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The Present Culture of "Neo-Romanticism"


For all of its assurance to liberate men free from their self-imposed ignorance, considered largely the result of the influence of traditional Christianity, the Enlightenment failed to provide a final solution for life. In its rational deconstruction of man and of the universe in order to create a cohesive view of specific topics, the Enlightenment was really an agenda for progress apart from the biblical revelation of God. Problematically, by locking God out of the metaphysical world, and arguing instead for a clockwork universe, so-called enlightened thinkers made God a prisoner to his own set of laws. It took Kant to seek the “der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbst verschuldeten Unmundigkeit” (“the emergence of man from his self-incurred immaturity”) and to return the metaphysical world to the arena of philosophy and religious discourse. Rococo frivolity was the Enlightenment in denial—a last gasp effort to believe that science and philosophy could replace God and deliver the better life.

Thus, things began to turn slowly to a new vision of things that cultural historians refer to as the period of Romanticism. The nineteenth-century intellectual and cultural movement sought to save the Christian faith and practice that had been had been devalued by the radical theorists of the European Enlightenment. Some men found a lively faith in the Church but most saw the Church as nothing more than a narcotic masking people’s inner pain. Many therefore sought a spiritual path outside organized religion in the way of nature mysticism. In all, as Bernard Reardon has noted, people began again to yearn for the “infinite beyond”—a sentimental longing for the medieval past. Metaphysics had found a place again.

Men of the Romantic age could not tolerate the notion that all knowledge is acquired by reason for this left no room for the ego to explore, actually to create, reality. But indisposed to abandon reason altogether they made room for the human faculty of imagination. Reason ascertains the existence of facts while the imagination discerns the meaning about facts. But the imagination had the upper hand, such that Fichte could say, “All reality is produced purely by the imagination.” The real substance of imagination (for Schleiermacher it is “intuition,” for Freud it is “ego”) is therefore cognitive; but cognitive not only in the empirical sense, but to an even greater extent in the metaphysical meaning. It is through imagination that real knowledge of all things is realized.

Romanticism was thought to indicate the coming end of the enlightened idea of progress and the end of the anti-metaphysical mood in Europe. But unfortunately the new program only served to lead men further away from God. Despite’s Kant’s stress on recovering the numinous realm most men of the period sought the sacred world of salvation in the inner self—the world of feeling and subjectivity. Theirs’ was a search for the infinite in the finite.

The great Romantic poet/painter William Blake captured the Romantic preoccupation with religious introspection.

To see a world in a grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

The obsession with the inner-world of self as a vehicle for recapturing religious sentiment set off a spiritual and psychological evolutionary spiral downward. Just fifteen years after David’s The Battle of the Romans and the Sabines (1799), in which there is not a drop of blood, Francisco Goya eclipsed the austere idealization of the classical past in The Third of May 1808 (1814). The face of the Madrilenos’ martyrs now lying soaked in their own blood spoke for the new attitude in Europe. Belief in the potential of man to advance Europe on the heels of the French Revolution had turned to widespread feeling of helplessness and horror in the face of man’s inhumanity to man.

It is said that gaiety marked the late nineteenth century; indeed, a revived sense of optimism appeared before World War I. Nonetheless, beneath the surface a growing disenchantment continued to gain momentum throughout the West. Though the industrial revolution in both Europe and in America brought scientific and technological progress that made life easier, scores of people were uneasy. The gleeful world of belle epoque (beautiful age) of Paris was more and more suspected as a mere façade hiding people’s quite desperation. The growing loss of hope for the future kicked off a compliment of movements in painting that functioned as a forum for the search for meaning in the face of human forlornness. Ignited by the birth of Romanticism, there was Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Neo-Plasticism, culminating in Cubism around the start of World War I. Unfortunately the story of Modern Art is a quirk of irony. The more men wrestled with the meaning of life the more their center slipped farther into the abyss of meaninglessness.

Very soon after World War 1, Irish poet, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), captured the human concession to hopelessness in The Second Coming.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

By the early twentieth century Munch’s The Scream (1910) became a metaphor for the outlook in the West. Munch had captured man’s greatest fear: not of death but of living. In the end, the bold period of progress promised by the Romantic worldview was not satisfied, just as the promises of progress made by the Enlightenment before it had failed.

Why did Romanticism fail? Why so much despair? The deeper men looked into themselves for meaning and for God, the more they discovered the very ugliness for which Christ died. Having discarded the historical Jesus for an extension of their inner-ego, which they called “God,” they formed a deep pit from which they could not rescue themselves. Forlornness is the unfortunate blow awaiting anyone that dares to gaze into his inner-man without the grace of God.

It has been said many times that the age in which we now live is a continuation of the radical progressives who fueled the Enlightenment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Now in the twenty-first century, we are the progenitors of Romanticism and its blending of reason and imagination. The cultural mood of the West is not conditioned by the atheism championed by Candide but by Johan Gottlob Fichte’s quest for the freeing of the cosmic consciousness.

Many Westerners, including theologians and philosophers, speak of an objective world, but only insofar as it serves as the sphere of the ego’s freedom. The real starting point of modern-day liberalism is not the encyclopedists and the philosophes but the members of the Sturm und Drang.

Contrary to popular held belief Europe is not a culture of postmodern thought, if we are to define “postmodern” as a mindset in direct opposition to religion. Rather, the postmodern mind in Europe is increasingly open to the practice of spirituality on a number of different levels. Europe, and following on its heels, America, may be post-Christian, but they are not post-religious. Far from being secular and anti-religion the future world is one in which hyper-religious movements will flourish.

The difference now, so it is said, is that metaphysics is no longer in vogue. But “biblical” metaphysics were not in vogue during the historic period of nineteenth-century Romanticism. The infinite beyond was a cover for the cosmic ego. Postmodern thinkers who claim no interest in metaphysics are merely Romantics who have now decided to come clean. I call them “Neo-Romantics.” Today, most Christian colleges, universities, and Divinity Schools in both America and Europe encourage a form of Christianity that places the radical ego at the center.

Despite the claim that all theological reflection ought to begin with Jesus of Nazareth, I cannot help but think that some theologians make this claim out of their own individual social, political, and cultural awareness. Today, theological ideas are so unpretentiously expressed in familiar language interwoven with the common biblical vernacular, God-speak, and spiritual insights that the agnostic, radical underpinnings of religious viewpoints are ignored.

If in fact the West (and also Africa and Asia), is not post-religious, but post-Christian, then people are hungry for answers of a religious nature. This means that Protestant theology must do better. The Christian theologian must see this hunger as the urgency of the moment and address it biblically: according to the true hope and promise of cultural and social progress that only Jesus can deliver. But one thing will not work: biblical and theological answers that are cut from the same scrap of cloth that is soaked in the despair of the age, whereby the best we can do is to muster “the courage to be.” The need of the hour is for the Church to take its place in the culture; to take a prophetic stand and to call nations to a “lively hope” (1 Pet. 1:3); to faith and obedience; to a life with Jesus that Paul distills as “faith working itself out through love” (Gal. 5:6).

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