I've detected a little bit of confusion regarding my use of the term Romanticism so I thought I would take a minute and try to clarify what I mean.
Romanticism as a movement took place in the late 18th and early 19th century. The Romantics were something of a negative reaction to the Enlightenment and the Utilitarian attitudes it bred. The Enlightenment cast all of life under a scientific umbrella. All issues and problems were to be looked at and scrutinized through the lens of reason.
Consequently it generated a kind of cold and severe way of interacting with the world which many began to find offensive, depressing, and deadening. The Enlightenment thinkers and their influence had little appreciation for things of beauty, music, art, poetry etc... Man became something akin to a machine.
The Romantics wanted to do away with this type of thinking and looked for beauty, wonder, mystery, and awe. They wanted to cultivate emotion and for them the concept of authenticity was paramount. Humanness versus system or mechanism. They critiqued the Enlightenment thinkers but often did so not through proper treatises, but through the arts. Mary Shelly's Frankenstein is a prime example of this. This wasn't a monster story per se, but a scathing indictment of the world (the new man) the Enlightenment was creating. They tended toward Bohemianism, loose-living, and a casting aside of all moral (establishment) moorings. The lives of Keats and Byron are excellent but sad examples of this.
From a Christian perspective both the Enlightenment thinkers and the Romantics were wrong, but both have something to offer, and from a historical standpoint both modes of thought had and continue to have a great influence on how we think today, and consequently affect the Church. We can safely and out of necessity reject them, but as I always insist.....look at the questions they ask. We can benefit from wrestling with the questions even if our answers are different.
The Romantics were mostly in Protestant countries and by the late 1700's Protestantism had for the most part degraded and turned into what is often called Dead Orthodoxy. It was sterile, lifeless, and in most cases a pawn of the state with which it was wed.
Looking for emotion, wonder, and mystical experience the Romantics turned to the past, the old days when the world was still young and fresh. They didn't want scientific formulae and analytical treatises. They wanted heroes and a sense of awe. Consequently many of these people abandoned the Protestant context and found great fascination with Roman Catholicism. Not because they were in any way interested in Roman dogma or bowing to the Pope. No they wanted to burn incense, poke around ruins, read medieval prose. They wanted to experience the ecstatic visions of medieval monks, and feel the joy of the pilgrimage. The Enlightenment had stolen the sense or wonder from the world. The Romantics thought the answer was to capture the essence of antiquity.
Their quest for finding authenticity and individual meaning in the foggy realms of primeval lore led them to often paint an unrealistic, skewed, and often rosy picture of the past. Again they weren't really seeking for data to be processed and worked out into a factual narrative. They wanted living myth.
While Enlightenment-type historians often fail to understand things like religious or ethical motive in their examinations of history and cast everything in utilitarian and economic terms, Romantics venture to the other extreme. For them the narrative is supreme, the actual details and facts are often unimportant. People were motivated by noble ideas, great passions. Who's right? They're both right and both wrong. Sometimes economics did play a role in why people embraced or acted on a particular ideology. Sometimes people were willing to cast prosperity to the wind and do something seemingly nonsensical...because it was the right thing to do.
Romanticism in regard to history is part of our lexicon today. Whenever we read or review history that is more concerned with narrative, agenda, and heroes instead of constructing a portrait of the truth grounded in verifiable facts....we refer to it as Romantic.
I'm not saying most Protestant historians are Romantics in the same way Shelly and Byron were. Not at all. But I'm saying their approach to history is more or less the same...just with a Protestant agenda. Rather than view Luther and Calvin as brilliant but flawed and sinful men, they're cast as titanic-heroes that could almost do no wrong. In many histories Calvin turns into something of a Protestant Beowulf...slaying the Grendel of Roman Catholic heresy.
It gets kind of ridiculous. And it lives on today and is being propagated more than ever. Many Calvinists rather than admit that much of what happened in 16th century was wrong, will vigorously defend it. Why?
Because they've delved into the facts of the matter, considered them, and specifically adopted a social theology rooted in Scripture? They believe this provides the same order which led Geneva to burn Servetus alive and persecute those who would not conform?
