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The Christian Faith

Published in 1821, with a second edition in 1830, The Christian Faith was aimed at a different audience. It was the first systematic theology put forward for the sake of the newly formed Prussian Union of Churches (1817), which brought together the Lutheran and Reformed churches in Prussia. While many of Schleiermacher’s ideas from the Speeches are retained, there is a gain in precision, clarity and scope as he drops the dreamy language of Romanticism and discusses a range of Christian doctrines.

Asking what the church really is, Schleiermacher once again raises the question of piety. 10 11 The church, he argues, is a communion or fellowship of religion and piety, and the church’s business is to strengthen and maintain this piety. Once again piety is neither a knowing nor a doing, but a feeling. By ‘feeling’ Schleiermacher means one’s ‘immediate self-consciousness’, one’s existential state, like experiencing joy or sorrow. Feeling is not a matter of ‘objective self-consciousness’, an existential state which arises from analyzing one’s self, like self-approval or self-reproach (for here the self becomes the object of one’s self-consciousness). Feelings are direct changes in my self-consciousness, or existential state. They happen when the world, people and events affect me. Feeling is thus ‘immediate’ and receptive.

Conscious of the accusations that he is a subjectivist or a pantheist, Schleiermacher tries harder than he did in his Speeches (or in the first edition of his Christian Faith) to distinguish the feeling or self-consciousness which arises from my being in the world and that which arises from my being in relation to God. There is always reciprocity as regards my feeling or self-consciousness which arises from the world. I act and am acted upon, effect and am affected. As regards the world, then, I feel myself to be partly free and partly dependent. I am not utterly free, as there is always a world and people around which affect me, and I am not utterly dependent, as I can also affect the world and others around me in turn, even simply by existing or being there.

Matters are different in my feeling or self-consciousness of being in relation to God. Defining piety and of being in relation to God, Schleiermacher states, ‘the common element in all howsoever diverse expressions of piety, by which these are conjointly distinguished from all other feelings ... is this: the consciousness of being absolutely dependent, or, which is the same thing, of being in relation with God’.11 A feeling of absolute freedom cannot exist, for I am always aware of being in relation to a world and having not created myself. Along with my consciousness of being partially free and partially dependent, there is also the feeling of absolute dependence. This feeling is the consciousness that my whole existence - both passive and active - comes from some other source. In fact, it is the feeling that this whole universe of acting and receiving comes from a source which is not itself. It is the consciousness that all this activity and spontaneity, this receiving and affectivity, both of myself and the world as a whole, has a ‘whence’, a ‘from where’ (in German Woher), a ‘from some other place’. This feeling of utter or absolute dependence is not one particular feeling amongst others; nor is it caused by any particular object within the world. Instead, it is a feeling which accompanies both my action upon the world and its action upon me. The name for this ‘whence’, the source of the world and myself, is God. The feeling of absolute or utter dependence is an immediate and direct awareness of God, of my being in relation to God, the source of everything. The measure of one’s piety is the extent to which this feeling of absolute dependence upon God, or ‘God-consciousness’, saturates all of one’s self-consciousness, in both its active and passive moments. [1]

Piety, or God-consciousness, becomes the recurring theme in what Schleiermacher says about God, creation, humanity, sin, redemption and reconciliation, and the church. This definition of piety arose in the introduction to the work, in the course of a discussion of the church. It is technically a ‘proposition’ or claim which theology ‘borrows’ from ethics. The source of this idea of piety, however, only becomes clearer later. In a somewhat dramatic reversal, Schleiermacher says that this seemingly general account of the feeling of absolute dependence is actually an ‘abstracted’ version of what Christian self-consciousness experiences in fellowship with the Redeemer.[2] It is a particularly Christian self-consciousness or piety, one which is completely derived from an experience of fellowship with Jesus, which serves as the source for this general account of piety. Yet this ‘abstracted’ or ‘derived’ account of piety still serves an important regulative role in describing Christian self-consciousness. The criterion for what we say about our relationship to the Redeemer is that it strengthens and increases the feeling of absolute dependence within us.

Within this framework, faith becomes a matter of being certain about the feeling or consciousness of God. Faith cannot create this relationship or feeling for it always and everywhere exists, even when the feeling of God-consciousness is resisted by sin. Faith holds this feeling to be true, and so faith is an ‘assenting certainty’.[3] Faith is about the ‘truth’ of one’s religious feeling, and is less one particular feeling than a confidence which accompanies all of one’s pious feelings. What faith believes is not any particular doctrinal formulation, but the truth of one’s pious feelings. In fact, there are a variety of doctrinal formulations which will ‘fit’, ‘correspond to’ or be ‘adequate to’ these feelings. There are also ones that contradict them.

Faith in Christ is certainty in the experience or feeling that the Redeemer has removed sin, has communicated his own perfect God-consciousness and blessedness and has assumed one into a new corporate life characterized by piety which replaces one’s old corporate life of sin and misery. This faith in Christ, or in one’s feelings about Christ, is aroused by the community’s preaching, in which Christ himself is present and active.

Schleiermacher thinks he is simply describing what Christians mean when they speak of piety, God and faith. The task of theology for him is not a matter of deduction or speculation, but recognizing and bringing to light the connections and relations that are already there but which are misunderstood. In order to bring these connections to light, Schleiermacher believes that he can ‘borrow’ propositions from other disciplines, including ethics, philosophy of religion and apologetics. As these disciplines or wider intellectual currents change, so too will the language of theology change. Yet Schleiermacher believes that his theology is not founded upon any one philosophy or worldview, but is actually based on the consciousness of the believer who enjoys Christ’s blessedness and God-consciousness within the communal life the Redeemer created and sustains.

Study questions

  • 1. Is Schleiermacher right in thinking that ‘piety’ or ‘religion’ is neither a knowing nor a doing?
  • 2. Does the Schleiermacher of the Speeches sound like a pantheist?
  • 3. Does faith seem more like certainty about our feelings and experience or a feeling or experience itself?
  • 4. Could the same ‘pious’ or ‘religious feelings’ be expressed in differing doctrinal formulations? In ones that even seem to conflict with each other?

Further reading

Schleiermacher, Friedrich, ‘First Speech: Defense’, in On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, trans. John Oman (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), pp. 1-21.

-, The Christian Faith, ed. and trans. H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (Berkeley:

Apocryphile Press, 2011), §§3-4, pp. 5-18; §62, pp. 259-262.

13

  • [1] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Berkeley: Apocryphile Press, 2011), §3.
  • [2] Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, §62, p. 262.
  • [3] Robert Merrihew Adam, ‘Faith and Religious Knowledge’, in Jacqueline Marina (ed.), The CambridgeCompanion to Schleiermacher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 35-51 (42).
 
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