Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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F D E Schleiermacher (1768-1834)
It's not surprising that some in the later part of the 18th century should have found the rationalist climate too dry and its culture excessively clinical. The scientists and engineers of the day had persuaded many that our world can be boiled down to essentials by the process of analysing it to the last detail. 

There was little room left in this worldview for mystery and a sense of wonder at the extraordinary complexity and puzzle of the universe. Perhaps in reaction to that came the romantics - the poets, painters and writers who wanted to convey a non-analytical, spontaneous, feeling, reaction to the natural world. They were highly critical of the dry-as-dust theology of German theologians at the turn of the eighteenth century. Schleiermacher called them "cultured despisers" of religion, and it was to them that he addressed his writings.

Another type of reaction came from the Church. As Christian horizons expanded and people began to venture into forbidden territory, so Church authorities tended to crack down on so-called "free thinkers". The result was a rigid and somewhat sterile outlook on current debate, the antithesis of the romantic movement.

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher was born in Germany and studied theology at the Halle University. He was ordained in the Lutheran Church in 1796 and spent some eight years in a Berlin congregation. But he was happiest in academia and in 1804 returned to his Alma Mater. Later he combined a post at Berlin University with one in the largest congregation in the city, from where he is reputed to have exerted a profound influence.

At heart he was a fiercely independent thinker. He found the rigid boundaries of the German Church's doctrines somewhat constricting. So he took a new tack, holding that true religion - Christianity being its highest and most complete expression - is "�the sense and taste of the infinite". In other words, the religious person bonds with God independently of all dogma. Faith is based upon intuition and feeling.

His 1821 book The Christian Faith put forward the essence of Christian theology as a feeling of "absolute dependence", in which everything is related to the redemption which Jesus accomplished. When the nature and origins of this "feeling" are explored, he thought it was traceable back to God the creator.

In the context of the prevailing scepticism of his times about the historicity of Christian origins on one hand, and the defensive reaffirmation of orthodoxy on the other, Schleiermacher's importance in the faith and history debate of his time rests upon his insistence that the starting point of all faith is human experience.

His importance now is that he emphasises starting with experience and moving from there to doctrine, rather than from doctrine to an understanding of experience. This may be one of the few viable avenues along which contemporary Christianity may discover a new range of meanings in the faith.

Schleiermacher urged that we begin our search for meaning with life as we experience it - and from there work out what God and Jesus mean for us. If we have religious feeling

... it is the result of the operation of God in you by means of the operation of the world upon you ... purely of sensations and the influence of all that lives and moves around, which accompanies them and conditions them. [1]

This was radically different from what had gone before. Traditional Christianity insists not so much upon our response to the world, as upon our response to God intervening in the world. God is ever present, a palpable influence day-by-day on the lives of all of us. We don't discover God in the world. God discovers us in the world. J D Bettis writes that

This shift from the object to the subject of religious activity marked a significant turning-point in the history of theology. It initiated a long tradition which sought to distinguish between superstition or perverted religion, and true or legitimate religion by identifying the exact character of the human religious faculties. [2]

One of Schleiermacher's most illustrious successors was William James and his seminal book Varieties of Religious Experience. For him, as for Schleiermacher, the objectivity or otherwise of God was not the proper focus of investigation. What was important was the kind and quality of our response to whatever we consider divine. James termed this the "will to believe".

To put this another way: We may dissect the Bible down to the last comma, but we won't find God there. We may tear apart all the elaborate dogmas of the Church over the millennia, but that won't bring God any closer. What does matter is what we make of the naturally religious side of our lives. Only then will we truly understand ourselves.

Schleiermacher tried to show that there are three main elements to our internal lives. He thought that the scientific method is how human beings know their environment. The discipline of ethics is the human way of working out how best to behave in our world. And religion, the third way, is how we express our "feeling".

This latter expression has caused problems with Schleiermacher's thought. Our immediate response nowadays is to relate "feeling" to "emotion" (though, to be fair, this response is not, according to Bettis, so easily made in the original German). 

