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The Quest of the Absolute: Birth and Decline of European Romanticism
by louis dupré
notre dame, 400 pages, $36

Before religious philosopher Louis Dupré began his long tenure at Yale, he wrote on Marx. Then came his religious phenomenology and study of mysticism. More recently, he has worked on a long survey of Western religious thought. Behind this varied scholarly output is the haunting concern of how to apprehend God in the midst of all the intellectual forces that obscure his presence.

The Quest of the Absolute is the third volume in a series Dupré began in 1993 with Passage to Modernity, a study of ideas of “nature and culture” from the High Middle Ages to the Baroque era. He followed this in 2005 with The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture, by this point displaying the wide-ranging intellectual grasp and comparative focus of someone like Ernst Cassirer. With the present volume, Dupré brings his story into the nineteenth century and ­Romanticism.

Across the breadth of this grand survey, the question of where God lurks within the intellectual constructs of philosophers, theologians, and poets drives the analysis. Dupré is not interested in the issue of what God is doing with us but rather with the ways in which we continually ­re-perceive God in new cultural eras, with all the possible ­discoveries—and distortions—this may involve.

Despite the claims to new modes of thinking that the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have given us, Dupré seems convinced that we are still very much mired in “the modern.” Romanticism, he suggests, is the best description of modern belief. “The aspirations of the Romantic mind continue to resonate today,” he writes; and “aspiration”—yearning and unfulfilled desire—is in fact what it is all about. Yearning and unfulfilled desire for what? For a God seen as beyond our grasp.

The Quest of the Absolute is the least technical of Dupré’s three-volume series. Although he subtitles it “Birth and Decline of European Romanticism,” the book offers little socio-cultural analysis. Rather, it follows individual writers arranged in thematic sections; the poetry of England, Germany, and France; aesthetics, ethics, and politics; and, most broadly, ideas about history, philosophy, and theology. It discusses a dizzying array of authors, from the philosophical heavyweights Fichte and Hegel to less well-known poets and novelists like Alphonse ­Lamartine and Jean Paul.

What results is an almost personal reflection on the character of the thinking and feeling that stand behind modern intellectual motivations. “This is us,” Dupré seems to be saying, as he lays out his examples of European romantic vision—“an essentially positive worldview that, moving beyond the limits of a rational culture, inspired a relentless and obviously impossible drive to overcome the finitude of the human condition.” Beyond that finitude is “the Absolute” that underlies so much Romantic literature.

But does this quest for the Absolute that he traces so skillfully really stand in continuity with our own smoldering theistic desires today? Do the Romantics really offer us a template for a better understanding of ourselves? This is doubtful, for at least two reasons. First, Dupré’s Romantic religion is different from contemporary faith. Yearning after the infinite is something that is for him still tied to the Christian God but in the form of a dynamic search that relativizes the one searching, which is to say he becomes the “conditioned” and “finite” over and against the Absolute.

This is, however, nothing like today’s domesticated gnosticisms. “The Absolute,” with its resonance of exhaustive truth, as well as its connotations of final power, not to say coercion, is little favored today. We prefer terms like “the Spirit,” which is more malleable and personal, enveloping rather than imposing, immanent rather than transcendent.

Not that “the Spirit” did not itself have a key place in Romantic terminology. But it is a term whose genealogy, especially in the English-speaking world (which tended to leave “the Absolute” to the logical philosophers) is not traced by Dupré. For Anglo-Americans, the Spirit led from Boehmian Quakerism to Transcendentalist democratic liberationism in ways that remain deeply destructive of Christian faith. In its twentieth- and twenty-first-century deployment, Spirit constitutes the designation of a private reality of affirmation tied to political legitimations of personal esteem. It has little to do with the concerns of the German poets of the early nineteenth century.

The second reason to question the Romantic-Modern idea of continuity has to do with something that is surely much more important, namely the continuity of traditional forms of Catholic and Protestant religious commitment. Dupré has always been suspicious about whether traditional faith can exist alongside modern culture. (His distaste for Evangelical forms of piety is well known.) But to dismiss the ongoing vigor of traditional Christian life, especially in its thriving, if complex, global mission, is to shut down one of the key aspects of modernity.

Too many intellectual historians pay no heed to the vitality of Christian faith around the world. In this they are remiss, for its continuing vitality—in Europe, America, but especially elsewhere—has only recently begun to be studied, let alone appreciated. Yet one cannot understand the sixteenth through the twenty-first centuries apart from the astonishing flow of Christian faith into the corners of a culturally diverse globe. This missionary movement has already begun to press against the intellectual habits of the West. It promises, in the shorter term, to determine the ­character of religious experience within our churches, and may do so in larger society.

Dupré is himself a Romantic, I would wager. Like a guide, he is on our behalf eagerly in search of the transcendent. And this is in its own way a sacrificial calling to be deeply admired. In a 1997 interview with the Christian Century, he was asked about his study of mysticism. “At a time when culture has been shattered, we, like Augustine, are forced to rebuild it from within,” he said, referring to the need for intellectuals to engage in the recapturing of a genuine “Christian interiority.” Referring, with some qualifications, to Karl Rahner, he added that “­Christianity in the future will be mystical or it will not be at all.”

One need not draw lines of contradiction between the mystical and practical, inner reality and symbolic form. But to the degree that one does, I think that Dupré is wrong, and that the times we live in, in which the Gospel presses on amid the clamoring of the nations, attest to this.

Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.