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On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers - schleiermacher

Friedrich Schleiermacher, a Protestant theologian, philosopher, and educator, who wrote On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (1799), ventured into Christian dogmatics in a non-conventional yet avant-garde manner. His new approach to critically analyzing religion signaled the beginning of the era of Protestant Liberal Theology whilst simultaneously placing his book among the “classic” substantive works that speaks to “religion and Christian faith” (Schleiermacher vii).

Schleiermacher, sometimes called the “father of modern theology,” believes shreds of faith are present in knowing (doctrine) and doing (ethical action), but it is most fully encapsulated by a kind of “feeling” or intuition, the “feeling (consciousness) of absolute dependence.”

Faith belongs to two levels: the foremost, which is the “immediate” self-consciousness and the second, which is the “sensible” self-consciousness (Schleiermacher 36). The latter refers to the self in relation to the world. The ‘world’ consists of nature and society. Therefore, the two levels are inexorably linked.

He proposed to the “cultural despisers” of religion that when they rejected traditional dogmas, they were not in essence rejecting the faith upon which it was founded. They despise dogma and its application in the societal realm which parallels to one’s distaste for the shell and not the peanut within; they are fixed upon its trappings. The same principle pertains to defenders of religion since they do not defend religion either; it is a mere buttress for morals and social institutions. To truly ascertain religion, one must close his/her eyes to false appearances and associations ingrained by history and society, and delve into the self-interior of one’s pious soul.

Every human being is or has the potential to be to be a devout soul. The difficulty arises in the process of self-dissection or introspection. When one exhumes the “feeling” for the unity underlying the interconnectedness of all finite things, one experiences faith. [Schleiermacher uses faith, piety, and religion interchangeably.] Religion is the contemplation of the pious; it is about having life and knowing it a certain way.

Religion, at its core, is not “the intellect” (i.e. objective knowledge) or “the will” (subjective knowledge). Objective knowledge refers to reason and one’s perception of the world whereas subjective knowledge is that which pours forth from experience and personal idiosyncrasy. As an infant the boundary between subject and object melts away; the synthesis of the two is “feeling.” This is the raw experience of existence that cannot be completely articulated because it would then belong to “the intellect.” Religion, properly understood, is intrinsic to all human persons; it is the highest expression of self-consciousness and at its best is also God-consciousness.

Humanity should always look at religion through the scope of the original “feeling” because that is the beginning of all religions. After the original “feeling,” there was a decay of religion. A preoccupation with worldly things fragments one’s life and disrupts one’s “immediate” consciousness (Schleiermacher 246). Redemption reorients one’s life, putting one in good relations with God. The “feeling of absolute dependence” is the actual experience of God and to be conscious of this immediate self-consciousness is to be conscious of being in relation to God. Schleiermacher reveres individuality and sees religion as the manifestation of self oneness. He spoke of God in the context of human experience. Since man is subject to sin and immersion in finite trappings, his God-consciousness is interrupted which means his sense of the “infinite” is obscured. Christ was an example of steady, unbroken God-consciousness.

Religion is an essential aspect of humanity. Each person is meant to represent humanity uniquely in his or her own way. As Romantics celebrated individuality so did Schleiermacher. Feeling and creativity were two qualities of humanity that the Romantics wanted to save from the insipid intellectualism and moralism of the Enlightenment. Religion is embedded in humanity, but more so in humanity’s social disposition, which calls for communication that is free, spontaneous, and without sacerdotal didacticism.

Individuality, central to real religion, is part and parcel of “positive” religions. “Positive” religions are institutional religions such as the church and “natural” religions relate to what man can discern like metaphysics. The diversity of religions always traces back to human individuality. Each person naturally has a greater receptiveness to one religious experience than to others. A “positive” religion is constituted when one relation to the deity becomes the point of reference for all others (Schleiermacher 246). Christianity exemplifies this rule. It emphasizes mediation and the idea of corruption and redemption that make Christianity a critical, polemical religion. Christianity being polemical emphasizes its differences from other religions, hence embracing uniqueness. “Positive” religions do not hinder the individual but in fact enhance individuality. All religions are expressions of absolute dependence, a dependence upon the “infinite.” If people are dissatisfied with existing religions, than Schleiermacher believes they should create their own religion. The fullness of the “feeling” can be found in many religions. He encourages plurality of religion but only with the chimerical belief that they will all someday unite.

Schleiermacher also believed the church as an institution was being exploited by the civic interests of the state. Therefore he would be in favor of a church and state being separate. Ideally, the church would be comprised of a community of genuinely devout drawn together for mutual religious communication simply because of their social nature.

Mark Miller, the author of Experiential Storytelling: Rediscovering Narrative to Communicate God’ Message, once said, “Faith is the eyes of being in love.” When in love, everything looks different, thus being outside of a faith (not in love) induces a lack of understanding. The primal element of religion is absolute dependence on God, the “feeling,” faith. Religion cannot be effaced because it is part of being human. Therefore the immediate consciousness of the deity is always is always within us.







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