Monday, June 27, 2011

Schleiermacher: A Short Historical Write-Up

With the advent of Enlightenment ways of thinking, many people in Friedrich Schleiermacher’s day were eager to abandon religion as so much superstition. The new ways were better – science and reason, unencumbered by the supernatural, religious tradition, or ritual, were to reign supreme as the only paths to truth in regards to the world and how we ought to live in it. Religion was no longer seen as a viable authority regarding either of these areas. Secular science, ethics, philosophy, and other pursuits of empirical study and reason unaided by special revelation were the authorities now. Against this climate, Schleiermacher insists on the indispensability of religion and himself affirms the Christian religion in particular as having a proper place alongside science and other such pursuits.
Schleiermacher, however, is not unaffected by the intellectual climate he is taking on. Rather than undermining all the crucial presuppositions of such an atmosphere, he instead makes just enough room to fit Christianity inside it in some form or other, letting what does not, at the end of this process, fit inside, fall out or get reinterpreted. Religion, in order to fit it into the schema of various intellectual pursuits, each with differing and seemingly discrete domains of authority, is a pursuit whose subject is reduced to a mere feeling or consciousness of a kind of dependence on the divine. All doctrine, to be legitimate (or perhaps even meaningful?), requires a foundation in this very consciousness. So distinct is this expression of the consciousness of dependence on God that, were it in a body of doctrine to be rendered exact, the statements making up this body would not or could not overlap in meaning with those appearing in philosophy or some other subject. It is simply a mistake to think that, once religious language is cleaned up and logically ordered, that it will be able to affirm or deny any proposition expressed in the language of one of the other subjects. True Christian doctrine, then, rightly understood, has no quarrel with the science or philosophy of those who would despise it.
In this particular line of thought, Schleiermacher’s views of religion and religious language are in the same general stream as those of the later logical positivists and other similar sorts of later empiricists who questioned whether religious language had any meaning at all, some indeed affirming that it did have meaning but only in virtue or its connections with religious feelings or attitudes rather than through any sort of correspondence with some kind of a supernatural or metaphysical external reality. That such views were able to hold sway in many philosophy departments (and among some theologians) is undoubtedly due in part to the influence of Schleiermacher and others coming from his general intellectual climate. Only with the dramatic Anglo-American resurgence of metaphysics in the third quarter of the twentieth century and the simultaneous collapse of logical positivism and extreme empiricism with it, did such views of religion and religious language in philosophical circles cease to be any kind of dominant or even major view.
One at times sees vestiges of such views, however, expressed by some (definitely not all) more progressive religious people, in part often also channeling seemingly the old religious Liberalism of which Schleiermacher is one of the primogenitors. When one thinks about the implications of such a view of religion or religious language fully applied, however, it is hard to see how it could possibly do justice to the various religious traditions which populate our world. It is not easy to see how every religion can be reduced to at bottom a kind of feeling of dependence or seeing the finite in its relation to the infinite without either excising or at least doing violence to the beliefs or practices of some religions or introducing foreign elements into it which were not already there to be found. Religious language and all the doctrines and dogmas of the various religions ultimately turn into a mere expression or discussion of our own feelings. Rather than focused, say, on God, our God-talk is, despite appearances, focused on ourselves. We do not worship God – rather, we express our feelings and call it “worship of God”. Taken to its logical conclusion, such a view ultimately pushes God, the supernatural, and religious claims to factual truth aside and leaves us instead with a kind of consciousness without any correspondence to any sort of external divinity or divine reality, only us, our consciousness and the empirical world all around. The factual content of Christianity has been gutted, and Christianity along with it, leaving only an empty form of words to be refilled with what we may like from our own experiences.
From the readings, however, it does not seem like Schleiermacher was completely consistent nor did he realize the full implications of the path on which he was taking Christian theology. At times he does seem to think that God really is a separate entity external to us, existing over and above our experiences and that we can really say factually true things about this God – things that correspond to the way the world is outside of us – not merely express our feelings. He seems to think, for instance, that there is some sort of real survival beyond death watched over by a real God who has real effects on real people – and that this is a basis for a real hope or comfort over those who have died. Others have followed Schleiermacher in this inconsistent mixture of an apparently emotive view of religious language and yet at times being committed to its opposite. When seen consistently for what it is, however, without the admixture of what is inconsistent with it, it is hard to see the plausibility in such a view (and hence why it has fallen on better days in philosophical circles).

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