We have a fresh opportunity to reflect about Friedrich Schleiermacher through an interview with Professor Richard Crouter about his 2005 book entitled Friedrich Schleiermacher Between Enlightenment and Romanticism.
Richard E. Crouter, (Occidental, BA; Union Theological Seminary, BD, ThD), Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus, taught at Carleton College, 1967- 2003, and has a primary interest in the modern religious thought of Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and Reinhold Niebuhr. He is the translator of Friedrich Schleiermacher's 1799 On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (1996), co-editor of the Journal for the History of Modern of Theology, (1993-2010), and author of Friedrich Schleiermacher: Between Enlightenment and Romanticism (2005). His most recent book is Reinhold Niebuhr: On Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith (2010).
He has lectured widely in the U.S. as well as overseas, especially in Germany and the U.K.
Q: In short, this book has become a treasure and I am grateful to you.
First of all I wonder what made you focus on Schleiermacher?
RC: In graduate school I specialized in patristics, the origins of Christianity in Greco-Roman antiquity, but did so to gain knowledge of foundations more than as an end in itself. I spent my earlier years studying the building up of the Christian tradition, and then turned to the more radical challenges posed to religion by natural science and critical historical inquiry in the modern period. When I first read Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (originally published in 1799) in graduate school, I was hooked. But we only had the 1821 revised version of his book in English, so I translated the original 1799 version, written when he was 30 years old and living in Berlin among the German romantics. A classic book, the work touches upon virtually all the issues of religion in the modern world, including the nature of religion, how it persists in a modern setting of materialist explanations and utilitarian ethics, the nature of religious community and need to understand religion as it comes to be embodied in institutions and historical forms, i.e., in his case Christianity.
The book reflects Schleiermacher’s sensibility that the mystery of the universe exceeds our ability to comprehend everything through a system of philosophy. He held that religion arises from an immediate sense of wonder and awe about the universe and that this deeply pious impulse then becomes expressed in religious doctrine and moral codes. The “cultured despisers” of religion consisted (a) of those who had denounced religious institutions generally in favor of some general universal or natural morality of the Enlightenment and (b) those poets and writers who thought their own artistic work as authors in the movement of Romanticism could take over and substitute for religion.
Q: Why are you fascinated by the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), German philosopher and Protestant theologian?
RC: I’ve been fascinated by the breadth of intellect of Schleiermacher who wrote not only about understanding the Christian faith from within (as a system of theology) but about the many ways that religion interacts with a wider world of politics, culture, and history, while bringing a unique perspective to our understanding of this wider world. More than most thinkers, he has a deliberate and self-aware approach to the problems of human knowing and is especially good at illuminating the ways that we are interdependent and constantly engage in acts of translating meaning, whether working in our mother tongue, or literally translating a different system of thought as he did for the philosophy of Plato. Gradually I discovered how central his ideas are to the problems we face today, the concept and approaches to the divine, pluralism of religions, place of tradition, nature of religious community, and interaction between religion and politics. I continue to be impressed by his work in the theory of interpretation (hermeneutics), which is theoretical reflection on how we get meaning (for today) from texts (either from today or from long ago, including sacred scripture).
Q: It's said you use Enlightenment and Romanticism as backdrop, for in Schleiermacher, the lines between these two movements are “blurred”.
RC: Too often scholars treat periods or types of intellectual history as if they are discrete entities, as if “the Enlightenment” and “Romanticism” in Europe never intermingled. In fact, however, they often flow together and did so in the work of Schleiermacher. He was steeped in the German Enlightenment, especially the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, but also Enlightenment theologians, who used critical reason in their efforts to define and uphold religion and the life of faith. Schleiermacher took a critical sensibility from the Enlightenment and shared a sense of the pervasiveness of morality with Kant and others, but not to the exclusion of a religious sense of transcendence that is more foundational. Through association with the German romantics Schleiermacher sharpened his sensitivity to individual consciousness and to the ways that some forms of institutional religion do not speak to the depths of the human heart. All this came together with his family background in German pietism, a heart-centered confessional faith through which Schleiermacher came to believe that all of life reflects an appreciation of divine grace, the gift of our existence.
Increasingly I have come to think that uncritical appeal to big ideas as discrete periods (whether the Enlightenment, Romanticism, or even Modernity) covers up as many problems as it resolves. Schleiermacher was open to the complexity of history and ways that continuity and change co-exist within the historic teachings of a religious tradition, in his case, Protestant Christianity.
Q: In the first essay, you examine one of the claims suggested in Wilhelm Dilthey’s biography of Schleiermacher, namely that “the study of his works alone will not yield full significance of Schleiermacher’s worldview.” How does biography, as knowledge of a life, contribute to our understanding of a writer’s carefully nuanced arguments?
