Schleiermacher’s Philosophy of Religion

History has born witness to the rise and fall of ideas, and philosophies that attempted to destroy religion, which as a result has helped produce some of the greatest works in the development of theology. One of the developments in history that has challenged the religious thought was the enlightenment. The enlightenment was an explosion of new ideas, a rejection of the traditional, and the ushering into the rational, a world that could be understood completely through empirical science and logic. Experience was consigned to as an irrational foundation for doing epistemology, since experience could not be measured or recorded in any discernable way that is meaningful, or even trust worthy. One of the later thinkers to challenge this thought of pure rationality was Fredrick Schleiermacher. He argued that it was unnecessary to divorce reason from experience. Schleiermacher believed that our experience informs our rationality, and our theology. This has lead to the rise of extreme subjectivism in modern thought, and even though Schleiermacher was avoiding the epistemological extreme that our knowledge is exclusively a priori he goes to far in the opposite direction opening the world to relativism.

Fredrick Schleiermacher was born in a post Kantian world. Immanuel Kant was the first philosopher to turn towards subjectivism and to challenge the enlightenment thought of pure rationality. Kant also heavily influenced Schleiermacher in his latter years. Fredrick Schleiermacher was the third generation of reformed pastors in his family. His father, Gottlieb was integral to Fredrick’s upbringing, which introduced him to an early exposure of experiential theology. Gottlieb was initially influenced by the rationalistic enlightenment, but later he turned toward the Moravian faith due to a renewal of spiritual vitality he felt in this newfound faith. As a result of this, Gottlieb and his wife were committed to raising their children in the Moravian faith. Consequently, they sent Fredrick to the Moravian boarding school at Niesky in 1783. Afterwards, his mother had passed away and his father who served as a chaplain in the Prussian army was unable to visit his son due to frequent regiments and deployments.[1]

As a result of losing his parents at the age of 15 he grew attached to this faith, the brotherhood became a type of family to which he was forever influenced by and showed deep sympathy for in his latter years. Schleiermacher never enjoyed the strict liturgical worship found in most pulpits on Sunday mornings, where the sermon was the primary focus. He thought worship should be exercised in an animated and lively way throughout the service. Due to the lack thereof, Schleiermacher develops in his works a distinction between doctrine and experience. Doctrine for Schleiermacher may bring a person to the knowledge of God or the infinite (technically, he avoids referring to a higher being like a personal God), but not a relationship. To have a true and meaningful relationship with the infinite one must feel it. Schleiermacher’s project is to reinstate Gefül, translated from German meaning feeling. He seeks to establish this through experience, since he is going against rationalistic thought[2]. He refuses to build the foundation of his argument on anything but experience.

Schleiermacher later entered into the Moravian seminary in Barby, but after two years he decided to leave. The seminary lacked the scholarship and academic rigor that was challenging the German mind to new heights. By letter, he told his father that he was transferring into the University of Halle where he enrolled as a theological student. Here he was taught that the, “certainty of specific propositions depends on their relations to the whole body of truth.”[3] This is significant because Schleiermacher believed that the entire universe was moving towards an end purpose that is discernable to most people. However, its purpose and goal is contingent upon how one interprets the direction and end goal of life. Schleiermacher cannot provide a systematic formula since it can only be discerned by a person-to-person experience. This is Schleiermacher’s religion, the finite comprehending the infinite universe.[4] To see God in everything, and how its parts relate to the whole is what it means to be spiritually inclined. The more one is aware of God or the higher cause and being in their life, the more convinced one would be than through the teachings of doctrines and metaphysics, ethics, or epistemology.[5]

Schleiermacher influenced the rest of the 19th in this thought and showed that theology is experiential. His emphasis on feeling was the first theological attack against the challenge of empiricism in the 19th century. It provided a counter argument for the culture to avoid the logical end of pure rationalism, which is complete skepticism, and suspension of belief. Theology is for Schleiermacher, “rooted in experience, and theological thought grows out of religious experience-especially the corporate experience of the worshiping community.”[6]

In contemporary culture, although Schleiermacher romanticist philosophy has almost completely dissipated it has transformed into a different philosophy called relativism. That is the idea that truth is determinative upon ones interpretation of the world. In the Church, conservative and protestant circles have even gravitated towards a subjective feeling based upon ones experience of God. If one does not feel God, then God must not be real. Doctrine has almost completely been dismissed as irrelevant when it comes to the relationship a believer has with Christ. This has revealed a sharp criticism, highlighting the biblical illiteracy of this modern culture. Scripture informs theological doctrine and it tells a believer that God is sufficient to supply for all ones needs. This movement towards subjectivity and dependence upon ones feelings has produce superficial Christians who do not know how to interact in the intellectual world. When one looks at the most profound enigmatic statement in the Bible, Jesus on the cross says, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me (Matt. 27:46),” indicating by the resurrection of Christ, Jesus was still faithful to God despite not feeling him in the most devastating experience in his life. [7] Experience is important, but experience is always a byproduct of faithfully trusting in the promises God has made in the Bible.

Bibliography

Clements, Keith. Friedrich Schleiermacher: Pioneer of Modern Theology. Suffolk, 1987.

Christian C. W.. Makers of the Modern Theological Mind: Friedrich Schleiermacher. Waco, 1979.

Brandt, B. Richard. The Philosophy of Schleiermacher: The Development of His Theory of Scientific and Religious Knowledge. New York, 1940.

Wilkens, Steve. Padgett, G. Alan. Christianity and Western Though: A History of Philosophers, Ideas and Movements. Illinois, 2000.

[1]Keith Clements, Friedrick Schleiermacher: Pioneer of Modern Theology (Suffolk: Collins Publishers, 1987), 15.

[2]Steve Wilkens, Alvin G. Padgett, Christianity and Western Thought: A History of Philosophers, Ideas and Movements (Illinois: IVP Academic, 2000), 52.

[3]Friess, Leland Horace, Schleiermacher’s Soliloquies (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1926), xx.

[4]Brandt, B. Richard, The Philosophy Of Schleiermacher: The Development of His Theory of Scientific and Religious Knowledge (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1940), 82.

[5][5]Steve Wilkens, Alvin G. Padgett, Christianity and Western Thought: A History of Philosophers, Ideas and Movements (Illinois: IVP Academic, 2000), 53.

[6]Christian, C.W., Makers of the Modern Theological Mind: Friedrich Schleiermacher (Waco: Word Books, 1979), 29.

[7]I have used the ESV Bible throughout this paper, unless otherwise noted.