Monday, April 25, 2005

Schleiermacher, Oman, Benedict XVI and the 21st Century

I was never able to complete the post-graduate research degree I was doing in Britain prior to moving across the Atlantic in the 1970s, mainly because I was no longer compliant with the university residency requirements of the time. However, I learned a lot from both the required reading and the course-work that preceeded work on my not quite completed dissertation.

I struggled through seven or eight hundred pages of Friedrich Schleiermacher, the 18th and early 19th Century German who sought to address the faith to the "cultured despisers." I also had to read the Scottish theologian of the early part of the 20th Century, John Oman. These two gentlemen made another of the writers I had to read huge chunks of, John Henry Newman, seem like light relief!

During the last week I have found myself going back to Schleiermacher and Oman to mull over what I learned from them. Schleiermacher considered Scripture the record of the shaping of religious experience, and what he did was to analyze religious experience and distill from it what he then considered to be the essence of faith.

Schleiermacher handles the Scriptures in an entirely different way than anyone had to that point, thinking of them not as a collection of divinely-inspired utterances, but as an illustration of the development of religion, and his definition of it as a sense of absolute dependence. This gave him the platform from which to begin the work of redefinition that he engaged in.

In his massive work, "The Christian Faith," Schleiermacher wrote, "All attributes which we ascribe to God are to be taken as denoting not something special in God, but only something special in the manner in which the feeling of absolute dependence is related to him." Sin, therefore, is "an arrestment of the determinative power of the spirit, due to the independence of the sensuous functions."

I could go on, but I think you get the point. This is the original (rather turgid) mine from which 19th and 20th Century liberal Christianity was dug. Schleiermacher is echoed in the likes of Paul Tillich (another of the authors with whose works I wrestled), and John Robinson in his now infamous book, "Honest to God." Experience becomes definitive and that which disturbs our sense of dependence and freedom becomes questionable. Scripture in this tradition is used for illustration, not for authority, and I think these few broad brush strokes shape the influence this mindset has in the battles we fight today.

Benedict XVI is a German who thoroughly understands the seminal influence of Schleiermacher, and it is he who has had me dredging my memory, my bookshelves, and my notes to grapple again with this giant of the Romantic Era. When the Pope talks of the "tyranny of relativism" somewhere in his mind is the divergent track that Schleiermacher guided Christians off on for what is now the best part of two centuries.

We see the last dribblings out of Schleiermacher's influence in the mindset and positions taken by the 21st Century theological progressives and their agenda for the church. The path they are treading will probably be perceived as a massive diversion in centuries from now, but although it is now past its prime it is still incredibly powerful, as we see in ECUSA.

The romanticism that Schleiermacher enriched as well as fed from, taking, as it does, experience as definitive, has leeched its way into every facet of the western mindset to such an extent that "I feel" is almost synonimous with "I think." Historic evidence becomes less important than the senses, which then leads into a "willingness to jettison traditional teaching in favor of ideas which are apparently more acceptable to modern man" (Colin Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith, London: IVP, 1969, page 116).

This is a meager summary of the background to Benedict's agenda as he begins walking in the shoes of the fisherman. He knows that he cannot have the impact that John Paul II had, so is going to aim his arrows at the suzerainty that Schleiermachian thinking has had in the world of western thought and theology. For BXVI there is a core orthodoxy that all catholic (with a small 'c') and biblical Christians can agree upon, and I would hazard he will make this the setting in which he will gather faithful from a variety of backgrounds in this mission.

He is, I think, calling us to look back at what has been the mainstream in the West until very recently, and still dominates in antiquated denominations like ECUSA, and recognize it for the long-term digression that it truly has been. Experience is, by its very nature, relativistic, and it is this that Benedict refuses to accept as definitive, neither is he prepared to read Christian doctrine and tradition through the narrow grid of contemporary experience.

During the last week BXVI has been identified by the American chattering classes with every conservative leader and cause, but this is unfair. I suspect that Benedict, a thoroughly European man, has as many misgivings about the economic and social policies tha dominate the American landscape as this European who has lived here nearly three decades. We need to understand the Pope as a brilliant Catholic mind who thoroughly understands the unraveling that is taking place in contemporary culture. He recognizes that it is only Christian orthodoxy that is able to make thorough sense of the chaotic fluidities of our time. We need to see him through the glasses of faith, not those of sociology and US politics.