No, I contend it's because they have a narrative and this drives their interpretation of history. Their identity is based on a storyline, a developed tale which identifies who they are and what they are doing. Many of these same historians took this agenda and applied it to the Protoprotestants as well. Suddenly they became Reformed Calvinists or Lutherans in the middle ages. These historians rightly been criticized for engaging in anachronism. Consequently many dismissed the whole Waldensian/Hussite/Lollard tale because the history had become so muddled. Today of course, Protestants are generally uninterested because the Church is defined in civilizational terms driving them to be far more interested in the medieval Roman Church. The present narrative is one that contends Rome was the True Church up until the 1500's when the Reformer's showed up. Then suddenly Rome ceased to be the torch-bearer and the Reformers took it up.
This is pure fantasy which also engages in a fair amount of anachronism concerning the past. Suddenly Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas become Christians...something unthinkable to Protestants a hundred years ago.
I could be accused of anachronism as well in my explanations of the Medieval Underground...but I have strived and continue to strive to be careful to avoid this. I'm not interested in Romanticizing the Proto- groups. That is to say, I don't want to make them into something they were not because it fits with my present agenda. I want to tell the truth, warts and all, and learn from the errors and benefit from the areas in which they got it right. Like it or not, we all have a narrative trying to explain who we are, where we came from and where we are going. It's legitimate and necessary, but subject to error. Therefore we cannot let the narrative drive our interpretations of history.
I hope maybe some can see...yes, there were similarities between the groups and the later Reformation Protestants. Many similarities, but there were also very key differences and many Protestant historians are either deluded or dishonest to not recognize these.
The Reformation was a tremendous historical event, but there was a dark side to it and while it has some very glorious moments, there are also tremendous failures and great mistakes. In may ways it was something of a Sacral swap. One Sacralism was exchanged for another, but the Dissenters from the First Sacralism were largely seduced by the Second. For many, because their identity is so tied to these narratives about the Reformation or for many, American history...if you question these things, they take it very personally. Why? You're assaulting their identity.
This is a very skewed type of thinking. I don't need to take it personally or be insulted because someone insinuates....sometimes Calvin was dreadfully wrong. He's not a hero, he was a man. He was brilliant and had tremendous insight, but he was also prideful (as we all are) and very mistaken in some areas. My world doesn't crumble if a historical figure is critiqued in the name of telling the truth. He's not a super-man, a hero. My identity is not with Calvin or anyone else. Christians ought to know better.
While the Enlightenment contributed to the climate of Dead Orthodoxy in Protestantism, Romanticism very much contributed to the rise of Pietism. In a Christian context many in the Churches were stirred by these same motives. They weren't interested in cold calculated theological precision, ritual and social convention. They wanted what? Authenticity, emotion, a sense or warmth and wonder. They weren't immoral like the Romantics were, but they were being driven by the same social force. The Church was dead and rather than abandon it outright they created little cells, ecclesiola in ecclesia, little churches in the Church. They would meet for Bible study, prayer, and devotions. The Christian life became not one of life flowing out of objective doctrine, but of subjective experience.
One can understand why there were motivated in this direction. The Enlightenment had introduced a cold rational-ism into the Church while Pietism in its zeal to express vitality, now brought a potentially dangerous subjectivism. The one gave theology with no heart...a dead faith. Pietism was all heart but without theology it was not grounded in any type of authority. It proceeded blindly, and no surprise it eventually led its descendants into very erroneous practices.
I hope you see, both extremes are erroneous. They both are somewhat right, but are both also quite wrong.
Many conservative Protestants today, particularly in the Reformed sphere tend toward Enlightenment rationalism especially in the realm of theology. In terms of their social agenda, they swing Romantic and the Dominionist and Postmillennial varieties have re-written history to suit their narrative. Much of this is reaction to scientific modernist thought which they reject. It's ironic, because they are very much the children of both camps. They have embraced with much delight the tools and methodology of the Enlightenment when it comes to Theology and Social Engineering (government and economics). But since they despise Secular Modernism, they have Romantic longings when it comes to the past and many of them have embraced a narrative-type understanding of history and identity.
