Rousseau in the House of the Lord

by John J. Brugaletta

On October 24, 1776, on a narrow street in the French village of Menilmontant, a man was knocked down by a large dog. That’s it. It doesn’t sound like enough of an incident to make the pages of a daily newspaper, but in fact, it was the match that touched off an explosion that is still shaking the world today. The man was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the explosion is called Romanticism.

Rousseau later wrote that the “unforeseen accident,” which had knocked him unconscious, “came to break the thread of [his] ideas and to give them for some time another direction (Second Promenade). And what was this direction? It turned out to be a fervent belief in the supreme value of the self, together with the vital importance of isolation from civilization and a permanent immersion in nature.

“And what,” you ask, “is so wrong with that? Each of us is important to God. And cities are the locations of most crime greed and other forms of immorality. And nature is both beautiful and peaceful.” And what you say is well said, but notice that you have left out some important words. Rousseau did not say the self was of value to God; he said it was of supreme value. When he describes the state of mind in which the accident put him, he calls it “a sufficing happiness, perfect and full…. So long as this state lasts, one suffices to oneself, like God” (Fifth Promenade). Clearly, such a person, in such a state, feels no need for the God of Christianity; he himself is god enough.

And a second vital word you have left out when speaking of the glories of nature is the word “permanent.” Rousseau did not feel that a few days or weeks in the mountains were nearly enough. He didn’t want a vacation. He wanted to live every day, and for the rest of his life, away from towns and alone. Now Jesus occasionally isolates himself, as in Mark 14:13, after He has heard of John the Baptist’s death: “He withdrew from there in a boat, to a lonely place by himself.” But the Lord never shows any interest in avoiding people permanently. He has too much concern for people to abandon them forever. Rousseau, on the other hand, doesn’t really like people very much. He isn’t Christ; he only feels he is. And for a Romantic, feeling is everything.

There is a phenomenon called the zeitgeist, the spirit of an age. Every age has one.

The Christian Middle Ages lasted about 500 years, the Renaissance about 200, the Age of Reason 100. And every age has a different spirit, a different style, a different set of assumptions that it accepts automatically, without question, as an act of faith.

C. S. Lewis caught hold of one of these and shook it to death in his essay called, “We Have No Right to Happiness.” Once he had said it, of course, we saw it made perfect sense. Of course, it is insanity to believe that abandoning our wife and children, just because another woman makes us happy, is just and right. Thinking Jesus would approve of this is madness after reading Mathew 19:9, “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Jesus also encourages his followers to imitate his actions, as when after washing their feet, He says, “I have given you an example, so that you should do as I have done to you.”

The question is, how are we to break its spell? How are we to see what the essential human life is like beyond the provincial confines of our temporal culture? Let’s not make the mistake of thinking it would be to acquire an education, one that shows us how to try on for size the minds and hearts of people who lived at other times. For this will not help, because it doesn’t tell us how to choose. We often end by blindly attempting to live like Joan of Arc, or Alexander the Great, or Wyatt Earp. No, the solution is not to know history, it is to get out of history. The answer is to see what human life looks like from outside of time, and as Christians, we have the answer in our pockets. Our body of believers has lived through over 2000 years, much longer than any one age.

But in the early 19th century, Romantics like Samuel Taylor Coleridge found Christianity too dull to believe. The latest trend in thought was a new and exciting intoxication from nature. So, we have poems like Coleridge’s “The Eolian Harp,” (a set of musical strings set in a window.) The poet addresses the poem to his Christian wife, Sara, writing of the sounds as “sweet upbraiding,” and “such a soft floating witchery of sound / As twilight elfins make.”

But soon the poem takes a momentous step from appreciation of the wild beauties of nature to the realm of theological speculation. He writes:

                      And what if all of animated nature
                      That tremble into thought, as o’er them sweeps
                      Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
                      At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

That is to say, what if every living being—including humans—were just dead eolian harps like the one in the window, and we come to life only when nature (the breeze) brought us temporarily to awareness (life) by making some sort of contact with us? If that is so, then isn’t nature God? And isn’t nature also our souls?

