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"Christian" Romanticism

By P. Andrew Sandlin
Published May 1, 2008

Roots — Romanticism was an artistic phenomenon that spread over Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It affected different countries at different times and even influenced America by means of England. Romanticism in literature and other art forms was a reaction to what it perceived as the cold, structured, scholastic “neo-classical” art forms of the eighteenth century. We of the English-speaking world are most acquainted with the Romanticism of English writers like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. Romantic literature is marked by the exaltation of the individual and his feelings (as opposed to his reason); experimentation with new literary forms; a fascination with nature; use of the more common and less elitist forms of expression; and obsession with the bizarre and supernatural and demonic.

Heavy traces of Romanticism survive in modern culture, and religiously they were manifested markedly in parts of Protestant liberalism; they survive today in the conservative wing of Protestantism, including Pentecostalism, Fundamentalism, and Evangelicalism.

THE SIMILARITIES

Modern Christianity resembles Romanticism to a striking degree. It is a movement characterized largely by a stress on individualism and feeling and a reaction against reason and what it perceives as cold rationalism. Like European Romanticism it distrusts elitism and intentionally appeals to common people. In many instances it is stamped by an undue concern for supernatural signs, wonders, visions, and subjective “leadership of the Spirit”-thereby possessing a “sanitized” similarity to the romantic obsession with the supernaturalistic and bizarre.

Infatuation with youth — A characteristic of Romanticism to which this essay pertains, however, is its infatuation with youth or the idea of primeval life. The romantics generally believed that age was spoiled by human institutions, and that if we could just tap the mind and resources of children we could restore to life what it really means to be human. Romantics seemed to overlook the ignorance of youth and stressed rather its innocence.

Similarly, conservatives are consistently looking back wistfully and longingly at their early Christian life. Often they are convinced that the period of greatest joy in their Christian life was immediately after their conversion. Because they believe they do not possess in the present the joy they once possessed, they are convinced that they lost some element of spirituality in the intervening period. Conservative preachers exhort their listeners to “come back” to where they once were spiritually. Defined as a restoration of the joy, enthusiasm and dedication of the early Christian life, revival is a common theme of conservative preaching. Those newly converted are held up as examples to older and more mature saints who have somehow grown colder and whose enthusiasm does not quite measure up to that of the recently saved. This romantic element is manifested further in the back-to-basics theme so prevalent today (“Things are getting too complex in our churches; we just need to get back to the ABC’s”).

The worship of immaturity — The problem here is not with the preacher’s calling God’s people to repent of their sin; the Bible is full of examples of that practice. The problem in conservative romanticism is, rather, that spiritual restoration is tied so closely to the early Christian life, that is, to the time of spiritual immaturity. The exhortation to or desire for a return to spiritual youth and “the ABC’s” of the Christian life is directly antithetical to the Biblical message, however. Indeed, Paul chided the Corinthians for their spiritual immaturity; the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews likewise rebuked those believers because they had failed after so long in the Christian Faith to manifest the marks of spiritual adulthood. In modern conservatism spiritual youth is romanticized; in Scripture, it is lamented, especially when Christians’ physical age far exceeds their spiritual growth.

A defective view of the Christian life — I am convinced that conservatives are so enthralled with spiritual youth because they have a defective view of the Christian life. To many of them, at least, the Christian life is a cycle consisting of obedience, backsliding, spiritual revival, obedience, and so forth. They need a good “revival” every once in a while (and remember that revival is equated with earlier periods in their Christian life) and when they experience a “revival,” they will be set-at least until they need another let-me-get-back-to-that-infant-enthusiasm “revival.”

But if they just understood that spiritual growth, rather than “revival,” is the normal Christian walk and the means of sanctification, they would quickly jettison the maudlin obsession with their spiritual childhood.

Liabilities of immaturity — To Paul, spiritual youth is fraught with pitfalls, ignorance, divisiveness, pride, and jealousy (I Cor. 3). It is a state of life perhaps inevitable for those newly converted, but reprehensible to those saved for any significant period. Undoubtedly what makes spiritual immaturity so attractive to modern conservatives is the euphoria and enthusiasm with which it is accompanied. When adults are converted they frequently experience joy because of their awareness of emancipation from the bondage of sin and because of their overwhelming sense of ecstasy in their new relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Contrary to conservative opinion, however, this enthusiasm, proper though it is, is no index of spirituality. Arguably, at root what many of the romantic-minded Christians are really looking for in the return to spiritual youth is good feelings that accompany the period immediately following conversion (it may be recalled that intensity of feeling was another chief characteristic of Romanticism).

Just as in a hearty, protracted marital relationship, love between spouses consists less in the euphoric feelings of dating and engagement than in the security of commitment and quiet confidence of companionship, so spirituality of the Christian life should be measured not in terms of intense feeling but in certain commitment to Christ evidenced by obedience to his word (2 Jn. 6 ).

Impatience — It just so happens, though, that modern conservatives, like most modern Westerners, are not exactly thrilled with the patience required for quiet, progressive growth. They want good feelings, and they want those feelings now. They “lost that lovin’ feelin’,” and must recover the enthusiasm (or weepiness) associated in their minds with their immediate post-conversion life.

If the Christian life is understood as a period of patient progressive sanctification, nonetheless, restoration of spiritual immaturity is not merely undesirable but retrogressive, i.e., going in the wrong direction spiritually. When believers “go away from God,” they need spiritual growth, not its opposite,which is spirituality immaturity. They need to recognize the requirements of the word of God and comply with those requirements. They don’t need the tingly enthusiasm associated with spiritual immaturity.

Cult of youth — Just as a characteristic of Romanticism was the belief that youth was a period of sincerity in which clear eyes unclouded by adult prejudices is the ideal, so the Christian romantics believe that somehow those recently converted possess a pure sincerity in devotion necessarily eroded by time in more mature believers. If the Bible is true, however, that simply cannot be. In those who are truly saved Christ operates ineluctably (Phil. 1:6). Since the Christian romantics often do not recognize the doctrine of progressive sanctification, they must appeal to the “revival” of spirituality.

Romantic evangelism — I should not avoid mentioning, in addition, that Christian romanticism is often related to defective views of evangelism. In churches in which the convicting operation of the Holy Spirit is circumvented in favor of techniques manipulating human emotions and will, we may naturally expect false conversions, and among unbelievers nonetheless convinced of their conversion there can be no genuine spiritual growth; therefore, they are often urged to somehow recover now-dormant feelings immediately following their supposed conversion experience. In other words, Christian Romanticism is a technique for giving false assurance to specious believers.

More importantly, it is a pernicious mood that should be strenuously avoided.


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