A Conversation about The Veiled God: Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Theology of Finitude, by Ruth Jackson Ravenscroft

Paul Dafydd Jones (University of Virginia) recently interviewed Ruth Jackson Ravenscroft (Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge) about her new book The Veiled God: Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Theology of Finitude (Brill, 2019). The interview, conducted over email, covers the recent surge of interest in Schleiermacher, the nature and range of his corpus, and the relevance of his work today. 

PDJ: The study of Friedrich Schleiermacher is at an interesting juncture. While Schleiermacher was viewed with suspicion for much of the twentieth century – with critiques that wove their way from Emil Brunner and Karl Barth to George Lindbeck to Wayne Proudfoot – he’s currently making a comeback in Anglophone scholarship. Your book marks another distinguished entry in what’s starting to look like a Schleiermacher renaissance. Why do you think Schleiermacher is receiving heightened scholarly attention? What is it about his work that renders him newly compelling for Christian theology and the study of religion?

RJR: Perhaps there’s an argument to be made that Barth’s blistering critique of Schleiermacher’s theology has, in the longer term, facilitated a freer, more nuanced and creative attention to the work of the latter within theological circles. The idea that once you’ve seen a project raked over for its flaws and deficiencies, exposed for its worst possible theological tendencies, you can get fully stuck into that project already aware of the concerns, so with more energy to see what’s good, what’s interesting and insightful.

Through the scholarship of Kathryn Tanner, Katherine Sonderegger, and Bruce McCormack (to name but a few) we’ve long been able to find a deep appreciation for the similarities between Barth and Schleiermacher – both understood the limits of the human condition, epistemological and soteriological, and both knew God to be utterly transcendent. But whereas Barth’s response to human frailty was to uphold the absolute freedom and sovereignty of the divine, and to emphasize (in his early work) that the Word of God is ‘an arrow launched at us from beyond an impassable river,’ Schleiermacher’s response was instead to stress that in their relationship with the divine, humans cannot get over or outside of the flow of their history. This is one of the major reasons that I find Schleiermacher so compelling right now—his own management of what Tanner would call the principle of non-competition between God and God’s creation, or what Thomas Aquinas was getting at when he stated that grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it. God, for Schleiermacher, cannot be known by humans without the world, but must be known through it, so that it’s paramount to acknowledge that human language is always caught up in good theological talk about God, so much as it is also caught up in bad theological talk. For both Schleiermacher and Barth, in the end (I’m obviously summarizing wildly here) the challenge is always to be aware of the temptations to idolatry in theological language, and to be suspicious of ourselves when we think we’ve nailed it, but both theologians will reach these points differently and will express them in varying ways. I’ve always been more drawn to Schleiermacher’s way of thinking.  

Among the other routes into Schleiermacher for scholars of religion and philosophy of religion are: his influence on the development of the modern traditions (broadly conceived) of existentialism and phenomenology via hermeneutics; his place in the history of the modern research university; his role as an innovator of early German nationalism; his romanticism and its consequences for his theology; his Platonism (more on that later); his still-notorious definition of religion in terms of intuition and feeling, which harmonizes with the emphasis increasing numbers of Christian theologians today want to put on the role of the body and the affections in lived religion. Meanwhile, a simple and much more material reason as to why we’re hearing more about Schleiermacher, is that an important new English translation of his Glaubenslehre (by Tice, Lawler, and Kelsey) came out in 2016, while over 50 volumes of the complete critical edition of his works (still in progress) are now available online via DeGruyter. It is easier than ever for scholars to access the full gamut of Schleiermacher’s corpus—including his sermons, correspondence, dialogues and occasional writings.

PDJ: A central claim in your book is that Schleiermacher needs to be approached holistically. That is, we shouldn’t hold apart his ethical, philosophical, and theological ventures; we should receive them as diverse, interlocking perspectives on the importance of formation (in German, Bildung). Was Schleiermacher interdisciplinary, then, avant la lettre? Can he help us to think productively about the relationship between Christian theology, religious studies, and the broad world of the humanities and social sciences – being open to insights from all sides, while also being ‘resolutely theological’ in his thinking?

