by Anthony Costello
Hier sitz ich, forme MenschenJohan Wolfgang von Goethe, Prometheus
Nach meinem Bilde,
Ein Geschlecht, das mir gleich sei,
Zu leiden, zu weinen,
Zu genießen und zu freuen sich,
Und dein nicht zu achten,
Here I sit, fashioning men
In my own image,
A race after my likeness,
A race that will suffer and weep,
And rejoice and delight with heads held high
And heed Your will no more
Romanticism: The Replacement Religion
In the throes of the Enlightenment’s rational critique of religion, it was 18th and 19th century “Romantics” who made the most immediate and influential attempt to moderate the human experience of phenomenal existence. Philosopher-poets like Goethe and Schiller on the European continent and Shelley, Wordsworth and Blake in England sought a means to ground anew that transcendent impulse in man, which had hitherto been the provenance of religion, in particular Christianity. However, this attempt to salvage some form and meaning to a humanity too fragile to survive the cold, harsh scrutiny of the natural sciences and emerging materialism, sought equally to unmoor itself from the constraints of revealed religion with its dogmatic metaphysics and moral injunctions.
For the Romantics, the grounding for a new transcendence was located in a universal sense of awe at the majesty of nature and time and in man’s capacity to give expression to that sense. Artistic endeavor, therefore, became for this new spirituality the medium through which man could pull himself up by his bootstraps and be saved from the terror of meaninglessness existence and moral cruelty. Charles Taylor summarizes the new transcendence of the Romantics when he speaks of Schiller and Goethe’s
attempt to find a weighty enough meaning to life in human terms, within the agent, and within nature. One form in which this came to be defined…was through an ideal of harmonious unity. This would be both like and unlike Plato’s: the crucial difference is that it would not involve rising beyond or sublimating ordinary natural desires. But operating fully in their ordinary forms, as sexual love, or enjoyment of beautiful surroundings, they would be transfigured by the sense of their higher significance.Taylor, A Secular Age, 313.
Discerning the “harmonious unity” between man’s “true nature” and the external rhythms of the cosmos and exploring how man could articulate this harmony in new and variegate ways has, since the 18th century, operated as a form of religion– a stand-in for the historically contingent religions1 According to the Romantics themselves of Judaism and Christianity. For the Romantics, recognizing natural beauty, to include the beauty of those desires and longings natural to us, and expressing that beauty in creative action, or what Schiller called Spiel (play), is what would allow men to exceed the limits of institutional faiths, knowing more fully man’s true purpose, as well as a developing a deeper moral sense.2 Taylor, 313. It would be poetry, or aesthetic undertaking more generally, that would be the key for future societies to both experience pleasure and improve ethically.3 see Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 142.
Romanticism, therefore, in spite of its hopeful humanism and high-mindedness, must be seen as ultimately in competition with a biblical and historic Christianity. One should strive to understand, therefore, in what way this is the case, for our culture has been shaped dramatically by these thinkers and their successors. One might ask the question then, “if Christianity is true (which it is), then theologically what is going on here?”
Human Creativity and The Great Exchange
In his discourse with Antonius Pius, Melito of Sardis explains how in the act of giving form to matter, man falls into spiritual error. In speaking of those who bring bags of gold to artisans so that the gold can be shaped into an image, the church father says:
This also is evident, that it is the workmanship of their fellowmen that they worship: for they do not worship the treasures while they are laid by in the bag, but when the artists have fashioned images out of them they worship them; neither do they worship the gold or the silver considered as property, but when the gravers have sculptured them then they worship them.Melito of Sardis, Discourse with Antonius Pius (circa 170 AD)
Melito goes on to ask why men would worship the metallic image of an animal as opposed to just the actual animal itself,
Senseless man to what addition has been made to thy gold, that now thou worshippest it? If it is because it has been made to resemble a winged animal, why dost thou not worship the winged animal itself?
For Melito, it is not the gold itself he thinks is being worshiped, i.e. the “material cause,” nor is it the actual animal, here a bird, which is being represented. It is not even the artisan himself, i.e. the “efficient cause.” Rather, it is the form, that is the formal cause or “what-it-is-to-be,” which has been imagined by the creative agent and which appears to be the “object” of reverence. It is reverence, therefore, not for the tangible thing itself, but for the very capability or capacity of the artisan to bring something new into existence from that which preexists.
What Melito seems to have in view is the admiration we give to man’s own power of the mind to form unformed things, not unlike the Spirit who gave shape to that which was formless and void. (Gen. 1:1) Could it be, then, that it is man’s technique that occasions his idolatry and not the image or physical structure of the idol itself?
