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Home arrow Philosophy arrow Illuminating Faith: An Invitation to Theology

Faith and Feeling: Friedrich Schleiermacher


Romanticism began near the end of the eighteenth century and flowered in the middle of the nineteenth. Inasmuch as some of the main themes of Romanticism still resonate so powerfully within us, some have said that Romanticism as an era has never really ended, but that we are still living in it. In early German Romanticism, we can find the impression that the infinite saturates the finite and temporal; an emphasis upon feeling and intuition as opposed to cold and calculating rationalism; a view of nature as a dynamic and living whole rather than a large mechanism or congregation of dead and inert parts (against eighteenth-century French materialism); the praise of passionate and romantic love; and the valorization of creativity, the figure of the genius and ‘sensitive souls’.

Within such a context, the emotional and affective life came to the centre of theology. The theologian who put it there was Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834). The young Schleiermacher studied in a Moravian Pietist school and their piety created a lasting impression on him. At a fairly early age, however, he started to doubt much of what passed for traditional Christianity. Nevertheless, despite his criticisms of much traditional theology, he could still call himself a ‘Moravian of a higher order’.1 Having completed his exams in theology and spending some time as a tutor, Schleiermacher served as a chaplain in the Charite hospital in Berlin. His leisure time was devoted to the salons of the cultural elite and to writing for Athenaeum, the literary magazine in the vanguard of the early Romantic movement in Germany.

It was during his time in Berlin as a chaplain that his cultured and Romantic friends asked him to write a book on religion. A thirty-year-old Schleiermacher published, albeit anonymously, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers in the summer of 1799. The work was seized upon by both advocates and detractors, and so Schleiermacher revised it before the second edition of 1806, and added lengthy ‘Explanations’ to some of the more problematic passages in 1821.1 [1] [2] The Speeches brought early Romanticism and idealism into conversation with Christianity, and did so in a creative and sophisticated way which proved highly alluring. Schleiermacher gave feeling, intuition and affectivity a prominent place within Christian life and theology. Others had done so before him, but Schleiermacher gave this stream of reflection his own distinctive mark.

The Speeches are an apology or defence of religion before these cultured elites who view religion as fear of God or as a selfish wish for immortality. Schleiermacher’s defence of religion clears away misunderstandings held by the friends and foes of Christianity alike. He also reinterprets or translates traditional Christian categories into the language of Romanticism and idealism. Schleiermacher speaks about Christianity in the voice of Romanticism and yet says things which they themselves would never say. He sometimes goes on the offensive, and even maintains that science and morality, two outstanding concerns of his readers, could not be ‘true science’ and ‘true morality’ without religion and piety.

The five ‘speeches’ that make up On Religion are not sermons, academic essays or philosophical arguments. They are more like literary performances done in true Romantic style. The ‘speeches’ could also be seen as dialogues. Throughout the speeches, Schleiermacher directly addresses religion’s ‘cultured despisers’ as ‘you’, and presents their ideas on religion, morality and metaphysics. This was a book that had to be written, and if not by Schleiermacher then by someone less gifted. At the time, there was a growing separation between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. Eighteenth-century cultural elites saw popular culture, practices and habits as vulgar, backward and superstitious. Popular religion was thus at odds with the higher ideals of the Enlightenment and refined art, literature and music which they themselves embodied.[3] The Speeches, then, speak the language of Romanticism and idealism and speak it to Christianity’s ‘cultured detractors’.

In his ‘Second Speech’, Schleiermacher tries to uncover the essence of religion, or piety. Piety is neither knowing nor doing, nor a mixture of the two, but feeling. Piety is not knowledge of the world, or even of God. One can know many interesting facts about the world, or about what Christianity says God is, and can even grasp these facts very well, but we still would not recognize this as piety. As Schleiermacher succinctly puts it, ‘quantity of knowledge is not quantity of piety’.[4] Piety is not a matter of activity, of doing good deeds or even performing a special set of duties and actions towards God. Piety seems to be a kind of surrender.[5] Piety is not a mixture of knowing or doing, as in knowing many titbits about God and performing religious acts. It seems, then, that alongside knowing and doing, alongside perception and operations, alongside metaphysics and ethics, there is a third thing: piety, feeling, sensation and thus religion. Yet while we can distinguish knowing, doing and feeling, we cannot completely separate them.

Schleiermacher defines piety or religion as a ‘sense and taste of the infinite’.6 It is a feeling of the infinite and eternal within the finite and temporal, and the feeling of the finite and temporal within the infinite and eternal. It senses that everything (the

All) lives and moves within a unified whole, a unified totality (the One). Piety can feel the presence and working of God, or the infinite, within both the small and the grand, the sacred and the ordinary.[6] These ‘pious feelings’ can take a variety of forms and Schleiermacher can even call religion ‘the sum of all the higher feelings’. All feelings that are not diseased or unhealthy are a feeling of the divine. His examples of such feelings include awe, love, affection, compassion, contrition, humility and gratitude. These feelings come directly from the infinite, from God. So they are not a matter of any knowing or perceiving of the world, or about acting in any certain way. For Schleiermacher, saying that everyone has ‘sense and taste of the infinite’ is another way of saying that we all are in relation to God, that we feel how everything is in relation to God and that these relations are basic to what we are.

This account of piety provoked some controversy. Particularly worrisome was Schleiermacher’s view that piety or religion is not related to consciously having the idea of a personal God. Piety finds expression in different ways and in different concepts, including God as personal or non-personal (impersonal is another matter). Piety can appear both in those who have an idea or concept of a personal God and those who do not, provided that each feels the immediate presence of God within them.[7] The young Schleiermacher had been influenced by both Spinoza and Kant. His remark in the Speeches that Spinoza, widely condemned as a pantheist or an atheist, ‘was full of religion, full of the Holy Spirit’[8] shocked some of his contemporaries and he had to fight off accusations of pantheism. His response was that he thought it more generous and Christian to see piety wherever it may be found. Matters were also not helped by the various names Schleiermacher used for God or for the unity of the universe in God: the Infinite, the World-Spirit, the World and the All and One. Schleiermacher can even deny that God is some type of highest being or first cause ‘outside of’ or ‘behind’ the world itself. The living God lies beyond all the types of oppositions and contrasts we find around us, like ‘outside’, ‘beyond’ and ‘behind’, and so Schleiermacher does not think that describing God’s relation to the world in these ways is helpful or edifying.

  • [1] Letter to George Reimer, 1802.
  • [2] It was also republished in 1831.
  • [3] See Harry C. Payne, ‘Elite versus Popular Mentality in the Eighteenth Century’, Historical Reflections/Reflexions Historiques 2:2 (1976), pp. 183-208.
  • [4] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, trans. John Oman (NewYork: Harper & Row, 1958), p. 35.
  • [5] Schleiermacher, Speeches, p. 37.
  • [6] Schleiermacher, Speeches, pp. 45, 84.
  • [7] See Julia A. Lamm, The Living God: Schleiermacher’s Theological Appropriation of Spinoza (University
  • [8] Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966), pp. 103-108.
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