Friedrich Schleiermacher – Religion as “the Feeling of Absolute Dependence”

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

The German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) tried to defend religion against detractors and cynics of his day which led him to pen On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (1799).

Schleiermacher observed that religion was encountering opposition within the culture, and especially so from the more educated people (of whom Schleiermacher criticized as the “all-too-knowing ones” and referred to as the “sophisticated ones”).

Schleiermacher found Immanuel Kant’s three categories to be a convincing way to examine religion, and, much like Kant, wished to separate religion from rationality by identifying it with something non- or extra-rational. This led him to disagree with Kant’s prioritizing of the moral category. Instead, Schleiermacher proposed aesthetics as the primary, fundamental category of religion.

Schleiermacher was particularly fascinated with aesthetic sensitivity, as seen depicted in the feelings evoked by viewing or hearing beautiful things like paintings, art, and music. He saw feeling as being an expansive and inclusive reality, something similar to deep sensitivity perhaps in the way of how something beautiful can move one on a very deep level.

He acknowledged that feeling is an internal feature and an interior self-consciousness. Schleiermacher attempted to probe deep into human nature and the dynamics of the human spirit. He was intent on discovering the instinctual impulses from which religious feelings precede. He correlated interior self-consciousness with the sense of one’s own fragility and finiteness which he referred to as “the feeling of absolute dependence.” Schleiermacher argued that this was the basis of religion and the fullest expression of religious sensibility. He thus proposed feeling as the sine qua non of religion calling it “the consciousness of of being absolutely dependent, or, which is the thing, of being in relationship to God.”

This feeling was the longing to be absorbed by something or someone greater, and those who did not acknowledge it possessed an impoverished state of human consciousness. In fact, suggested Schleiermacher, this human capacity is strengthened by the active presence of the religious factor.

Schleiermacher saw Christianity as this truth and most perfect form of religion. In On Religion he tried to ground religion on rational, natural, and empirical grounds from which he could exercise enumeratio, namely, to expound on religion beyond its categorical a priori. This was his attempt to define and defend the reasonableness of the details of the Christian religion, and once he had laid down the foundations in On Religion, Schleiermacher argued in a sequel, The Christian Faith (1830), that Christianity is what fulfilled the yearnings of the human spirit. In this work he explored the content of the Christian religion through the doctrines and teachings of Christianity. At the same time he examined the dynamics of feeling, and explained feeling in hindsight of the three categories of knowing, doing, and feeling. He then elaborated on various types and degrees of dependency, and had a particular interest in absolute dependency which he saw as the basis of religion and one’s relationship with God. He argued that the feeling of absolute dependence was an essential element of human nature, and that it provided the fullest expression of religious sensibility. Human nature recognized the need to be brought to such an awareness, and, as Schleiermacher concluded, it was Christianity that ultimately satisfied this by giving expression to the yearnings of the human spirit.

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