Romanticism’s Great Fault: What Art Cannot Do


Herbert James Draper, ‘Lament for Icarus’

Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, in a section of his dogmatics concerning the origin of religion, writes that romanticism’s great fault as a whole was to confuse art and religion:

One then, naturally, also slips into the error of confusing and equating religious feeling with sensual and aesthetic feeling. Known to us all from history is the kinship between religious and sensual love and the passage from one to the other. But equally dangerous is the confusion of religious and aesthetic feeling, of religion and art. The two are essentially distinct. Religion is life, reality; art is ideal, appearance. Art cannot close the gap between the ideal and reality. Indeed, for a moment it lifts us above reality and induces us to live in the realm of ideals. But this happens only in the imagination. Reality itself does not change on account of it. Though art gives us distant glimpses of the realm of glory, it does not induct us into that realm and make us citizens of it. Art does not atone for our guilt, or wipe away our tears, or comfort us in life and death….Aesthetic feeling, accordingly, can never take the place of religious feeling, anymore than art can replace religion. Granted, the two are connected. From the very beginning religion and art went hand in hand. The decline of the one brought with it the decay of the other. The ultimate driving force of art was religion. (Reformed Dogmatics, 1.267)

Bavinck further stresses the centrality of religion to the human life:

[R]eligion is distinguished from all the forces of culture and maintains its independence from them all. Religion is central; science, morality, and art are partial. While religion embraces the whole person, science, morality, and art are respectively rooted in the intellect, the will, and the emotions. Religion aims at nothing less than eternal blessedness in fellowship with God; science, morality, and art are limited to creatures and seek to enrich this life with the true, the good, and the beautiful. Religion, accordingly, cannot be equated with anything else. (Reformed Dogmatics, 1.269)

Arguing later that religion is a product of revelation, Bavinck returns to this contrast between religion, science, and art to explain how humans aim at something entirely unique when they are concerned with religion:

The distinction between religion on the one hand and art on the other supplies us with the same concept of revelation. Nature, the world all around us, is the source of our knowledge and the teacher of art. But in religion that same world comes under consideration from still another viewpoint, viz., as the revelation of God, as the disclosure of his eternal power and divinity. In religion humans are concerned with something very different from what their aim is in science and art. In religion they do not seek to increase their knowledge, nor to satisfy their imagination, but aim at eternal life in communion with God, true transformation of their being, liberation from sin and misery. In religion they are concerned about God because they realize that in God alone they can find peace and rest. For that reason religion requires another source than do science and art; it assumes a revelation that causes God himself to come to people and bring them into fellowship with him. (Reformed Dogmatics, 1.277)

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