Matthew Lipscomb – Modern Christian Thought – 1/14/09
A Précis on Friedrich Schleiermacher’s
On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers
Friedrich Schleiermacher was a German pastor, who was born into a religious family highly influenced by Reformed (Calvinist) theology and the pietistical Moravian Brethren. In 1785 Schleiermacher began his theological education at the Moravian seminary in Barby. It was also there that Schleiermacher began to rebel against the strict dogmatic theological assertions of his background. This culminated in letters to his father, stating his changing beliefs, and his eventual transfer to the more liberal University of Halle where he studied philosophy and continued his theological education. Schleiermacher never considered himself to be removed from his former belief system, but still chose to identify with it – describing himself in his later years in terms of being a “Moravian of a higher order.”
On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers represents his effort to reach those of his own generation with the Gospel that he still held dear, despite his apparent break with his strict background and its various dogmatic assertions – such as the traditional understanding of the Atonement of Christ and the Virgin Birth – while writing from the perspective of his faith, as he had come to see it. On Religion is Schleiermacher’s attempt to move past the institutional dogmaticisms of his day, in such a way that he hoped could reach those who have otherwise written off the validity of Christianity. Proponents point out that it must be read from the perspective of this specifically intended audience – lest it be potentially misunderstood.
On Religion is broken into five speeches, each entreating the skeptic to consider his given propositions, even in light of the reader’s acknowledged contempt for the given subject. It is not a theological analysis of church doctrine, nor an attempt to make a persuasive argument based on theological/scriptural assertions.
Speech one is aptly titled Apology. It serves as a foundation for the proceeding speeches and is an attempt to state exactly who he is writing to, to make candid acknowledgments of the state of present Christianity, to outlay his intended method and states that he lacks any pretensions that his audience has to or will listen to what he has to say. He merely entreats them to consider what he will speak to them regarding.
Speech two is titled On the Essence of Religion, and explores what he terms the “intuition of the universe -” which he says is not related to philosophy, nor which can be considered a system, but that rather is an inherently personal and individual essence; the only authentic source for true religion in a person’s life. Schleiermacher further details the abuses of what other people substitute for it.
Speech three moves past this proposed substrate and explores the process of self-formation, for which it is likewise titled. Speech four moves the progression further from substrate formation, on to the issue what religion looks like in a social context – which he believes is crucially necessary. Schleiermacher’s final, fifth speech explores the varieties of religion present in the world and if a true plurality of truth is possible. In his conclusion, Schleiermacher proposes a nature of Christianity which, when properly understood, radically separates it from other forms of religion.
Just as Renée Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy in 1641 did before him, Schleiermacher’s On Religion charted a new course in apologetics. Schleiermacher wanted to push the art past the standard assumptions to reach those hostile to the faith, and his bold move reverberates still today. As C.S. Lewis did with his Mere Christianity and Donald Miller has done for today’s so-called postmodern generation with his Blue Like Jazz, such efforts are not without risk to either the writer or the theological establishment.
Schleiermacher’s On Religion continues to affect more then just the disaffected. When he wrote it, he intended it to be an apologetical work and not a systematic theological treatise, such as his later work, The Christian Faith [Glaubenslehre], published in 1821 & 1830. Yet, both Schleiermacher’s theology and his apologetical method have both been so influential, that many feel him responsible for the liberal side of the liberal/conservative dichotomatic split in Christian theology. Indeed, he is considered by many to not just be the father of modern Christian thought, but also liberal thought as well. Some have even suggested that the criticism of him has been so harsh that it masks over the spirit of what Schleiermacher was trying to accomplish, resulting in a “Barthinian Captivity” (Barth was both a respecter but a harsh critic of Schleiermacher) of the church, because of the overshadowing suspicion and negative attitudes, held by and associated with other theological figures/counterparts, in regards to not just his theology – but also his apologetic method. Few theologians will continue to be rediscovered, reanalyzed, reasserted and even rerejected as Schleiermacher will ever be. He is no doubt a permanent fixture in an impermanent theological landscape.