Freidrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is not exactly a household name to evangelicals, but the progeny of his ideas are well-known and loathed by evangelicals. Schleiermacher is generally reputed to be the father of Modern (Liberal) Theology. But what makes evangelical repudiation of Schleiermacher ironic, even if it is not done by name, is that they are more the disciples of him then they either realize or carer to admit. And he would love our church camps too.
Schleiermacher’s famous tome Christian Faith, written in the middle of the 19th century, was his attempt to answer the problem created for the Church by Immanuel Kant. In 1781 Kant published Critique of Pure Reason, and with this publication Kant established the terms for how human beings could know or legitimately claim to have knowledge in the Modern period. His project, overly simplified, was to understand and set out the limits of human capacities to know and reason. He suggested that we all had pre-wired categories in our minds, like time and space, and these mental categories, a priori knowledge, shaped our experiential data (what we see, smell, touch, taste and hear). Thus, the individual’s mind shapes the sensory data from reality in order to derive certainty about our knowing. You don’t have to travel terribly far down the path Kant blazed to realize metaphysical claims to a god(s), while having their place in the subjective world of the individual, they could not be derived from human reasoning that takes place in the public square. As a result, metaphysical claims were pushed out of the public square and into the sphere of private experience in the Modern period.
Into this Kantian worldview and framework Schleiermacher stepped, but he had another ingredient that flavored his particular brand of theology. He was deeply influenced by pietism which is a movement that placed particular emphasis on the individual’s experience of faith, the inner moral progress of the individual and the need for fervent emotions as marks of authentic Christianity. Given this background, it is no surprise that Schleiermacher viewed the individual’s experience as the primary ground and concern for the Christian faith.
Christian Faith was Schleiermacher’s defining contribution to systematic theology. In it he accepted Kant’s terms for knowing, and reasoning from sensory data (scientific reasoning) was no ground for matters of faith. For Schleiermacher God was known through the individual’s experience. True faith was the individual’s experience of the transcendent, the infinite and the divine. This “feeling” was what he described as the “God consciousness.” When we experience this transcendence or feeling, that becomes the heart of faith. By framing Christianity in these terms he appeared to save the historic faith from the blazing glare of Kant’s skepticism. If true faith is grounded in my experience of transcendent it is rightly beyond the reach of scientific inquiry and questioning. This was the beginning of the privatization of Christian faith for the Modern world.
So how does all this relate to evangelicalism? Evangelicalism was born out of the overreaction of the Fundamentalists to Modern Liberal theological claims. The Fundamentalists responded to Modern acceptance of Kantian epistemology and skepticism by putting on headphones and blasting hymns so loud no objections to their faith claims could be heard. Evangelicals came to see the futility of such isolation for the gospel mission, but evangelicals made an opening move that was probably as large of an error as that of the Fundamentalists. Evangelicals accepted the ground of Kant and Schleiermacher and became Modernists, giving Christianity a new and unique shape. This move meant that the Christian faith, the Church, the gospel and our corporate worship would all function around personal, individual and privatized experience. Many of the accepted forms of evangelical faith would please Schleiermacher to no end.
Schleiermacher would be pleased to hear candidates for baptism in evangelical churches proclaim that the reason they want to be baptized is so they can personally and individually become obedient to a command from scripture. He would also enjoy the evangelical, liturgical confession of baptismal candidates, “I just want the whole world to know that I am in a personal relationship with Jesus.” While this liturgical confession does not fail in what it affirms, but it fails in what it does not confess. It is too reductionistic, but that is what happens to liturgy when it is formed for individual consumption. Love feast for one, anyone?
Schleiermacher would be pleased to see church camps springing into action every winter and summer break wherein experts plan each sugar and caffeine induced moment of hysteria to bring about a moment of existential, personal, individual “feeling of absolute dependence of being in relation to God.” This evangelical camp experience would not be complete without a soundtrack replete with personal individual pronouns, exalting the individual’s experience of God. And these worship experiences are designed with the templates pulled from the cultural liturgies of the concert wherein the individual connects with the sublime, making the crowd relevant only to the extent that it enhances the individual’s experience. Again, this is not to condemn church camps, but it is a call to rethink how and to what end church camps function.
In fairness, there is plenty about evangelicalism that Schleiermacher would despise, but evangelicalism’s fundamental orientation toward the personal, individual and existential would please him much. I suspect evangelical acceptance of these terms from the culture has much to do with their sincere and admirable attempt to make the gospel relevant and acceptable to the Modern mind. But such adaptations have tremendous risks. Evangelicals adapted the gospel to the form of Modern culture, and as generations have passed, the awareness that this expression of the Church was merely an adaptation also was lost. Evangelicals failed to distinguish between their adaptation of the gospel and the gospel itself.
Moreover, complicity with Modernity is no quite passé. Whether one prefers a Modern to a Postmodern outlook, the world we live in is Postmodern. The evangelical (60 year old) translation of the gospel for the Modern world seems deeply out of tune to Postmodern ears. This is particularly problematic since evangelicals have lost the self-awareness that their practices are cultural adaptations and not simply “biblical,” leaving them unable to author a new translation.
In reality, there is structural problem within evangelicalism that lies deeper that Schleiermacher’s existentialism. Evangelicals intuitively accept the notion that the world sets the terms by which the Christian faith must operate, or in other words we think mission is inherently tied up in the business of making the gospel relevant to the Modern world. But I think Stanley Hauerwas was right when he wrote, “The challenge of the gospel is not the intellectual dilemma of how to make an archaic system of belief compatible with Modern belief systems. The challenge of Jesus is the political dilemma of how to be faithful to a strange community, which is shaped by a story of how God is with us.”