Schleiermacher in Brief: On Religion, Introduction

I don’t believe I really knew how to read before I entered college. This is not to say that I was illiterate, nor that I struggled to comprehend the words and sentences on a particular page. However, I lacked a certain technique to the art of reading that would have illuminated the books I read in my time before university.

My teachers during middle and high school were excellent. My English teachers, especially, were talented and driven to see their students succeed academically. When we began new books, however, the approach to comprehending them and learning about their messages, as far as I can remember, was based on a strict textuality. By textuality, I mean simply that the meaning of a work was found in the words on the page. Historical-cultural context could be illuminative, but it was by no means necessary to grasping the broad sweep of novel or a play.

Fundamentalists often take a similar approach to the Scriptures, incidentally. What can be considered true and inspired and worthy of teaching from the pulpit should only be what’s found in the text — especially in the Greek, the Hebrew, or the Aramaic, as it were. Knowledge of the cultural context out of which a text emerged and into which it has now appeared are deemed secondary to the lexical-syntactical reading of the page. There has been healthy movement away from this position of late, but the tendency still rears its head in popular understandings of Scripture.

All of that is in semi-service of my point: it was at the University of Memphis that I finally grasped the importance of reading the introduction and preface to works which contain them, especially of books that are divorced from my own place in history. It is a naive assumption that states that language is an unchanging, static force of culture. If the very means by which we communicate most clearly with each other is subject to change, how much more are the concepts and beliefs which we try to move across the channels of the tongue and lip bound to change? The ways in which a society views itself and views the world (including its history and its future) changes every generation, and very often much more quickly than that. This is why reading a piece of philosophy or of theology in a vacuum is impossible, and why believing that you can do so is naive.

We can’t access anything in an intellectual vacuum. We can certainly shut out or ignore the voices which accompany a writing through its journey in history, but we are unable to escape the voices that attend it in our own time. To get closest to what an author intends requires that we construct the world in which the author wrote, although this is no guarantee that our attempt will be successful. In addition to what an author intends, however, is what a text means in our own time:  the two answers may not be (actually, almost certainly will not be) the same. Our time vindicates and vilifies the works of the past.

Which brings us to Schleiermacher. He’s treated with scorn and contempt by conservative-minded theologians, and with praise by those who are more liberal-minded today. He was born in 1768 and died 66 years later in 1834. Early on, he attended a school with a Moravian heritage, which emphasized experience as a necessary pedagogue in the Christian faith. This background surely stayed with him, and I am certain that I will see some of that influence in On Religion, one of his earliest works, published in 1799. In 1796, Schleiermacher had travelled to Berlin, where he encountered the Romantic Circle, a group of intellectuals. The subtitle to On Religion is Speeches to its Cultured Despisers; according to Waring, the members of the Romantic Circle are these “cultured despisers” to whom Schleiermacher has written.

During Schleiermacher’s age, the intellectual atmosphere of the content was drifting. There were three poles of thought: Orthodox Protestant thought and its two critics, skeptics/atheists and those who would advocate for natural religion. In view of the intellectual force of men such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant, and likely in response to some of their claims concerning truth as such, Schleiermacher sought to limit the force of truth qua doctrine, arguing that “thought is not the heart of religion.”¹

Schleiermacher was also thrust into the streams of Romanticism, which was the continental response to the claims of the Enlightenment. According to Waring, the two schools are distinguished by the former’s exaltation of diversity over against the latter’s desire for abstraction/idealization. In Schleiermacher, “feeling” and “individuality” are the two primary means by which Romanticism inserted itself into theology.

On Religion is one of the more well-known works of Schleiermacher. It has certainly directly influenced Mainline Protestantism, and to probably an equal degree, although indirectly, it has drawn conservative evangelicals to draw a tighter border around questions of doctrine and inclusion. The Romantic ideals that Schleiermacher carried with him into the text find expression in the toleration and universalism in certain Christian traditions that claim Schleiermacher as a figurehead. Most studies concerning the “historical figure” of Jesus or the inner “consciousness” of Jesus owe something to Schleiermacher. Although it remains to be seen whether reading Schleiermacher with his cultural context in mind will vindicate him (if indeed he needs vindication), Waring has offered this succinct, charitable reading of him that we each ought to try to imitate in our own lives,

“The work represents an honest attempt to come to terms with the difficulties posed for the religious mind by the bankruptcy of a traditional form of doctrine, and to find a new way to comprehend and express the basic element in what is experienced as supremely meaningful.”²

¹Waring, E. Graham, Introduction of On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. Trans. John Oman. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1955. Print. viii.

²Waring, xiii.

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