Friedrich Schleiermacher Introduction - Essay


Friedrich Schleiermacher 1768-1834

German philosopher and theologian.

Known as the father of modern theology, Friedrich Schleiermacher was one of the preeminent religious thinkers of the nineteenth century. A clergyman by profession, Schleiermacher is best remembered for his revolutionary spiritual philosophy that advocated religious belief grounded deeply in personal experience versus the rational and ordered morality of the Enlightenment. In this regard, many scholars have drawn a parallel between Schleiermacher's ideas and the major philosophies of the Romantics, who also advocated the sublime nature of human experience in contrast with religion steeped in dogma and rationalism. Although primarily concerned with theology and religious philosophy, Schleiermacher was also deeply enmeshed in the political and philosophical discussions of his time, including a passionate involvement in debates regarding German nationalism and unity. He is credited with the development of interpretive analysis of religious texts based mostly on his unfinished translation of the Platonic dialogues.

Biographical Information

Born in Breslau, Germany, on November 21, 1768, Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher was the son of an army chaplain of the Reformed Church. His family had many friends in ecclesiastical circles and in 1783 Schleiermacher's parents sent him to a boarding school of the Moravian sect which deeply influenced his view of religion and its value in human life. Beginning at the Moravian school in Niesky, Schleiermacher later moved to their seminary in Barby, studying both philosophy and literature. He soon found himself in conflict with the theological outlook and the confining intellectual opportunities offered by the seminary. In 1787 he transferred to the University of Halle where he studied philosophy. After leaving Halle in 1789, Schleiermacher completed the church examination in theology and later accepted a position as tutor in the household of Count Dohna of Schlobitten. He later related that these years with the Dohna family allowed him to view human life at its best and taught him the true nature of humanity, an important factor in his later development of ideas on morality and religion. He left the Count's service in 1793, accepting a position as pastor in Landsberg an der Warthe. It was during this time that Schleiermacher familiarized himself with the work of Spinoza, who, with Kant, Plato, and Friedrich Schlegel, is acknowledged as one of the sources for the development of Schleiermacher's later philosophical system. In 1796 he moved to Berlin as a chaplain of the Reformed Church. It was also during this time that he befriended Schlegel and Henriette Herz, a Jewish intellectual who hosted many philosophers and thinkers of the day. Schleiermacher was still not interested in putting his thoughts in writing at this time, instead focusing on the study of the connection between religious feeling and critical interpretation. Nonetheless, at the insistence of Schlegel, he eventually issued Über die Religion (On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers) in 1799. This work has often been viewed as Schleiermacher's most expressive writing on the Romantic aesthetic, proposing religion as the means for ultimate self-fulfillment. His Monologen: Eine Neujahrsgabe (Schleiermacher's Soliloquies), published a year later, is considered to be a companion piece to the Speeches and is composed of five parts. In this text, Schleiermacher clearly departs from the rationalistic philosophy advocated by Kant, instead making a case for the supremacy of individual experience. Although he continued preaching and teaching, Schleiermacher was often in conflict with the government due to his political views regarding the role of the monarchy and the unification of the Reformed and Lutheran churches in Germany. Towards the end of his life, however, he regained favor with the government and was awarded the Red Eagle Cross, Third Class. Schleiermacher died of pneumonia in 1834.

Major Works

In addition to the Speeches and Soliloquies, Schleiermacher also translated Plato's dialogues in the early 1800s. While the project was never completed, his commentary and translations are still considered a valuable addition to Plato scholarship. In 1804 Schleiermacher accepted the position of professor of theology and university preacher at the University of Halle. Although given only a mild reception by the mainly rationalistic faculty due to his theological views and close ties with Romantic philosophy, Schleiermacher continued to expand his theory of hermeneutics. In 1806 he published his Die Weihnachtsfeier: Ein Gespräch (Christmas Eve: A Dialogue on the Celebration of Christmas). Comprised of three short stories and three speeches, this work discusses the significance of the Christmas feast from a number of perspectives. Schleiermacher uses the story of Christ to demonstrate that both historical and personal experience are necessary to achieve perfection. After the French occupied Halle in 1806, Schleiermacher began participating in the political reformist movement, delivering several patriotic sermons. In 1809 he accepted the position of pastor of the Trinity Church in Berlin, marrying a young widow named Henriette von Willich with whom he had five children and adopted two others. Later that year, he also joined the faculty of theology at the University of Berlin, eventually becoming dean in 1810. His sermons during this time focused heavily on the idea of German unification. However, due to his criticism of the monarchy, he fell out of favor and by 1813 his lectures and sermons were carefully scrutinized. His interest in a united Germany continued, however, and in 1819 he published a series of lectures, Die Lehre vom Staat (The Doctrine of the State), in which he emphasized the need for an evolution of leadership and consciousness among ordinary people. Schleiermacher's most important religious work, Der christliche Glaube nach den Grundsätzen der evangelischen Kirche im Zusammenhange dargestellt (The Christian Faith), was published in 1821. In this work Schleiermacher most clearly defines his theological stance on such issues as creation and salvation and offers his ideas regarding the organization of theological disciplines. Schleiermacher asserts that man's dependence on nature and his consciousness of this dependence allow him to fully realize individual identity. This realization, in turn, allows man to understand his relationship to God, thus making Jesus Christ the center of the individual's religious consciousness.

Critical Reception

Most scholarship on Schleiermacher's work has focused on a discussion of his theological ideas as well as his influence on the development of religious thought and philosophy in the nineteenth century and beyond. Schleiermacher's work in this area, especially his ideas regarding the significance of nature and purpose of theology, are almost universally regarded as fundamental to the establishment of modern theological studies. Richard B. Brandt notes that Schleiermacher's influence is pervasive because the system he proposes is very adaptable. For example, Schleiermacher is able to mediate successfully between supernatural theology and naturalism, showing theologians a way in which they can accept modern science and defend religion. In fact, his influence on the ideas regarding the primacy of naturalism over supernaturalism is often compared to Kant's influence in the transcendence of rationalism and empiricism. Schleiermacher's ideas regarding religion, in which he expressed the supremacy of a personal relationship and devotion to a personal God, also influenced his political ideas and philosophies. In his essay on the development of Schleiermacher's nationalistic philosophy, Jerry F. Dawson notes that just as Schleiermacher rejected the idea of a dogmatic, institutionalized religion, he also opposed the idea that the Church could be a moral and social force in society that would advocate a standard of behavior for the state. Debate and controversy over Schleiermacher's ideas continues, with scholars focusing their study of his writing in the context of literary interpretation, hermeneutics, and theology. However, there is general agreement, as noted by Hans Küng, that Schleiermacher's greatest concern was the development of a personal faith and connection with God that was not bound by dogma, and it is for the development of this philosophy that he is accorded the status of the father of modern theology.