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.


6 thoughts on “The Most Important Thing You Need to Know About Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Theology

  1. I’ve only read the *Speeches on Religion,* but this helps me understand what I read better, thanks.

    It seems to me though, that even if Schleiermacher’s “feeling” is not equivalent to experience or secular reason, it seems to still exist in a space modernity carves out for it. There remains a sort of “givenness” to it that I find problematic. I wonder if a Schleiermacher-influenced theologian would have means to respond to say, Freud’s critique of the “oceanic feeling” (which operates similarly, if I understand you correctly).

  2. Sean, thanks for the comment. Absolutely. That Schleiermacher is separating feeling, knowing, and doing is evidence enough of his participation in the modernist project, which, to be fair, he can’t really help. Kantianism was the great “problem” of his era and both Schleiermacher and Schelling (and others) provided solutions that have largely gone misunderstood and written off (mostly due to Hegel’s characterizations of both) until fairly recently. I think Schleiermacher (perhaps with some help from Schelling) provides the resources for theological phenomenology that can excise itself of the metaphysical “problem” while still maintaining “metaphysics.” I think speculative realism is moving in that direction, though I don’t know enough to accurately connect them to all of this.

    That said, I think the problem with a Freudian critique might be that Freud (like Schleiermacher) is assuming certain modern requirements for what qualifies as knowledge. If we take up a phenomenological revision of Schleiermacher, then we could say that “feeling” is the basis of all knowledge to begin with, not just religious knowledge. Schleiermacher singles out religion because he thinks he needs to protect it from the critique of Reason. But if you look at Schleiermacher through Deleuze or Merleau-Ponty, we can say, “Actually, he didn’t need to make such a sharp distinction between religious and scientific or philosophical knowledge.”

    I was working on a reply the oceanic feeling critique, but it was getting too long. I’ll sum it up in two points: 1) While the oceanic feeling and the feeling of absolute dependence seem similar, there are really important differences. 2) Freud’s critique of the former is, “I’ve never experienced that feeling; therefore, it’s not the basis of religion.” That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but my sense is that that’s the gist of it.

    • I don’t think that Freud’s lack of experience with the feeling is his critique, it’s just a thing he states to qualify his exposition. I think that a more accurate summary is that for Freud, feelings always *respond* to something. Schleiermacher would agree here, I think, since he’s positing the feeling of dependence as a basis for talking about God and religion; he seems on this account to think there’s really something out there that gives rise to the feeling, but that the feeling is our most primary access to it. The problem, then for Freud, is that an account of the feeling that doesn’t also take account of the material conditions to which it responds stops short. A feeling thus, by definition, can’t be the cause of religion, because a feeling always points to something else. Freud thinks he can explain the cause of the oceanic feeling (which he does characterize as a feeling of dependence) via certain drives psychoanalysis has already uncovered. Whether or not his exposition of those drives is convincing, I think that his basic insight with regard to the oceanic feeling—that appeal to a certain affective stance as an origin for a complex set of beliefs, practices, and structures is to seek primary cause in a shared symptom of the actual cause—seems sound to me. The challenge this would seem to put to Schleiermacher is to account for the pragmatic implications of the affective stance he explores. What causes the feeling?

      • And maybe I should put my autobiographical cards on the table. If he’s talking about something that actually manifests as a feeling in the sense we talk about feelings, I really do think I recognize the feeling he’s talking about. I also haven’t felt it in years, and I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing. It often seems to me that the piety causes the feeling, and not vice versa.

  3. When he says that God is the “Whence of the feeling of absolute dependence,” he means God is actually the source of that feeling. Now, the way Schleiermacher defends not having to prove the existence of God in a way that would stand up to Reason is that he says theology is strictly a dogmatic project. He actually acknowledges that the logic of his system would probably collapse under the conditions of philosophy/science–but he doesn’t care because that’s not the sort of project he’s engaged in. That’s weak, I know. Anyway, it doesn’t make sense for Schleiermacher to talk about God as the source of religion (even though he’s the source of the feeling) because 1) We can’t actually *know* anything about God (he’s emphatic about the metaphorical nature of theology proper) and 2) Even if God is the whence, people develop piety based upon the feeling of absolute dependence without any reference to or knowledge of the Christian God.

    All the great “suspicionists” of the 19th century (Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud) would agree with your last point. Feuerbach and Freud both would say the feeling is actually a projection of the pious person. The problem is that it doesn’t get at the “prior-ness” of feeling that Schleiermacher (and later phenomenologists) are trying to describe. It would be great to do a short series of posts on “feeling” though.

  4. Pingback: Idealism | Several, Four, Many

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