The Hopeful Romantic: In Defense of (a kind of) Romanticism

I recently enjoyed reading Karen Swallow Prior’s article, “The Not-Hopeless, Anti-Romantic,” at Christianity Today. It is a wise admonition against the dangers allowing “unrealistic expectations about any aspect of our lives—our relationships, our work, the church, even our very selves” to “rob us of the infinite and varied joys to be found in the everyday world.”  Well said.

She labels the culprit “romanticism,” by which she is referring to a mindset that fabricates its own idealizations for its own pleasure and then impractically expects the “real world” to conform.  She cites several external sources to create a working definition of romanticism as a “harmful” and “unbiblical” anti-realism that operates on the premise that “our minds determine what is real”: therefore we (not God) are the ultimate creators, Scripture is essentially irrelevant, and there is nothing (God or otherwise) that transcends our own minds.[1]  If this is one’s definition of romanticism, I agree heartily that it is unbiblical.

The Nature of Romanticism

But I cordially question whether this definition necessarily characterizes everything that can be called “romantic.”  After all, even among scholars and philosophers, “romanticism” is a notoriously difficult word to pin down.  But whatever else the various manifestations of romanticism may entail, perhaps its deepest nerve, the one unifying thread running throughout its vast and often seemingly paradoxical tapestry, is an inconsolable longing for transcendence.  So if “romanticism” were indeed to deny anything that transcends ourselves, as implied in the definition Dr. Prior is using, then I suppose we’d have to conclude that the romantic mood longs for something more romantic than (this definition of) romanticism.  And what could something more romantic than “romanticism” be called except, well, romanticism?  That is why I prefer to think of true romanticism as being essentially rooted in a longing for transcendence, with all other variables (some more consistent than others) being secondary.

And I think we will find that this longing for transcendence—this romanticism—animates much of human life and culture as we know it.  It radiates from the pages of Tolkien, the canvases of Turner, the symphonies of Sibelius.  And it is perhaps most fascinating in those manifestations where it feels not like an escape from reality but rather a reality that is somehow more real (or perhaps real at a deeper level) than what we usually mean by “reality”—that is, our day-to-day business.  While most of us have probably never met a elf in the woods, there is something that feels very true about the sense of wonder awakened by stories about them: at some level, their existence seems much more vivid and thus, in a sense, more “real” than the grayscale minutes of our daily routine.

The Danger of Romanticism

But this brings us to the heart of Dr. Prior’s very legitimate concern: that a romantic orientation, even according to our definition of romanticism, can build the expectation of a false reality that leaves us unable to engage wisely or be rightly satisfied with the actual physical world we inhabit.  Because of course it is nearly impossible to long for transcendence merely in the abstract.  Our longing longs to experience actualization[2] —otherwise it would be no longing at all: it would be like the proverbial four-sided triangle.  And so we “incarnate” our abstract longing in a form that we can grasp: we imagine friendships with perfectly harmonized perspectives, jobs without what we call drudgery, spouses with this or that particular appearance—anything that can give us a sense of transcending the world we know.  And if we base our satisfaction on whether the world conforms to these idealizations, of course we will be dissatisfied.

But we must remember that these idealizations are not the true object of our longing; they are merely its symbols, the means by which we incarnate our deeper longing for transcendence.  But the experience of transcendence requires two things: the thing to be transcended, and the thing transcending it.  And what shall our minds supply as the thing to be transcended except the world that we have always known?  Phrased this way, we see how unreasonable we actually are when we demand that transcendence should come through the very world we seek to transcend.  We are difficult to please.

