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IF a book can signal the beginning of an era, then Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers marks the beginning of the era of Protestant Liberal Theology. By normal reckoning that era lasted about one hundred twenty years and came to an end with the publication of Karl Barth’s Romans.

These statements as indications of the historical importance of the Speeches are accurate enough, but they are misleading. Schleiermacher’s conception of religion in general and of Christianity in particular was strikingly “original,” but he appropriated a good many themes that had been articulated before him, especially in the decades most recent to him. Also, of course, it is a mistake to suppose that all Protestant Liberal Theology bears the mark of Schleiermacher, and it is false to suppose that Protestant Liberal Theology came to an end with Barth’s Romans. The generalization, then, is a convenience of historians that rightly highlights the historical importance of the Speeches.

A better way to indicate the importance of this book is to say that it properly belongs to an astonishingly small number of classics in Christian theology. By classic I mean a book that has not only major historical significance of the sort indicated in the opening paragraph but that continues also to stimulate and to form in substantive ways the thinking of some who are preoccupied with the questions of what religion and Christian faith are. The Speeches are the best door into Schleiermacher’s thought, and that thought will likely continue to exercise its power here and there into the distant future. Reading the Speeches is more than an exercise in trying to understand an important moment in the history of Christian theology. It rightly evokes reflection and discussion of the author’s understanding of religion without respect to time.


For both its historical and its continuing contemporary significance it is good that the book is here reprinted in a relatively accessible form. The translation is the one made by British theologian John Oman in 1893. It is a good translation, and it has the advantage of using an English that is more closely related to the rather ornate German that characterizes Schleiermacher’s style in this work. Both Oman’s English and Schleiermacher’s German are different from their present-day counterparts. In following the flow and rhythm of the sentences, the reader’s eye will occasionally stumble over an elaborate construction, a quaint phrase, or an unusual adjective, but the text is penetrable and clear. Most important, it gives us Schleiermacher, and understanding Schleiermacher rewards the effort.

The Schleiermacher it gives us is the young Schleiermacher who, as Reformed (Calvinist) Chaplain at the Charity Hospital in Berlin, a predominately evangelical (Lutheran) city, had sufficient free time to participate actively in the fermenting avant garde culture of that time and place. That avant garde movement was what is called early German Romanticism, and it found its voice in the lively conversations that took place in the salons of wealthy Jewish women. Schleiermacher was introduced to the weekly drawing-room gatherings of Henriette Herz by the young Count Alexander Dohna, with whom Schleiermacher had become friends when not long before he had been tutor to the younger Dohna children at the family estate.

He fit the group. He was brilliant, witty, and articulate; he had a gift for friendship. He also shared the group’s reaction against enlightened rationality and detachment and against neo-classical ideals and an emphasis on proper decorum. (Friedrich Schlegel, who became Schleiermacher’s close friend, referred to the representatives of the Enlightenment mode as “harmonious dullards.”) More important, Schleiermacher shared his new friends’ sense of individuality and their appreciation of the infinite diversity of the world. He held their view of the human situation as one that can penetrate and understand neither infinite variety nor infinite unity but that strives to bring both together in a way that destroys neither pole and acknowledges the limitations of human finitude. Schleiermacher expresses this view early ixin the First Speech (“Defence”). It is foundational for the development of the Speeches, and it remained so in everything he wrote and taught throughout his life.

Schleiermacher was eagerly welcomed as a participant in the conversations that took place weekly in Henrietta Herz’s home, but he was an enigma to most of the participants. He was a minister of the church, and most of the regulars had intentionally and passionately liberated themselves not only from the church or synagogue but also from religion as such. They were “cultured despisers of religion,” and they could not understand how Schleiermacher could so genuinely share and contribute to their new ways of seeing but be, at the same time, a confirmed Christian and minister of the church.

His closest friends within the circle decided to resolve the issue by insisting that he write a book. Friedrich Schlegel contrived the plan. On the morning of Schleiermacher’s twenty-ninth birthday (November 21, 1797) he was visited by Alexander Dohna, his brother, Henrietta Herz, Dorothea Viet, the brilliant daughter of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who was married to a Berlin banker, and Friedrich Schlegel.11Friedrich Schlegel and Dorothea Viet fell in love, had an affair, and after Dorothea’s divorce, were married. The affair is the poorly disguised subject of Schlegel’s “shocking” novel, Lucinde, which Schleiermacher defended in a series of letters published by Schlegel.

The surprise birthday party was a happy occasion. Schleiermacher made and relished strong friendships, and these people were his best friends. They showered him with gifts and laid out chocolates and pastries they had brought. There was good conversation.

The festivities were interrupted when, on signal from Schlegel, the friends said in unison, “You must write a book.” Schlegel refused to drop the subject until he had wrested a firm promise from Schleiermacher. Schleiermacher did not take promises lightly, but it was nine months before he could put pen to paper. Eight months later, on April 15, 1799, he could write Henrietta Herz that he had given the “final stroke to Religion.”

