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das Gefühl ad nauseam: Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Paradigm for Christian Theology

Although the name Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is notoriously hard to spell, his name appears in every serious treatment of contemporary theology precisely because his theology is just as notoriously hard to expel from the influence of Christian thought. He is not called the “Father of Liberalism” without good reason. His “children” still carry out his basic paradigm in contemporary theological development. If we can speak of the history of Western Philosophy in terms of Pre- and Post-Kantian, then perhaps we could almost just as easily speak of Christian theology as Pre- or Post-Schleiermachian. His influence is not easily exaggerated. How did Christianity go from a reliance on biblical revelation, belief in the supernatural, reliance on a personal creator God, and defining its core in terms of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, to a reliance on philosophy, an allergic reaction to the supernatural, reliance on personal subjective consciousness, and defining its core in terms of grand feeling (das Gefühl) of dependence on the greater whole of existence? Although it may seem quite a leap for Schleiermacher to go from a conservative Pietist upbringing to a completely new paradigm for Christian theology, to be sure, his thought did not develop in a vacuum. By paying close attention to the effect of Enlightenment ideas on his generation, it becomes easier to see how Schleiermacher’s views, though a great leap from historical Christianity, was more like a baby step from the sentimental philosophical paradigm which was gaining popularity in his day.
Romanticism’s Apparent Influence on Schleiermacher
The latter period of the Enlightenment (in which Schleiermacher was born) began to see reactions against reason’s claim to supremacy and sufficiency for all knowledge. Many began to look at a reduction of reality to neat scientific and rational formulations as a gross misrepresentation of the complexity of reality. As a result of the late eighteenth and nineteenth century Romanticism, mystery and imagination fought for the honored seat at the round table of legitimate expressions of that transcendant reality. The Romantics, as they were called, did not believe that ultimate reality could be known to finite human minds. Science and formal reason, they argued, are only one kind of “logic” by which humans make decisions of value and truth—and not even the most important kind either. After all, people do not tend to make decisions about love and friendships based on a certain scientific data or after a long and hard-fought deductive method of reasoning. Intuition, inspiration, imagination, and intense emotions that energize the human will, in the view of a Romantic, comprise the real “stuff” of life and ultimate reality. In Schleiermacher’s day, there was a new emphasis on the epistemological implications of such realities. Rationality began to be seen as cold and restrictive, much like the Enlightenment thinkers thought of the religious authoritarianism they hoped to overcome.
In comes Schleiermacher. While Schleiermacher followed Kant in seeing the need for placing theological discussion on a locus other than pure reason (see above essay on Kant), neither did he wish to consider Christianity as a form of knowledge or a system of morality, as Kant implied. Rather, Schleiermacher saw religion as grounded in das Gefühl—an awareness of one’s own existence on the one hand (consciousness) with one’s dependency on God on the other (God consciousness). For him, then, the role of theology was to explore and explain the implications of that feeling of dependence.
An Extra-Textual Approach to Defining Traditional Christian Terms
Of course, if one has come this far down the road over discussions on proposing an alternative to basic trust in the Bible (see previous essay on the Enlightenment), the Bible’s teachings about the foundations of knowledge are already considered passé. Thus, for those who were “enlightened” with a new approach to knowledge, if the Bible is to be understood as having any relevance to real knowledge, it must be re-interpreted in light of enlightenment presuppositions. This was an extra-textual approach to theology: starting from a certain adherence to a philosophy derived from outside the Bible, by which one then proceeds to interpret the Bible according to its standards—rejecting or reinterpreting wherever discrepancies exist. Based on this combination of Romanticism and Kantian epistemology, Schleiermacher built an extra-textual approach to Scripture, and built his theology on the foundation of das Gefühl. Anything that could be shown not to have any correspondence to this Gefühl was thereby deemed by Schleiermacher as irrelevant for theology. Thus, while the doctrine of creation was seen as constructive toward cultivating this sense of dependence, the mode of creation had no such convenience to theological development. The Genesis account of creation may or may not be historically accurate—as Schleiermacher himself did not believe it was—but this is not what is important. Even if it were historically accurate, however, it would not necessarily inform our feeling of dependency, and therefore, should never be made into an article of faith which defines the nature of Christianity. Such doctrines are not rejected because they are necessarily incompatible with science, but because they do not bear direct relation to the human experience of Gefühl. Furthermore, doctrinal formulation as such is of secondary importance, since its purpose is to explain and cultivate the all important experience of Gefühl.
The primary religious truth of Christianity is redemption, which is an experience, not a doctrine. This experience, following the Germen pietistic notions in which Schleiermacher was raised, is the essence of Christian piety—the fundamental basis for theology. For Christianity, however, this is not merely a subjective piety but a corporate one. Christianity, according to Schleiermacher, affords a superior level of God-consciousness than what one might come to on her own or through some other religion. The origins of this heightened piety must be traced back to a sufficient cause: Jesus. Heresy is redefined as doctrine which fails to give an adequate explanation for this sufficient cause. Since Christ’s activity has such great effects on producing such widespread and intense God-consciousness, we must give adequate attention to his person to account for this. What kind of person could be such a catalyst for such higher-order piety? A superior to be sure, in two ways: his own level of God-consciousness and his ability to impart this feeling to others. Inadequate attempts to give a sufficient cause, therefore, of Christian origins, play out in either failing to account for his work of imparting this Gefühl to others (the redemptive work of Christ) or in failing to account for what kind of person could be capable of not only having, but powerfully imparting such higher experiences of Gefühl to others (the person of Christ). That is, heresy is the result of failing to ascribe to Christ’s person what his activity demands, thus failing to have an acceptable form of Christian faith.