This is very much related to the issues I talked about in the Advancing the Kingdom series. There are hardliners but most embrace a mixture of these ideas. While the Enlightenment produced Dead Orthodoxy and rationalism, it also for some produced a spirit of optimism...a 'we can do it' type spirit. With God and reason, we can change the world, make it into a better place. We have the tools, now we just need to educate people and build the proper institutions etc.... Eventually this led to the Social Gospel which is very similar to the Christian Left of today...Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo. It also generated some of the Christian Socialist movements in Europe. These are all variants or outworkings of Enlightenment thought.
To the contrary we find many Evangelicals who tend almost exclusively toward Pietism, the Christian variant of Romanticism. They're anti-theology, in many cases anti-history, and concerned only with the emotion. For those in America who are interested in history, they adopt a Romantic view and turn the colonial and post-colonial history of the United States into something akin to a fairy tale.
Strangely as of late, many in both camps have taken to dressing up like historical figures and immersing themselves in period re-enactment, trying to re-live this mythic past. It's the same type of spirit that led Ludwig in Bavaria to construct Neuschwanstein castle. He wanted to feel the middle ages and constructed a home in accord with his feelings about it. It's fascinating but as we all know...it's not real. It makes a wonderful model for Disneyland, but would have been foreign to Frederick Barbarossa, Richard the Lionheart, or Charlemagne. It's like this with the re-enactors. I'm not talking about Civil War re-enactors. I'm talking about Tea Party people, and some of the Christian groups like Vision Forum that specifically sponsor events where they all dress up. It's like a big costume party or something. It's weird.
All these tensions and ideas are alive and well. Another manifestation of this tension that we can see very clearly is with the Emergent Church.
In the 1980's and '90's the Seeker-movement grew up in the United States. Bill Hybels with his Willow Creek model and later Rick Warren with Saddleback drew in thousands of people and seemed to have it all 'figured out'. They knew how to build churches, they could practically reduce it to a textbook formula. If you just did A, B, and C you could draw them in by the thousands. Since we live in a consumerist society (a child of the Enlightenment)...you shape your Church to fit this. In fact, turn your church into a movie theatre and shopping mall complex. In many cases this can go so far as to include a Starbucks and McDonalds. Make the people feel important, offer things to please them. "Oh, you like Reggae? Come my friend, down to room 4A, we've got a service for you."
I'm not kidding, for those of you unfamiliar with the Seeker movement. Well, it produced a very vibrant but utterly false and ultimately short-lived form of Christianity. Consumers get bored after awhile and move on. That's what they created, consumers, not Christians.
In response to this, another group has arisen. They find the cold and calculating formulas of the seeker movement to be inauthentic. Rather than a shopping mall experience, they want wonder and awe. Rather than being treated like consumerist cattle, they want authentic encounters and relationships. They want a little mystery and wonder and hence many Emergent churches have turned to candles and incense. If you're moved by an experience, just get up during the service and head over to one of the side chapels, light a candle, maybe write in your journal for awhile.
They are deliberately anti-consumerist, anti-modern. Modernist thought is nothing more than Enlightenment thinking...we can figure it out, just employ the right methods the right calculations. Post-modernism is just Romanticism again. It says when it comes to the metaphysical and spiritual....what's true for you may not be true for me. It's all subjective. By the way, most Christian commentators misunderstand this. Postmodernists are not applying that kind of criteria when it comes to whether 2+2=4. They, like most of us, are modernists. But when it comes to the abstract, the philosophical...metaphysics, ethics, etc....the subjective is what matters, because authenticity (being true to yourself) is much more important than actual truth. The narrative is more important than the facts whether they be historical or theological.
This is why we speak of romance and romantic love. It's about the subjective feelings, the stirrings. Prior to this marriage and relationships were viewed as social duty, they were viewed as an end. Romantic love views it as a means. And for many of the Romantics in order to be true to themselves, authentic, they abandoned their spouses and took off with lovers. Because what's really important is not the 'relationship' objectively defined, but what it's doing for you. Traditionally passion or love were something that might occur in the marriage relationship. Good for you if it did, but it was not the end, the essence. For the Romantics, the emotion, the passion, was essential, the thing itself.
