Schleiermacher: Religion is a Vibe

At the end of last year, I was very excited to announce that we were moving into the twentieth century – which is why we’re starting today with Friedrich Schleiermacher, who was born in 1768. Even though Schleiermacher is before the period that we’re looking at, he’s the figure that looms over the whole thing. Some of the major developments in 20th century theology happen in response to his thought, and a lot of what he wrote still serves as the underlying assumptions behind how we think about religion today. For example, one of his big claims is that the heart of religion is the spiritual experience, more than a system of thinking or a set of rules.

  • The text: On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers
  • The author: Friedrich Schleiermacher
  • Read it yourself: I managed to find a copy on CCEL, the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. We’re looking particularly at the second speech.

So the text that we’re looking at today is On Religion, where Schleiermacher defends religion against people who think it’s a waste of time. Even in 1799, the direction of the argument feels very familiar. Schleiermacher doesn’t go around rebutting criticisms; instead, he argues that the thing being criticized isn’t really proper religion anyway. “I find it very unjust if you yourselves stitch together something untenable out of such disparate things, call it religion, and then make so much needless ado about it.” That’s a relatively common maneuver. It can sometimes come across like shifting the goalposts, refusing to take any responsibility for the things that Christians have done, but in this case I think Schleiermacher is legitimately trying to avoid what he sees as a reductive approach to religion.

So Schleiermacher begins his second speech by putting forward two types of thought that often come up in connection with religion: metaphysics and morals. We might think of these areas as religious theory and religious practice – as claims about who God is and how we should behave as a result. Schleiermacher refers to them as speculation and praxis, respectively, and says that while they’re related to religion, they’re not the heart of it. “Praxis is an art, speculation is a science, religion is the sensibility and taste for the infinite.” That feels like a pretty contemporary idea. It’s something that leaks into our everyday descriptions of how religion works. When I was writing about John Owen, for instance, I talked about the difference between individual faith, which is private and intimate, and the systems of religious thought, which in a way are almost secondary, or something that happens in the wake of the core experience. It’s the difference between an individual’s personal relationship with God and legalistic arguments about whether you should baptise people with full-body immersion or with a little stupid sprinkling of water. In the crudest terms, it’s the gap between religious theory, religious practice, and what we might call religious feeling.

‘Feeling’ isn’t quite the right term, though – for Schleiermacher, it’s more to do with perception, and how individual things relate to infinity. Schleiermacher suggests that everything that exists is a small part of infinity – he describes all finite things as being “cut out of the infinite.” So when anything acts upon our senses – when we perceive things – we are being acted on by a little piece of the infinite. “The universe exists in uninterrupted activity and reveals itself to us every moment. Every form that it brings forth, every being to which it gives a separate existence according to the fullness of life, every occurrence that spills forth from its rich, ever-fruitful womb, is an action of the same upon us. Thus to accept everything individual as a part of the whole and everything limited as a representation of the infinite is religion.” Perception, for Schleiermacher, is the act of encountering the universe, encountering the God who creates, upholds, and acts in and through the universe. That’s what he sees as the experiential core of religion. “To present all events in the world as the actions of a god is religion; it expresses its connection to an infinite totality.”

For Schleiermacher, this encounter with the infinite takes place before thought, just in the way that perception comes before thought. If you see the colour red, before you have the name or label or concept of ‘oh hey that’s red,’ there is the pure force of the encounter. And if you had a whole string of red objects in front of you, all in different shades, if you were to categorise and label those objects in terms of their wavelength or their exact hue – that would only take you away from the actual moment of perception. It would take you away from the direct encounter with the universe and push you up into the abstract, into the conceptual. “Intuition is and always remains something individual, set apart, the immediate perception, nothing more … The same is true of religion; it stops with the immediate experiences of the existence and action of the universe, with the individual intuitions and feelings; each of these is a self-contained work without connection with others or dependence upon them.” This distinction between perception and concept ties back into Schleiermacher’s distinction between morality and metaphysics on the one hand, and religious feeling on the other. Both morality and metaphysics are attempts to fit the world into a conceptual system – but perception is unsystematic, before thought, and non-conceptual. It is the encounter that comes before any idea, and that connects us with the infinite in a way that systems and rubrics cannot.

I don’t know that we hold to all the details of Schleiermacher’s theory today, but I think we can see the strength and legacy of the bits that have survived. It’s common to say that going to church and doing all the rituals doesn’t make you a Christian. Knowing all the right facts about Jesus being the Son of God or whatever – that doesn’t make you a Christian either, any dickhead can learn that stuff. What makes you a Christian is having your own personal relationship with the divine. Morals and doctrine and stuff is okay, but it has to stem from religious feeling, or it becomes inauthentic legalism. That’s a really interesting and perhaps surprisingly common attitude held by religious people. Some of the criticisms of Schleiermacher’s approach are also probably quite familiar to us. His approach really opens up the way for validating just about any type of organized religion, as long as it’s based on that basic idea of perceiving the infinite in each individual thing. All the New Age spiritualist types could easily sneak in under that umbrella. And a lot of Christians don’t like that – they see the whole ‘feeling’ thing as too wishy-washy, too non-specific in terms of actual hard doctrine. When Pope Benedict XVI was attacking yoga, his basic argument was that feelings aren’t proof of spiritual realities. People get really antsy about this feeling stuff as a justification for religion – and whichever side you fall on, ultimately, it’s worth knowing that we’re still having this conversation in the terms laid out by Schleiermacher.

6 comments

  1. […] Ah, there’s a bunch we haven’t touched on, but we’ll have to leave it there. Things to think about, though – if the Bible is just about pointing to the witness of Christ, who is the real source of our faith, what becomes of the Epistles? Do they matter? Or are they more like a mildly interesting historical record? That is, if the Bible only testifies to Christ’s witness, then maybe Paul’s writing (for example) is less a guiding instruction for us today and more just an example of how the earliest believers understood Christ’s witness. That’s already a common approach that people take – for example when discussing whether Paul was sexist (“I permit no woman to speak”), sometimes you’ll hear people say, you know, he did the best he could given his cultural context, but we know better now. That element of the Bible isn’t true, just like the model of the sun going round the earth. To me, this is where our understanding of the Bible gets really interesting: what are the rules we use to interpret it? How do we decide whether something is outdated or untrue? As best I can make out, there isn’t really any systematic rule. It’s just people doing their best based on what they think is right. As Schleiermacher would say – it’s the vibe of the thing. […]

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