It is this constructing act of man, this exercising of his capacity to create and build, where the temptation to see oneself as if one was the Creator, seems to occur. Jaques Ellul, the French sociologist and theologian, saw in this act of creation a fundamental rejection of God when he describes Cain. Cain, the first murderer and the first builder of the city, no longer recognizes that his creative capacity is derivative from God–a communicable attribute in the theological register. Instead, Cain, the blood-stained maker of human habitats, loses sight of the fact that everything he shapes into a new form was itself made through the Logos: through Christ. Cain, in his unrepentant sin, sees only himself as the terminus ad quem of the creative process.
For in Cain’s eyes it is not a beginning again, but a beginning. God’s creation is seen as nothing. God did nothing, and in no case did he finish anything. Now a start is made, and it is no longer God beginning, but man. And thus Cain, with everything he does, digs a little deeper the abyss between himself and God.Jaques Ellul, The Meaning of the City, 6.
The things created then become objects of worship not because they are of this thing or that thing, just as a city is not a representation of this or that, but because of the creative mind of man that generated their form. Man is now understood exclusively as homo faber, for whom “by Cain’s act God became the one no longer adequate for the life, the will, the thought of man.4 Ellul, 6. As such, in every contemporary act of the creative intellect and will, there is the ancient opportunity to reject the very Maker of intellect and will, and, instead, to see only oneself; a temptation that would seem to sum up much of Nietzsche’s thought and reflect Goethe’s artistic intent in his poem “Prometheus.”
Of course, for others like Shelley, the source of artistic creation could not just be the will of man itself, but had to be some higher power. For the English Romantic it was the impersonal, yet raw power of nature that inspired the artist, a power that played the artist like an “Aeolian lyre.”5 See Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 139-140. Shelley and Goethe were in this sense not yet to the point of where Nietzsche would end up. Nevertheless, if Nietzsche turned man into a god in virtue of his creative power, the Romantics at least turned man into a high priest mediating between this immanent source of creative power and society at large:
For Shelley the poet therefore has a priestlike status in the way that he helps put members of society back in touch with reality. The poet does not simply describe the world in a metrical form of language with a view to stirring up the same emotional response in his audience that he himself has experienced. He does something much more significant: he enables the audience to see beyond the ephemeral particulars of life to a much deeper reality, a deeper unity.Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 140-141
And here we see another example of the “great exchange” that St. Paul warns us about in Romans 1:18-32. For man, in rejecting the Creator, begins to worship the creation. Shelley, Schiller and Goethe in rejecting the uncreated and eternal Creator, in particular the Creator’s creative power, place that power in the natural world itself, a power that arises mysteriously, without explanation, out of the depths of forgotten time. This pantheistic turn allows them to preside in the service of an abstract creative force or energy and, as Ellul points out, dig the abyss a little deeper between the God who made man and man who makes things.6 Ellul, The Meaning of the City, 6.
Bezalel son of Huri and Oholiab son of Ahismach: God’s Chosen Artists
The Lord spoke to Moses: ‘Look, I have appointed by name Bezalel son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with God’s Spirit, with wisdom, understanding, and ability in every craft to design artistic works…I have also selected Oholiab son of Ahismach, of the tribe of Dan, to be with him…Exodus 31:1-5ff
It will be a matter of severe spiritual importance to whom man ascribes his creative powers: to God, to nature, or to himself. In Exodus 31, we are shown that creativity and the power to create is not in itself evil. However, if misunderstood as emerging solely from impersonal natural forces, or from the human will alone, then two dangers ensue: first, like Shelley, man sees himself as a priest in the service of a false god, or, like Nietzsche, as a god himself. Second, his creative efforts and their productions, their final cause, will not ultimately serve the right purpose. They will be defective if they are not created in service to the Creator of both man and matter.
But art is not lost to man. There is a way for man’s technique to be redeemed, if he would only see it in light of His Creator. Chosen men, like Bezalel and Oholiab, endowed with talent and given a form of things to build YHWH’s tabernacle were commissioned to create art, an art for the sake of Israel, for the sake of the well-being of the corporate body, and an art “soli deo gloria.”7 J.S. Bach, often called “The Fifth Evangelist” ended each of his compositions with these words. Their wills were not bent, incurvatus, toward their own glory, but submitted in gratitude to the Will of the One who made them and their creative power.
And so art can be a very fruitful endeavor, one not only alluring in form, as many of the Romantics’ own writings were, but that also point to man’s proper end, his true telos: unity not with mysterious nature, but with nature’s mysterious Maker. And so the sons of Huri and Ahismach were precursors to the sons of Harmen and Johann Ambrosius8 Rembrandt and Bach’s fathers, respectively, whose work was formed to bring alive not just the human spirit but inspired men to turn toward the Spirit of God.
- 1According to the Romantics themselves
- 2Taylor, 313.
- 3see Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 142.
- 4Ellul, 6.
- 5See Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 139-140.
- 6Ellul, The Meaning of the City, 6.
- 7J.S. Bach, often called “The Fifth Evangelist” ended each of his compositions with these words.
- 8Rembrandt and Bach’s fathers, respectively