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What is Romanticism?


Romanticism was a cultural movement of the late-18th to mid-19th centuries, with influences in music lasting until the early 20th century. Romanticism emphasized the concepts of emotion, originality, and nature against reason and technological advancement. This anti-intellectual trend was a reaction to the Enlightenment and ultra-rationalist attitudes of the prior century.

The terms Romanticism and Romantic are often misunderstood when applied to this era, since they imply matters of love or sexuality in modern English. While some aspects of Romanticism are “romantic” in that sense, the perspective includes a much wider range of ideas and is not primarily concerned with issues of intimacy. Perhaps most importantly, Romanticism should be understood as a theme or a genre, rather than a standalone philosophy or worldview.

Strictly speaking, Romanticism did not alter Christian theology in the sense of changing major doctrines or beliefs. However, it did profoundly influence the way in which Christian ideas were discussed, perceived, and taught. In some cases, the origins of certain pseudo-Christian offshoots can be seen as products of Romantic thinking. The greater emphasis on emotion and experience, in particular, can be seen when contrasting mainstream Christianity before and after the Romantic era.

Romantic poets included Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass), Thomas Gray (“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”), and Samuel Coleridge (“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”). Romantic authors most familiar to modern Western audiences include Edgar Allan Poe (“The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart”), James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans), and Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre). Many oft-performed examples of orchestral music were created by composers of the Romantic tradition, such as Liszt (Les Preludes), Tchaikovsky (1812 Overture, Swan Lake), and Beethoven (Moonlight Sonata, Symphony No. 5).

Prior to Romanticism, culture was dominated by the theme of rationalism. Rationalist art, music, and literature were deeply rooted in universal concepts, perfect characters, emotional distance, and optimism. Unfortunately, rationalism also served to enable an upheaval of society, including political violence, contradicting its own sense of hopefulness. Rebounding from this, Romanticism placed great importance on individual experience, emotions, myth, nature, and idolization of the past. A good example is William Wordsworth’s poem “My Heart Leaps Up”:

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

In this poem, Wordsworth praises the emotional response of a child to a marvel of nature (the rainbow) and wishes to keep that childlike wonder his whole life. His reference to “natural piety” in the final line is a purposeful interjection of religious language, as the poet yearns for the “holiness” that comes from experiencing nature.

Artists of the Romantic tradition sought to explore man’s imperfections and traditions without a cold reliance on reason. This influence is seen in the development of genres focused on dark irrationality (Poe), themes such as nature and the “noble savage” (Cooper), and soaring, dramatic symphonic music (Liszt).

Philosophically, perhaps the most direct attempt to apply Romanticism as a worldview, even as a replacement for religion, was in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Though he died around the time historians consider Romanticism to have begun in earnest, his work laid many of its foundations. Among these was the idea that man was better off in a “natural” state, without the moral corruptions brought on by modern society. Rousseau also emphasized the importance of emotion. In practice, however, his efforts were far more influential in politics and culture than in influencing any particular religious faith.

As a cultural movement, rather than a “hard” philosophy, Romanticism is technically neutral with respect to religion. In practice, however, Romanticism took a more positive view of religion than the attitudes that preceded it. The interplay between tradition, faith, the “good old days,” and the natural need to express emotion made the Romantic era much friendlier to religion than was the Enlightenment. Romantic authors, composers, and writers found a rich source of material in biblical stories. Coming millennia after the days of Christ, however, Romanticism had no means to influence fundamental Christian theology.

That is not to say Romanticism left no impact on the history of religion. Christian writing and theology produced during and after the Romantic era shows a greater emphasis on personal emotion and feelings than in prior times. In some sense, Romantic influence changed how Western Christianity described certain theological ideas, even if it did not immediately impact what mainstream Christians believed.

On the other hand, theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher leaned heavily on Romanticism in an effort to conform Christianity to the preferences of culture. In brief, his approach moved the focal point of religion from God’s reality to human experience. Some scholars credit—or discredit—this attitude with grounding modern theological liberalism.

Likewise, a core theme of the Romantic movement—personal, emotional experience—can be seen in the origin of several offshoots of Christianity that developed during the 19th century. Mormonism, for instance, was founded on the claim that Joseph Smith had been given personal messages from God. Exploration of spiritualism and the macabre also resulted in increased participation in séances and other forms of fortune-telling.

In and of itself, Romanticism neither opposes nor supports biblical Christianity. As with most approaches to literature, art, and music, each individual can apply the idea in his own way. Romanticism places a positive value on tradition and emotion, both of which are legitimate parts of the Christian faith. At the same time, the Romantic approach can be overly suspicious of reason, too reliant on subjective experience, and prone to exalt the creation over the Creator. As with any other cultural trend, Christians need to be careful to interpret their worldview according to the Bible, not the Bible according to their worldview.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022