Monday, March 28, 2011

Romanticism and Christianity

When we think of movements in art or culture, its tempting to fixate on where they lead, not where they begin. Consider the Enlightenment. Instead of seeing it as a rejection of abject superstition and ignorance in favor of a view of an ordered world created by an ordered God, we see it as humanism or a megalomaniacal IQ exercise by old, dead, white men. But what are the facts? The Enlightenment began with the Protestant rediscovery of the Bible through which God could speak to people individually. It was confirmed in the discoveries of rational scientific laws by the Christian scientists Newton, Kepler and Copernicus. The same is true with Romanticism. The utopian communities and Transcendentalism we associate with the movement don't do it justice; actually, they distort the truth. To judge a thing by where it leads in its extremes is a fallacy by which we would have to condemn the idea of “civilization” since it always ends in ruins, or “life” since it ends in death.

By the late 18th century, the Enlightenment had digressed into absolute faith in man's ability to discern truth for himself, attacks on Christianity, and degradation of nature into a machine for man's exploitation. Romanticism began by simply voicing opposition to each of these points. According to distinguished historian Isaiah Berlin's The Roots of Romanticism, the earliest person to have done so in a “Romantic” way was the German philosopher Johann Georg Hamann. Hamann had received a broad education before his life began to fall apart in the pursuit of pleasure. Then, upon discovering the Bible, he was transformed and aligned himself with the Lutheran Pietists. A tireless writer, Hamann earned his nickname “Magus of the North” by churning out treatises in response to the dangerous theories of his Enlightenment friends who placed human Reason on a pedestal. He wrote to one of his closest friends, Immanuel Kant, “Reason is not given to you in order that you might become wise, but that you may know your folly and ignorance; as the Mosaic law was not given to the Jews to make them righteous, but to make their sins more sinful to them.” To reinforce this point, Hamann insisted that faith in God alone could lead one to a knowledge of the truth through his Holy Spirit. He deliberately styled himself after Socrates, the man whose greatest strength was his insistence that he knew nothing.

Unlike the other philosophers in his circle, Hamann never held a post at a university, but he did attract an enthusiastic following. One of his students was another Lutheran: a scholar and a priest, named Johann Gottfried Herder. Together, Herder and Hamann's ideas inspired a new genre of German art called Sturm und Drang. In its eschewing of rationality as the basis of truth, this style of music, plays and books profoundly influenced Goethe and all later Romanticists, including the master painter Caspar David Friedrich and his profoundly Christian artwork. Meanwhile, the Christian elements of this message had reached France, where the nobleman Francois Rene de Chateaubriand was hard at work writing what would become one of the brightest ornaments of the Romantic movement: The Genius of Christianity. This book argued that "Christianity comes from God, because it is excellent,” and defended it from its Enlightenment critics by arguing that the very beauty of the Christian religion was a proof that it was true. Chateaubriand's thesis was a tremendous influence on Lord Byron and other Romantics, but they unfortunately dropped the author's orthodoxy in favor of his aesthetic finesse. This was increasingly true of the Romantic movement as the 1800s wore on. Like the Enlightenment before it, the movement that had started as a Christian reaction to error branched out farther and farther from its original purpose and looked for truth somewhere other than in God. For the Romantics, this door to understanding became the senses instead of the mind, as it had been for the Rationalists. But let's not forget how it began. Rather than lamenting where movements in the arts, philosophy and culture may go in the end, Christians should be inspired that they have, and can still, frame the discussion from the beginning.

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