28 January 2013

More Than a Feeling

More heavenly than those glittering stars we hold
the eternal eyes which the Night hath opened within us. Farther
they see than the palest of those countless hosts—needing
no aid from the light, they penetrate the depths of a loving
soul—that fills a loftier region with bliss ineffable.

—Novalis, Hymns to the Night, I 1


One of the first and fundamental dogmas with which Christian theologians grapple is the creedal affirmation that Christ Jesus is truly human and truly divine—one person in two natures—by using concepts of what it means to be human and what it means to be divine that are available in their cultures. Friedrich Schleiermacher, in his most significant work, The Christian Faith, sets out to lay down a systematic account of Christianity during the course of which he focuses specifically on the ecclesiastical formulae that “in Jesus Christ the divine nature and human nature were combined in one person.”2

The occasion of its publication was the notorious or happy (depending on one’s vantage point) Prussian Union of 1817, decreed by King Frederick William III on the three-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which unionized the Lutheran and Reformed churches, effectively weakening the entrenched and newly invigorated confessional Lutheranism, thus unsettling the old guard. George Cross notes that, given the need for Prussian political unity and strength at the close of the Napoleonic wars, “Schleiermacher’s religious convictions and his patriotism combined to make him a supporter of the movement.”3 But he also foresaw dangers, argues Cross, that threatened Protestantism’s life, namely, a stringent conservative reaction to the ecumenical times. As heated controversy arose, the first edition of The Christian Faith appeared (1821).

Schleiermacher, by a broad treatment of the great topics of Christian theology, aimed at stemming the current running toward a narrow and intolerant orthodoxy, and at the same time, by bringing into relief the religious reality which underlies the different confessions of Protestantism, he hoped to deepen the consciousness of the unity and worth of the Christian faith. (ibid., 111)

Of course, the work transcends its occasion, by being a particularly well-suited piece of writing for this modern age, a time in which nothing can be taken for granted, by a young theologian who found himself “within a tradition to which [he was] personally committed [and] turned upon it the full arsenal of critical scholarship and let the theological chips fly where they might.”4

Since Schleiermacher assumes familiarity with his argument up to the point of the First Theorem on the hypostatic union (§96), it behooves us to traverse briefly two key aspects of his thought as they relate to his doctrine of Christ: (1) gef├╝hl, the feeling of absolute dependence (God-consciousness); and (2) his definition of God (construed as relation). The order is important, as it is only through that moment of absolute dependence within our consciousness that we “feel” any relation to the unknown beyond the world (i.e., “God”) and can thus say anything about it, subjective though that may be.

To be continued . . .

1 From Hymns to the Night and Spiritual Songs, trans. George MacDonald (London: Temple Lodge Publishing, 1992), 10.

2 Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, trans. H.R. Mackintosh and J.S. Stewart (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), §96, 391.

3 George Cross, The Theology of Schleiermacher (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1911), 110.

4 Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation (New York: Doubleday, 1980), 70. Cross goes on to note that the genius of The Christian Faith lies in its attempt to free Christianity from its traditional moorings (which have obscured its truth) as well as from construing it in merely moralistic terms, thus showing it to be the most natural and preeminent of all religions: “It was the work of a writer . . . who had held his mind open to receive whatever he might find nourishing to a hungry spirit in all realms of study and the philosophies of all schools” (Theology of . . ., 112).


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