Archive for February, 2013

Romanticism & Christianity 5


John Martin, Eve presenting the forbidden fruit to Adam (c. 1825)

As I have been attempting to describe the aspirations and temper of the Romantic spirit, it has, I’m sure, become obvious that there are many complaints that might be made against it:

  • Its continual dreaming of the richer can look like a self-indulgent waste of time. How can it possibly be justified in a world of real needs?
  • Its reliance on mythical – that is to say rose-coloured or simply wrong – visions of other places, times and stages of life reveals a fundamental weakness. Why should we listen to its deluded paeans to noble savages, knights and damsels, heroic revolutions or golden summers of childhood?
  • Its vulnerability to the movements of fashion casts doubt on whether it really has any real object at all for its longings. Some romanticise the steam age, others the Middle Ages; others the Classical Era; others the 1950s or the American pioneers. Why should we trust the Romantic imagination when it is so easily attached to (and transferred between) these diverse objects?
  • Its failure in the area of relationships is painfully obvious. The romantic dream promises “happily ever after” with that perfect partner. What delivers is serial monogamy and an cycle of disenchantment. Hasn’t Romanticism been completely discredited on this point?

These charges might be levelled by any sensible observer. Yet for Christians there are additional reasons to be critical of Romanticism:

  • Romanticism typically underestimates the seriousness of sin and the world’s ruination. Christians know there never was an age of innocence after the Fall of our first parents. We cannot afford to tell ourselves lies about childhood or native peoples or political systems. Idealisations of nature, youth, love or culture are dangerous deceptions.
  • Romanticism misdiagnoses the problem. The heavy buden for humans comes not first from modernity, nor from our alienation from nature; it arises from our active rejection of God. We are not simply sad, but also bad. We are not simply dreamers but also schemers.
  • Romanticism is often pagan. It proceeds by taking some aspect of the created order or human existence and exalts it as the key to the good and meaningful life. For Christians this is mistaken and idolatrous – only God himself is worthy to occupy this central place in our hopes and dreams.

And yet the Romantic sensibility is not entirely wrong. If it fails to provide the right answers, it at least allows the right questions. Over the next few posts I will attempt to highlight some ways in which the hopes and dreams of Romanticism do correspond to the reality that the Bible describes.

romanticism – right about human longing

“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.

Genesis 3:4-6

One area where Romanticism, perhaps surprisingly, gets it right is in its restless search for a richer mode of existence. We might well be tempted to dismiss Romantic yearnings as a chasing after the wind or false gods (and they might be!). Yet it is important to notice that the Bible too depicts humans as restless, right from the start. The only reason the Serpent is able to trick Eve into eating the forbidden fruit is because it can offer her some good thing – wisdom/being like God – that she does not already have. This means that when we say that humans were made perfect or innocent, we should not think that they were made complete. Just as the world itself could be described as complete (Gen 2:1) yet still needing to be filled and subdued (Gen 1:28), so too humanity has an incompleteness of wisdom (and God-likeness – cf. Gen 3:22) that makes change and improvement desirable.

This possibility that humans might becoming still greater has been a reflection amongst theologians down the centuries. For Irenaeus of Lyons (d. c 202) humanity was created in a state of immaturity, needing to make a moral decision to grow up. Later Reformed theologians would make similar proposals by speaking of a covenant of works – suggesting that God offered Adam and Eve further blessings if they would trust and obey him.

Whether we agree with the way these doctrines speak of the fruits of obedience, they do seem to resonate with the Bible in regard to human nature. Right from the start, humans, who were made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26), were shown that there was still more that could be had. They could become still more like God. The question was whether they would seize this possibility – and thus make themselves God’s rivals – or trust him and remain (at least in this one area) unsatisfied until he should grant otherwise.

Of course we know how it turned out. We did take the fruit and we did become “like God”, but it brought us no true fulfilment. Our desire to have god-likeness without God himself turned a legitimate longing into covetous idolatry.

In future posts we will talk about how the coming of Jesus both undoes the disastrous misstep of humanity in this matter and fulfils the desire and potential of human nature. In the meantime we can see that the Romantic longing for a richer life is legitimate and unavoidable. To be human is to be, and desire to be, something great. What will we do with those desires is another matter.