Again, there's both good and bad. I'm not sure the old view was entirely right either. A bit cold and utilitarian, but certainly the extremes of Romantic love which have so come to dominate in the end substitutes lust for love....and we've seen the results.
Romantic driven thinking in all spheres allows the subjective to dominate... and the facts, and ultimately the truth are left behind.
So what am I saying? Am I saying to turn rationalist when it comes to theology? No. I'm arguing there is a third way. We must be grounded in Scripture and let the Scriptures as our authority, shape our whole epistemology (how we know what we know). We are rational but not rationalist. The Scriptures teach us how to think. We are emotional without being emotionalist. We don't allow our passions to govern our theology. Remember theology in the end is not about knowing stuff...it's about knowing God. When we're rationalists we reduce God to a mathematical formula. When we allow subjective emotions to govern....when we're sentimentalists we define God by what we feel rather than how He reveals Himself.
But don't the Emergents raise some good issues, some that we anti-establishment types would appreciate?
Shouldn't we also be anti-consumerist? Absolutely. Even though Emergent Christianity is not Christianity at all...they still raise some good points which we should wrestle with. Again, the questions, not their answers. If you read Brian McLaren it is clear he does not grasp the Gospel. But he can also show quite clearly where much of modern Evangelicalism is blind to its own presuppositions and in many ways fails to grasp some basic messages of Scripture.
Some have found points of comparison between the Emergents and the Anabaptists. Personally I find these to be superficial. The Emergents are anti-establishment but for reasons very different than the Anabaptists. Their reaction to American Evangelicalism tilts them toward the political left and thus anti-militarism. Yes the Anabaptists were pacifistic as well, but so was Gandhi. I just don't see the equation. Such analogies strike me as overly-general. If anyone has somewhat to offer, please do. I think if there are similarities it's found not in the answers...but the questions.
Romanticism was much the same way. They were dreadfully wrong and very lost people, but their critique of Enlightenment society is not altogether worthless. By questioning the status quo they raised issues that needed to be dealt with and thought about.
History shows us many examples of this. Rather than dismiss....learn. I often upset people by showing a certain affinity toward the hippie counter-culture movement of the 1960's. I'm not trying to be a hippie or for even one second suggest they were right. But they were asking good questions and rightly critiquing their parents generation. They came up with often dreadful and destructive answers. Sometimes like the Romantics their counter-cultural application ended up as debauchery, but other times they exhibited fascinating insight. I learn from their questions.
The Seeker movement was and is largely one of the suburbs....establishment, conservative people. The Emergents (I'm generalizing) in reacting to this tend to be more interested in anti-establishment and progressive causes. Is this sounding familiar yet?
So like all these movements, I'm often arguing for anti-establishment thinking as well....but my reasons for doing so are not reaction to a Rationalist movement....my questioning of the status quo is driven by an attempt to apply the Scriptures to the modern context. I don't want to critique Enlightenment Rationalism, the Greatest Generation, or the Seeker movement because I want to be a Romantic, a hippie, or an Emergent. I want to establish a Biblical foundation to my thought and interact with all these groups and all of history. Because so much of Western History has been Sacralist, rooted to a Constantinian vision...yes, I tend to be more interested in those critical of the established order.
If we study history, we can see these currents ebbing and flowing and constantly re-asserting themselves. In fact in light of the Seeker movement, we should have seen the Emergent moving coming. It was bound to happen. Then we will have fragmentation...and before long another manifestation of this cycle.
I'm not trying to argue for a Hegelian view of history. His process historiography was driven by natural causes and God's hand was absent. But once again...even the blind squirrel gets an acorn sometimes. Hegel's observations though rooted in a false philosophical construct are nevertheless interesting and there's a little something to it. Does it validate his philosophy? Hardly. Rather it is demonstrative of fallen man's attempts to correct a fallen world, or maybe even fallen man's fickleness and inability to step back and see the big picture. Perhaps part of the curse is that man cannot learn from history? No one seems to learn from history, so they just continue to keep repeating the same errors made by their predecessors by a series of pendulum swings. Or maybe it's better to say those who wield power do not learn from it?
