The Perils of Religious Romanticism

Bruce W. Davidson

 

On January 2, about fifty thousand young adults gathered in Atlanta to participate in the Passion 2017 conference.  People outside evangelicalism might imagine something named “Passion” to be an event for romantic novelists or their fans, but it was actually a kind of religious pep rally.  The title typifies a significant religious shift of recent years, one turning away from doctrine and toward emotion – a kind of religious Romanticism.  Nowadays, numerous Christian books, conferences, and even churches bear the word “passion” in their titles.  In past eras, church people congregated to debate doctrinal and moral issues; now they hold events to celebrate their emotions.

The original Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century was basically a reaction against Enlightenment rationalism, with its elevation of science and cold rationality above everything else.  In opposition, the Romantics celebrated sensation, feeling, and aesthetics.  Adopting a therapeutic view of human existence, the Romantics often also held society to blame for mankind’s problems, not inborn sinful inclinations – the latter according with the historic view of Christianity.  Their optimistic view of human nature has undergirded much of the political agitation and clamor of subsequent times for radical change.

Though he did not really deal directly with Romanticism, the eighteenth-century American theologian Jonathan Edwards was driven to examine the problem of emotional excesses during the religious revivals of his time.  He became a determined opponent of irrational religious emotionalism, often speaking of passion as a wild, sinful abandonment of self-control, along with narcissism.  In one sermon he observes, “Men in the heat of their passion don’t keep themselves within the bounds of decency and good order.”

Likewise, an emotionally oriented outlook underlies much of the thinking and behavior of our own therapeutic age.  In its reaction against contemporary scientific rationalism, Postmodernism can be seen as one recent manifestation of Romanticism, as Gene Veith remarks.  Among Christians, that trend has taken the form of a rebellion against a focus on theology and an emphasis on religious experience.

This contemporary Christian phenomenon has many roots in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  For example, C.S. Lewis strongly reacted against the rationalism of his day and expressed his love for Romanticism in his review of Tolkien’s novel The Lord of the Rings, which he praised as a work of true Romanticism.  Both Tolkien and Lewis were Romantics who felt a strong attraction to the medieval world and were repelled by the anti-supernatural scientism of their time.  Though we owe great fiction and significant insights to these gifted writers, they sometimes allow feeling, imagination, and tradition to carry more weight than scriptural understanding and sound reasoning.

Lewis’s explicit Romanticism continues to influence the present day through the work of people like John Piper, chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary.  He has called Lewis a “romantic rationalist,” an oxymoron that still accurately describes Lewis.  In his book Desiring God, Piper puts forward his concept of “Christian hedonism” as an overarching motto for the Christian way of life.  He bases his idea on writers like Lewis and his own rather strained interpretation of biblical passages about the enjoyment of God.  In various books he reiterates terms like “passion” and “pleasure” to explain the essence of Christian experience.

In an age dominated by anti-religious rationalism, Lewis’s stance seems more understandable, but in our own pleasure-obsessed milieu, redefining Christianity in terms of hedonism makes a lot less sense.  As a consequence of his view, Piper tends to denigrate duty as a motivation for moral living and instead directs believers to base their Christian obedience on the pleasure principle.  However, the Bible nowhere denigrates duty or insists that ethical living be based always on enjoyment.  Moreover, the heart of Christian ethics has generally been recognized to be sanctifying love, not pleasure.

Some pitfalls of religious Romanticism become even more obvious in the writings of Ann Voskamp, author of the bestseller One Thousand Gifts.  Her book describes putative encounters with God couched in the language of sensual eroticism.  Reduced to a giver of romantic sensations, the deity of this book lacks transcendence, becoming simply a Presence within nature.  Similarly, many other popular religious writers and leaders nowadays trumpet their own experiences and mystical revelations, which often go unchallenged in the light of reasoning or scripture.

Many comprehend the evils of an irreligious, amoral, materialistic worldview but fail to see any threat in religious Romanticism.  However, when an emotion-based, nature-oriented worldview dominates religious thinking, the consequences can be dire.  Mark Musser has demonstrated how the cruel ideology of Nazism grew out of a pagan, nature-worshipping Romanticism.  In that way of thinking, the purification of the German natural environment required the elimination of defiling, alien human elements such as the Jews, leading ultimately to the Holocaust.  A similar extremism can be found among those environmentalists today who seriously entertain the idea of taking drastic measures to reduce human population in order to preserve the natural world.

By elevating them and exempting them from critical scrutiny, Romanticism makes intense emotions impossible to correct.  On top of that, feelings are changeable and volatile, so religious Romanticism can take people very far from sensible living, even into dangerous territory.  The history of the Western world from the advent of Romanticism makes this peril abundantly clear.  Religious leaders and writers would do well to encourage adherents, and especially the younger ones, not to make too much of their feelings and personal experiences, which the young already are often prone to do.

Bruce W. Davidson is a professor at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan and a contributor to the forthcoming Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia.

Used with the kind permission of Bruce W. Davidson and American Thinker.

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