The Paradox of Romanticism

But what, then, is the alternative?  Do we neglect the transcendent altogether?  Should we look only to this world that immediately meets our senses?[3]  If we do, what are we left with?  A world in which brokenness is mixed with beauty, but whose beauties ultimately amount to nothing more than a temporary splash of endorphins with little meaning except perhaps the utilitarian continuation of a species that will someday die out?  In that case, let’s try to alleviate the discomfort of the world as much as possible for ourselves and others (since that feels like a nice thing to do, at least in our cultural context); but beyond that, why be “realistic”?  Why not chase after the transcendent, even if it’s ontologically illusory?  It’s a lot more pleasurable than having one’s nose held to the grindstone of this world—and, in such a world, pleasure is the ultimate criterion: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”[4]  The paradox, then, is that a world in which there is no transcendence and therefore no ultimate meaning gives us no basis for saying we should or should not have our head in the clouds: if the world is meaningless, why not lapse into meaningless romanticism?

The Deepening of Romanticism

But the gospel brings us the breathtaking news that the transcendence for which we have always longed, which we have felt at some level we couldn’t live without, is real; and therefore the heart of romanticism, though (like anything) susceptible to corruption, is in fact—and almost beyond all hope—true.  Tolkien, Turner, and Sibelius can feel as though they’re tapping into a reality that is more real than world that meets our immediate senses because, in fact, they are.  Jesus calls us to lift up our eyes from the fading valley of earth to a never-ending, ever-deepening, wonder-filled reality of abundant life in the Kingdom whose increase knows no end.[5]  This validates our longing while reassuring us that experiencing what we long for will never disappointingly still the longing, because we long for something—or Someone—infinite and inexhaustible.

And with our romantic inclinations anchored and actively satisfied in the Kingdom of God, we are free to be truly realistic about the world in which we live, since we no longer look to this world to satisfy the longings of our inveterate romanticism.  Our problem, then, is not that we are either romantic or realistic: our problem is that we conflate and mismatch the two, expecting earth to be heaven.

But here the gospel becomes even more astounding, because it tells us that indeed the Kingdom of heaven will gloriously invade the yearning halls of earth.  In fact, it has already begun, when the King of heaven stepped down to take on a mere earthly frame, not allowing our transcendence-longing to remain abstract but incarnating Himself, our true Desire, in a form that we could indeed grasp (!), making visible the Invisible God and marrying heaven to earth in a covenant of redemption sealed with His blood.

And therefore not only are we free to regard earth, but indeed we must regard earth: “God so loved the world…”[6]  But as we gaze at our world through the lens of the gospel of redemption, we suddenly come to see it in a way is at once realistic and “romantic,” a way that recognizes the world’s brokenness for what it is, while at the same time being saturated with a redemptive vision for what it might be.  And so this realism infused with what one might call “redemptive romanticism” becomes in fact a new and deeper realism, if indeed the future reality of this groaning creation is actually a redemption[7] of which we can now only dream in the most imperfect ways.[8]  And so we strive toward this redemptive vision, working to cultivate the “garden” in which God has placed us, to prepare the way for the returning King—not because His redemptive work isn’t fully accomplished, but rather because it is: and the extent to which we truly treasure this King and His finished redemptive work is the extent to which we will eagerly desire to be used even in some minute way toward its ultimate actualization, according to what our Lord deigns and enables.  And so, with our sin-ravaged lives, our flawed relationships with flawed people, our fragmented communities, and our childish art, we fix our eyes heavenward and say, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”[9]

[2] But what about the sort of “hopeless romantic” longing that doesn’t want to experience actualization so that it can continue longing?  Even if one doesn’t want to fulfill the longing, the longing itself (which one may have a separate impulse not to fulfill) still longs to experience actualization—otherwise one could experience the actualization without ceasing to long.  To the extent that the “hopeless romantic” assumes that preservation of the longing depends upon not experiencing actualization, he is in fact assuming that the longing longs to be actualized.  The question is, then, what is the actualization that is fundamentally longed for?

[3] To be clear, this is emphatically not what Dr. Prior is suggesting.

[4] Isaiah 22:13, I Corinthians 15:32

[5] cf. Isaiah 9:7

[6] cf. John 3:16

[7] Romans 8:21

[8] cf. Ephesians 3:20; I Corinthians 2:9, 13:12; etc.

[9] Revelation 22:20, KJV