Romanticism, the Nones, and the Future of Christianity
Among other things, this semester I am teaching an undergrad course of my own devising, Love & Romanticism. I taught it once before, in that ill-fated semester of 2020 when C0VID blew the whistle on teaching halfway through the semester and we all went home and online. Until that dreadful day, it had been the best course I’d ever taught—and the most enjoyable. The students were spectacular. It was not all that enjoyable once we went online, certainly not due to the students, but because of the weirdness and uncertainty of the times. So I was happy to have another go at it this semester.
Behold! The reading list:
W. H. Auden and Norman Holmes Peterson (ed.), The Portable Romantic Poets (Penguin, 1950)
William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience (Oxford, 1970)
John Keats, Selected Letters, ed. Robert Gittings, rev. Jon Mee (Oxford, 2002)
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Shaun Whiteside, ed. Michael Tanner (Penguin, 1993)
Novalis, Hymns to the Night, trans, Dick Higgins (McPherson, 1988)
Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies & The Sonnets to Orpheus, trans, Stephen Mitchell (Vintage, 1998)
Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry
Vladimir Solovyov, The Meaning of Love (Lindisfarne, 1985)
We also look at two films: Bright Star, directed by Jane Campion and based on the love affair between John Keats and Fanny Brawne (much of the dialogue comes directly from Keats’s poetry and letters) and Wim Wenders’s masterpiece Wings of Desire. We also consider bits from Hans Jurgen von Syberberg’s epic and imaginative treatment of Wagner’s Parsifal as an ancillary text to Nietzsche.
The course starts with Solovyov’s Meaning of Love so we can start thinking about what love is. As with many things in human existence, we often think we know what love is; but, on serious consideration, we find that maybe we don’t after all. Then we proceed through the English Romantics—Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Robert Burns and John Clare—before returning to the Germans—Nietzsche, Wagner, Rilke, and Wenders.
Admittedly, this is an unconventional way to teach Romanticism to undergrad English majors—but consider the source! We also get to talk about Jacob Boehme’s influence on Romanticism, Sophiology (because you can’t talk about Boehme or Novalis or Blake without doing so), Gnosticism, and the various other flowerings of Romanticism (which is where Rilke comes in—and I sprinkle in some Yeats, Milosz, Robert Kelly’s sublime “The Heavenly Country” and so forth).
Milosz’s wonderful “On Angels” as presented by Kathryn Oliver. Romanticism sit!
I’ve written a fair amount about Romanticism in the past, including an essay in The Midwest Quarterly, a section of The Submerged Reality, and on this blog. And recently I had a great conversation about Sophia in Exile with the wonderful Piers Kaniuka which had Romanticism as one of its main themes. It’s a subject I can’t keep away from, for, in my estimation, Romanticism is a kindred spirit to Sophiology.
This week, my class finished our section on William Blake, having covered Novalis the week before. It is impossible to read either Novalis or Blake without talking about Christianity, as idiosyncratic as their iterations of it are. But, being a guy whose iteration of Christianity is also pretty idiosyncratic, I’m just the man for the job.
Many of my college students come from families where no one really professes a religious allegiance, though they might be called “culturally Christian” in the way that the families of Ann Frank and Simone Weil were considered “culturally Jewish” in the early 20th century. Some come from “spiritual but not religious” backgrounds, some have atheist parents, and, to be sure, some also come from religiously observant families, but not many. This group of students is not different.
But I had a pleasant surprise this week.
After class yesterday, one young woman from the course came to my office about her research project for the year. We talked about her plan, but we—actually she—also talked about what is happening with her generation. “After class I was talking to Bridget,” she told me, “and we think that people our age really want a religion—or something like religion—because we know it’s missing from our lives. That’s why we love talking about Novalis and Blake. Blake is my guy! But we don’t see anything like that available to us in the various forms of Christianity out there. Where is it?” The week before another student had told me that she thought the lockdowns and madness of the past two years have had at least one good unintended consequence—they’ve made some people in her age group more thoughtful, more preoccupied with “the Life Questions” (my words, not hers), more interested in reading and looking for meaning. I told them about John Vervaeke’s lecture series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis and about my own work in Sophiology that is nothing if not invested in addressing this crisis by proposing a genuine engagement with the Real. And it’s not only this random selection of college undergrads. I hear from people almost weekly who have discovered my work to their great relief at finding that meaning still has meaning in this cold and technocratic environment.
Unfortunately, I don’t place much trust in the institutional churches as places in which such souls will find a home. Even though I wrote in The Submerged Reality that the “noble failure” of the Romantics was due to their seeming inability to ground their Romanticism in tradition or the established churches (though Franz von Baader gave it a shot), the Church of This Our Age is more or less crumbling along with all of the other institutions—in education, in economics, in government—and does not seem to me to be up to the task of welcoming these idealistic spirits in a way that will not smother the spark that moves them. I cannot help but think that Jacques Derrida was right when he proposed the possibility of “a religion without religion.” As we read in Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” this week:
We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro’ the Eye,
Which was born in a Night to perish in a Night,
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light.
God appears and God is Light,
To those poor souls who dwell in Night,
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of Day.
Or, as the great Jamaican Romantics Bob Marley and Peter Tosh would have it:
You see, most people think
Great God will come from the sky
Take away everything
And make everybody feel high
But if you know what life is worth
You would look for yours on earth
And now you see the light
You stand up for your rights
As I’ve written before, just as the German and English Romantics were rejecting the cold and anti-human values of the Enlightenment (what a misnomer!) and the Scientific Revolution, so there will be thinkers, poets, artists, politicians, and yes, scientists, who will reject The Great Reset, the Metaverse, and the scientism (“I’m not religious; I believe in science!”) of our times. It’s happened before—and not just in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s happened with the Celtic Twilight, with Rilke, with Milosz, with Apollinaire, with T. S. Eliot, and there were whispers of it in the idealism of the sixties, and in the New Romantics of the 80s. Romanticism, that is, is always/already happening.
So the students in this course, rather unexpectedly, have given me a greater hope for the future. And they are not outliers. As Thomas Vaughan writes in his bombastic introduction to The Fame and Confession of the Fraternity of R.C., commonly, of the Rosie Cross, “the School-men have got the Day, not by Weight but by Number,” we Romantics might say that the technocrats, likewise, have the day, not by weight but by number. Number, data, is all a technocrat understands. Some understand more of reality, and it is to them the future of Christianity belongs.
A performance of “Jerusalem” that brought ol' Professor Martin nearly to tears
Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.