This post is about Friedrich Schleiermacher’s First Speech titled “Defence” from its book On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultural Despisers (1799). I will summarize the main points of the speech and at the end I will provide a brief reflection. By “cultural despisers,” Schleiermacher is speaking of the cultural elite of his time in Germany (cf. p. 10). What they despised was religion itself, or more specifically, the traditional understanding of Christian doctrine and its dogmas. Regarding the purpose of the speech, Schleiermacher is giving an apologia for his own perspective (panentheistic) on true religion in terms of the Romantic worldview.
To the cultural despisers
Schleiermacher claims that despite many people “have been satisfied to juggle with its trappings [speaking of religion],” only few of them have perceived and understood what religion really is (p.1). Schleiermacher is here concerned about religion and its trappings, or in other words, what religion itself is in contrast of what it appears to be religion itself but it is indeed the wisdom of the centuries. Thus he contrasts the interest of the cultural elite in poetry, art, and science versus the interest of only a few people in “the eternal and holy Being that lies beyond the world.”
The immanent God
Two aspects are noteworthy to highlight. First, Schleiermacher strongly contrasts religion vs. culture. And second, Schleiermacher’s use of the phrase “the Universe that made you” in relation with “eternal and holy Being [that is God]” suggests that for him, God, though different from his creation and lying beyond the world, is deeply present in the world.
Regarding the first matter, Schleiermacher asserts that the cultural elite has despised religion itself (i.e. by neglecting religion in favor of poetry, art, and science, ignoring the One who created them, and not leaving room for Him.) He states, “Suavity and sociability, art and science have so fully taken possession of your minds, that no room remains for the eternal and holy Being that lies beyond the world” (p. 2). The deplorable situation Schleiermacher is speaking of has also made that the cultural elite is suspicious of priests and clergy: “To priests, least of all, are you inclined to listen. They have long been outcasts for you, and are declared unworthy of your trust.” (p.2). Schleiermacher argues it is by his divine call that he may speak of religion because “there is something which compels me [him] and represses with its heavenly power all those small considerations” (p. 3).
Regarding the second matter, the notion of God that presented by Schleiermacher seems to be different from the orthodox view. After his introduction, Schleiermacher asserts that the Deity [God] “has compelled to himself to divide his great work even to infinity” where “[e]ach of His eternal thoughts can only be actualized in two hostile yet twin forms, one of which cannot exist except by means of the other” (p. 3). This crucial statement explains the way how God relates to the creation and at the same time tells us about his nature: The world is a manifestation of God Himself. That is, the world exists in God and without Him, there would not exist the world at all. Despite the world conceived by Schleiermacher is undoubtedly part of the Whole — that is God, and totally dependent on Him, both are different from each other. Another aspect to mention, but not least, is Schleiermacher’s claim — speaking of God’s great work — that “[e]ach definite thing can only be made up by melting together two opposite activities” (p. 3). In similar words, the corporeal world is in tension caused by these two forces, since life is simply understood as “the uninterrupted manifestation of a perpetually renewed gain and loss, as each thing has its determinate existence by uniting and holding fast in a special way the opposing forces of Nature” (p. 4).
Once Schleiermacher has claimed the existence of those opposing forces in the natural world, he moves towards the spiritual world and says that “the spirit (…) must be subject to the same law” (p. 4). And as an example, he talks about the human soul which exists between two opposing forces: the impulse of establishing itself as an individual and the impulse of surrendering itself and being absorbed into the Whole (p. 4). Besides the spirit has two objects remarkable to mention: what one feels and does as particular individual and one’s attitude towards “law and order, necessity and connection, and right and fitness” (p. 4). And the perfection of the world — Schleiermacher writes — lies on the matter that “between these opposite ends all combinations are actually present in humanity” (p. 4).
Towards a higher consciousness
Following the same line of reasoning, Schleiermacher speaks of a certain consciousness that embraces every human being. He writes, “the man cannot be other than he is, he knows every other person as clearly as himself, and comprehends perfectly every single manifestation of humanity.” (p. 5). This consciousness would let human beings not only know others but also know God, though persons who are at one extreme of the opposites would not be able to reach a higher degree of consciousness. Those, for instance, who swing continually between enjoyment and desire (of the corporeal world) would never have a conscious of the Whole because they will never go “beyond the consciousness of the individual” (p. 5). Schleiermacher adds, “being ever busy with mere self-regarding concerns, they are neither able to feel nor know the common, the whole being and nature of humanity.” (pa. 5). On the other hand, those persons who focus on the other extreme of neglecting the corporeal world, without paying attention to a define culture and the life of it, would neither develop a high degree of consciousness because “they never make a living study of anything, but devote their whole zeal to abstract precepts that degrade everything to means, and leave nothing to be an end. They consume themselves in mistaken hate against everything that comes before them with prosperous force.” (p. 5). In short, those persons who focus on themselves may not know the Whole because of their emphasis on their individuality. Similarly, those who focus on what is beyond their individuality neither reach a higher degree of consciousness because everything becomes a means, and never an end.
