Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Birth of Liberal Protestantism

Just as Protestant enthusiasm was sweeping English-speaking North America and Britain, on the European continent, in Prussia, not far from the cradle of the Augustinian monk who launched the Reformation, there was ferment of a more intellectual variety. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), a theologian, philosopher and biblical scholar, became the first to attempt to grapple with the Enlightenment from a Christian position, giving rise to the modern Liberal Protestant school of thought.

The tendency he set in motion was, in some respects, at odds with the strongly emotional and popular religion of the Awakening and Evangelicalism. Schleiermacher poured the cold water of reason on biblical writ and belief in creeds as he grappled with Enlightenment ideas, including rationalism and empiricism. The latter admittedly called into question arguable and factually doubtful Christian views, a challenge to faith that persists in our era; Schleiermacher took a leap to feeling yet became enamored with then-new intellectual tools.

Enlightenment ideas developed against the backdrop of absolutist monarchies shielded in palaces from the shouts and cries of Bostonians dumping tea against a colonial tax and the French rabble storming the Bastille prison, as well as the sooty toot of the first steam engine and the clanging of the first factory gears. Schleiermacher was attempting to uphold a tradition of faith in the face of two central ideas that became the basis of all science, technology and, indeed, even capitalism today.

The first of these was the glibly optimistic 18th century notion that the power of the intellect to make sound choices, distinctions and deductions—reason—would, given correct facts, lead all people to the same conclusions. As Thomas Jefferson might have put it, all men will agree to what is self-evident, such as their equality, unalienable rights and so forth. On the list of things agreed on was Deism, a tenuous philosophical assent to a Creator, source of all—yet only in the sense of a clockmaker who has made a watch, then set it down on the worktable and gone on to better projects.

Uneasily born as its twin, the second proposition was a method of inquiry based on empiricism, a theory that knowledge comes only, or primarily, from sensory experience; since no one can see, touch, taste, hear or smell God, faith is unprovable, unreasonable and factually false. Admittedly, modern science has learned from, among other developments, Einstein’s overthrow of Newton, that factual knowledge is tentative and only probably true, subject to constant revision.

Associated with these ideas are brilliant minds of the 17th and 18th centuries. Descartes, Pascal, Locke, Hume and many others overthrew forever the monopoly of a world understanding based on invisible spirits and demons, which had held humanity in thrall since people lived in caves. Reason and factuality are notable for their continued currency as the basis of American society, despite their obvious flaws: reasonable people will disagree even given the same facts, and facts are not quite the same as truth.

Schleiermacher, the son and grandson of pastors, came from Pietism, a German Protestant movement that combined Lutheran emphasis on biblical doctrine with individual piety and living a vigorous Christian life, and an early education in a Moravian school that espoused the similarly reform-minded, biblical and pious views of Jan Hus, the pre-Reformation peasant leader from Bohemia. He nonetheless began life plagued with doubts about faith.

Starting with enrollment in the University of Halle, he encountered the full force of rationalism, including the ideas of Immanuel Kant and early biblical historical criticism, and became skeptical to the point of rejecting orthodox Christian teaching. Yet he remained a Christian in his own fashion, took up positions as a pastor and a professor of theology and slowly developed a view that threw out biblical writ, creeds and pseudorational dogmatic theology. Instead, he openly admitted religious feeling as the basis of a religion whose purpose was its own existence as a path from human experience to God.

On one hand, his writings address the writhing of those who embraced rationalism and empiricism and could no longer bring themselves back to dogmatic and archaic religious forms of the faith. On the other, he addressed the faith of those who viewed the mechanical outcome of Enlightenment “progress” as a challenge to belief and the destruction of social culture as they knew it.

He ended up turning Aquinas’ description of theology as faith seeking understanding on its head. In his work The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher states: “I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but believe so that I may understand … For anyone who has not believed will not experience, and anyone who has not experienced will not understand.”

In the same work he proclaims what is today understood as the centerpiece of his overall faith view: “The feeling of absolute dependence [on God], accordingly, is not to be explained as an awareness of the world’s existence, but only as an awareness of the existence of God, as the absolute undivided unity.” Schleiermacher leapt past the fight between orthodoxy and rationalism to the inner life of the soul and the human search for God. It is no longer God seeking human creatures, but the reverse.

At a time in which church institutions were, fatally as we shall see, aligned with a Continental monarchical order that had become ever more absolutist—in his own Prussia various denominations united under the monarchy for a time—Schleiermacher proposed a break, in a variety of ways.

He wrote a protofeminist article, “Idea for a Catechism of Reason for Noble Ladies,” and in an essay titled “Letters on the Occasion of the Political-Theological Task and the Open Letter of Jewish Householders” he rejected proposed civil assimilation of the Jews through baptism, which he argued would harm both Judaism and Christianity, and pushed for Jews’ full civil rights.

He is also one of the earliest Western thinkers, conceivably influenced by Kant, to reassert the unity of the body and soul, by merging what he calls “spiritualism” (or limiting the human being to the mind) and “materialism” (limiting the mind to the body) in what he calls “life.” This idea would have sat well with Jesus’ contemporary countrymen: ancient Hebrew uses exclusively concrete words for abstract ideas (wind or breath for spirit), as we have seen.

His most significant contribution grew out of his involvement in a then-raging academic debate: Does language precede thought, setting its order and serving as its necessary base? Or does thought dictate language? This arcane issue drew him into biblical interpretation, and he effectively became the father of modern hermeneutics, the art of interpretation and the study of explanation. The term was coined in the 1670s with reference intended to the Greek god Hermes, patron of messages, speech, writing and eloquence.

Hermeneutics was not new, nor much less invented by Schleiermacher. It was engaged in by Plato and Aristotle, the rabbis in the Talmud and even Christian biblical interpreters. Writing in the beginning of the third century, Origen of Alexandria was among the earliest Christian writers to suggest that much of the Bible is metaphorical or symbolic.

Language, Schleiermacher argued, is fundamental to human nature as a foundation of thought, self-consciousness, feeling and desire. It is social in nature even as inner communication. Language and thought give shape to human sensory images and are interdependent and bounded by each other. Meaning comes from words. People can be distinguished by their linguistic and conceptual differences.

Understanding verbal communication, distinct from explaining, applying or translating it, came first, he said, and should be applied to all texts, whether the Bible, law, literature or anything else. Interpretation of sacred texts must not rely on divine inspiration. The interpreter must assume that “misunderstanding occurs as a matter of course, and so understanding must be willed and sought at every point.” The text’s historical context and linguistic and psychological aspects of the author come into play. Interpretation is an inductive process but also intuitive and hypothetical.

Finally, interpretation must look at each text as a part the whole work within which it is placed and the language in which it is written. The historical context, genre and what is known about the author’s entire work are essential as well.

It is difficult today to make clear just how revolutionary these notions were. Difficult, that is, until we turn to their immediate effect, which is where we turn next.

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