One of the most influential theologians in modern church history is also mostly unknown to laity. Friedrich E.D. Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was a German theologian who co-founded the University of Berlin and taught theology there. Understanding Schleiermacher’s theology, legacy, and importance requires a quick detour into some contextual background. Schleiermacher’s work is a reaction against the philosophical and religious trends in his day as it attempts to advance an understanding of Christianity that is not undermined by scientific rationalism and philosophical critique.
A culture of critique: the rise of the sciences and the fall of religion
During the Enlightenment, science made gargantuan advances, philosophy gave a new sense of the “self-as-subject,” and the power of reason and optimism flourished. Many people, believing history was moving past its backward ways and progressing, envisioned a society of eventual perfection, a utopian idealism where the old ways of the past were vanquished and replaced by the universal and objective human commodity of reason.
What this meant for religion, however, was negative. Religion relied on doctrines, creeds, and dogmas. These are statements of authority, and they tell you what you need to believe to be a good Christian (or Buddhist, or Muslim, etc.). The authority of religious claims is something that Enlightenment thinkers shook their heads at in disdain as opposed to “reason.” Instead, they proposed a different idea: natural religion, or a way to see the world by and through reason. Because Enlightenment teaching held that reason was a universal—that everyone would essentially come to the same conclusions about everything if given enough time—notions of freedom and empiricism (like in science and mathematics), became standards of truth. Eventually, it was argued, one world religion, a “natural” one, would emerge and unite humanity. It’s important to understand that many Enlightenment thinkers still held to the idea of a Providential God, a God who created the world and kept it going through his sustenance of the Laws of Nature. But most Enlightenment thinkers rejected any sense of miracles or the supernatural, and by the end of the period, some were proudly calling themselves atheists.
It is in this environment that many believed traditional religions would die out. And it is in this context that Schleiermacher made his contribution.
Around 1799, the 35-year-old Schleiermacher finds himself caught up in Romanticism. Briefly, Romanticism was a late 18th-century movement that was partially a reaction against the Industrial Revolution. It taught a connection to nature and the past, and it focused on the individual. Primary was the importance of emotions, especially for an aesthetic experience.
Schleiermacher, by this point, is an ordained Reformed pastor. Yet after studying theology as well as reading the latest philosophers of his day, he rejected orthodox Christian doctrines in general. Like so many of his time, he saw doctrines as problematic but not for the same reasons. His breakthrough comes with the publishing of his book, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. You can tell from the title it’s written to cultural elites and elites that despise religion at that. So how will Schleiermacher convince these bastions of reason that religion is worth keeping? How will he save religion from the demeaning category of “natural religion?” In short, how can he rescue religion from a culture that despises it?
Many Enlightenment thinkers saw religion as divisive, as drawing non-reasonable lines in the sand and standing on the authority of revelation instead of reason. But Schleiermacher will argue that it is religion which is the freest and most unifying of the sciences (Yes, Schleiermacher will see religion as a “science” both in the German sense of this word and somewhat in our sense of the word today as used in modern English).
Schleiermacher’s central thesis can be stated (albeit, in reductive form) as: Religion is the taste of the infinite, it is the awareness of God through immediate presence, an awareness of consciousness that produces a feeling that leads to unity, under God. That’s a lot. But let me take the remainder of our time to explain.
If you want to boil Schleiermacher down to some foundation upon which to build up his theology, think feelings. Feelings are essential to Schleiermacher because he is a Romantic, and he does not like a religion with no piety, a religion with no emotion. Many readers can relate. They love the experience of the service or Mass with its colors, liturgy, and vestments or services with concert lighting and contemporary worship. Few people not already serving as pastors or priests want a religion of dogmas, creeds, and confessions without any more profound sense of emotional connection. This is Schleiermacher: religion is a science, but it’s a free one.
If you want to boil Schleiermacher down to some foundation upon which to build up his theology, think feelings.
But what Schleiermacher must do is show how religious feeling can unite humanity so that we don’t end up as dogmatists or scientists and lack the emotional truth of religion (piety). To do that, he argues that experience is more powerful or genuine than doctrine. Think about conversion and becoming a Christian. You don’t read a bunch of doctrines and encyclicals and then convert (at least most don’t!). Instead, you go to church, you meet the people, and you sing the songs. And at some point, you are moved, not just rationally but also emotively. You become emotionally aware that this thing is true! That experience is what Schleiermacher would call, “the taste of the infinite” or “immediate self-consciousness.” At that moment, you and the universe (God) meet in a profound way that transcends reason.
