10 February 2013

More Than a Feeling: Gefühl

We left off in the first post of this series noting that since Schleiermacher assumes familiarity with his argument up to the point of the First Theorem on the hypostatic union (§96) in his Christian Faith, it'd be helpful for us to unpack briefly two key aspects of his thought as they relate to his doctrine of Christ: (1) gefühl, 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 or intuit any relation to the unknown beyond the world (i.e., “god”) and can thus say anything about it.

The Feeling of Absolute Dependence1

Fully functioning adults process life—be it physical sensations or emotions—through the intellect. Responses to each are determined after we’ve thought about them. Because we have volition, we are responsible for our responses. Even if we do not think before we act, we still hold ourselves responsible for the action, simply because we’re always able to think before we act (certain involuntary reactions notwithstanding).

Schleiermacher points out that in Christ we see an example of this at the highest level (to the “nth degree,” we might say): not only are his emotions and physical sensations processed or
funneled through his utter dependence on god, so is his every thought. This ultimate level of being is gott-bewusstsein (god-consciousness), and it’s possible for everyone, now that we recognize its perfection in god’s Messiah, Jesus (this is, incidentally, part and parcel of what it means to be redeemed for Schleiermacher, as we shall soon see).

But if this process comes before thinking, where does it reside in our psychological makeup? According to Schleiermacher, given that everything is processed as either thought or action, there yet remains a moment before that transition is made to either thought or action. “Our immediate awareness occurs in the split second before we translate a stirring into a thought or an action."2 In other words, something happens in us before we think; it’s an immediate (as opposed to mediated) awareness referred to by Schleiermacher as “feeling” (understood in technical psychological terms3): “[Feeling] simply takes place in the subject, and thus, since it belongs altogether to the realm of receptivity, it is entirely an abiding-in-self; and in this sense it stands alone in antithesis to the to the other two—Knowing and Doing."4

Relation to God

In that moment of immediate awareness, we sense that things outside of us influence us, and we them. The dependency is reciprocal. But we also sense, in that moment, a non-objective “other” whose influence is one way (i.e., an other who cannot be observed, tested, manipulated or controlled by any conceivable experiment). The fact that we feel our dependence and freedom (but not absolute) in relation to other objects, leads us to a consciousness of absolute dependence upon an existence of pure activity:
The self-consciousness which accompanies all our activity, and therefore, since that is never zero, accompanies our whole existence, and negatives absolute freedom, is itself precisely a consciousness of absolute dependence; for it is the consciousness that the whole of our spontaneous activity comes from a source outside of us in just the same sense in which anything towards which we should have a feeling of absolute freedom must have proceeded entirely from ourselves. But without any feeling of freedom a feeling of absolute dependence would not be possible.5
In short, we are utterly dependent upon that “source outside of us,” of which we become aware through the fact of our feeling of freedom in relation to the world of objects. All the world's religions call this source “god.”
So in our immediate awareness in every moment of being stirred by something, before thought about what has stirred us, we sense a relationship with God who influences us but whom we do not influence in return. God’s influence is upon that immediate awareness that precedes every thought or action.”6
Importantly for Schleiermacher, this influence is universally open to all humans. What distinguishes us is how often we allow that awareness to become the funnel through which all our thoughts and actions derive. On one end of the continuum, there are those who never translate this awareness into thoughts or actions; on the other end, there is Jesus, whose life exemplified a perfect god-consciousness. In this, “Christ is just like us—except that he was able to do perfectly what we didn’t know we could do at all until we experienced redemption.”7

As we move into Schleiermacher’s discussion of the hypostatic union, it’s especially important to note clearly his theology-proper starting point: God is beyond our finite ability to be known, in any sense, as an object. God has no discernible properties, such as being located at a specific place, or time, of having a definite meaning, this way and not that way. If the true god could be known as an object, then we’d be able to exercise freedom in relation to it, and thus we would not be absolutely dependent upon it, and so the consciousness would not be the one, true god. He puts it as follows:
Any possibility of God being in any way given is entirely excluded, because anything that is outwardly given must be given as an object exposed to our counter influence, however slight this may be. The transference of the idea of God to any perceptible object, unless one is all the time conscious that it is a piece of purely arbitrary symbolism, is always a corruption, whether it be a temporary transference, i.e., a theophany, or a constitutive transference, in which God is represented as permanently a particular perceptible existence.8
Thus, knowing god is purely mystical in nature; language only points to that relation, that feeling, and is only “purely arbitrary symbolism” in that the person(s) giving it expression are bound by their historical and psychological situation, which expression gives the feeling its concreteness. This naturally leads us into Schleiermacher’s discussion of creedal christological affirmations, as they, too, are subject to the criticism he writes above with respect to speaking of the divine.

More anon . . .



1 I’m grateful to Catherine L. Kelsey’s discussion on this point in Thinking About Christ with Schleiermacher (Louisville: WJK Press, 2003), 71–74.

2 Ibid., 72.

3 Whether or not this technicality saves it from the morass of solipsism is another matter.

4 Schleiermacher, Christian Faith (§3), 5–12.

5 Ibid. (§4), 16. What Schleiermacher called "God-consciousness," Freud called “the feeling of infantile helplessness” and the “longing for the father aroused by it” in Civilization and Its Discontents (New York: Norton, 1989), 20–21. Based on Schleiermacher’s criterion, is it possible to discern which interpretation of the awareness is more plausible?

6 Kelsey, Thinking . . ., 72.

7 Ibid., 73.

8 Schleiermacher, Christian Faith (§4), 18. While the issues this raises with respect to “God-talk” are beyond the scope of this essay, nevertheless it should be taken into account when contemplating Schleiermacher’s christology.

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