Hier sitz ich, forme Mensche
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
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Prometheus”
Romanticism: The Replacement Religion
In the throes of the Enlightenment’s rationalist critique of religion, 18th and 19th century “Romantics” made the most cogent attempt to moderate humanity’s existential crisis. Philosopher-poets like Goethe and Schiller on the European continent and Shelley, Wordsworth and Blake in England sought a means to ground the transcendent impulse in man. This deep longing for transcendence had always been the provenance of religion, in particular Christianity. Now, however, modern Europeans found this no longer tenable.
These and other artists attempted to salvage some form and meaning for a humanity too fragile to survive the cold, harsh scrutiny of the natural sciences and emerging philosophical atheism. At the same time, they sought to unmoor human life from the constraints of revealed religion with its dogmatic metaphysics and apodictic, moral injunctions.
For the Romantics, this new transcendence was grounded in a universal sense of awe at the majesty of nature and the vastness of time, as well as 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. Through art man might be saved from the terror of meaninglessness existence and moral cruelty.
Charles Taylor summarizes this Romantic undertaking 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
Since the 18th century especially, 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 operated as a form of religion. Romanticism has acted as a substitute for the historically contingent religions, according to the Romantics themselves, of Judaism and Christianity.
Poetry and Art as the Vehicle for the New Religion
For the Romantics, recognizing natural beauty, to include the beauty of desires and longings natural to us, and expressing that beauty in creative action, or what Schiller called Spiel (play), is what allows men to exceed the limits of institutional faith. Creative expressions of nature are what allow us to know more fully man’s true purpose. Finally, this undertaking allows us to develop a deeper moral sense (see Taylor, 313). The mechanism of this new humanist project is poetry, or aesthetic undertaking more generally. Aesthetics would be the key for future societies to both experience pleasure on the one hand, while improving ethically on the other (see Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 142).
Romanticism, therefore, with its hopeful humanism and high-mindedness, is ultimately in competition with a biblical and historic Christianity that demands metaphysical commitments and has its own moral injunctions. As such, one might ask in what way this is the case. After all, Western culture has been shaped dramatically by these thinkers and their successors. One might formulate some questions to answer:
- If Christianity is true (which it is), then theologically what is going on in the minds of the Romantics (the poets, not the rock band)?
- Is there something about human creativity itself, especially an expressed creativity, that can lead us away from God?
- Is Art a blessing to embrace or a temptation to avoid?
Melito of Sardis on Human Creativity
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
Melito goes on. He asks: why do men 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 does he believe it is the actual animal, here a bird, which is being represented by the craftsman. It is not even the artisan himself, i.e. the efficient cause of the image. Rather, it is the form, i.e., the formal cause or the what-it-is-to-be, that is conceived of in the mind of the creative agent which becomes the “object” of reverence. It is reverence, therefore, not for the tangible thing itself, but for the very capability, capacity or power of the artisan to bring something new into existence from that which preexists.
Melito seems to have in view the admiration we give to man’s own power of the mind to form unformed things. This is not unlike the Spirit of God, who gave shape to that which was formless and void at the beginning of creation (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?
Man’s Godlike Power to Create
It is in this constructing act of man, this exercising of his given capacity to create and build, where the temptation to see oneself as if one was the Creator, occurs. Jaques Ellul, the French sociologist and theologian, saw in this act of creating a fundamental rejection of God. He takes Cain as an example of this spiritual exchange.
Cain, the first murderer and the first builder, no longer recognizes that his creative capacity is derivative from God–a “communicable attribute” in theological register. Instead, Cain, the blood-stained maker of the first city, loses sight of the fact that everything he shapes into a new form was itself made through the Logos, i.e., through Christ. In his unrepentant sin, Cain sees 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 become objects of worship. This is not because they are of this thing or that thing, just as a city is not a representation of any particular thing. They become objects of worship because it is 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 (Ellul, City, 6).
Thus, in every subsequent act of the creative intellect and will, there is the ancient opportunity to reject the very Maker of Intellect and Will. With every such act, there is the occasion, instead of recognizing the Creator, to recognize only oneself. This occasion, this moment of temptation, seems to get at the heart of much of Nietzsche’s thought on the human will, as well as reflect Goethe’s artistic intent in poems like “Prometheus.” In that poem, the artist sits fashioning beings in his own image, the work of the poet’s own creative powers. And those creations, like the artist himself, will have no need of God or His pesky will for man.
What About a ‘Higher Power?’
Of course, for poets like Shelley and Goethe (unlike Nietzsche), the source of artistic creation could not only be the will of man. Rather, it had to be some kind of higher power that inspired man’s will and sensibilities. For the English Romantic, it was the impersonal yet raw power of nature that inspired the artist. Nature itself played the artist like an “Aeolian lyre” (See Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 139-140). Shelley and Goethe were in this sense not yet so far as 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.
Trueman, Rise and Triumph, 140-141
Here we see another example of the “great exchange” that St. Paul warns the church 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, ascribe that omnipotence to the natural world itself.
This power, according to the poets, emanates mysteriously, without explanation, out of the depths of forgotten time. This pantheistic turn allows the artist himself to preside in the service of an impersonal creative force or energy. In doing so, as Ellul points out, man digs the abyss between the God who made man and man who makes things that much deeper (Ellul, The Meaning of the City, 6).
Bezalel son of Huri and Oholiab son of Ahismach: Creativity in Service Of The Creator
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…
It is a matter of great spiritual importance to whom or what man ascribes his own 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 wrong or evil. However, if misunderstood as emerging solely from impersonal natural forces, or from the human will alone, two dangers ensue. First, like Shelley, man begins to see himself as a priest in the service of a false god, or, like Nietzsche, as a god himself. Second, man’s 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, and with His goals in mind.
But art is not lost on 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. This artistic undertaking was for the sake of Israel and for the sake of all who desired to know God. It was an art that honored God, edified His people and served human flourishing. This is not l’art pour l’art, or “art for art’s sake.” This is art for His sake, artistic endeavor that seeks to participate in the Divine project of creation and renewal.
J.S. Bach, often called “The Fifth Evangelist,” ended each of his compositions with these words “soli deo gloria,” and his music still captures and raptures us today. The will of the artist not bent– not incurvatus– toward his own glory, but submitted in gratitude to the Will of the One who made him and his creative power, will not only escape the temptation of self-glorification and idolatry, but add to the building of the Kingdom of God on earth.
Art can be a fruitful endeavor, one not only pleasing in form, as so much of the Romantics’ own poetry is, but that also points to man’s proper end, his true telos, which is not unity 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 Ambrosius, artists whose work brought alive not just the human spirit but inspired men to turn toward the Spirit of God.
Rijksmuseum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons