Schleiermacher: Which Religion is True?

  • 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 still looking at the second speech.

So we’re starting to move towards twentieth-century theology, right, that’s the big news around the blog right now. As part of that, we start to open up some of these more contemporary religious questions – things that get asked today that wouldn’t have been asked in the same way several hundred years ago. For example: what’s the relationship between different religions? Are all of them a little bit right? Do all of them have things to offer? Or is there like one that’s correct and all the others are bad and evil? It’s a very Jihad vs McWorld-type question. On the one hand, you get this lazy, easy liberalism going on about how everyone should have their own religious beliefs, and we’ll all just respect each other’s opinions – as if it were that easy. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s a great ideal. But it sometimes feels like it’s based on the assumption that religion doesn’t – or maybe rather shouldn’t – impact anything going on in the real world – as if it’s some bourgeois ‘lifestyle choice’ that can be reduced to an economic relationship between producer and consumer. And, to parrot a criticism often levelled at free market thinking, there doesn’t seem to be any safety or oversight in the event that people start buying bad religion. It’s all very well to try and respect everyone’s beliefs, but you’ve got to have controls in place for dealing with extremists. That’s the other end of the spectrum, right – it’s religious fundamentalists, people coming in and arguing that they’re the only ones who’re correct, and everybody else needs to fall in line or burn in hell. We’re sitting in the middle between these different groups today, and we’ve got to figure out what to do about it. And that’s not stuff we had to deal with when we were talking about Aquinas. We just got to make jokes about whether or not Adam used to shit.

As we pick our way through these issues, it’s always good to have a sense of where they originally came from. Tracing out the history of a thought might not give you the solution, but it’ll help you understand some of the motivating forces, and how it’s changed over time. For example, if you like the idea that different religions might all have some good parts, it’s worth knowing a bit about Schleiermacher. We talked last week about Schleiermacher’s basic idea that the core of religion is religious feeling, rather than religious systems or doctrines. The idea is that every finite, individual thing is connected to the wider infinite whole, and that we can therefore encounter the infinite through our perception of individual things. “Thus to accept everything individual as a part of the whole and everything limited as a representation of the infinite is religion.”

And that’s a pretty open understanding of religion. It sets the philosophical foundation for recognising and affirming just about any spirituality in the world. Schleiermacher sees that as a necessary part of how spirituality works, arguing that systematized, doctrinal claims are secondary and subjective, laid over the top of the true religious impulse, and are not necessarily correct in and of themselves. He sees them only as perspectives on truth, rather than the truth itself. He uses the example of making pictures out of stars in the sky. The stars are up there, and we can all look at them and see them, and that’s sort of like the basic spiritual experience – the actual engine of religion. But when we create constellations, like the Big Dipper or the Southern Cross, that’s subjective, secondary. It’s the inscription of systems of meaning over the pure experience – which is how Schleiermacher understands the relationship between spiritual experience and doctrine. “When you have persuaded another person to join you in drawing the image of the Big Dipper onto the blue background of the worlds, does he not nevertheless remain free to conceive the adjacent worlds in contours that are completely different from yours? This infinite chaos … is as such actually the most suitable and highest symbol of religion. In religion, as in this chaos, only the particular is true and necessary; nothing can or may be proved anything else.” The stars are the stars, and their particular positions are the only things that are true and necessary. We all have the same infinite sky stretched out above us – we all see the same stars. But the lines that we draw between them are up to us.

And again, all the neo-orthodox Christians will get the shits about this kinda stuff. It sets the ground for a broadly affirming spirituality that sidelines specific doctrines and faiths in favour of a religious impulse common to everyone. Under this theory, claims about Jesus being the Son of God are just another way of drawing lines between the stars. It’s not necessarily wrong, but it’s just one perspective. For what it’s worth, I don’t actually like this part of Schleiermacher’s argument. I’m not willing to surrender some of the doctrinal claims of Christianity as anything other than core to the faith. If Jesus isn’t actually God Incarnate, there’s no point being Christian, and we might as well go off and become Buddhists. That said, I am sympathetic to the direction of Schleiermacher’s argument – and I think we can see where it’s set the trend for the last two hundred years of religious and spiritual thought.

Personally, I see Schleiermacher as sort of like Freud. You don’t have to agree with the details of his argument to appreciate his historical importance and to affirm some of the broader directions of what he was trying to do. I do really like a bunch of what Schleiermacher says. I like the idea that a feeling of the infinite, a relationship with the divine, must come before religious dogma. I don’t think the dogma is unimportant, but I do think it’s insufficient by itself. If you follow some dry, withered Christian rulebook with no authentic connection to the divine, you don’t really have Christianity. Similarly, Schleiermacher writes that “Each person must be conscious that his religion is only a part of the whole, that regarding the same objects that affect him religiously there are views just as pious and, nevertheless, completely different from his own, and that from other elements of religion intuitions and feelings flow, the sense for which he may be completely lacking.” That seems pretty clearly correct. I’ve definitely seen Christians trample over other people because they don’t appreciate or understand the slant of their faith. It’s good to remember that other people might be coming from a place that’s valid, even if it’s not something that we immediately resonate with. Similarly, Schleiermacher links the systematizing impulse with destructive, oppressive force. “The mania for system does indeed reject what is foreign, even if it is quite conceivable and true, because it could spoil one’s own well-formed ranks and disturb the beautiful connections by claiming its place.” I think we’ve seen that too.

Ultimately, Schleiermacher’s theory opens up possibilities and speaks to truths that earlier theologies had barely touched on. And again, even if we don’t give ourselves entirely over to his ideas, there’s obviously a lot of value in the general direction of his argument. He’s set the stage for our modern era, articulating a theology that understands the individual experience of faith, the subjectivity of faith, and the subsequent strength of diversity as rooted in that individual subjective experience. In one of the documents from Vatican II, Unitatis Redintegratio, the Catholics declared that Protestant and Orthodox churches were “separated brethren,” which “the Catholic church embraces … as brothers, with respect and affection.” It asserted that “all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church.” And Schleiermacher, in his grave some hundred and thirty years, would’ve been grinning. It’s not exactly how he envisioned it, but that spirit of ecumenicalism, of varied, valid articulations of the faith – that’s all Schleiermacher. It’s his vision. And it’s our future.


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