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Friedrich Schleiermacher (Making of Modern…

Friedrich Schleiermacher (Making of Modern Theology) (1987)

by Friedrich Schleiermacher, K. W. Clements (Author)

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There is in much that passes for Christian thought today a tendency towards various forms of subjectivity at the expense of any great concern for rational thought. As one writer put it,

The question is how can we recover dogma without becoming dogmatic; how can we respond to revelation without becoming imperialistic? We can make a start by recovering our critical intelligence.

Descartes’ famous maxim ‘I think therefore I am’ has been superseded by an obsession for the notion of ‘I feel therefore I am’, no doubt a valuable corrective to much drought that has passed for theology over the years, but nevertheless in itself a limited perspective. Alan W. Jones, quoted above, goes on to say, ‘We are hypocrites in the literal sense of the word. We have surrendered our critical intelligence’ (Worship, 62:1, 39). To deify academia or even to make rational self-expression a pre-requisite of salvation is a heresy, as writers such as Jean Vanier have made plain, but at the same time it is blasphemy to neglect the place of thought in God’s creation: thought and feeling must always be partners.

So, in an era when feeling has come dangerously close to being the criterion in many Christians’ eyes by which acceptance into the Christian community is gained, it is surprising that the theologian whose thought was based precisely on that aspect of faith, the experiential, has been so sadly neglected. Almost indisputably the greatest theologian between Calvin and Barth, Friedrich Schleiermacher is largely neglected in our theological courses and in our theological bookshops. The only easily available English translation Schleiermacher is McKintosh and Stewart’s 1928 translation of his magnum opus The Christian Faith, and I suspect that whenever theological courses on Schleiermacher are offered they tend to be relegated to the ‘too hard basket’ of students’ options.

Schleiermacher’s theology is centred on what he came to describe as the human ‘feeling of utter dependence’. It is in this phenomenon that he finds the basis of human faith: it is a premise related to the existentialist idea of ‘angst’, to Otto’s ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’ and to Bonhoeffer’s notion of humanity as homo religiosis. It is not to be dismissed lightly! Schleiermacher’s idea of ‘feeling’ is never mere emotion: self and self-awareness never become the criteria or purpose of faith. Jones again:

Meanwhile [in the 60s and 70s], theology got lost. We are more interested in religio (descriptive, pluralistic) than in revelatum and ours is a revealed religion if anything (ibid, 38).

We could learn this if we were to turn to Schleiermacher with a willingness to benefit from his truths and his errors, avoiding thereby what Karl Raschke called ‘privatized, syncretistic, psycho-spiritual experimentalism of middle-class consumer society’ (“Religious Studies and the Default of Critical Intelligence”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 54, 131).

Keith Clements’ Friedrich Schleiermacher: Pioneer of Modern Theology allows us to do this without being either collectors of antiquarian volumes of fluent readers of German. The format is a biographical introduction to Schleiermacher, followed by a series of brief essays on his themes, and then, in the bulk of the book, selected texts from his writings. Clements, in addressing Schleiermacher, drives straight to the heart of the matter by addressing the connection between the early 19th Century ‘me now’ generation and the post-modern ‘me now generation’. Clements observes, ‘The self-consciousness of which Schleiermacher writes is a consciousness of the self as determined by, or acted upon by, what is other than the self, as well as its own inwardly motivated actions’ (37). This is not ever a ‘me first’ or a ‘me now’ theology, nor is it reducible to mere good feelings, a charismatic buzz.

Schleiermacher has many theological faults, and Clements is not afraid to address them. The absence of a sacramental theology of Schleiermacher is addressed and explained, though not explained away. Similarly the infamous Schleiermacherian confusion of the Kingdom of God with the Kingdom of Prussia, a confusion that provided justification in Hitler’s mind for the atrocities he perpetrated, is addressed, placed in context, and explained by Clements.

Indeed, precisely because Schleiermacher’s theology is based upon his notion of utter dependence, it is vital that we see the abuses to which excessive subjectivism is open. I do not accuse Schleiermacher of excessive subjectivism so much as I accuse the contemporary religious abusers of the language and imagery of feeling. To be aware of self is a most excellent project, but Schleiermacher and Clements are each emphasizing that such awareness must be of self-in-relation: in relation to God, and, as Moltmann would remind us, and as Schleiermacher forgot, of self in relation to the eschaton and a God of judgment.

There are one or two disappointing features of this book, but they are minor. The index and the bibliography could be considerably improved (Williams’ Schleiermacher the Theologian is a surprising omission from the bibliography, as is Duke and Fiorenza’s valuable translation of Schleiermacher’s On the Glaubenslehre), but the general style, layout and presentation of the volume outweighs these considerations. This is an excellent, accessible volume. Schleiermacher is unlikely often to be light reading, but Clements makes him remarkably palatable. ( )
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