Schleiermacher, Friedrich. On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. 1996; repr., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 130 pp. $47.99
Any theology student cannot miss the name of Friedrich Schleiermacher, may it be coming from the sides of conservatism, liberalism, or anything in between. Schleiermacher is known as the father of modern theology or liberal theology. In fact, his works and theological principles are still being adapted to today’s theological worldviews.
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) was raised in a pietistic family. He grew up studying piety, languages, and religion in a Moravian school. Later, while his foundational education lacked rhetoric and dogmas, his collegiate education focused on philosophy, ethics, and theology. At this point, he had his intensive study of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. Though many later attacked—like the neo-orthodoxy followers—his theological principles, Schleiermacher’s influence can still be felt among today’s religious thoughts and practices.
His On Religion paved the way for many modern theological thoughts, especially in today’s liberal, postliberal, liberation, and other forms of theological schools. However, his primary purpose was to persuade contemporary readers to take religion seriously. It seems like rationalism and romanticism had been penetrating the hearts and minds of that modern society. People, back then, were indifferent and agnostic to religion—in any form of it. Thus, Shchleiemarcher argues the necessity of religion as an intrinsic feeling of a person (9). Like breathing, a human being has a deep-rooted desire for divine connection.
The way he writes this work is polemical. Seemingly, he has certain people in mind on how he treats each sentence as a response to their viewpoints. Of course, as a researcher-scholar, he knows well the contemporary philosophies among the academe, masses, and politics.
The book is divided into five speeches. In his first speech, he defends religion as something natural for any person to have and to ponder upon. He even appeals to his readers by citing himself as an example. Schleiermacher said that he was saved by religion when his faith in God, the church, and God himself left him (8). Thus, he exalts religion as reasonably significant and experientially moral.
The second speech is a bit longer. The entire thesis is that the nature of religion is affection. It is like music that naturally affects a person to sing, hum, or dance. It is not something to be proven, rationalized, or conceptualized but felt and expressed. A person develops religion progressively from crude empiricism to maturity until embracing the wholeness and oneness of community, nature, and universe. Religion, for Schleiermacher, is “to be one with the infinite in the midst of finite and to be eternal in a moment, that is the immortality of religion” (54).
In his third speech, he finally says what religion feels like. It is a “holy spark flares up in a soul” that extends and connects to all transcendental things (58). He further presents a high-theological anthropology of human choice or free will. Moreover, the one who hinders the progress and completion of religion in culture is the intellect. Instead of supporting, it dismantles. The artists, the poor, and the weary are the ones who have religion in its truest form.
The fourth speech calibrates toward the church, faith groups, and religious parties. Instead of uniting, these sects divide the whole into many, disrupting the societal purpose of religion. These groups desire dogmas, doctrines, ideas, and opinions. Thus, Schleiermacher proposes that these groups pursue open fellowship, ecumenism, and plurality.
To be one with the Deity is the goal of religion. In Christian pious, this is called infinite holiness—a constant walk of righteousness. That is why in his fifth speech, Schleiermacher presents that Christianity is the ultimate model of religion. However, he opens up the possibility of multiple religions as natural. No one has control of one true religion. However, each religious philosophy was rejected and criticized by Schleiermacher except Christianity. Though, he argues that Christ is not the only mediator to the true connection of the deity, nor is the Bible finished and authoritative in all of its forms.
There are many things that I totally disagree with Friedrich Schleiermacher. His thoughts on religion are shallow, low Christology, low ecclesiology, lack Trinitarian theology, and so on. It was already kind of off when he wrote that religion saved him when God left him. Again, for the sake of studies and understanding, Schleiermacher did provoke the thoughts of his contemporary theologians. Although, he successfully persuaded intellectuals to take religion seriously—not as another subject, but as intrinsic in one’s societal living.
Schleiermacher is difficult to read. One needs to be—at least—familiar with the Enlightenment philosophies, Renaissance cultural context, and knowledge. But also, it is inevitable to read Schleiermacher when it comes to modern theology and historical theology. Many of his philosophies and principles are still affecting today’s theology. Hence, On Religion is an introduction to that worldview. I recommend this reading for advanced graduate studies and doctorate levels.