As with all movements, there's overlap. Societies and individuals are complex. Hence you will have people who generally tend toward Enlightenment Rationalism embracing Romantic views of history and you will certainly have Romantic/Pietist/Emergent people who embrace very rationalist positions when it comes to certain social issues. No one is entirely consistent and very few issues can be cast in entirely black and white terms. This doesn't negate the discussion or the categories. They are tools that help us probe the realm of ideas and what drives men in their thoughts and actions.
Romanticism proved empty and eventually moved from the individual to the corporate and then played a big part in the growing Nationalism of the 19th century. It played out in the art and music of the time. Some of the best in my opinion, not because they had a right view of the world, or were motivated by noble ideas, but because they went with emotion and in many cases broke with convention. It communicates, it tells a better story. That's my opinion, my taste, not a moral judgment. I realize what they did was cultural heresy to certain Classicists, but I will continue to vigorously argue, it's subjective. Only Sacralist thought demands a moral standard for music that would declare Bach good and a Romantic like Beethoven bad. I refuse to be categorized. The Romantics probed the past and took interest in roots and beginnings. Composers like Liszt took old folk tunes and transformed them into symphonic beauty. Yes I know...how uncouth! Nevertheless as a non-Sacralist I can say...if you like Paganini, then enjoy Paganini. His music is neither more or less Christian than the paragon of Sacralist music...JS Bach. For me I'd want someone like Bach or Mozart designing my computer software with all their technicality and precision... but when it comes to music, I'll take Romantic-inspired composers like Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, or Smetana. Their music evokes historical events and places. When I'm listening to Borodin, I'm on the steppes of Asia. With Rimsky-Korsakov, the tales of Scheherazade come alive. With Smetana I'm cruising through the Bohemian countryside.
Nevertheless if you want to literally feel Romanticism in a German context, listen to Wagner. His emotive musical passion for the primeval, the tales of the Old World, the Volsunga Saga and Niebelungenlied stirred the Romantics of the day and contributed much to creating an idea of what it was to be German. The Nazis weren't Romantics per se, but you can't ignore some of the social groundwork laid by Romanticism that allowed people to be stirred by the vision of Hitler for the German people. Romanticism laid some of the groundwork for German Nationalism, but some would say the Nazis hijacked it. Tolkien certainly thought so. He above perhaps anyone else loved and admired the legend and lore of Northern Europe and was outraged by Hitler's perversion of it.
Again, the rise of the Third Reich, is far more complex than Romanticism run amok. There were a host of other issues, ideological and practical, and in many ways the Nazis were the very zenith, the capstone, the telos of Enlightenment thought.
All these things must be taken into account as we survey the modern church and our modern social settings.
But to answer the queries of several people, when I speak of a Romantic view of the Reformation, I'm not talking about how Shelly or Byron viewed it. I'm talking about the tendency to mythologize the past, to cast it in terms of emotion rather than trying to find out the facts and rightly interpret them. Protestant Romantic Historians look for heroes, not truth.
Some Protestant historians have embraced what used to be called Whig History. This represents more of the Enlightenment side of the coin. Driven by a pre-determined narrative, all of history shows progress and whatever camp is writing the history is careful to demonstrate that it always supports their case and their vision. Often guilty of anachronism this camp also tends to mythologize the past to support the storyline.
Can they blend? Of course. All of us are quite inconsistent in how we apply our philosophies. JA Wylie's History of Protestantism is a Romantically flavoured Whig History. Peter Marshall's The Light and The Glory is very much the same when it comes to American history. I can find some value in Wylie, while Marshall's volume is excellent for testing out the new paper shredder or making paper airplanes with the kids.
Enlightenment and Romanticism, Dead Orthodoxy and Pietism, Seeker and Emergent, Modern and Postmodern
It's the same old debate happening over and over, because no one is learning from it. Fallen man cannot, but we have the Scriptures which give us an authority base to escape these traps, and the ugly hybrids they generate. We must think Scripturally. We will always be to some extent creatures of our setting. We can't escape it. The Protoprotestants didn't either, but for them to risk their lives, operated underground for centuries, place such a heavy emphasis on the Bible and reject the societal vision imposed on them....wow, they understood something. They had caught a vision which I'm sorry to say was largely crushed by the Reformation.