Schleiermacher: Is Christianity Rational?

As part of the structure of The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher has a series of different propositions or doctrines. These are the so-called ‘paragraphs’ of the text, which are basically just different sections. Paragraph 13, for instance, proposes that “The appearance of the Redeemer in history is, as divine revelation, neither an absolutely supernatural nor an absolutely supra-rational thing.” That’s the title of the paragraph – and then the paragraph itself goes on to lay out all the terms and definitions and make the relevant case. So we’re told that ‘supra-rational’ means beyond and above the rational, something divinely revealed or enacted, beyond the scope of the natural order. You also sometimes get ‘postscripts’, where Schleiermacher tacks onto the end of a paragraph something that’s related, but not strictly within the purview of the initial doctrine. So where paragraph 13 is about the nature of Jesus and the oppositions of natural / supernatural and rational / supra-rational, the postscript explains how these categories affect our understanding of Christian doctrine.

  • The text: The Christian Faith
  • The author: Friedrich Schleiermacher
  • Notes: Paragraph 13 is in the Introduction, Chapter 1 Section 3.
  • Read it yourself: I haven’t found any free digital versions, so you’ll have to go hard-copy for this one.

So I’m going to skip over the body of the main paragraph here and just look at this postscript, where Schleiermacher addresses “the prevalent view that Christian doctrine consists partly of rational and partly of supra-rational dogmas.” This is something that’s still familiar today: there are parts of Christianity that seem like they hold true regardless of whether or not you’re religious, and other parts that seem pretty exclusive to believers. For example, most people are on board with the ‘do unto others’ thing – the idea that you should treat other people how you want them to treat you. It just feels like normal pro-social behaviour, something that everyone should be doing. But the claim that, for instance, Jesus was literally God on Earth – that’s what we might describe as supra-rational dogma, in the sense that we can’t expect people to adopt that idea if they aren’t Christian. We can’t derive that idea only from rational argument.

And – you know, obviously this division is a little contentious, even just in itself. It prompts these very specific responses from religious and non-religious people. For example, a non-believer might say that the only valid parts of Christianity are those that can be derived from rational argument, and that those parts are not uniquely Christian, but are rather something that anyone should be able to figure out and articulate. You can see some validity to that position – being nice is hardly an idea that’s exclusive to Christianity. But it also feels weird not to acknowledge how ideas like the Golden Rule are tied to the historical cultures and societies that they originated in. When certain moral ideas can be found across several disparate cultures, there’s a tendency to tack some sort of evolutionary or biological explanation onto it – to say, for instance, that we all evolved to be nice because it’s beneficial to the species as a whole. It can feel a bit reductive.

Similarly, I’m not sure how much stock we want to put in natural theology, which claims that some Christian doctrines can be derived exclusively from logic and reason. That approach often feels like surrendering ground. That is, even if a Christian principle can be derived purely from logic and reason, I wouldn’t want to surrender its specific Christian articulation. We can all agree that charity is a good thing, but Calvinists believe that we should give even to those who don’t deserve it. Calvin argues that we received salvation that we did not deserve, and so should in turn give to those who we might consider undeserving. That’s the moral of the Unforgiving Servant parable of Matthew 18 – and it’s not necessarily how other people from other backgrounds would think about charity. It’s not something you can derive from some sort of universal first principle. The values and stories of Christianity shape our perspectives and beliefs – or at least they should, if we want to claim those beliefs as our own. As Schleiermacher says, “if that peculiarly Christian element were not in them at all, they would, of course, not be Christian dogmas.”

For Schleiermacher, then, all Christian doctrine is both rational and supra-rational: “The supra-rationality of all particular Christian dogmas is the measure by which it can be judged whether they succeed in expressing the peculiarly Christian element; and again, their rationality is the test of how far the attempt to translate the inward emotions into thoughts has succeeded.” Our experience or sense of the divine is transcendent, supra-rational, and then our attempt to articulate that feeling in some sort of meaningful way is the rational part. Christian doctrine is thus a rational description of an irrational, supra-rational experience. It’s an idea that neatly explains a couple things that we recognise in life – for instance, someone can pretty accurately describe Christian beliefs without being a believer themselves. They can recite the rational description without possessing the underlying experience. That’s why Christian doctrine isn’t purely rational: “a true appropriation of Christian dogmas cannot be brought about by scientific means, and thus lies outside the realm of reason: it can only be brought about through each man willing to have the experience for himself.” Similarly, doctrine isn’t purely supra-rational, because we can communicate some of the conclusions that arise from our experience. And we can bolster those conclusions with tangible real-world evidence. We can say that charity is good, and provide all of the relevant evidence proving its social importance, even though at our core we believe in the value of charity not because of the evidence, but because of our encounter with the divine and our resulting conviction that charity is the will of God.

I dunno. Maybe in the final analysis this ‘experience of God’ stuff is a bit woolly. Some people do dumb things and think that God told them to do it. That’s not a good advertisement for this theory. Plus, if we’re just working off this spiritual vibe, what’s the point of the Bible? And how do you ‘experience’ some of the more abstract, intellectual parts of Christian doctrine? Which part of your spiritual experience of God would lead you to theorize and articulate a doctrine of the Trinity? These aren’t new issues – they applied back when Schleiermacher first started talking about how religion is a vibe. But this language of rational and supra-rational belief activates the issue in a new way. It emphasizes how we organise and explain our beliefs, how we’re able (or not able) to relate to people who don’t share the faith. It might be that explaining your spiritual vibe actually goes down well. But it also raises quite serious questions about the cohesion and future of Christianity.

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