Friedrich Ernst Daniel Schleiermacher, 1768 - 1834
Friedrich Ernst Daniel Schleiermacher was a German theologian and philologist who held pastorates and professorships at Landsberg, University of Halle, and Trinity Church in Berlin. He was influenced by Plato
and believed God to be immanent--one with all creation. The New England Transcendentalists were particularly struck by Schleiermacher's conception of religious experience as an immediate, eternal, mystical moment when a person becomes aware of the all-surrounding, invasive, incredible presence of God in and through the universe. Believing that man can find the answers to moral laws within himself, he emphasized the contemplation of nature and its ever-present miracles.
As the great champion, and a modern prophet, of personal active religious feeling--as opposed to mere passive assent to formal and inherited doctrines--Schleiermacher redefined the basic elements of Christianity in his famous and groundbreaking book On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (1799). For him, "every event, even the most natural and usual, becomes a miracle as soon as the religious view of it can be the dominant" and "every original and new communication of the universe to man is a revelation." On the issue of belief, Schleiermacher was adamant on the distinction between firsthand belief and secondhand acceptance of the belief of another, arguing that "to accept what another has said or done, or to wish to think and feel as another has thought and felt, is a hard and base service. . . . It must be rejected by all who would force their way into the sanctuary of religion. To wish to have and hold a faith that is an echo, proves that a man is incapable of religion." Religion for Schleiermacher, then, always meant individual religious experience, and thus he insisted that "the existing forms should not in themselves hinder any man from developing a religion suitable to his own nature and his own religious sense." He separated not only church and state, but also church and science as well as church and morality.
The influence of Schleiermacher was even more distinct than that of Herder. One book of his, in particular, made a deep impression,--the "Reden über Religion," published in 1799. The book is thus described by Mr. George Ripley, in a controversial letter to Mr. Andrews Norton, who had assailed Schleiermacher as an atheist. "The 'Discourses on Religion' were not intended to present a system of theology. They are highly rhetorical in manner, filled with bursts of impassioned eloquence, always intense, and sometimes extravagant; addressed to the feelings, not to speculation; and expressly disclaiming all pretensions to an exposition of doctrine. They were published at a time when hostility to religion, and especially to Christianity as a divine revelation, was deemed a proof of talent and refinement. The influence of the church was nearly exhausted; the highest efforts of thought were of a destructive character; a frivolous spirit pervaded society; religion was deprived of its supremacy; and a 'starveling theology' was exalted in place of the living word. Schleiermacher could not contemplate the wretched meagreness and degradation of his age without being moved as by 'a heavenly impulse.' His spirit was stirred within him as he saw men turning from the true God to base idols. He felt himself impelled to go forth with the power of a fresh and youthful enthusiasm, for the restoration of religion; to present it in its most sublime aspect, free from its perversions, disentangled from human speculation, as founded in the essential nature of man, and indispensable to the complete unfolding of his inward being. In order to recognize everything which is really religious among men, and to admit even the lowest degree of it into the idea of religion, he wishes to make this as broad and comprehensive in its character as possible." In illustration of this purpose Mr. Ripley quotes the author as follows: "I maintain that piety is the necessary and spontaneous product of the depths of every elevated nature; that it possesses a rightful claim to a peculiar province in the soul, over which it may exercise an unlimited sovereignty; that it is worthy, by its intrinsic power, to be a source of life to the most noble and exalted minds; and that from its essential character it deserves to be known and received by them. These are the points which I defend, and which I would fain establish."
From this it will appear that Schleiermacher gave countenance to the spiritual aspect of transcendentalism, and co-operated with the general movement it represented. His position that religion was not a system of dogmas, but an inward experience; that it was not a speculation, but a feeling; that its primal verities rested not on miracle or tradition, not on the Bible letter or on ecclesiastical institution, but on the soul's own sense of things divine; that this sense belonged by nature to the human race, and gave to all forms of religion such genuineness as they had; that all affirmation was partial, and all definition deceptive; proved to be practically the same with that taken by Jacobi, and was so received by the disciples of the new philosophy.
But Schleiermacher was an Evangelical Lutheran, a believer in supernatural religion, in Christ, in Christianity as a special dispensation, in the miracles of the New Testament. So far from being a "rationalist," he was the most formidable opponent that "rationalism" had; for his efforts were directed against the critical and theological method, and in support of the spiritual method of dealing with religious truths. In explaining religion as being in its primitive character a sense of divine things in the soul, and as having its seat, not in knowledge, nor yet in action, neither in theology nor in morality, but in feeling, in aspiration, longing, love, veneration, conscious dependence, filial trust, he deprived "rationalism" of its strength. Hence his attraction for liberal orthodox believers in America. Schleiermacher had as many disciples among the Congregationalists as among their antagonists of the opposite school. Professors Edwards and Park included thoughts of his in their "Selections from German Literature." The pulpit transcendentalists acknowledged their indebtedness to him, and the debt they acknowledged was sentimental rather than intellectual. They thanked him for the spirit of fervent piety, deep, cordial, human, unlimited in generosity, untrammelled by logical distinctions, rather than for new light on philosophical problems. His bursts of eloquent enthusiasm over men whom the church outlawed--Spinoza for example--made amends with them for the absence of doctrinal exactness. A warm sympathy with those who detached religion from dogma, and recognized the religious sentiment under its most diverse forms, was characteristic of the new spirit that burned in New England. Schleiermacher was one of the first and foremost to encourage such sympathy: he based it on the idea that man was by nature religious, endowed with spiritual faculties, and that was welcome tidings; and though he retained the essence of the evangelical system, he retained it in a form that could be dropped without injury to the principle by which it was justified. Thus Schleiermacher strengthened the very positions he assailed, and gave aid and comfort to the enemy he would overthrow. The transcendentalists, it is true, employed against the "rationalists" the weapons that he put into their hands. At the same time they left as unimportant the theological system which his weapons were manufactured to support.