The book that this stroke brought to completion is astonishing in at least five respects. First, he presented an utterly fresh understanding of religion. It was, of course, not without xpoints of contact in the past, but Schleiermacher’s presentation stood in bold contrast with the views that were prevalent in that time (dogmatic orthodoxy, speculative Neology, enlightened “natural religion,” and Pietism). Second, he set forth a view of religion that was in principle free from reliance on authority. Third, he described religion as belonging essentially to the human sphere and thus as essentially limited. Truly religious people are never able to claim that they possess the truth as such, and in its entirety. Fourth, his approach to religion was descriptive and analytical. In the fashion of early German Romanticism he tried to “display” what actually constitutes religion. Finally, he tried to show that religion is inevitably social and thus always has a definite form (“positive” religion, as the language of his time put it). In this connection he made a case for Christianity that was at least coherent with the descriptive analysis he set forth in the earlier part of the book.

The person reading this text for the first time may want to look for these astonishing turns of thought in three arguments or descriptions Schleiermacher presents. The first is a foretaste of Schleiermacher’s later lectures on “dialectics,” or philosophy, and is found in the “First Speech.” The situation of the human being in the world is that she or he can grasp neither the whole that is “beyond” and “behind” this world nor the most particular individual elements of this whole. Human life is an oscillation between these two unreachable poles without access either to ultimate unity or ultimate diversity. To move too far toward the one is to lose the other, and vice versa. This situation is the essence of the limitations of human life within the world. Second (the basic view developed in the “Second Speech”), religion is neither a knowing nor a doing but something whose occasion or foundation touches a locus in the human being more fundamental than either knowing or doing. Schleiermacher describes this locus as “feeling” and the occasion as “a sense and taste for the Infinite in the finite.” We must understand, however, that this description is a generalization. Religion as such does not occur, only determinate forms of religion. Third, human life in the world is essentially social, and anyone who comes to a determinate sense and taste for the Infinite in the finite will be impelled to communicate it and to identify with a community or xito form a new one. The only way religion can show itself is in specific, determinate forms, and in recognition of this condition Schleiermacher, finally, makes a case for Christianity. It is not the Christianity that finds its essence in knowing (orthodoxy, speculative philosophy) or in doing (“natural religion” or Pietism). Schleiermacher was convinced that Christianity is rooted in the inner life of the people and from that base is productive of new ways of speaking (knowing) and a new mode of life (doing). This is the Christianity he commended to the “cultured despisers” of religion, and he thought his friends were closer to it than they thought.

WHEN Schleiermacher wrote Henrietta Herz that he had given “the final stroke to Religion,” he meant he had finished the book. A good many of his contemporaries and a good many in the intervening years have understood that phrase in a quite different way! Schlegel himself, although he had become “religious” by the time the book was published, had moved in his religiousness to a preoccupation with esoteric matters. He wrote Schleiermacher that his new orientation was occasioned by the Speeches but was different. He himself, he wrote, was moving to the beyond, whereas Schleiermacher, he quite rightly saw, was rooted in the here and now. In a review in his journal, the Athanaeum, Schlegel referred to the stimulating power of the Speeches but criticized its author for being exoteric and for not grasping how the human situation occurs through the separation and reunion of the divine from and with itself. The Idealist philosophers, and especially Hegel and those influenced by Hegel, who built their speculations on the Orphic myth of separation and return, also opposed the conceptualities of Schleiermacher that were originally expressed in this book. On the other side, the Speeches got Schleiermacher in trouble with the church. He was charged with Spinozism, pantheism, and a too-strong challenge to received Christian teaching, and forms of these charges have kept more conservative church theologians at a distance from Schleiermacher in the years since.

It is impossible to say what effect the Speeches had on the growing body of “cultured despisers of religion” across Germany, but the book did establish Schleiermacher as a major Protestant theologian. In time it won for him a teaching post xiion the theological faculty at the University in Halle, and after that university was closed by the Napoleonic occupying forces, his reputation gave him a hand in planning for the new University of Berlin where, after its founding, he was Professor of Theology and Dean of the Faculty until his death in 1834.

Schleiermacher has influenced diverse strands of Protestant theology since his time. In the nineteenth century Samuel Taylor Coleridge in England and Horace Bushnell in the United States reflected aspects of Schleiermacher’s thought in their theological work. In the early part of the present century substantive traces of his thought can be found in theologians as different from each other as, for example, Wilhelm Hermann and Rudolf Otto and, in the generation just past, Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich. A major reappropriation of Schleiermacher in our own day, though, of course, using other sources as well, can be seen in the thoroughly impressive constructive theology of Edward Farley. One can predict with confidence that there will be others. Schleiermacher’s theological work that began most imposingly with the Speeches clearly belongs in that relatively small category of theological classics.

One does not fully understand the whole of Schleiermacher by reading the Speeches. The most important text is his comprehensive theological work, The Christian Faith. Moreover, it is true of Schleiermacher, as it is true of anyone who produces a corpus of work over an extended period of time, that he changed in various ways the formulation of his thoughts, developed them more fully, and addressed them to different subjects. Twice, as a matter of fact, he revised the Speeches, in 1806 and 1821, and the reader will certainly want to give careful attention to the explanatory notes added in the 1821 revision, at the end of each Speech. But the revisions of the Speeches do not change its basic conceptions, and although Schleiermacher’s full corpus of work goes far beyond this book, it not only is coherently a piece of the whole but is most certainly the door that opens the way into the thought world of this remarkable theologian.

All the more reason, therefore, to welcome the reprinting of the work in English translation in a form that is readily accessible.

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