The Inward Turn Friedrich Schleiermacher

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) provided a ground-breaking account of why theology should take experience more seriously. Religion, according to Schleiermacher, is a universal tendency evolving from the innate awareness of the human mind. In On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (1799) he calls this capacity a 'sense and taste for the infinite' from which flows all religious faith. Later in The Christian Faith (1821-2) he refines this to 'the feeling of unconditional dependence'. Schleiermacher constructs evervthing upon his principle that religion grows from 'the consciousness of being absolutely dependent, or, which is the same thing, of being in relation with God' (Schleiermacher 1968:12). There is, in each of us, a subjectivity which is more than our responsiveness to the world around us. Our self-consciousness 'is itself precisely a consciousness of absolute dependence' because we become aware that 'the whole of our spontaneous activity comes from a source outside of us' (ibid.: 16). This provenance which is within yet beyond the human is what makes possible both our receptivity and our activity. God, says Schleiermacher, is this mysterious 'Whence' on which we depend.

Precisely what Schleiermacher meant by absolute dependence is notoriously uncertain. But he seems to be pointing to each person's unique inner stream of awareness, proceeding from depths beyond scrutiny and yet enabling each one to take a stance towards the world. Feeling, then, is not to be understood as a form of emotion but rather as an immediate self-consciousness, what Robert Williams calls 'a global consciousness of self in correlation with the world' (Williams 1978:23). This absolute dependence is what carries human freedom. Indeed, each person's sense of self, of identity, would not be possible without it. In Schleiermacher's system, God is apprehended and identified through this feeling, which amounts to 'a co-existence of God in the self-consciousness' (ibid.: 126). Absolute dependence, he adds, has been expressed in many ways in different cultures, but is most purely expressed in monotheism. Descriptions of divine attributes and modes of actions, and metaphysical statements generally, are seen as developing out of the feeling of absolute dependence (ibid.: 125-6). The ability to grow in awareness of this inner presence is the essence of religious practice. Salvation lies in cultivating this consciousness, in which we respond to the infinite inner presence with a corresponding love, and are drawn towards the infinitely good and the infinitely true. Jesus of Nazareth is regarded by Schleiermacher as the supreme example of such God-consciousness. Showing how we can be in touch with God within, Jesus redeems us by empowering us. But concepts such as atonement, resurrection and ascension add nothing to our awareness of God and become redundant (ibid.: 417-19). Schleiermacher also argued that religion enabled a deeper union of the human spirit with the divine ground of being, thus protecting science, art, and morality from scepticism and decay (Redeker 1973:111).

With Schleiermacher the centre of gravity in Protestant theology shifted. It was no longer taken for granted that Scripture or tradition would be the starting point. Theology had a new approach more in keeping with the intellectual currents of a critical and scientific age. Richard Brandt comments that most Protestant theologians in the succeeding generation followed Schleiermacher in his insistence on the autonomy of religious experience. The foundations of faith were now to be found in the dynamics of human nature itself (Brandt 1971:307). To be human was to have the source of piety within oneself in a direct and immediate relationship created by God, who revealed himself through it. In this respect Schleiermacher was clearly influenced by Pietism: he was mostly educated by Moravian Brethren, who stressed the importance of a vividly experienced communion with the Saviour (Redeker 1973:10). Among other influences was Spinoza, to whom Schleiermacher is indebted for his view of God as the pervasive loving presence through whom the universe is maintained in being and finds a unity. God, however, does not interfere in the closed system of nature.

Schleiermacher's achievement is immense, yet has some serious weaknesses. Perhaps the most serious is the privacy of the experience on which he bases his religious system. Doctrines and the community of faith are traced back to the religious experience of the individual. Although he argues that the Church takes shape through inter-action and co-operation (Schleiermacher 1968:532), there is very little room in his system for a sharing of the ideas which express human experience and shape it further. Schleiermacher's theology reinforced the tendency of Protestant theology to make the inward dimension of faith the most important one, at the expense of its relational dimension. It is also instructive to reflect on Schleiermacher's defence against the charge of pantheism: 'It is quite inconceivable how one could attribute pantheism to me, for I fully separate the feeling of absolute dependence from any relation with the world' (quoted in Redeker 1973:115). This tendency to introversion is increased by the deterministic way in which Schleiermacher views the God-world relationship. Although he insists that God is not responsible for discrete events, nor involved in time (Schleiermacher 1968: sects. 50-2), it is difficult to escape the impression that he associates causality in nature too closely with the will of God. Prayer, for example, is to be limited to resignation or thankfulness, or better still, should simply move beyond these to a deeper trust in God (ibid.: 669). Finally, despite some spirited defenders (e.g. Redeker 1973:131-2), Dilthey's criticism is correct: Schleiermacher shapes his picture of Christ to fit his theology of experience. He sees no sense in vicarious suffering, and his theology of the cross is skimpy and unsatisfactory (cf. Moltmann 1991:214-15).

In sum, Schleiermacher gives grounds for treating human experience with new seriousness. The sense of self is seen as containing an inherent dynamism which points back to God. In this account there is much to encourage respect for the uniqueness and responsibility of human nature. On the other hand, its privacy means that there is little room for either salvation or sin as a shared experience in the life of believers. Nor is it easy to construct from him an account of how communities and societies can shape and be shaped through religious discourse. This neglect of evil, and the relative downgrading of the need for human solidarity, were true also of much subsequent liberal Protestant theology. The turn to experience often concealed within it a confident belief in progress.

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