Schleiermacher Against Popular Religion

Schleiermacher Against Popular Religion

Schleiermacher: On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured DespisersSchleiermacher: On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers
In this three-article series I will explain Friedrich Schleiermacher’s understanding of religion and its relationship to Christianity as described in 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).

In this first article I will explore Schleiermacher’s rejection of various views of religion held by the despisers. In the second article I will explain his identification of true religion with feeling. Finally, in the third article I will describe Schleiermacher’s view of the relationship between religion and Christianity.

Schleiermacher: Inward and Outward Religion

Schleiermacher begins his account of religion by disarming several views held by the despisers. The first view he counters is one claiming that two key doctrines form the heart of all religion: “providence,” and “immortality (13).” He suggests that this view “may be without ground” and begins his refutation by questioning the mode by which the despisers have arrived at this view of religion (13). He notes that religion may be considered from two perspectives, “according to its inner quality” or “from the outside (13).” The inner approach seeks a source for religion in human nature, while the outer perspective focuses on visible or cognitive religious forms. Schleiermacher finds it implausible that the despisers arrived at their view of religion from the inner perspective since this would demand that they “seek in [human nature] the true and eternal,” rather than reject religion outright as they have done. Here Schleiermacher cleverly strips his audience of inward warrant for their view of religion, while leaving the door open for a later reassessment of the inner source of religion.

Schleiermacher finds it more plausible that the despisers have arrived at their view from the outward perspective, finding providence and immortality in “the opinions, dogmas and usages” of every historical religion that muddies truth (14). In agreement with the despisers, Schleiermacher condemns the outward doctrines and systems of historical religions, “from the senseless fables of wanton peoples to the most refined Deism (14),” as products of the calculating human mind, and as degrading treatments of the highest subject (15). However, he makes the distinction that these doctrines and systems are not in fact religion itself, thereby disarming the despisers’ definition (15). Indeed, according to Schleiermacher, the rigid systematic approaches of “theologians of the letter” have not yielded any insight into true religion (17). Nevertheless, though he maintains that such doctrines and systems are the mere shell of religion, he argues that if a true inward kernel is discovered, outward religion can be recast in more positive terms (15-16). Again, Schleiermacher cleverly dismisses the despisers’ outward approach to religion while leaving the door open to its reinterpretation once the true inner source of religion is revealed.

Schleiermacher: Religion as Knowledge and Activity

Next Schleiermacher counters the despisers’ view that religion is essentially some combination of knowledge and activity, “a peculiar way of contemplating the world” with “a special kind of conduct and character (27).” First, Schleiermacher considers the despisers’ view of religion as activity: if it is activity, how does it relate to moral activity? He rejects the notion that religion is good activity, “yet different from morality,” on the grounds that morality would then not govern all that it should, the entire realm of good activity (28). He also rejects the notion that religion could be “special duties toward God”—a subset of all moral duties—since the despisers maintain that morality is possible without piety (28). After pointing out similar tensions in understanding the relationship between religious and artistic activity, Schleiermacher concludes that the despisers have no coherent understanding of religion as an activity (29).

Next, he takes up the view that religion is a special kind of knowledge, or science. Adopting the despisers’ categories, he divides knowledge into two branches: natural science and ethics. Natural science “describes the nature of things,” while ethics “teaches what man…should do in [the world] (30).” Is religion identical with natural science and ethics? Schleiermacher concedes that in so far as religion claims to be knowledge about God and the world, and knowledge about right and wrong action, it has the same end as these two sciences (30). However, he rejects this view by simply adopting the despisers’ perspective that religious “knowledge” does not possess the same level of certainty as purely scientific knowledge (30). Moreover, religion cannot be a mixture of theoretical and practical knowledge since both sciences have different and contradictory methods; mixing the two modes would cause them to “counteract or separate (31).” Finally, Schleiermacher argues that religion cannot be knowledge since this would preclude the despisers from speaking of it as different from their knowledge, as they want to do. Rather, they could only understand religion as distant from, but of the same kind as, their scientific knowledge (31). Schleiermacher concludes that the despisers cannot define religion as a kind of theoretical or practical knowledge: religion “resigns…all claims on anything that belongs either to science or morality (35).” The despisers must look elsewhere for their definition of religion.

Having dismissed such wrong-headed views of religion, Schleiermacher begins his positive case for religion as feeling, which I will explain in the second article in this series.


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