The Pen

The Perils of Religious Romanticism

It is not often that a polemical article of this quality and caliber finds its way into the press, but Bruce Davidson has done exactly that in the American Thinker. We encourage you to read this excellent article on the influence of Romanticism in our modern Christian culture, and share it. 


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 sermonhe 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.
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