RC: Of course, trivial details from one’s life are not crucial for an understanding of a major writer or thinker. Not all aspects of a biography are equally significant; what is needed is a critical-historical sense of the written works. Schleiermacher was especially engaged with his own times, a kind of Golden Age of German literature (Goethe) and philosophy (Hegel). His writing can only be grasped when it is understood contextually, i.e., when we see what he opposes in the surrounding culture and how his theology relates to his predecessors and to his contemporaries. But there is another reason why a historical-critical approach to analyzing his teaching matters. Some of his key works were published in more than one edition (On Religion in 1799, 1806, and 1821 and The Christian Faith in 1821/22 and 1830/31), while some of his unpublished works exist as series of lectures he gave at the university. It is impossible to compare his teaching in these works without also asking why he made certain revisions, how his audience and/or intentions may have shifted. Such criticism is not necessarily destructive; in fact, it is needed in order to help us grasp the abiding continuities of interest in a given thinker’s work.
Q: Could you elaborate on the accusation made by Barth and later authors (representing Liberation theology or post-colonial criticism) that Schleiermacher is a cultural accommodationist?
RC: The idea of Schleiermacher as a cultural accommodationist, whether in the early Barth or in more recent interpreters, is a polemical caricature that usually shows little understanding of his actual teaching, i.e., what he stood for and was also against in his specific cultural situation. The stereotype seems to assume a naïve, monolithic view of culture. Schleiermacher was often in trouble with the dominant political conservatism of his King, hence hardly a conformist in that area. He was extremely critical of the rise of what he called speculative philosophy by Fichte and Hegel and its intellectual pretension in matters of rationalizing theology. But there is also a more general point to be made here: I know of no major Christian theologian who is not selectively engaged by issues in the surrounding culture, whether known as a liberal or a more traditional thinker. To be otherwise is to be insignificant.
Q: Your book suggests that Schleiermacher had a significant impact on Søren Kierkegaard, despite the fact that many writers see them as diametrically opposed with Schleiermacher a theological liberal and Kierkegaard a proponent of a more traditional theology. What is the evidence for Schleiermacher’s influence on the younger Danish author?
RC: In fact there are similarities and differences between the two thinkers. They are most unlike in how they stand in their own societies; Schleiermacher was an official clergyman in the church, married, a professor of theology at the university, while Kierkegaard was an independent writer who never entered into any of those official relationships. Kierkegaard was most struck by the way that the young Schleiermacher, as Plato translator, expressed himself in the form of dialogues. In his journals the Dane holds that Schleiermacher’s Confidential Letters on Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde was a “masterful way” to write because readers have to think through the clash of individual perspectives within the work and come to their own conclusions. Thus Schleiermacher was a model for what Kierkegaard further developed as the method of indirect communication. In addition, however, Kierkegaard expressed admiration of Schleiermacher’s systematic theology or Dogmatics, which does not try to prove the existence of God, but instead invites readers to reflect upon an “immediate consciousness of utter dependence.” This sense or feeling arises when we are aware that we are never absolutely free in every respect, but that both freedom and dependence are given to us from a source that Schleiermacher considers divine. The details cannot be summarized easily; but Kierkegaard recognized that Schleiermacher had profound respect for the transcendence of deity as ineffable in a fundamental manner, hence beyond human comprehension. Thus whatever their differences, there are elements of profound respect that the Dane has for the Berliner.
Q: Could you explain how Schleiermacher stood near the storm center of sharp theological disputes regarding the status of doctrine, church authority and rituals, church-state relations, relations between Christians and Jews, and the place of theology among the academic disciplines?
RC: I’m unable to go into detail on each of these points, except to say that doctrine and the status of scripture and church authority had been debated throughout Christian history among scholars and theologians. As a follower of Reformed, i.e., Calvinist, Protestantism in Berlin Schleiermacher was active in shaping a united Reformed and Lutheran Church upon the 300th centenary of the 1517 Protestant Reformation. He argued for a measure of independence of the church from the state and was sometimes in trouble for those views. He was also an advocate of the view that religion should not be a test of citizenship in Prussia, hence he contributed to the movement of Jewish emancipation into civil society by holding that Jews should be allowed to be citizens without converting to Christianity. As a member of the founding commission of the new 1810 University of Berlin (Humboldt-Universität), he helped shape the idea that the theology faculty should be a regular established part of the university in order to train future leaders of the church in Protestant Prussia. In turn, this meant that intellectual debate of the university was in his mind not antithetical to the interests of theology or of the church in the long run.
Abdur-Rahman: Thank you very much.
RC: Thank you as well. I appreciate your interest in the legacy of Friedrich Schleiermacher
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