Sunday, April 3, 2016

Reflections Mostly on Schleiermacher

(Adapted from a discussion post on a recent course on 19 and 20th century theology at Bethel Seminary in San Diego, CA) 

It is an apt characterization to depict Schleiermacher and Hodge as representing something like polar opposites within 19th century Protestant thought in culture.  This is due not only to their divergent responses to the crisis in faith stemming the Enlightenment (including its skeptical Humean and Kantian modifications), but also to their enormous influence on 20th century theology and religious culture in spawning the modernist/fundamentalist great divide.  Such radical divergence is an apt characterization, notwithstanding pervasive depictions in which the views of Schleiermacher and Hodge have been often caricaturized.  Caricaturized, I argue, because in his emphasis on religious experience Schleiermacher never denied the existence of a God beyond personal experience, and in his emphasis on Scripture as “the storehouse of facts” upon which theology should be crafted, Hodge never disregarded the importance of heart piety, without which, any merely knowing of God would be vacuous, if not, in the final analysis, downright impossible.

I do not want to overplay these caveats; only to note them, not only for their value in providing for a more thorough understanding of Schleiermacher and Hodge, but in helping to work through some of the polar tensions marking the great divide in contemporary Protestantism, which, if discerningly grappled with could provide opportunity for greater subtlety and dialogue across the theological continuum.

Because of space limitations I will concentrate here on Schleiermacher.  I will saying passing that Hodge should be cut some slack for his reliance on Scottish Common Sense Realism in that this philosophical influence was pervasive throughout 19th century religious and political thought, including the Declaration of Independence claim: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Moreover, this philosophical tradition represented a valuable mediation between claims of absolute certainty (whether of science or religion) and utter epistemological skepticism that we find, in different ways, in Hume and Kant.
In response to the “acids of modernity,” Schleiermacher sought to respond to the “cultural despisers of religion,” those intellectual elites who raised both rationalism and epistemological skepticism to a religious-like absolutism, with the sum impact of rejecting traditional religious dogmatic and biblical claims based on any form of supernaturalism that extended beyond the commonly accepted natural order. Such rejection included the Trinity, the incarnation, a penal substitution interpretation of the atonement, the resurrection, eschatology, and divine miracles.

Whether or not Schleiermacher rejected these core components of the Christian proclamation in their totality, he downplayed them to a most significant degree in laying stress instead on religious sentiments as the grounding point of faith, ultimately, “the feeling of being utterly dependent on something infinite that manifests itself in and through finite beings,” which, as summarized by Olson was something like "cosmic awe” (Olson, p.137).
In placing the emphasis on heart piety, Schleiermacher struck what I view as two positive cords.  First and foremost, he was clearly right in placing a strong emphasis on the centrality of a dynamic faith as a critical bedrock in living out a vital Christian life.  On a secondary note, in emphasizing religious feelings Schleiermacher identified a topic for engaging secular intellectuals on their own term in opening up a basis for what would ultimately come to be the social scientific investigation of religious phenomenology.  While Schleiermacher did not take up such a research project, there is a clear link between his work and that of William James in his important study, Varieties of Religious Experience, which provided a preliminary model for such a mode of study.  The study of religious phenomenology does not prove anything about the validity of the truth claims of those who attest to a personal relationship with the living God.  It does, however, provide a source of evidence from the mighty cloud of witnesses that can be drawn upon for a variety of apologetic and ministerial purposes in the academy, the church, and the broader culture.

From both a neo-orthodox and evangelical perspective one needs to be critical of Schleiermacher’s marginalization of traditional Christian dogma related to all aspects of supernaturalism.   Francis Schaefffer spoke of the “God out there” and Karl Barth, in his early work, spoke of God as “wholly other,” which he ultimately modulated to some degree in his later emphasis on Christ’s incarnation.  The central problem here is the failure to identify God as both beyond as well as embodied within human experience through a dynamic relationship which embraces both the transcendent and immanent dimensions of God.  Given Schleiermacher’s biography, including the religious and broader cultural and intellectual issues he encountered in the Romantic Era within early 19th century German history, that may have been a tall order. Nonetheless, as a critique of his broader influence on the 200 year history of liberal theology that followed, the concern stands.  Simply put, ways need to be worked that keep in dynamic unity heart piety and the orthodox Christian theological tradition clearly, a quest for a most generous and faithful orthodoxy.

No comments:

Post a Comment