The synonym for "feeling" which Schleiermacher uses is "immediate self-consciousness". So religion is to be associated with our capacity to be self-aware in an immediate and direct sense. In other words, you and I don't think ourselves into "awareness" - it just is. We can't prove the existence of our awareness in some sort of objective way. We can only know it by instances or examples of it:

... ideas and principles are all foreign to religion ... If ideas and principles are to be anything, they must belong to knowledge which is a different department of life from religion. [1]

Feeling or self-consciousness is usually experienced in the form of a "moment" or aspect of life. Sometimes things out there press upon us in such a way that we become aware of ourselves as receivers, as being acted upon. Sometimes we operate on the world around us in a positive or determinative way - in which case our self-awareness is of acting upon.

The common element ... of self-consciousness which predominantly express a receptivity from some outside quarter is the feeling of Dependence ... the common element ... which predominantly express spontaneous movement and activity is the feeling of Freedom. [3]

Self-consciousness is therefore always reciprocal. We can't experience it unless it's in relation to the world. From whence then comes the "feeling" we usually call "religion"? Is there a special sort of self-consciousness which is not reciprocal to the things out there?

Schleiermacher thinks there is a third "moment" of self-awareness, a sort of "feeling of absolute dependence". If we experience a feeling of absolute dependence - which Schleiermacher tries to show we all do - then

... this feeling cannot in any wise arise from the influence of an object which has in some way to be given to us ... [nor can it] exist in a single moment as such, because such a moment is always determined ... by what is given ... [3]

So there is no such thing as a feeling of absolute freedom because such a feeling depends upon something else, an "object" in our environment. And that which is dependent isn't absolute and if not absolute, is only temporary.

The absolute is to be called "God". This is the "object" to which our feeling of absolute dependence is related, the

... sense that the Whence of our receptive and active existence, as implies in this self-consciousness, is to be designated by the word "God" and that is for us the really original signification of that word. [3]

Protestant orthodoxy of Schleiermacher's day assumed that theology is a discipline based upon divinely revealed propositions, from which an absolute system of dogma can be deduced. That is still the traditional standpoint of official Christendom, epitomised in the rigidity of the Curia of the Roman Catholic Church on one hand, and the biblicism of non-conformist fundamentalists on the other.

This traditional standpoint is profoundly undermined by a proposal that human beings in any way determine their religious response to the Absolute. Christian tradition insists that this is the inalienable function of the Church. Its leaders determine what is right and wrong, how to think and speak about God, and how to worship the divine. Religion is categorically not something which is an inbuilt response to God, freely available to all on an equal basis.

At the same time, Schleiermacher's proposed sense of "absolute dependence" (like William James "will to believe") is open to a grave objection of false reasoning.

First, absolute dependence is such that it is equally likely to not to be experienced as it is to be experienced. In other words, it collapses as a concept as soon as it is subjected to any test of probability. It is a "maybe" but not " must". You may experience it, but I might not. Absolute dependence may be useful to some but it is not necessary to all. And unless it is the latter, it cannot be a test of God's existence.

Second, the existence of something does not guarantee its cause. If you or I experience a sense of absolute dependence, it does not follow that the existence of God causes it. I may believe that there was such a person as Adolf Hitler. Nobody will tell me I'm wrong in saying so because my belief has a genuine cause. It is not true that Hitler existed because I believe he did. Similarly, it may not be true that God exists because you and I have a feeling of absolute dependence.

Bertrand Russell put the matter like this:

The precept of veracity, I should say: "Give to any hypothesis which is worth your while to consider just that degree of credence which the evidence warrants." [4]

Schleiermacher's "sense of absolute dependence" is natural for a person of his time and place - and perhaps for as many today world-wide. But it is increasingly true that for equally many the sense of absolute dependence, insofar as it is ever experienced at all, is directed more at the natural order than at a God who is personal to each of us. _______________________________________________
[1] On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, Harper Row, 1958
[2] Phenomenology of Religion, SCM Press, 1969
[3] The Christian Faith, T & T Clark, 1928
[4] History of Western Philosophy, Allen & Unwin, 1965

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