This brings me to John Oman, who I mentioned at the beginning. Oman's book, "Grace and Personality," was published 120 years after Schleiermacher, and there is little doubt that he drank deeply at the Schleiermachian well having been one of the primary translators of Schleiermacher's "On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despiers" into English.

I spent many hours in my early twenties being irritated by him because I was finding it hard to understand what he was saying. Only when you recognized that he had undertaken a massive reinterpretation of the fundamental meaning of biblical terms like "grace" did you see the pattern of his thinking. Oman may not be popular today, but he is one of the godfathers of much revisionary thinking in the churches today, because when we do occasionally talk to one another we might use the same words, but the orthodox and the progressives fill them with profoundly different meaning.

The other week at a clergy gathering the word "reconciliation" was being merrily tossed around. Those on the left who were doing the tossing meant something different than I mean as one who seeks to understand reconciliation through the mindset of Scripture. I want to know how the Bible uses the word, fundamentally linked as it is to the reconciling work of Christ upon the Cross, then I want to know how the church has understood the word and concept down through the centuries, so I can put it in today's context.

But at that meeting more threads were at play than just me and them. There were orthodox Christians who thought they knew what the others meant by "reconciliation" without asking them, thus making lots of room for misunderstanding. Added to that there were conservatives who would probably interpret the word "reconciliation" differently than me by putting emphases in different places, or may not fully understand the biblical concept themselves.

How we use language and how we define words, ideas, doctrines, etc., is going to be an incredibly important part of the task of recovery and renewal in the church in the years ahead. I am coming to the conclusion that all that is happening is a painful but God-given opportunity. Conservatives and liberals, progressives and traditionalists, whatever label you put on them, have all become theologically lax. The Apostles, the Fathers, and the magisterial Reformers would shrug in horror at some of the stances of both liberals and conservatives alike -- and in all denominations.

Benedict looks as if he is going to be working on a tightening up the intersection of faith and doctrine in the Catholic Church. I suspect he will be painted as an inquisitor by those who don't like him, but that is more likely to be mud flung than anything else. As a son of the Reformation I am sure I am going to find myself in disagreement with some of his ideas and stances, I suspect that we will be far closer in principle than I am to my "liberal" sisters and brothers in ECUSA because we have a common understanding of revelation and the honor we should give to the church's tradition.

Cleaning up is always very necessary after a party -- and there has been a riotous party going on for the last several generations. In the cold morning light of the early 21st Century we are now dealing with the garbage, the mess, and the residue.


Ivanhoe said...


Nice to hear your voice and benefit from your studies as to the "roots of our dilemma," as it were. For those who read it it is good antidote to the poison deep in our (ECUSA)well.

Charles Benz

John said...


I've found it interesting that you've gone back to Schleiermacher. But I don't think you have him entirely correct. I'd take a closer look at what he says about self-consciousness, absolute dependence, for it is very sophisticated. And if you need a good guide to him, Gerrish is the man. I agree that "feeling" might be overhyped, but the construction of the self, of consciousness, is still relevant. On the otherhand, perhaps you are discovering that the categories of self and the "I" seem themselves... troublesome.

Eric Swensson said...

I think Gadamer is the man, and as he said, S didn't really know what he was doing or what he was opening the door to for those who came later.

FrMD said...

"Conservatives and liberals, progressives and traditionalists, whatever label you put on them, have all become theologically lax. The Apostles, the Fathers, and the magisterial Reformers would shrug in horror at some of the stances of both liberals and conservatives alike -- and in all denominations."

Thank you for saying this! I wish that we could consider more explicitly what the consequences of this shared fact... a fact within the "two" camps and many denominations. Not just the effects in thought and feeling, but the question of responsibility... and how we think and feel about one another, how we treat one another.

We should be allowing for something subconscious working through us and the desireable aim of making ourselves aware of it.