Romantic religion;: A study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams and Tolkien

Romantic religion;: A study of Barfield, Lewis, Williams and Tolkien

Posted by jack_miller | Published 7 months ago

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By: Robert James Reilly

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After the Enlightenment reduced the universe to meaningless matter in motion, Romanticism endeavored to re-enchant the world. A hundred years after the heydays of Romanticism, as ones born out of time, came the Inklings; modern men with a romantic bent. According to author R. J. Reilly, the four Inklings - Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien - each imputed religious significance to those experiences by which the imagination discerns something real and true about human existence beyond what reason can establish by empirical means. Barfield wove romantic experience into his Anthroposophism while the other three, says Reilly, interpreted romantic experience in the context of their Christianity.

For Barfield, the history of the universe is the story of Absolute Mind becoming conscious of itself through man. We are now on the cusp of man's ultimate evolutionary destiny as he becomes consciously aware of the wholly immanent God within his unconscious mind. Though man becomes the creator of all meaning, not all men are creatively equal. We must look to the Poets, like Coleridge, who open pathways to their unconscious minds and draw out the wisdom of the ages which they swathe in magic combinations of words that convey truth to those with ears to hear and eyes to see. (Page 16.)

Charles Williams attempts the alchemical transformation of erotic love in the smitten man for that special lady into agape love of God with all one's heart, soul and mind, and love of neighbor as one's self. While the affections, especially love, are at the heart of all true religion, Williams never quite succeeds at turning base eros into precious agape. Moreover, once the thrill is gone, Williams admonishes man to carry on with unselfish agape love as a matter of duty, but as Reilly notes, "What can be drearier than to act as if you love your neighbor simply because you know you should?" (187.) Williams's romantic theology promises much but delivers little.

As for Lewis and Tolkien, Reilly reads more into their romanticism than the authors did themselves. For them, the romantic experience was validated by Christianity insofar as its inward desires and longing were to be expected of creatures made in the image of God living in a fallen world. But romantic experiences were merely pointers to something "other and outer," in Lewis's words, and conveyed no spiritual truth or power in themselves. Lewis and Tolkien did not see Romanticism as a way to divine love (as Williams did) or to self-deification (as Barfield).

Lewis and Tolkien largely confined their romanticism to fictional works. Reilly even notes that Lewis might have chosen "to deal romantically with religion in his fiction without it following necessarily that his religion itself is romantic." (138-139.) This indeed seems the case. While Lewis acknowledged that momentary episodes of intense desire triggered by nature, literature, music and other sources led him from atheism to Christianity, he concluded his autobiography Surprised by Joy with this statement: "But what, in conclusion, of Joy? For that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian." Regarding Tolkien, nearly everything Reilly mentions in the relatively short chapter devoted to him is in connection with Tolkien's thoughts on fantasy writing and fairy stories.

Reilly extols Barfield's Anthroposophism throughout the book and considers Tolkien, Lewis and Williams too timid in their belief in a God who is both immanent and transcendent. Reilly is prepared to follow Barfield into that brave new world where even angels fear to tread: "The phrase 'radical immanence' frightens most of us: we do not want to be God." (225.) Reilly says, "None of the other three men, being more orthodox Christians will travel the road of Anthroposophy with Barfield." (213.) Perhaps they avoided that path because they foresaw its end.

There is more in the unconscious mind than what the Romantic Poets perceived. Barfield himself warned of the Surrealists who could usher in "a fantastically hideous world" with their "pictures of a dog with six legs emerging from a vegetable marrow or a woman with a motor-bicycle substituted for her left breast." (65.) For Barfield, this was not mere fancy but true metaphors of the world that man had within his power to make. Insofar as these works are admired, "they are appreciated by those who are themselves willing to make a move towards seeing the world in that way, and, ultimately, therefore, seeing that kind of world." (65.) With man as ultimate creator, we may just as easily end up in a Circus of Horrors or Theatre of the Absurd than in the Vernal Wood appareled in Celestial Light. And even if the Coleridges and Wordsworths were to prevail, we still would have no guarantee of a New Jerusalem. In the words of Friedrich Holderlin: "What has always made the state a hell on earth has been precisely that man has tried to make it his heaven."

Overall, the book provides an excellent presentation of Barfield's Anthroposophism, but with no critique of it, and a good presentation of William's romantic theology, with a decent critique. As for the romanticism of the other two, I much prefer their own works, particularly Lewis's 

- emmalyn_ward

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