Mysticism and Godtalk

When Schleiermacher and his Romantic friends said that "one religion without God can be better than another with God,"45 they were not so much denying a personal God as they were rejecting the idols of the theisms of their day - the arid god of deism, the projection of a self-satisfied bourgeois society, the first principle of philosophy. In that sense, their reluctance to use the word "God" can be viewed as a form of apophatic (negative) mysticism. They realized, in other words, the perils of naming the infinite, and their preference for terms such as "the infinite," "the absolute," and "the universe" was a way of acknowledging the divine transcendence.

"Mysticism" is perhaps even more elusive a term than "pantheism" and should be applied with care. Schlegel came to extol "this beautiful old word" as "indispensable for absolute philosophy, from whose perspective the spirit regards everything as a mystery and a wonder."46 Novalis also frequently used the term and went so far as to call Romantic idealism a "magical idealism."47 Schleiermacher, however, avoided the term, perhaps because as a Protestant chaplain he was aware of the established religion's suspicion of mysticism and the association of mysticism with religious fanatics (Schwärmerei) and Roman Catholicism.

The Romantics' experience of divine immanence was an experience of presence, love, power, and awe, and their language reflected that. In that sense, there were arguably strains of cataphatic (positive) mysticism in their thought. At the heart of the Romantic movement was the yearning for the infinite and for union with the infinite. Schleiermacher infamously described this yearning in terms of sexual union. Along the same lines, Novalis remarked, "My beloved is the abbreviation of the universe, the universe is the extension of my beloved."48 The Romantics' yearning for union with the infinite, however, was not otherworldly; they did not seek to abandon the finite world or its ambiguities; indeed, they did not think that the infinite was "outside" or "above" the universe. They maintained instead that, paradoxically, the infinite could be discovered only in and through finite existence. This, according to Novalis, is what it is to "Romanticize" (romantisieren):

The world must be made Romantic. In that way one can find the original meaning again. To make Romantic is nothing but a qualitative raising to a higher power.. By endowing the commonplace with a higher meaning, the ordinary with mysterious respect, the known with the dignity of the unknown, the finite with the appearance of the infinite, I am making it Romantic. The operation for the higher, unknown, mystical infinite is the converse - this undergoes a logarithmic change through this connection - it takes an ordinary form of expression. Romantic philosophy. Lingua romana. Raising and lowering by turns.49

The "lowering" refers to the divine immanence, or divine condescension - the presence of the infinite in, as well as its self-communication through, the finite. The "raising" refers to the Romantic experience of and language about God - the recognition that the ordinary is in fact extraordinary because of the divine immanence. What Novalis termed "Romantic," Schleiermacher termed "religious."

The Romantics knew that if "the infinite" were truly infinite, "the absolute" absolute, and "the transcendent" transcendent, mystical union is an elusive ideal, and language about God is necessarily inadequate. Novalis tended to observe the perils of God-talk cataphatically (indeed, in a hyper-affirmative way): "Three letters signify God for me - a few marks signify a million things."50 If "God" means a million things, then one thing (one word, concept, or image) cannot adequately reflect God. Schlegel and Schleiermacher, in contrast, engaged in a much more apophatic form of God-talk to stress the point that "the infinite" cannot be grasped, classified, or controlled by any concept.51 Their "way of denial," however, departed drastically from more traditional anagogic instances of mysticism that were based on a Platonic hierarchical universe. Their Neo-Spinozist view of the universe required different imagery. Their respective methods of talking about God should command our attention.

For Schlegel, the imagery was that of a suspension between the infinite and the finite. Only the rhetoric of irony could capture this. "Irony," he explained, "is the clear consciousness of eternal agility, of an infinitely teeming chaos."52 Because of the "eternal agility" - because the elusiveness of the infinite marks its transcendence - only "Socratic irony" can really recognize it. According to Schlegel, "In this sort of irony, everything should be playful and serious, guilelessly open and deeply hidden.. It contains and arouses a feeling of indissoluble antagonism between the absolute and the relative, between the impossibility and the necessity of complete communication."53 The other side of recognizing the elusiveness of the absolute is acknowledging one's own propensity to philosophical hubris. The new criticism, he insisted, must involve continual self-criticism. Romantic poetry is thus inescapably an "artfully ordered confusion" and "charming symmetry of contradictions."54 Hence, the pages of the Athenaeum, the main literary vehicle of the Romantics, were filled with fragments, letters, and dialogues. "A dialogue," Schlegel explained, is really "a chain or garland of fragments."55

The imagery Schleiermacher employed was that of a continual oscillation:

While intuiting a universal relationship your glance is so often led back and forth directly from the smallest to the greatest and from the latter back again to the former and moves between the two in living vibrations until it becomes dizzy and can distinguish neither great nor small, neither cause nor effect, neither preservation nor destruction any longer. There then appears to you the form of an eternal destiny whose features bear completely the mark of this condition.56

This oscillating movement is part and parcel of his realism, insofar as it possible because of the union of self and world.57 For Schleiermacher, as for the other Romantics, sustaining the relation between opposites - between world and self -provides an intuition of, or feeling for, the infinite as the ground that unites them. As soon as the movement stops, however, as soon as the attempt is made to fix one point, the immediate feeling of the infinite is lost.

For the early German Romantics, Spinoza represented this kind of mysticism, this ability to hold together the finite and the infinite and thus to experience some kind of union, what Spinoza himself called the intellectual love of God. Schlegel identified Spinoza as "the general basis and support for every individual kind of mysticism."58

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