Modern Theology: Schleiermacher on Christian Faith
Friedrich Schleiermacher is sometimes described as the “father of modern theology“. In this article I will explain his understanding of religion and its relationship to Christianity as conveyed 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).
This article is the third in a three-article series. In the first article I explored Schleiermacher’s rejection of various views of religion held by the despisers. In the second article I explained his identification of true religion with feeling. Finally, as noted, in this third article I will describe Schleiermacher’s pluralistic modern theology as it relates to Christian faith.
Modern Theology: Pluralistic Piety
For Schleiermacher, Christianity is not synonymous with religion. Rather, Christianity is a subset of religion, one form of religion. He notes that the outward doctrines and practices of true religion may vary widely. For example, he refers to Spinoza’s non-Christian doctrinal position as springing from genuine piety (104). However, it is crucial to note that Schleiermacher does not simply posit that people in different cultural and historical situations interpret the very same religious feeling differently. Rather, while he affirms that all outward forms of religion spring from the inward experience—and thus “are the same in kind (102)”—he also affirms that the pious feelings producing such different outward forms are themselves different (50). The religious feelings among Turks and Indians are different—and not accidentally so—from those among Christians (50). Moreover, while broad commonalities allow us to categorize particular piety as Christian or Muslim, religion “fashions itself with endless variety, down even to the single personality (51).” Thus, for Schleiermacher, Christianity is but one valid grouping of piety, which in itself is very diverse (51). However, despite such apparent religious parity, Schleiermacher maintains that Christianity is the “greatest of all religions” and envisions all other religions as subsumed under its aegis at some time in the future (108).
One implication of his view of the inherently diverse nature of religion is a modest stance toward religious doctrine. Schleiermacher does not reject doctrine outright. While he denies that doctrine without inner piety has any value, calling it the “oft-broken echo of that original sound (18),” he affirms that doctrine is “the necessary and inseparable outcome (17)” of inward piety. While piety can be had without doctrine, if piety is reflected upon, doctrine is unavoidable and properly belongs within the sphere of religion (87). Doctrine is the human attempt to describe inward piety with words. Dogmas and opinions are “a knowledge about feeling,” not knowledge about “the Universe, that gave rise to the feeling (61).”
However, he is quick to add that such knowledge is but a fallible representation of piety (27), and varies depending on the cultural-historical position of individuals, and differing faculties of imagination (98). For example, he notes that Christian doctrine might have looked very different if the underlying experience of piety had occurred within a different—say Eastern—culture (107). Thus, for Schleiermacher, doctrinal diversity must be embraced. While Christians may validly attempt to define heresy, heretics must not be persecuted for they often represent the productive energy of modern theology (109-110).
Reshaping Traditional Theology
Applying his flexible view of doctrine, Schleiermacher creatively reshapes modern Christian theology to more closely reflect his personal experience of piety. For example, while he acknowledges that conceiving of God as personal is “an almost absolute necessity for the highest stage of piety,” he is quick to point out the weaknesses of such a conception (116). For example, the idea of an infinite personality makes little sense to Schleiermacher (116). Similarly, notions of divine resolve, pity, and veracity seem difficult to ascribe literally to God (106). Moreover, Schleiermacher maintains that it is difficult to speak of God as separate and distinct from the world since we know God only through his operation upon us through the world. He seems to prefer the term “living” rather than “personal” God and adopts a perspective that borders on pantheism (116).
Schleiermacher also recasts traditional Christian anthropology in his modern theology. His exceedingly high view of the unconscious moment of piety—described as “above all error and misunderstanding (42)” —is out of step with the traditional doctrine of sin. His orthodox Christian predecessors would have been more skeptical of the products of sinful human nature. Although the scope of this paper does not permit their full exposition, Schleiermacher also reworks traditional Christian theology of belief (90-91), human immortality (99-101), scripture (91), miracles (88), revelation (89), inspiration (89), prophecy (89), and the operation of grace (90). According to Schleiermacher, Christian doctrine is a fallible attempt to describe the feeling of piety, and as such it is subject to radical revision.
Conclusion: “Father of Modern Theology”
The purpose of this three-article series has been to trace the conception of religion held by Friedrich Schleiermacher—”father of modern theology”—and its relationship to Christianity. In the first article I began by noting that religion, according to Schleiermacher, is not the outward show of doctrines and systems. Moreover, it is not a certain kind of activity or knowledge. Rather, in the second article I explained his view that religion or piety is the preconscious inward experience of God acting upon a human being through that person’s encounter with the world. Knowledge and activity flow from the experience of piety, but they are not themselves piety. Finally, in this third article I explained Schleiermacher’s view that Christianity is the superior form among many valid forms of religion, but that Christian doctrine, as fallible human reflections on piety, is subject to revision. This last point makes his view a clear example of modern theology.