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

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

Schleiermacher observed that religion was encountering opposition within culture and especially from the more educated people (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.

Schleiermacher acknowledged that feeling is an internal feature and an interior self-consciousness. He attempted to probe deep into human nature and the dynamics of the human spirit, and 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 is the basis of religion and the fullest expression of religious sensibility. Feeling is the sine qua non of religion, which Schleiermacher referred to as “the consciousness of being absolutely dependent, or, which is the thing, of being in relationship to God.” This feeling is the longing to be absorbed by something or someone greater. Those who do not acknowledge this desire possess an impoverished state of human consciousness. This human capacity is strengthened by the active presence of the religious factor.

Schleiermacher saw Christianity as this truth and the 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, expounding on religion beyond its categorical a priori. This was an attempt to define and defend the reasonableness of the details of the Christian religion. 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.

Schleiermacher further elaborated on various types of dependency and had 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 is an essential element of human nature and 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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