It is never safe playing with speculative theology; nevertheless, we see that Sara did not approve when he continues, “But thy more serious eye a mild reproof / Darts.” He goes on in this poem to wish he may never without guilt speak of God except when he praises the Lord in awe “and with faith, that inly feels.” This, above all, is what the Romantics wanted, something they could feel, something that excited them, some religion that made them feel young and in tune with nature again.

We have their descendants among us today, those extreme Romantics who tell us, as if they had a new revelation from heaven, that the stone-age peoples who believed every rock, every tree, every river and every mountain had its god or goddess were correct. Now I, for one, am ready to believe that we are stewards of the earth (Genesis 1:28); and a good steward does not wantonly destroy the Master’s property. But neither is the good steward a worshipper of the Master’s property. He is a worshipper of the Master and respects the property as the Master’s servant.

There are those Romantics among us who would, if they were in complete control of the world, return it to its state of nature before there were towns, agriculture or tame animals. But the good steward is not expected to practice cryogenics on the world, freezing it as it was lent to us. As in Jesus’ parable of the talents, the world was given to us to be carefully used. We are in this world like guests in the home of a wealthy and generous person. When we are invited to sit at the table, should we refuse to eat the food offered? The owner of the house invited us; we are not thieves who broke in. Likewise, God put us here. Refusing to believe we have a rightful place in the ecosystem of the earth, as so many politically ultra-left people do today, strikes me as just plain rudeness toward our host, the Creator.

On the other hand, we are not to assume we are invulnerable within nature either. I think of the man who had grown up in this belief in the utter benevolence of nature, encouraged by Disney’s “Bambi” and other cultural artifacts to see wild animals as other people wearing fur. He went to Africa to photograph lions, drove a van to a resting pride, left the window-mounted movie camera running as he walked up to the male and petted it. They never found a trace of the man, not even a shred of his clothing. They sent his camera to his widow in the United States. She had the film developed, then watched in horror as the lions enjoyed a new treat: breakfast in bed. He too evidently believed the Romantic lie, that “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”

Now the Lord is not an extreme anti-Romantic, for in Deuteronomy 25:4, He commands that an ox is not to be muzzled while it is threshing, that it should be allowed to feed on the grain below it. It is fairly definite that an accurate view of human life, lived as it was designed to be lived and ignoring all zeitgeists, is somewhere between extremes. It is neither gushingly sensitive nor callously cruel. It loves the self, but no more and no differently than it loves its neighbor. It seeks solitude on occasion, but it does not abandon society forever. It perceives faults in every aspect of the world—even in the church—but it perceives beauties and strengths as well.

“It’s natural” is the contemporary way of saying a food or drug is safe. But nicotine is natural, as is rattlesnake venom. We also say it’s natural about certain human tendencies, meaning often that they are acceptable. Some of my students, for example, even the Christians among them, believe romantic love is, and should be, more compelling in their lives than their religious beliefs. Romantic love is, in a word, more “natural” than religion. What happened to the Christian belief that the merely natural person is not qualified for salvation, that salvation requires a second birth which takes us beyond the natural?

I believe extreme Romanticism is a virus in our society today that is certainly harmful and maybe even deadly. Who can uproot it? The Church perhaps, but I doubt it when I see it often preach the opposite heresy, that this life is of supreme value, that the physical existence and happiness of everyone is the supreme value. The via media is not easy to impart, but I believe there are wonderful Christians today who can do it if they set their minds to it. Why shouldn’t we try?

John J. Brugaletta is a Christian writer and a retired professor of literature. He has 8 books of poetry in print, along with 2 books of Christian prose. He has published articles in several different venues, including “CSL”: New York C. S. Lewis Society, and “Anglican Theological Review.”

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