Schleiermacher thinks this is unifying because all humans have these experiences from time to time: looking at the starry sky at night, holding your newborn baby, seeing a bird glide on the wind, or singing a hymn in church. All those things are experiences in “God-consciousness”—moments when we become aware of the transcendent truth of God behind all things. All the doctrines, creeds, science experiments, and reason itself fall short of these kinds of moments. These moments, thinks Schleiermacher, give rise to understanding, not the other way around. And these moments are freer because they are not constrained by authority or laws of nature or pathways of reason. They are immediate ways of knowing what all those other things seek to explain in their expressions. Thus, all the other things we study and codify are just attempting to explain the inward feeling of piety that comes when we get a sense of God-consciousness. For Schleiermacher, this experience leads to doctrine, not the other way around.
But what about Christ? Christ, for Schleiermacher, takes a central place in his theology. Christ, for him, is the perfect example of God-Consciousness. Christ did something we could never do, and he kept God at the forefront of his mind and experience. Christ has a deep sense of “absolute dependence” on God. This is something we strive for but are unable to do perfectly, as Christ did. We get distracted because of “sin-consciousness” (focus on self-dependence). Redemption in Christ, then, is redemption from sin-consciousness and into God-consciousness. And Schleiermacher thinks this happens through preaching, which is why he thinks Christianity is the best religion. Preaching teaches and shows Christ’s perfect God-consciousness, thus creating the feeling of God’s presence through absolute dependence on him.
What Schleiermacher did was argue that religion was neither a form of empirical knowing (so it didn’t need to compete with the claims of science) nor was religion merely a prescription for ethics and morality. Instead, religion was to be seen as deliverance into self-consciousness. Essentially, Schleiermacher is arguing that religion is the foundation upon which science and reason are built because it precedes them; humans are subjects that feel and then discern or discern while feeling. So, religion is that experience that gives us a sense of absolute dependence on God. But absolute dependence on God is freedom because it means the world and all its problems are under Divine control. Thus one becomes free over the world as one becomes conscious of their absolute dependence.
Schleiermacher is considered by most to be the father of Liberal Theology (not to be confused with progressive Christianity, which is a different thing). Liberal theology is a movement that focuses on hermeneutics (biblical interpretation), embracing the historical, methodological interpretation of the Bible that almost all pastors today use. Additionally, modern apologetics owes some of its recent history to this movement, accepting feeling and reason as means of conversion. At first read, it may seem Schleiermacher is very distant in his theology from orthodox Christianity. If you are only comparing his theology to confessional and orthodox creeds and doctrines, you’d probably call him a heretic.
But his influence isn’t so much through his specific theology (which has obvious problems for orthodox Christians), but through the door it opened. Due to Schleiermacher, theology began to be treated as a science, that is, reading the Bible began to be construed as a historical document as well as a religious one. That has opened a rich and diverse understanding of the Scriptures to which orthodox Christians remain indebted. And although Schleiermacher’s project is not a classic apologetics piece, it did show that reason could be brought to bear upon the religious conversation with science.
But for Schleiermacher, it is feeling that is most important. Feeling is how we live in, breath in, and move in truth. Schleiermacher thus stands as a warning to both sides of religious temperament. To those caught up in doctrines and “right beliefs” and therefore are tempted to devalue religious experience, Schleiermacher reminds us that doctrines and creeds that don’t match with human experience fall on deaf ears. Doctrines and creeds are valuable not just because, for orthodox Christians, they reveal God’s truth, but because those truths live themselves out in promise and joy in every Christian’s life. Christianity is not a Gnostic (thinking-only) religion, after all.
Schleiermacher thus stands as a warning to both sides of religious temperament.
On the other hand, for those who see church as essentially a feeling-factory and can’t worship God unless they “feel it,” a warning is also given. A religion of feeling soon jettisons doctrine. It lives for the “absolute dependence” of experience instead of letting the truths of God from his Holy Word shape and mold us (frequently in non-profound ways).
Thus we conclude by observing that the God who took on flesh became ordinary. He works through ordinary people and ordinary words. He works through simple bread and wine. He works through all common things. That must mean that much of his work will not be “experienced” as a moment of bliss or rapture. Chasing such feelings is too often a chase for felt needs and not for God’s shepherding care.
We can be thankful for Schleiermacher even if we don’t agree with all his conclusions. Perhaps the most significant contribution he has to offer the orthodox is the opening of the door to modern hermeneutics and an inferred warning about the limits of doctrine and emotions.