A Faith That Feels

FOR MOST PEOPLE in Victorian Britain, Germany was a land of dark forests, romantic castles, and music boxes. The majority of the public was not yet fully aware of the controversial theories of German philosophers and biblical critics, but out of Germany had come a phenomenon that pervaded 19th-century culture: Romanticism.

Romanticism began in the 1780s and 90s as a reaction against the rationalistic universe of the Enlightenment. The German Romantic poet Novalis complained that the Enlightenment thinkers “were tirelessly busy cleaning the poetry off Nature, the earth, the human soul, and the branches of learning—obliterating every trace of the holy, discrediting by sarcasm the memory of all ennobling events and persons, and stripping the world of all colorful ornament.”

Rather than being a movement with a common code of beliefs, Romanticism was a mood, a way of looking at the world, a broad range of common concerns about how to understand knowledge and art. What unified all these new ideas was a fundamental shift in the climate of feeling and in attitudes toward emotion. Despite its secular manifestations, Romanticism in both Germany and England was primarily a religious phenomenon—a whole new way of understanding religious experience.

Truth tested on the pulses

The Evangelical Revival of the 18th century prepared the way for this transformation in England. (Its roots, in turn, were in German Pietism, one of several factors that set the stage for Romanticism in that country.) In reaction against the calm and pious rationality of the Church of England, John and Charles Wesley helped recover the lost emotional dimension of Christian faith. “Our souls o'erflow with pure delight,” wrote Charles. It is significant that, for him, this delight in response to God took the form of hymns—poetry. The proclamation that “joy” was at the heart of creativity foreshadowed the Romantic sensibility that would soon envelop the country.

"For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” said William Wordsworth, the writer most responsible for changing the climate of feeling in the first half of the 19th century. He did not merely assert the value of feeling—he showed it as a poet. After Wordsworth’s death, Matthew Arnold lamented, “But who, ah who, will make us feel?”

Known today in popular circles for such lines as “My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky” and “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” Wordsworth was for many Victorians preeminently a religious poet. He gave them an assurance of the overriding unity and wholeness in God’s creation that was lacking in a society passing through rapid social change. His poetry showed people once again how to feel a kinship with nature. Many Victorians received from it what they most wanted: a sense of belonging that could integrate head and heart. That truth could be tested “on the pulses” (in the words of another Romantic poet, John Keats) mattered to them quite as much as that it could be intellectually demonstrated.

Though some worried that Wordsworth came dangerously close to worshiping nature, there was always a tension in his writing between a love for the natural world itself and a longing for what lay beyond nature, a joy beyond human grasp—"something evermore about to be.” George MacDonald was perhaps the first Victorian critic to point out that this tension mirrored the classic Christian paradox of God as both immanent in nature and transcendent over and beyond it. He called Wordsworth’s point of view “Christian pantheism.”

Poetic Christianity

Wordsworth’s close friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge has earned a place among the great English poets for such classic works as “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” But in the 19th century, his reputation was based mainly on his theological writings. Coleridge articulated a Christian understanding of the imagination that influenced generations of later thinkers.

Like Wordsworth and many other Romantic thinkers, Coleridge was a Unitarian for a while—and like them, turned against that tradition. Unitarianism as a religion of Reason allowed no room for the imagination and satisfied none of the cravings of the soul. Moreover, he grew to see God not as a pantheistic presence but as a transcendent Creator, immanent in the world of nature and human psychology, but simultaneously standing over against that world in judgment.

Coleridge saw his own poetic creativeness as a divine gift, a part of the wider reality of God’s creativity—"a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” The imagination is the creative faculty of the human mind, giving shape to the world and to experience through symbols and metaphors.

Coleridge believed that all religious language is poetic, containing many levels of meaning. The concrete, surface meaning is true in itself, but it is at the same time a symbol of something beyond language, an earthly lens for eternal light to shine through. Even the church is poetic—it always points to a greater reality, and yet that universal truth is inseparable from the particular, historical, ever—changing, flesh—and—blood reality of the church here and now.

The language of great literature expresses more than we can know at any one time or place. Shakespeare speaks afresh to each generation with new insights; so do the creeds; so does the Bible. Coleridge traveled to Germany with Wordsworth and realized the potentially corroding effect of higher criticism on Christian belief in England. Rather than struggle with questions of biblical literalism or “proofs of God” from design, he argued that religion is essentially an existential experience. Christianity is not a proposition, but a way: “TRY IT.” As a book, the Bible is open to the normal criteria of literary criticism and the historical method; but it is also for Christians the Word of God mediating the transcendent in and through the temporal—and because of this tension the Bible is not less, but more than ever a unified Work of Art.

The poet as prophet

In the Victorian period, literature and theology intertwined. It is no accident that the most prominent writers in “the tradition of Coleridge"—people like John Henry Newman, Frederick Denison Maurice, and George MacDonald—were both what we now call “creative writers” and also theologians.

In contrast to the individualistic and elitist “cult of the Artist” in many Romantic circles, for Wordsworth and Coleridge the artist is the mouthpiece of the community with a crucial moral role to play. Another English Romantic, William Blake, wrote that a poet must be a prophet to his age. The Romantics did so by attempting to restore what Novalis claimed had been wiped away by the Enlightenment: the colorful ornament of the world, the poetry in nature and human experience, the longing for the holy, the feeling in faith.

By Stephen Prickett with Jennifer Trafton

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #86 in 2005]

Stephen Prickett is director of the Armstrong-Browning Library at Baylor University and president of the George MacDonald Society. For a fuller account see Prickett, Romanticism and Religion (Cambridge, 1976) and Prickett, ed., The Romantics: The Context of English Literature (Holmes & Meier, 1981).
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