Take and Read: The Christian Faith

A bust of Friedrich Schleiermacher on his gravestone in Berlin (Wikimedia Commons/Beek100)
This article appears in the Take and Read feature series. View the full series.

Editor's note: "Take and Read" is a weekly blog that features a different contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."


The Christian Faith
by Friedrich Schleiermacher, edited by H.R. Mackintosh and J.S. Stewart
Harper & Row, 1963

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) completed the first edition of his dogmatic synthesis, The Christian Faith, in 1820-21 and a revised version in 1830-31. It is one of those books that affected my conception of theology at a basic level.

I am not a Schleiermacher scholar; I have read him only in English translation. Specific interests have motivated my frequent returning to him. Narrative provides the best way show how Schleiermacher has shaped a Catholic theologian in ways that correspond with three areas of thought: religious epistemology, Christology and ecclesiology. In each case, I will note what led me to read Schleiermacher, what I learned from him, and what I take to be classic dimensions in his Christian theology.

Schleiermacher’s philosophy of religion

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I encountered Schleiermacher’s theology initially as a student at the University of Chicago in the late 1960s in courses on 19th- and 20th-century theology with Langdon Gilkey and two courses of Joseph Haroutunian that compared analytically the systematics of Schleiermacher and the systematics of Paul Tillich.

I came to those courses having already read Tillich and Karl Rahner, and with a specific interest in fundamental questions such as religious knowing, the genesis and nature of doctrine, the grounds and methods of theology, and, from the perspective of Roman Catholicism of the time, the possibility within one church of a pluralism of theologies. I also had a missiological perspective and wanted to know how Christian doctrine could be inculturated in non-Western cultures.   

For a graduate student immediately after the Second Vatican Council, Schleiermacher offered some promising paths. First of all, the turn to the subject as the place to begin understanding religion, faith and theology was congenial. This rather basic move provided an imaginative framework for understanding the structure and logic of the discipline of theology itself. I found deep and pertinent analogies between the structure of Rahner’s theology and what is going on in Schleiermacher. Those similarly schooled in Rahner did not read Schleiermacher’s analyses of the human subject psychologically, at least not in The Christian Faith, but as transcendental phenomenological analysis of the knowing subject.

This was attractive because one aspect of what was going on socially at the Second Vatican Council could be understood as a massive turn of a whole church to experience as, if not a source for reform, at least a catalyst for updating the church. 

Schleiermacher’s distinction and linkage between self-consciousness, world-consciousness, and God-consciousness was also impressive. I brought with me a strong distinction between faith and knowledge, between the content of Christian affirmations, on one hand, and, on the other hand, what could be called knowledge of the things of this world.

Schleiermacher’s differentiations of different levels of a religious consciousness, while at the same time explaining the interacting influence that each has upon the other in a single conscious experience, allowed me to make distinctions that resolved some obvious problems. For example, the inseparability and mutual influence of world-consciousness and God-consciousness helps to mediate a deep historical consciousness and to explain pluralism in any community sharing common teachings and values.

From Schleiermacher, then, I accepted what has been called an experience-expression framework for understanding theology and doctrine. My allegiance to him, however, includes strong emphases on the receptivity of revelation and grace, and a realism of God’s initiative in the event of Jesus Christ and in Scripture.

In sum, I initially found that on questions of religious epistemology, doctrine and theology, Schleiermacher’s presentation of religious subjectivity as differentiated is classic; religious experience is structured in levels so that faith in God is always in dialogue with self and world. As a result, religious experience can be both a realistic consciousness, that is, open to and receptive of the real presence of divine influence, and pluralist and subject to change. Schleiermacher’s framework gives at least an initial explanation of the possibility of holding together unity and difference.  

Schleiermacher’s Christology

Although I read Schleiermacher’s Christology earlier, it was only 10 years after graduate school when I began to teach Christology that I came back to his Christology in a more focused way. Let me simply enumerate four aspects of Schleiermacher’s Christology that I have either internalized from him or found reinforced by him.  

  • Schleiermacher’s is a Christology from below. His The Life of Jesus shows that he had an interest in the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. His Christology has Jesus of Nazareth, the earthly figure, as its initial imaginative focus of attention.
  • Schleiermacher’s theory of salvation bears out his attention to Jesus. Salvation consists in appropriating Jesus’ God-consciousness in such a way that people are united with God and receive God’s forgiveness of sin and empowerment in their lives. Schleiermacher broke the hold of the mythological views of redemption in which something was accomplished between God and God, or Jesus and God, and then extrinsically received by human beings. By contrast, Christian salvation begins historically in each person who absorbs Jesus’ message and person in such a way that this consciousness becomes internalized.  
  • Schleiermacher’s formal Christology, that is, his construal of the humanity and divinity of Jesus, has been called a “consciousness” Christology. And so it is. But that is often construed in a thin or shallow psychological sense of consciousness. Schleiermacher, however, insists that the cause of Jesus’ exalted God-consciousness and consequent sinlessness was the presence of God within him and to him. For this reason, it seems more correct to think of Schleiermacher holding a Spirit Christology, even though in The Christian Faith this category is not developed. The phrase “Spirit Christology,” that is, the “explanation” of Jesus’ divinity through the presence and action of God as Spirit within him, fits his construction of Jesus’ divinity.
  • I accept the view of Schleiermacher that, in a systematic representation of Christian faith, the doctrine of the Trinity should come at the end. The doctrine of the Trinity is not the premise of Christology but a doctrine that derives logically and historically from the development of the doctrine of Jesus as the Christ. The doctrine sums up “economically” the Christian story of how God has dealt with humankind through Jesus Christ. And the doctrine of the immanent Trinity leads the Christian mind into absolute mystery.