RJR: It’s worth mentioning that in early nineteenth-century Germany, there was a convention of carving out disciplines in the university as separate sciences (Wissenschaften), according to the notion that the subject matter of these disciplines hung together organically—that it formed an interconnected whole, united by a particular purpose. Zachary Purvis has explored this in detail in his excellent book Theology and the University in Nineteenth-Century Germany. For Schleiermacher, of course, the field of Christian theology constituted its own discrete ‘scientific’ whole, while in contrast to numerous other academic disciplines he also knew it to be inherently focused on the governance and guidance of a particular religious community: the Christian church. And so here, according to a historically particular sense of this word Wissenschaft, we can see why it would be utterly right to depict Schleiermacher as adhering to rather firm disciplinary boundaries.

Nevertheless, a key reason I give at the outset of the book for needing to join up the different areas of Schleiermacher’s thought (including translation theory, psychology, dialectics, and Christian ethics) when we read him, is that when these ventures are separated, one can miss the distinctively theological assumptions which undergird each of them, from his theory of religion to his hermeneutical method. And missing these assumptions can have detrimental effects. So, for instance, I discuss the ethical ramifications of reading his understanding of religion as if it were ‘objective’ in the sense that it might apply equally correctly and helpfully to all the world’s religions, rather than being a definition biased, unsurprisingly, by his own adherence to Christianity. The irony here is that Schleiermacher has been long maligned within theological circles for having too ‘liberal’ an approach to Christianity—preaching a faith which is too worldly, and failing to respect the sovereignty of divine revelation—while I’m suggesting that modern scholars have been less good at registering the problems which emerge when the implicitly Christian content of Schleiermacher’s ideas is imported, uncritically, into other fields.

I’m also really glad for your question, however, because yes (!), I do think that Schleiermacher’s corpus offers us a really engaging model for the sort of specifically theological interdisciplinarity you’re outlining—open to insights from ‘outside’, but never abandoning his definitively theological vision. Let’s take his Speeches for example, which, although in many ways a very unchristian book, is apologetics in the very broadest sense—it’s a call to his romantic contemporaries including Schlegel and Novalis not only to embrace the religious life, but also to acknowledge that if they do so, such religiosity cannot be lived out in abstraction from the established or organized religious traditions of which they are so wary. In this book, Schleiermacher says of the religious life that it entails seeking the infinite in the midst of the finite. It is thus here that we find in his view the world and all of its creatures taken up into human longing for the transcendent. Just as in his Christian dogmatics he will much later describe absolute dependence upon God as the ‘fundamental relation that all other relations must include within themselves,’ the implicit point is that theological thinking can be done via and in and with other disciplines, each of which will ask questions of the world and its objects and relations using different tools and from different standpoints.

There’s also Schleiermacher’s career-long preoccupation (stemming not least from his engagement with Plato) with the task of hermeneutics, the nature of language, and the question as to how humans convey meaning. We can see that in his work, in his own use of words and in his performance in social circles he was always alive to the point that humans are constantly drawing on imagery, shared concepts, and stories to communicate with each other and understand ourselves. We can arguably find a model for theological interdisciplinary in the way he was constantly asking, alongside his romantic contemporaries: What stories, myths and images can and should we use to ground our lives in community? In his Speeches and beyond Schleiermacher will deploy all of his rhetorical skill in convincing us that it is the Christian life in which we can best flourish, but we see throughout his dependence on motifs and concepts from the classical world, and his willingness to draw upon philosophers with systems as disparate as Spinoza, Kant, Fichte and Aristotle to advance his program.

