Schleiermacher – To religion’s cultured despisers (1799)

“Your very contempt for the poverty-stricken and powerless venerators of religion, in whom, from lack of nourishment, religion ever dies before it comes to birth, convinces me that you have a talent for religion…

Become conscious, then, of the call of your deepest nature and follow it…  banish the false shame of a century, which should not determine you.  …Return to what lies so near to you, the violent separation from which cannot fail to destroy the most beautiful part of your nature.”

On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, F.D.E. Schleiermacher, 3d German ed. 1831, ET John Oman, 1893, Harper 1958, p.91, 92).

I continue my historical retrospect of what I would call ‘constructive orthodoxy’ with excerpts from Friedrich Schleiermacher’s literary debut, in which the thirty-year-old theologian calls out the Age of Enlightenment for the folly of its indifference and atheism.  The alienation of ‘the modern’ from God was viewed by Schleiermacher as a tragic divorcement of self-consciousness from its right relation to the ground and truth of being.  But I cannot miss the fact that he assigns a central role in this modern tragedy to the eighteenth century church itself.

People think they know Schleiermacher, but it requires more than a simple refunding of our own ideas of religious feeling, absolute dependence, and God-consciousness, to really know him.  Rightly apprehended, his work still represents, I think, the classic historical model for religions of experience, for constructive ‘methods’ of religious living.

“The religious man must, at least, be conscious of his feelings as the immediate product of a universal reality; for less would mean nothing.  He must recognize something individual in them, something that cannot be imitated, something that guarantees the purity of their origin from his own heart.  To be assured of this possession is the true belief.  To the contrary, belief usually so called – which is 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… To wish to have and hold a faith that is an echo, proves that a man is incapable of religion; to demand it of others, shows that there is no understanding of religion” (pp.90-91).

Like him, I would try to make the higher truths of religious living accessible to some of the great minds of our day.  It is the task of the next theology to elaborate a spirit of faith and worship capable of operating in freedom from the burden of humanity’s many unrevealed, anthropological religious forms (including those which weigh heavily upon Judaism and Christianity).

“Hereafter shall each man see with his own eyes and shall produce some contribution to the treasures of religion.  Every sacred writing is in itself a speaking monument from the heroic time of religion, but, through servile reverence, it would become merely a monument that a great spirit once was there, but is now no more… You are right in despising the wretched echoes who derive their religion entirely from another, or depend on a dead writing, swearing by it and proving out of it (p.91).”


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