Schleiermacher’s Children: The Birth Of Classical Liberal Theology
Schleiermacher did not, however, see Christianity as the only source of meaningful theology. The feeling of dependence is universal, and therefore it is inevitable that all religious language would find some way to divulge it. Religious tradition passed on from generation to generation helps people to experience and better understand das Gefühl. In this sort of framework, non-Christian religions, although inferior to Christianity, are not so much “wrong” as they are different and second-rate ways of affirming the one common human experience of das Gefühl.
Such a paradigm for theology redefined Christianity. This way of doing Christian theology, using the traditional language of Christ, redemption, doctrine, heresy, etc., yet infusing meanings in them foreign to the traditional confessional statements of Christianity (and foreign to Jesus’ own first century Jewish framework to be sure) inevitably created great confusion in the church over the real meaning of Christianity. Who is God the Father? The whole of reality. Who is Jesus? The perfect ideal of God-consciousness. Who is the Spirit? An ability to interpret this feeling of dependance in a common way. What is Sin? Lack of God-consciousness. What is the Genesis account of the Fall? A symbol of the lack of God-consciousness. Why should we preach the word? To evoke this God-consciousness to new levels. What is salvation? Connecting with our God-consciousness.
In this project, Schleiermacher literally carved out a whole new path for being Christian and doing Christian theology. His ideas were not just a new development of traditional Christian thought. They assumed a posture of casual dismissal of such thought and an attempt to subvert the historic Christian faith with something more “relevant” to a Post-Enlightenment world. It would be a careless understatement to say that Schleiermacher’s new paradigm was picked up by later theologians. His theology was not just picked up by some. In many cases, it virtually replaced Christianity. His influence was deep and wide. The tradition is known as Classical Liberal Theology. After Schleiermacher’s bold move, Christianity was never the same.
Although those who came after him varied in their own take of the essence of Christianity, all sought to redefine it with extra-textual philosophical frameworks. Several common themes run throughout this classic period of Liberal Theology which might be considered to have followed (in some way) or further developed Schleiermacher’s theology: 1) allowing for a disconnect between science, history, and reason on the one hand, and religion on the other, 2) taking for granted that the referents for religious language are sufficiently explained outside of a transcendent reference point (i.e. reducing theology to anthropology), 3) attempting to boil all religions down to some commonality in human experience (i.e. pluralism), 4) attempting to find the value in Scripture by going beyond the original intent of the authors, adapting such texts to current modes of thinking (i.e. extra-textual hermeneutics), 5) accepting Kantian starting points (i.e. anti-supernaturalism, noumena vs. phenomena), 6) downplaying the importance of church dogma (i.e. anti-confessionalism), 7) forfeiting any real hope to establish the uniqueness of Christ (i.e. Christianity as superior in degree rather than superior in kind), 8) holding a naïve optimism with respect to human nature, 9) attempting to get beyond the biblical texts about Jesus to discover the Jesus of history (i.e. the quest for the historical Jesus), 10) reducing world religions down to the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, 11) reducing Christianity to ethical and social concerns (e.g. the social gospel).
Although Classical Liberal Theology would eventually be challenged, even Karl Barth, arguably one of Classical Liberal Theology’s most vocal critics, when asked by Carl Henry whether or not the resurrection was historical, refused to answer the question and downplayed the importance of such questions. This approach to theology of which Schleiermacher is considered the “father,” eventually took over much of mainline Protestantism in what is known now as the modernist controversy. The theology of Vatican II in many respects gave way to the spirit of the modernist age, leaving a permanent impact on confessional Roman Catholicism as well as protestantism. In short, Schleiermacher’s approach to Christianity spawned a new epoch.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Where would you say that Vatican II gave in to a Schleiermachian (sp?) perspective? Gaudium et Spes is, indeed, a response to Marx and his critique of supernatural religion, but I don’t think that it really gives up the supernatural at all. In fact, Vatican II re-emphasizes the natural desire for the experience of God Himself (which of course cannot be attained naturally, only be grace) after a century or so of Neo-Scholastic “naturalism”. De Lubac is rather brilliant on this point.

  2. Bradley says:


    I didn’t say that Vatican II gave way to the Schleiermachian perspective wholesale. I did say “in many respects” it gave way to the spirit of the modernist age. Conservative Catholics are eager to complain about this, so this isn’t merely a protestant judgment.

    Some of the outcome of this was positive, I think. For example, VII began to interpret their tradition in new ways that were at a disconnect with the authors original intent (see #4 in my list). It seems to me that the hardline Cyprianic formula, for example, “No salvation outside the church,” originally intended to rule out the possibility of salvation outside the visible Roman Catholic church (correct me if I’m wrong on that point). VII reinterpret Cyprian in such a way that not only allowed Protestants to be considered as participants in God’s salvation, but also Muslims and Buddhist’s (sp?). The modernist gravity pulled people into a pluralist direction, and VII, as far as I can see, was influenced by this.

    Any thoughts?

  3. Bradley says:

    Oops. I should clarify. The “good” part about the more liberal interpretation of Cyprian is this: We Protestants are now considered “separated brethren.” This, I think, although apparently a result of liberal leanings, was one positive result.

  4. Gerald says:


    Thanks for this. I knew very little of S.

    Sorry we missed each other on Friday. Were you supposed to call me, or me you? I got engaged in number of other items while waiting for your call and ran out of time. Let’s reschedule.

  5. Bradley says:

    Thanks Gerald. I sent you an e-mail about rescheduling. Just shoot back.

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