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Monday, March 2, 1998

Schleiermacher on true religious fellowship.

Friedrich Schleiermacher published his urbane and eloquent book, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, in Berlin in 1799. His fourth speech is addressed not just to the "cultured despisers" of religion, but especially to the despisers of the historic, institutional church. "Your opposition to the church, to every event aimed at the communication of religion, is still greater than your opposition to religion itself," he acknowledges in the speech's opening paragraph (72). The despisers have legitimate grievances, Schleiermacher writes, but not with religion or, on closer examination, even with the church.

The argument of the fourth speech attempts to salvage "true religious fellowship" (79) and the necessarily social dimension of religion from the wreckage of the historic church. Seen in the proper light, religion and the church will merit the interest and loyalty of enlightened people, Schleiermacher believes, because careful consideration will show that the complaints of the cultured despisers belong to the corruptions of the church and to false notions of what is truly religious. In order to affirm the reality of the true church (which is social but not institutional) and the legitimacy of the institutional church (which helps people find religion but is not itself to be confused with religion), Schleiermacher does not deny that the historic church has behaved in deplorable ways. Although Schleiermacher distinguishes the "true religious fellowship" from the "amalgamation of people who are just seeking religion" in the institutional church (79), and also distinguishes these religious societies from the contemptible institutional churches of history, his argument in the end seems to locate all three types of religious society within the contemporary Christian Church. In other words, in spite of the "Church Contemptible," the "Church Militant" still serves to bring human beings into the "Church Triumphant."

Schleiermacher writes that religion is "the sensibility and taste for the infinite" (23). Because sensibility is necessarily individual, and because religion is its own kind of sensibility, religion arises as an individual's sense of the infinite. But religion is not confined to the inner life of an individual. To treat religion as a strictly private affair of the individual would be to treat religion as a drive toward inward "enjoyment" without its complementary drive toward outward "activity" (5). The sense of the infinite makes the individual aware of her own finitude, and the sense of finitude provokes a person to share what is unique to her:

[When a person experiences religion,] his sense of it has no sooner opened up than he also feels its infinity and his limitations; he is conscious of encompassing only a small part of religion, and what he cannot attain immediately he wants at least to perceive through another medium. (73-74)

Religion is necessarily social because it provokes individual expression and inspires interest in other individual expressions of religion. In other words, the individual feeling of religion issues in the search for other people among whom each religious person can express religion. Religion is the sensibility and taste for the infinite that must find expression among other people who share true religious fellowship. Schleiermacher writes that only such a fellowship may be considered a "religious society."

Because "religion" describes a particular sensibility, only those aspects of social life concerned directly with the "intuition of the universe" can be called religious. (Morality, metaphysics, and politics are all quite separate from religion, and characterize distinct aspects of social life that must not be confused with religion.) The "society of religious people," Schleiermacher writes, "is only meant for mutual communication and exists only among those who already have religion" (77). Significantly, this society has no institutional form: it exists among the religious, and seems to describe a quality of interaction rather than a form of interaction. "In true religious fellowship all communication is mutual" (79) — and in fact the religious society requires nothing more than language and the freedom to associate because it needs "nothing on earth and can use nothing except a language in order to understand one another and have a space to be together" (88). Religion issues in expression. Because expression requires people who hear and speak to each other, religion necessarily issues in religious fellowship. Schleiermacher recognizes, however, that people are frequently interested in religion without having had any experience they recognize as religious. Furthermore, those who have religion are interested in evoking religion is those who have not yet experienced it.

Schleiermacher dismisses the institutional church as "merely an amalgamation of people who are only just seeking religion" and writes that "it contrasts with the religious society in nearly all respects" (79). He does defend a legitimate religious role for the institutional church, however, asking: "Shall religion be the sole human affair in which there are no institutions for the benefit of pupils and novices?" (81). The institutional church offers "determinate and also finite" methods for awakening the religious sentiment (82). "Nothing at all can be given and communicated anywhere in the form of something general and indeterminate, but only as something individual in a thoroughly determined form" (77), and to the extent that the determinate methods and teachings of the institutional church serve to awaken the individual religious sentiment of the seeker, the church serves a crucial role as a mediator. The institutional church has been grossly corrupted, however, by the creation of "systems of religion" and divisions between priesthood and laity. "Everyone who sees is a new priest, a new mediator, a new mouthpiece" (28), but the church has routinized and limited its understanding of mediators to those trained in particular systems of religion, confusing uniformity of system with sublimity of vision.

Schleiermacher distinguishes the legitimate religious role of the institutional church from the completely irreligious function of the corrupt church on the basis of its ability to awaken religious sentiment in people seeking religion. The church does not create religion, nor does it possess religion. But the church is able to draw inspiration from the "heroes of religion" who have expressed the religious sentiment. Through its role as a mediator, the church may evoke the religious sentiments of the people by sharing the stories and experiences of these heroes in an attempt to evoke the "virtuosity" and vision of the people. The Church Contemptible, tied up as it is with affairs of state and systems of religion, cannot destroy religion because religion is native to the human sensibility. In spite of the corruptions of the church, people within it do invite each other to new vision, making the church a mediator. As individuals within the church begin to share their own visions and their individual genius, they enter the true religious fellowship as well.


Written for "Modern Theology and Its Critics," Professor David Lamberth, Harvard Divinity School, March 2, 1998. This essay is the intellectual property of Christopher L. Walton and must be fully and properly cited when used as a source in your own writing or you are committing plagiarism. The proper citation is:

Walton, Christopher L. "Schleiermacher on true religious fellowship." Philocrites. 2 Mar. 1998. <>.

Works cited

Friedrich Schleiermacher. On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. Trans. and ed. by Richard Crouter. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge: U of Cambridge P, 1996.

Copyright © 1998 by Philocrites | Posted 2 March 1998 at 5:17 PM

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