In my last post, I distinguished myself from the cultish Christians who pledge allegiance to doctrines and schemes rather than to the man Christ. Lately, and coinciding with my study of the development of Germany before the first world war, I’ve been thinking of an even broader way of slicing the pie. Might we consider these cultish Christians as children of the enlightenment – rationalists in their own right?
My study of Germany requires me to face hard questions about the relationship of romanticism and nationalism and the role they’ve played in responding to Enlightenment rationalism. The “enlightened” leaders like Frederick the Great or Napoleon, look at nations like machines. These “rational” men survey raw material left over from the backwards superstition of the middle ages and build slick, well-oiled machines out of it; machines designed for conquest and wealth generation. There are different strands of these rationalists though. Some want to build different machines; but they all want to build machines.
The Romantics, on the other hand, saw nations as thriving, living, organisms. Unfortunately, the Romantics were, themselves, children of the Enlightenment, even if unruly and disobedient ones. It’s only the Christian Romantics who are positioned to do battle with the Enlightenment rationalism of a Napoleon.
While working through a German history course from UC Berkeley, the professor suggested E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story “the Sandman” as an excellent example of German romanticism. The story has been debated and reviewed by everyone from Sir. Walter Scott to Freud. I read the Sandman last night and agree that Hoffmann is a typical Romantic, but like Sir. Walter Scott, whose criticisms are infamous, I get the feeling Hoffmann ought to have laid off his opium before writing.
The story is so ambiguous I might be charged with reading into it my own inclinations, but it seems to me Hoffmann was, in his own morbid way, trying to show how harmful unfettered rationalizing can be. If you haven’t read it, the main character was obsessed with childhood stories he heard about the Sandman (who gobbles up children) and one evening catches his father performing some alchemy experiments. He equates his father’s alchemy accomplice with the monster. Years later, while studying to be a scientist, he sees the accomplice again which sets off a series of events which ends in madness. There’s a stark contrast throughout between the main character’s gloomy flights of metaphysics and his love interest Clara, a woman who loves life and is firmly rooted in it.
Clara had the vivid fancy of a cheerful, unembarrassed child; a deep, tender, feminine disposition; an acute, clever understanding. Misty dreamers had not a chance with her; since, though she did not talk – talking would have been altogether repugnant to her silent nature – her bright glance and her firm ironical smile would say to them: ‘Good friends, how can you imagine that I shall take your fleeting shadowy images for real shapes imbued with life and motion ?’
I gather the Romantics had something like a pantheistic view of the world, where one’s connection with nature is intimate and internal. We are all gods if only we might recognize our oneness with the nature we inhabit. Clara, here, is closer to nature and manages to tame (at least for awhile) the grotesque speculations of her lover. But will this form of Romanticism save us?
The rationalist Sandman and all his cultish, hyper rational, minions, be they Napoleons, Evangelical Christians, White Nationalist intellects, or whatever – they’re creaking up the stairs and heading for our bedrooms. The Romantics will tie themselves closer and closer to nature, degrading the image of God in their attempt to blend in and hide from the minions. There’s no help there.
It’s only the Christian Romantic who’ll be left standing against the Sandman. He doesn’t rest in an impersonal nature. He rests in the hand of God.