The Most Important Thing You Need to Know About Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Theology

I keep encountering an assumption about liberal theology in general that has really been gnawing at me since I started diving deep into the work of the man who started it all, Friedrich Schleiermacher.

Here’s the problem clearly stated: Many folks define liberal theology as theology that takes its starting point from experience, e.g. either one’s own cultural-historical values, or (more commonly) transcendent human reason. As a result, they conflate Schleiermacher’s theological liberalism with secular humanism, Enlightenment reason, etc.

While it may be that there are contemporary liberal or post-liberal theologians out there who think theology should or can only be done this way, I would like to contend that they have no [direct] connection to Schleiermacher’s theology. In fact, Schleiermacher doesn’t use the word experience (ErfahrungErlebnis, or Praxis) unless he’s talking about the experience of a feeling (ein Gefühl). What has happened, I think, is that experience has been conflated with feeling, and Schleiermacher’s original use of the word “feeling” has been dropped altogether.

That said, there are two major problems with this conflation:

1) Experience and feeling are quite clearly not the same thing in Schleiermacher’s theology.

2) Feeling isn’t the basis for Schleiermacher’s theology; rather theology is what points us back to the feeling. It is what makes explicit an implicit feeling and helps explicate how such a feeling is possible.

So before you go around the campus of your seminary tomorrow telling everyone how Schleiermacher almost destroyed theology altogether until it was rescued by Karl Barth, let’s try to understand this complex and fundamental aspect of Schleiermacher’s theology and philosophy of religion.

We’ll begin by recovering what feeling is. When Schleiermacher talks about feeling, he does mean pre-reflective sorts of things like joy, remorse, sorrow, etc. By pre-reflective, he is speaking in a phenomenological sense (or proto-phenomenological if you prefer.) He means embodied feelings that are prior to thought. But these, according to Schleiermacher, are derivative of one single feeling: What he calls the feeling of absolute dependence.

Before I get to what that feeling is and what it means, we have to ask: Why feeling? In the wake of Kant, a number of philosophers (Jacobi, Schelling, and Schleiermacher, to name a few) are trying to solve the problem of how the realm of the noumenal (the real) can cause any effect in the phenomenal without resorting to Spinozism. (For the sake of space, I’m going to assume a working knowledge of those concepts. If you’re unfamiliar, you can read a short primer here and here.) Understanding how these two realms are connected was a problem Kantianism couldn’t solve. It seemed as though the only alternative was to turn back to Spinoza who had posited the universe as one Substance (God) with two attributes extension and cognition. Jacobi, et. al. thought Spinozism was pantheistic (which it obviously is) and mechanistically determined (which is far less obvious and certainly debatable) and thus nihilistic (Jacobi invents this term in relation to both Spinoza and Kant.) Determinism, it was thought, leaves no room for moral agency.

Schleiermacher, at the beginning of The Christian Faith (his systematic theology) reconfigures the three realms, outlined by Kant in his Critiques, in which human beings interact with the world (Understanding, Reason, Aesthetics for Kant; Knowing, Doing, and Feeling for Schleiermacher.) He makes the claim that both knowing (theology) and doing (ethics) are important in religion, but they cannot be said to be the most essential aspects of religious piety–that from which religious piety springs forth. Schleiermacher notes that devout piety is quite often demonstrated without much theological knowledge at all; that is, if knowledge were the most essential aspect of piety, theologians would naturally be the most pious Christians. We know that’s definitely not true. Theology, in fact, does not require any religious piety–it can be completely areligious. Doing is less important to what we’re focusing on here, but suffice it to say that while piety typically leads one to ethical behavior, Schleiermacher doesn’t think that ethics necessarily requires piety–that is there are plenty of ethical people who are not religious pious. Therefore, ethics cannot be the basis for religion (as Kant believed.)

Establishing feeling as the basis for religion is a way for Schleiermacher to do an end run around the problem of knowledge and the real while ditching the watered-down religion of Kant. He doesn’t want to deny the existence of a transcendent real (a thing-it-itself realm) in the way that Schelling’s philosophy does as reflected in Schleiermacher’s rigorously transcendent account of God’s attributes. But by making the “I” dependent on the real, he doesn’t have to explain how it is that the “I” could have direct knowledge of the real on which to base a theology and thus a religion. Schleiermacher agrees with Kant that the “I” does not have direct access to the real epistemically, but the real, which must imbue every phenomenal object, can affect us pre-reflectively, and dependence is the primary way in which this manifests.

Why a feeling of dependence? This too is wrapped up in debates of Schleiermacher’s day regarding human freedom and ethics in the face of determinism. Human beings, according to Schleiermacher, cannot be absolutely free, because if we were, we could never have any sense of dependence on anything. That is, absolute freedom is not compatible with even partial dependence. However, Schleiermacher thinks that partial freedom is compatible with a feeling of absolute dependence–even necessary for it. We can exercise freedom to an extent, but this freedom is always delimited by dependence. It is in trying to exercise absolute freedom that we begin to develop the sense that we are actually dependent upon something, and the more this feeling develops, Schleiermacher thinks, the more religious one becomes until one realizes one is absolutely dependent. We can see now that this isn’t just a theory about Christianity–it’s a theory about Religion as such. Schleiermacher thinks this is why it’s possible to have a religion without God. He also thinks that’s wrong, but he understands why some would stop short of positing God and instead contemplate their absolute dependence on the totality of the universe itself.

But the universe is not enough to constitute the whence of the feeling of absolute dependence. This is [partially] why Christianity is the true religion for Schleiermacher. God is the only “thing” transcendent enough to fulfill the role of Whence.  Schleiermacher’s theology proper (doctrine of God) is fascinating, and maybe I’ll do another post on that, but let me just sum it up briefly: God is first and foremost love and wisdom (loving wisdom), that which is pure activity necessarily free and freely necessary, aspatial, atemporal, in whom all that is possible is actual, the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of the universe. Agree or disagree, the point is that this is radically not the God of secular reason. The transcendental ego has absolutely no need of this sort of God. God is all but absent from Kant’s account of religion–he’s a footnote (you can read a brief account of Kant’s religion which I wrote here.) There are some similarities between Schleiermacher and Kant (I think their christologies and ecclesiologies are comparable), but they arrive at those from very different places and for very different reasons.

Let’s go back now to theology in general and the notion of starting points. Theology’s role in all of this is to make explicit the implicit feeling of religion in general. Schleiermacher, in his letters to a friend, Dr. Lucke, about The Christian Faith, explains that he would have put the opening propositions regarding feeling at the end of his systematics if he hadn’t thought people would be upset that his system didn’t have a proper climax (i.e. that it didn’t end with an eschatology.) In other words, Schleiermacher thought that the result, the conclusion of any theology is the feeling of absolute dependence and that the task of systematics is to ask what sort of theology there must be to explain the whence of the feeling of absolute dependence.

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