By MITCHELL KALPAKGIAN
The Romance of Religion. By Dwight Longenecker (W Publishing Group: An Imprint of Thomas Nelson: Nashville, Tenn., 2014, 221 pp.). $15.99. Available through SpecialMarkets@ThomasNelson.com or www.amazon.com.
This is a lively, robust book that is as profoundly serious as it is lighthearted and mirthful. In short, crisp sentences that ring with a cheerful human voice and a playful, witty intelligence, Fr. Dwight Longenecker glances at the human condition, the classics of literature, and the familiar stories of the Bible with a human wisdom that engages and fascinates as it explains the importance of religion as a “romance,” a term rarely attributed to this body of knowledge that is commonly viewed with only high seriousness and solemn piety.
Many view religion as a set of rules, commandments, or prohibitions; many regard it a mark of respectability, culture, and refinement. Others consider religion as sentimental piety or naive belief for the simple, the uneducated, and the unscientific.
But Fr. Longenecker’s book professes religion as a heroic quest, romantic adventure, and noble battle in the spirit of Don Quixote’s glorious vision to transform the drab, dreary Iron Age of crass materialism into the beautiful, glorious Golden Age of the highest civilized ideals.
While the term “romantic” is rarely used to describe the religious sensibility that words like “zealous, “pious,” and “devout” normally define, this book lends religion an aura of enchantment that captures the heart and transforms life into a dynamic and thrilling experience that counteracts “the desperately dull and deadly lives most of us lead.”
The romantic, according to Longenecker, believes in ideals: “He believes in something bigger, older, and more eternal than his own small life.” He does not, like the logical positivist, reduce life only to the visible world or to its physical dimensions but believes in a supernatural world of invisible reality and sees the truth in fairy tales and myths: “We don’t just tell fairy tales. We don’t just believe in fairy tales. We live them.”
Inspired by a daring spirit that does not surrender to despair or cynicism, the romantic is a person “who is shaken from the slumber of his ordinary world and called to embark on a heroic quest.” Although an ordinary person (Don Quixote was a simple gentleman by the name of Alonso Quixada), he steps out of his comfortable life into the extraordinary realm of knight-errantry to battle giants and wizards “on a quest to find the pearl of great price, the secret treasure in the field, the lost coin, the lost sheep, or the lost child.”
Without this romantic quest, religion devolves into what Longenecker calls mere table manners: “a list of regulations and rules, doctrines and dictums, prohibitions and polite behavior.”
The quest of the religious romantic inevitably leads to the clash of war, the confrontation of good and evil and a battle between ideals (“a striving for what is beautiful, good, and true”) and ideologies (false gods that lead to death). The romantic believes in the reality of the soul — the soul of every human being created in the image of God — whereas the ideologue, who fantasizes about secular utopias and excludes the reality of life after death, does not believe in his own soul or the soul of any other person:
“Those who commit genocide do not believe in the human soul and do not believe in eternal consequences, because all they believe in is the physical realm.”
The romantic holds that at the center of the soul “burns an eternal flame,” a “mysterious energy . . . something that is bigger and better than the simple biological functions of any living being” that unites the visible and invisible worlds. A hint of the soul’s divine and eternal nature that links the natural and supernatural worlds is the experience of beauty’s wonder. The miracle of natural, human, and artistic beauty — rosebuds, sunsets, landscapes, woman, cathedrals, icons — radiates the mystery of unseen things mirrored by the things seen: “We transcend this physical world and look through a window into a world beyond.”
The romantic’s quest not only leads to contests between transcendental ideals and secular ideologies and between sophists and philosophers but also a search for love, “a great good, a prize to be won, a gift to be given, a reward to be earned.” This yearning of the soul to love and to be loved in its purest and most passionate form expresses itself as the disinterested gift of oneself that experiences its greatest joy more in giving love than receiving it:
“We want to be lost in love. We want to be submerged in love. We want to be overwhelmed by our own self-sacrifice and self-giving to the beloved. We want to die for love.”
This sacrifice of love is a manifest sign of the world above that the soul perceives in the exchange of giving: “In other words, the desire to sacrifice oneself is so otherworldly that it must have come from another world.”
The heart of the romantic, then, burns with a love on fire charged with a divine energy that the term Logos (reason, idea, word) signifies in the opening chapter of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was God.” Human love resembles divine love and intimates how human life prefigures eternal life. While on a great adventure inspired by noble ideals and engaged in battle, the romantic’s passion is moved not only by the power of beauty but also by the love of truth, a truth that transcends the rules of the Pharisees and the literalists.
The truth the romantic seeks is not merely intellectual or logical but an adventure with chances and dangers, “an experience and an encounter with a person who is beauty, love, and truth together, and who calls himself ‘the Way’.” The romantic’s desire of truth merges into the love of God.
The adventure of the romantic is not upward and onward but downward into the dark and deep into places like the classical underworld populated with ugly creatures and terrifying monsters — a descent of falling and rising that leads to the stark reality of death and then the ascent upward like Orpheus leading Eurydice from Hades. The romantic hero also suffers wounds as Don Quixote and Cyrano de Bergerac are ridiculed for their gallantry. From the beginning to the end of the quest the romantic is nourished by “the fire in the heart,” “the eternal flame,” and a mysterious energy that is the “Christ-life” in the soul.
The romance of religion, then, is this Christ-life: “Wherever the fire burns in the soul, it does the work of fire: It provides heat, energy, and light. Heat to warm the soul. Energy to enliven the soul. And light to illuminate the soul.” This eternal flame compares to the burning bush that Moses saw and reflects the truth St. Irenaeus expressed: “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” The romance of religion is this transformation of lackluster man to glorious hero and saint-like lover.
More than rules, dogmas, and prohibitions, religion is the romance of an abundant, passionate life that begins in a human love and grows into a divine passion and culminates in an eternal life where “the road leads ever on.”
Without the romance of religion, life amounts to the drudgery of drones anxious about salary, insurance plans, and job security. Without the romance of religion, man is self-satisfied with “my iPhone, my latte, and my three-car garage.”
This is not the “abundant” life Christ came to give.
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(Dr. Kalpakgian is a professor of humanities.)