Schleiermacher: Religion as Feeling

Friedrich Schleiermacher: Religion as Feeling

Friedrich Schleiermacher: On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured DespisersFriedrich Schleiermacher: On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers
In this article I will explain the view of Friedrich Schleiermacher that true religion is a kind of feeling.  In explaining his view, I will draw on the first two speeches of his work, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. All page references are to that work (pictured to the right).

This article is the second in a series of three articles on Friedrich Schleiermacher’s view of religion.  In the first article I explored Schleiermacher’s rejection of various popular views of religion held by the despisers. In the third article I will describe Schleiermacher’s view of the relationship between religion and Christianity.

Friedrich Schleiermacher: Piety, Science, Morality

Having cleared the debris of outward religion, Friedrich Schleiermacher returns to the inward, identifying true religion (or piety) with a specific type of “feeling.” To aid his argument, Schleiermacher gives a detailed account of the fleeting moment in which we encounter the world around us. At the moment of encounter, the entire world is represented in a particular object: “Whole becomes object (43).” Moreover, we become our senses and merge with the object of perception: “Sense and object mingle and unite (43).” Then, sense and object—self and world—part ways and a perception or feeling remains. For Schleiermacher, piety is the consciousness attained in that moment of unity with the World. He is careful to note that what he is talking about is prior to any mental reflection on the moment: “It is this earlier moment I mean, which you always experience yet never experience (43).” He describes piety as an “immediate union” that vanishes as soon as we are conscious of it. In this moment the Universal and Infinite merges with the particular and finite. Piety is the feeling of God acting upon us using the objects of the world as his instrument (45). Piety is neither the perceptions nor their objects, but this preconscious feeling alone (46).

Schleiermacher then returns to the themes of knowledge and activity, further elucidating their relationship to piety in light of his new definition. He describes both knowledge and activity as “a desire to be identified with the Universe through an object (44).” The impress of objects upon us in the form of perceptions is knowledge. Activity is when we leave our impress upon the world and “reflect [ourselves] in the objects (44).” However, Schleiermacher is careful to emphasize that such activity is only a secondary response to the world’s activity upon us as passive receivers: “In founding or establishing anything in the world you are only giving back what that original act of fellowship has wrought in you (44).” It is this interplay of knowledge and activity in which human life consists. Friedrich Schleiermacher designates activity as the “moral life” and knowledge as the “scientific life (45).” In this way he demonstrates how both knowledge and activity—science and morality—flow out of piety, that fleeting encounter with the World. As science and ethics constitute a mutually renewing interplay in a human life, so piety is the stimulating and renewing impulse of them both (45). Religion is a third essential sphere, not independent of, but not identical with, science and ethics (37, 41).

Friedrich Schleiermacher: Religion as an End in Itself

Friedrich Schleiermacher generally rejects the notion that religion has some purpose or task beyond itself; religion is an end. To the notion that religion must have utility beyond opening uninitiated people to “the sense for the unity of the original source of life (55),” and to love of the “World-Spirit (65),” he replies: “What degradation (20)!” He explicitly denies that piety is to serve the end of producing justice or morality in people or societies (20-21). However, he does note that only moral action flows from true piety (38). For Schleiermacher all sensations are pious as long as they do not “indicate some diseased and impaired state of the life (46).” This somewhat ambiguous statement seems an important criterion for distinguishing true moments of piety from false. True piety yields moral action, though morality is not its purpose.

In the next article in this series I will explain Friedrich Schleiermacher’s view of the relationship between religion and Christianity.


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