In sum, what I take to be classic in Schleiermacher’s Christology consists in a dynamically tensive understanding of Jesus Christ, one that holds together an existential consciousness Christology with a realist, ontological grounding.

He roots the ultimate explanation of Jesus’ exalted God-consciousness in the real presence and operation of God within him. The symbol of God as Spirit captures this. The economy of salvation thus consists in historical mediation of this God-consciousness to others. What Jesus mediates is God as Spirit as an effective presence and operation in human lives.

Schleiermacher’s ecclesiology

I was not deeply influenced or impressed by Schleiermacher’s ecclesiology until I had the occasion to focus my attention on it and compare it with other ecclesiologies from Christian history. Here, I will point to five characteristics of his understanding of the church that make sense today.

  • Schleiermacher takes the church seriously. His doctrine of the church is tied closely with his Christology and salvation theory: The role of the church is intrinsic to the historical communication of Christian God-consciousness. It is not that an individual can only go to Christ through the church; it is rather that the force of Christ reaches out to humanity historically through the church community. 
  • Schleiermacher’s is an ecclesiology “from below.” Although there are invariable elements to the church, and Scripture prescribes certain features of the church, still the church as organization is conceived as having emerged genetically and developed historically out of the corporate consciousness of the original disciples.  
  • Schleiermacher’s ecclesiology is historically conscious. This is reflected in his view of the doctrines of the church, which are accounts of religious experience set forth in speech at any given time. His presentation of the organization of the church around elements that are essential and invariable and elements that are mutable and variable shows his awareness of historical context and change. 
  • Schleiermacher’s ecclesiology is ecumenical. He explicitly designed it to meet the exigencies of different churches in a way that preserves the differences on the basis of higher principles that they share and a generalized organizational form that admits variations. In this way, Schleiermacher conceives the church as an intrinsic and constitutive element of Christianity and at the same time introduces pluralism into its very structure. Some of his axioms illustrate this. There should be no separation on the basis of doctrine if practice is the same. No separation on the basis of practice if doctrine is the same. Divisions or divisive institutions, if they are justified by distinct traditions, cease to be divisive by mutual recognition. Without principles analogous to these, the ecumenical movement that started less than a century later would not have been possible. 
  • Schleiermacher’s ecclesiology includes an intrinsic orientation outward in mission to the world. This feature, too, flows logically from his Christology and soteriology. A number of adjustments in the theology of religions and mission theology are required in our postcolonial situation, but Schleiermacher’s stress on a fundamental facing outward into the world and history remains a Christian exigency.   

Where does the classic dimension of Schleiermacher’s ecclesiology lie? What is the overarching insight or perspective that characterizes his approach to the church and remains consistently generative?

I find it in what can be called a “whole-part” tension that characterizes the churches and the church. This combines a fruitful consciousness of being in a particular church or denomination and at the same time belonging to the wider whole church that includes other churches and ecclesiologies. The whole church is in each church; each particular church is but a part of the whole.

This means simultaneously recognizing invariant Christian institutions in variable forms, defining specific offices of ministry and recognizing others in other churches, taking the church with absolute seriousness, but one’s own church with relative seriousness because it is a part of the greater whole. Schleiermacher was one of the first to do this and few if any do it better than he.

Conclusion

I am tempted to conclude with an exclamation: “Schleiermacher lives.” But some might say, “That’s not Schleiermacher, but a creature of your own making.”

Such is the ambiguous nature of interpretation and appropriation. But whether or not this particular reconstruction has merit, I take it that all can agree that Schleiermacher continues to speak to current theological discussion and that he poses these three challenges:

  • On the question of religious epistemology, he proposes to give experience a role in theology. Despite the ambiguity of the imperative, it requires theology to connect with people’s actual lives and problems.
  • On the question of Jesus Christ, he presents the option of a consistent Christology beginning with Jesus, not as an exclusive option but as an encompassing framework that can include other methods and insights.
  • On the question of understanding and organizing the church, he challenges local churches and denominations to transcend their narrow perspectives and embrace the whole Christian movement, a move that is particularly relevant in a time when we are conscious of Christianity as a whole being one religion among many others.

[Jesuit Fr. Roger Haight is the author of Jesus Symbol of God. This essay was written 15 years ago as a presentation at the American Academy of Religion.]


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