Thinking about the nature of religion with Schleiermacher

Although I don’t agree with Schleiermacher on everything, I do think his overall approach to religion is a fruitful one. To get clear on what this is, it’s helpful to think of his position as occupying a middle ground between two unpalatable extremes. On the one hand, it’s possible to think of religion as a purely theoretical undertaking: “God” is a hypothesis that is purported to explain various features of the world or human experience, or is the conclusion of an abstract argument. On the other hand, it can be thought of as a purely practical endeavor whose purpose is to guide human life but which makes no truth-claims or ontological commitments. (Such “non-cognitivist” views of religion were popular during the heyday of logical positivism in the early 20th century.)

Schleiermacher rejects both these extremes. In insisting that the essence of religion is a “sense and taste for the Infiinte” (in his speeches on religion) or a “feeling of absolute dependence” (in The Christian Faith), he’s clearly at odds with a purely theoretical understanding of religion. He allows that “speculative” theology may be a valid enterprise, but it’s distinct from dogmatic theology. Christian theology is a reflection on religious experience, particularly the experience of redemption in Jesus. But contrary to how he’s sometimes interpreted, Schleiermacher is also not an non-cognitivist–that is, religious language has more than just a pragmatic purpose. Religious experience has an implicit referent–the Infinite, or God–and the propositions of theology are reflections on the nature of that reality to the extent that it’s disclosed in experience. The propositions of dogmatic theology set out what the experience of redemption in Christ implies about God, the world, and humanity.

So for Schleiermacher, the goal of religion is to evoke and strengthen the experience of redemption. But this experience is rooted in a Reality that transcends the finite, created world–and this Reality is the object of religious devotion. Unlike “pure” philosophy or science, the goal of religion is not disinterested theoretical understanding of the world, but it does bring us into contact with a reality that exists independently of us. Theology describes this reality insofar as it is discernible by its effects on us, particularly in being the source of our redemption. Religion is a practical, existential undertaking, but it also makes claims about the nature of the world.

There are a couple of things to be said for this broad view. First, it seems to me to home in on what most religious traditions consider to be the essence of religious life: namely, redemption, or salvation, or liberation. That is, religion is neither purely theoretical nor purely practical but is fundamentally about bringing human beings into a correct orientation toward an independently existing ultimate reality (or a right relationship with God, to put it in more explicitly Christian terms). This captures both the subjective and objective aspects, or poles, that seem essential to religion.

Second, a broadly “Schleiermacherian” account of religion can potentially make sense of religious pluralism: the experience of redemption/salvation/liberation never occurs “neat,” but is always conditioned by its social and historical context. Thus, theological reflection will be conditioned by these historical and cultural factors, resulting in a legitimate (and possibly unavoidable) epistemic pluralism. (Schleiermacher himself, it should be noted, clearly thought Christianity was the “highest” religion, but at the same time he was clear that this judgment was made from within a commitment to the Christian community.)

Finally, this view helps explain why our theology needs to be open to re-thinking and revision. Since it constitutes reflection on the experience of redemption, theology itself shouldn’t be considered “revealed” or infallible. It has to be tested and refined in light of ongoing experience and new knowledge about the world (e.g., scientific discoveries), while remaining faithful to its original source. (The Christian Faith itself is a model of this approach, even if, like me, you sometimes disagree with Schleiermacher’s particular conclusions.)

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4 thoughts on “Thinking about the nature of religion with Schleiermacher”

  1. “On the one hand, it’s possible to think of religion as a purely theoretical undertaking: “God” is a hypothesis that is purported to explain various features of the world or human experience, or is the conclusion of an abstract argument. On the other hand, it can be thought of as a purely practical endeavor whose purpose is to guide human life but which makes no truth-claims or ontological commitments.”

    So, on the one hand, the falsehood that religion is theistic philosophy, and on the other, that it is a moral system. Both certainly Enlightenment misunderstandings. (Although I’m not sure it’s appropriate to take early-20th c non-cognitivism and apply it to the situation of an early-19th c thinker.) Also both entirely etic accounts of what religion is supposed to do. Both of these belong on one side of the spectrum, really; what of the other side? Schleiermacher is an apologete. He is working from emic to etic, and you don’t account here for Protestant Orthodoxy at the opposite pole. It may help you to situate Schleiermacher’s account of religion by grounding both sides.

  2. That’s a good point, though one can only do so much in a single post! ;)

    And I did consider the possible inapplicability of non-cognitivism to Schleiermacher’s project–obviously I’m not saying he was responding to that, but I do think it is an heir of sorts to to moralistic deism or post-Kantian “religion within the bounds of reason.”

    1. Well, of course. Or at least, you might have to write posts as long as mine to do it, and brevity is the soul of wit. ;) I didn’t mean to suggest a defect, so much as a possibly useful extension to an already good thought.

      And yeah, I think it’s justifiable to see non-cognitivism building out of that sort of Kantian framework, especially in the conflict with Hume. If we begin by pushing away from naturalism, and then from realism, Schleiermacher does represent a particular case of internalizing and relativizing religion and morality.

  3. Also, my knowledge of post-Reformation Protestant Orthodoxy is pretty sketchy (anything you’d recommend on the topic?), though I do think you get a sense of the position S. was reacting against in The Christian Faith.

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