to love someone who has committed heinous acts of violence toward humanity. However, when we combine one of the basic tenets of Romanticism to our Christian duty to love, we become empowered to love even the most undesirable of humans. Romanticism contends that humans are good by nature. This contention may seem contrary to Christian teaching, but perhaps we can reconcile opposing beliefs. Humans were created in the image of God. We are taught through the story of the fall of mankind that all humans are inherently sinful. We are told that "death reigned" and that sin was brought into the world as a result of Adam's disobedience. I think most would agree that, although the fall of man creates in us a predisposition toward sin, this inheritance does not have enough power to totally corrupt God's creation. That is, there is at least a minuscule form of godliness (however dormant it might be) in all humans, since everyone is created in the image of God. We have placed so much emphasis on "original sin" over the centuries that we often forget that humans were originally good and innocent.
When we learn to see all humans as potentially good, then a new perspective begins to take shape. Yes, we all sin, but depravity is not part of the ultimate plan that God has for any of us. No matter how bad a person may be, no matter how terrible the crimes he or she has committed, there is the potential of goodness through the grace of God. No one is beyond redemption. When we take hold of this truth, we begin to see others in a different light. We are able to accept them no matter how deep their stain of sin. We look lovingly into the soul of the murderer and we long to understand him (not condemn him) so that we may do our part to help foster repentance and healing. We help him to become the person that God intends for him to be by allowing God's love, grace and mercy to work through our lives.
Why does God want men to be reconciled to him? The Bible teaches that humans were created for God's pleasure, and that he desires fellowship with us. He loves us, and he wants us to love him in return. He longs for intimacy with all his sons and daughters. Our love for God should cause us to help others to know his love and forgiveness, so that they may be brought into fellowship with him. This is the most important aspect of loving our neighbors, and the basis for any evangelistic endeavors. We organize our social lives around the value of love, not around the desire to have persons conform to a set of doctrines or to a standard of morality (as in much fundamentalist religion). Neither do we organize them around competition and greed (as in the capitalist workplace), or around fear (as in gangs), or around pride and materialism (as in many social circles), or around utility (as in various areas of life). Love is the only proper basis for our existence and is the highest value upon which all other positive values are derived. "Love never fails."
More to come later...
Let me know what you think! Please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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