On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers
by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1799)
Orthosphere readers will have mixed feelings toward Schleiermacher. On the one hand, he is perhaps the founder of the study of the phenomenology of religion, a study which was later carried to greater heights by Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade; he and these other thinkers have proved that religion is not merely a substitute for philosophy for the uneducated but contains its own irreducible value and insights. In working to tie Protestant Christianity to the nascent Romantic Movement, Schleiermacher also stands as a forerunner of Romantic Christianity. On the other hand, he more influentially stands as the founder of Liberal Protestantism, the project of gutting Christianity to accommodate bourgeois bohemian sensibilities. Consider the title of the book. It sounds ironic; we expect these “cultured” despisers to have their lack of proper cultivation quickly shown up. The first speech’s hearty praise for the intelligence, morality, and progressiveness of its readers (presumed to be haters of religion) in what I took to be deliberately overwrought prose seems to confirm this impression. I was a couple dozen pages in, still waiting for the hammer to drop, when I began to realize to my horror that Schleiermacher’s praise for his atheist friends is entirely in earnest and that what I had been reading is his real prose style.
Maybe that’s not the most encouraging way to start a review. Schleiermacher was a genius; that someone originating a new line of inquiry got a lot wrong is to be expected. The highlight of the book is the second speech, in which Schleiermacher reveals to us what he takes to be the essence of religion. He very sharply distinguishes religion from metaphysics and ethics, going so far as to insist that the former has nothing to do with the latter, although they are usually found mixed in practice. Schleiermacher’s idea of metaphysics and ethics here are thoroughly Kantian: the former is the analysis of the concepts by which we categorize the world, and the latter is concerned exclusively with right action. Ethics (at least Kant’s dessicated version of it) knows nothing of love, affection, piety, loyalty, or reverence; some of these will find their proper home in religion. Religion, on the other hand, does not concern itself with moral demands. We should, as Schleiermacher puts it, do everything with religion, but nothing because of religion. Religion concerns intuition and feelings. Intuitions, contrasted with conceptualizations, result from a direct causal effect of the intuited thing on the subject, and are thus more like sense perceptions than reasonings. Religion, according to Schleiermacher, is our intuition of the universe as a whole, considered as a unity. Thus, it may be stimulated by anything, and all things are in this sense “holy”. Schleiermacher sometimes also speaks of “the infinite”, but he is clear that the source of our reverence is no mere quantitative infinity, as if we who think the universe extends infinitely far have more reason for awe than the ancients who thought it enclosed in a sphere. The “infinity” in question refers more to totality, of not being “finite” in the sense of some limited part distinguished from the rest. Our fellow men can be considered religiously. Schleiermacher knows that his readers, being particularly moral men, despise the mass of their fellow men for their shortcomings (and I think he’s serious), but he asks them to consider each of these unimpressive specimens as a partial reflection of Humanity, which must instantiate all permutations to fully express itself. The standard “great chain of being” argument.
A religion of intuition would seem to be essentially private and probably incommunicable, but in the fourth speech, Schleiermacher tries to account for the social aspect of religion. Why have churches and priests? Indeed, he thinks that religiously adept men, whom he assumes to be necessarily very few, have no use for them. At most, such men may get together informally to share intuitions. The role of the Church for Schleiermacher is to aid people whose religious sense is severely underdeveloped but not totally nonexistent. Because Schleiermacher’s phenomenology of religion makes no use of the concepts of worship or sacrifice, he is unable to make any sense of what religious congregations actually take themselves to be doing. This is not just heresy; it’s a serious failure of phenomenological analysis. Phenomenology’s job is to explain the object as it appears, not condemn it and talk instead about an alternative more suited to one’s ideas. Schleiermacher would not understand why his desire that priests all be “virtuosos” of religion will sound preposterous to those who know what a priest’s actual job is.
To his credit, Schleiermacher is a genuine romantic, and in the final speech, he takes some well-aimed blows at the Enlightenment monstrosity of “natural religion”. From a Romantic’s point of view, the heart of the Enlightenment was a craze for uniformity, the idea that anything that is particular, anything marked out by a particular historical lineage, or place, or people, is ipso facto illegitimate. Schleiermacher claims, on the contrary, that genuine religion is always particular, and it is in “positive religions” rather than the vague abstractions of natural religion that the religious spirit has been able to thrive. The diversity of major religions he explains, not very convincingly, as a diversity of choices as to which religious intuition is taken to be central and to organize all others. Since many intuitions fill this role equally well, the choice is necessarily free. Thus, the core intuition of the “dead” religion of Judaism is said to be the universe/God’s immediate response (whether approval or condemnation) of all our actions. The core intuition of Christianity is said to be the rebellion of all finite things against the infinite, inducing a “holy sadness” in the Christian offset by a hope in the divine mediators the universe/God provides to call fallen creatures back to Him/(It?).
Schleiermacher expresses his enthusiastic preference for the Christian intuition, which I suppose explains how he can think of himself as a Christian even though he doesn’t believe in God or the afterlife (as these are commonly understood), the veracity of the Bible, the value of faith, or any of the other things Christians are normally expected to believe in.