Schleiermacher here explains himself and his divine vocation to speak for true religion. He claims that those who found the equilibrium between the two opposites are not only representatives of God, but they also find a better enjoyment in the “object of which is not this thing or that, but the One in All, and All in One” (p. 5, italics mine). Schleiermacher in that regard states, “This is the higher priesthood that announces the inner meaning of all spiritual secrets, and speaks of the kingdom of God. It is the source of all visions and prophecies, of all the sacred works of art and inspired speeches that are scattered abroad, on the chance of finding some receptive heart where they may bring forth fruit” (p. 7). Schleiermacher’s notion of the “One in All, and All in One” requires some attention.
As said above, for Schleiermacher, God and the corporeal world are deeply related. However, they are not ontologically identical. The world, being a manifestation of God, forms part of the Whole depending on Him for its existence. This creates a relational situation –even dialectical– where the Whole and the part interact with each other, and where the Whole is the cause of all reality. Regarding the higher priesthood, Schleiermacher connects this with religion itself, that is true piety, which “it is always full of humility” (p. 9). One observes that the feeling of absolute dependence (i.e. being related to God), for Schleiermacher, is not a peripheral concept, but the cornerstone of his theological thought.
Religion as inner feeling or awareness
After briefly deliberating his reasons of why he turns to the sons of Germany to speak of religion (pp. 10-12), Schleiermacher moves forward to discuss the place where religion has its rise, but not before of stating that “piety is now no more to be spoken of” (p. 12). To analyze the issue and offer an alternative, Schleiermacher asks where religion comes from. Is it from intuition, thought, history, or any arbitrarily conceived idea? He eliminates the last one claiming that it is difficult to find someone who defends it. After asserting that Providence (or miracles) and immortality are “the hinges of all religion,” and saying that those conceptions are product of time and history (p.13), he challenges his readers in order to consider religion itself as an inner feeling (or intuition):
But say, my dear sirs, how you have found this; for there are two points of view from which everything taking place in man or proceeding from him may be regarded. Considered from the center outwards, that is according to its inner quality, it is an expression of human nature, based in one of its necessary modes of acting or impulses or whatever else you like to call it, for I will not now quarrel with your technical language (p. 13).
The failing of systems of theology
For Schleiermacher, the dogmas, traditions, and usages of every religion cannot be the source of religion itself, since all of them come from the outside, which at the same time, have their basis on the conceptions of providence and immortality (p. 14). This is so because of the dogmas and traditions, “the senseless fables of wanton peoples to the most refined Deism… [and] the rude superstition of human sacrifice to the ill-put together fragments of metaphysics…” have emerged (p. 14). The reason of why of all these systems of theology fail, for Schleiermacher, is that they tend to focus on the “theories of the origin and the end of the world” and not on religion itself and its character (p. 15).
In other words, religion life itself is not about knowing about all these theologies, but about seeking one’s inward feelings and emotions in those intuitive moments related to the Eternal (p. 16). In that regard, Schleiermacher writes, “He only who has studied and truly known man in these emotions [when the whole soul is dissolved in the immediate feeling of the Infinite and Eternal] can rediscover religion in those outward manifestations” (p. 16). Therefore, for Schleiermacher religion is not knowledge acquired by reason or simply awareness of the world. Religion instead is an inward awareness of God experienced as an individual.
About true religion
After experiencing true religion, people, according to Schleiermacher, would not want to reject it. In contrast to religion itself, the systems (of theology) in most schools are a “mere habitations and nurseries of the dead letter” (p. 17). One notes that for Schleiermacher, religion itself is discovered when it is experienced. And based on this it is that he suggests to his readers to “turn from everything usually reckoned religion” and instead look for “the inward emotions and dispositions” (p. 18). Then for Schleiermacher, religion is not needed in order to have morality and maintaining justice, though religion supports them. Claiming the opposite, Schleiermacher believes, would be a promotion of fear in his readers (p. 18), since using religion as means to improve civil organizations or abolish injustice would only increase the contempt of people (p. 19). In the end, for Schleiermacher, morality, and justice do not need of religion but their own methods:
Just as little can morality be in need of religion. A weak, tempted heart must take refuge in the thought of a future world. But it is folly to make a distinction between this world and the next. Religious persons at least know only one (…) to transport religion into another sphere that it may serve and labour is to manifest towards it also great contempt (p. 20).
As seen in the first place, Schleiermacher does not agree that one should use religion to promote morality and justice, because true religion should stand by itself. In the second place, religion, morality, and justice belong to different spheres, so that they should not mix their methods and goals.
Schleiermacher’s First Speech is rich in innovation and methodology. There are a series of aspects it is important to note: Schleiermacher departs from the orthodox view of God and that makes him put the object of theology not in God Himself but in another place: the human being. His theological system moves its center of God itself to God-human relation. The source of theology is now the human experience of the Whole.
Schleiermacher presents an immanent God who actively is present in his creation and who is impersonal. Schleiermacher’s comment about his childish notions of God seems to confirm this position. Speaking of such a notion, he affirms that the anthropomorphic notion of God and immortality is highly sensuous and it will eventually vanish. Schleiermacher openly rejects the anthropomorphic notion of God. One question that arises, nevertheless, is “Who is God, then?” From his speech, one notes God is not anthropomorphic and transcendent, yet real and immanent. God, for Schleiermacher, is the cause of all things.