PDJ: Another powerful dimension of the book is its exposition of Schleiermacher’s understanding of finitude. On one level, Schleiermacher insists that each of us is located within a particular quotidian, being embedded in a specific linguistic, social, political, and religious location. On another level, he refuses to construe embeddedness as a deficiency (contra a number of his early Romantic contemporaries), even as he recognizes the need to escape the gravitational pull of problematic social structures. The embedded self is also an “opened” self – a self that is susceptible to intersubjective transformation; a self that can be made and remade by God’s gracious works. Am I right in thinking that Schleiermacher performs a suggestive both-and, being alert to what Heidegger would call the “thrownness” of the individual and anticipating scholarship that, in an anti-essentialist vein, thrills to the “plasticity” and “revisability” of human existence?

RJR:  There’s a passage in one of Jose Ortega y Gasset’s essays, where he remarks that Plato was right to describe human life in terms of it essentially being a game—paidiá. The idea Gasset goes on to communicate here is that whereas vegetables and animals and minerals in our world have a defined ‘nature,’ or a fixed existence (so we always know literally what their behavior signifies, we know what to expect from them), human beings do not, and this is something we learn from the human tendency to be always inventing new purposes for themselves, to be constantly shifting the way that they treat and understand the environment around them. 

Schleiermacher too inherits this sense of human playfulness from Platonism, which certainly harmonizes with the anti-essentialist vein in scholarship that you mention in your question. Take his hermeneutical theory (and I’d recommend Andrew Bowie’s brilliant work on this). Schleiermacher has a habit of drawing a distinction between what is ‘mechanical’ in our language—the grammatical, systemic stuff, which provides stability and context for meaning, but which can be learned, predicted, and plotted in advance—and that which is ‘organic,’ which covers the human ability to adapt their behavior to cover different situations, to laugh at words which have subtle double meanings, and to recognize the emergence of new purposes and possibilities. For a human, a chair is a chair, but it could also be a piece of art, a bit of wood, a coat-stand or a step ladder. In the book, I write quite a bit about Schleiermacher’s varied use of literary form in his early career, but one of the many points I’m trying to make when I do so is precisely this one about the human ability to style oneself, to offer varied performances depending on context, and to be plastic and flexible.

Where a theological or religious perspective becomes really important for Schleiermacher, however, is in the same way as I think it often does for Kierkegaard and some later existentialists, which is that invoking the transcendent exposes the constraints and limitations of shared human existence. Yes, we may be playful and flexible, but humans have bodies, and we have developed shared rules governing social interaction and cultural expectations. Schleiermacher is a man of the nineteenth century, but he goes as far as recognizing (in his early work, at least) that embodied reality for his contemporaries who are women means conforming to a series of presumptions about decorous femininity. For him, to play with pseudonyms and to think creatively about ‘who’ is authoring his texts is a freeing and sometimes indulgent thing. Yet for the women of the period, resorting to anonymity or pseudonymity when writing was the very mechanism for getting published at all. In this context, I think it’s striking that Schleiermacher articulates a theological anthropology which stresses that all of us are absolutely dependent at each moment upon the divine for our existence—as you put it, that selves can be made and remade through the grace of God. This is a theology which places the emphasis on the frailty and dependence of human creatures, and which points out that what all humans share is simply the fact that they’re created—that their existence comes from without. It’s a sharp contrast to the myriad philosophies of human freedom you see developed in the same period, including by Immanuel Kant. So yes! I for one reckon you’re right in thinking that.

PDJ: I salute the way that you expose and challenge Schleiermacher’s shortcomings as a thinker. You expose his uncritical anti-Judaism, his prejudices about class, his embrace of sexist assumptions, and – last but definitely not least – his embroilment in an imperialist imaginary; and you do so with a winsome combination of ethical seriousness and analytic rigor. Granted these shortcomings, what do you take to be some of the political “upsides” to Schleiermacher’s work? His willingness to experiment with literary form, his (complex) appreciation for religious diversity, his Christological focus, his fascination with the interplay of religion and the arts – how might this factor into current political discussions?

RJR: What’s positive is that in Schleiermacher, you can find a resolve to account for genuine difference between different religions and forms of life, without resorting to a kind of relativistic pluralism, which looks at each and every one of these forms, and treats them as if they were simply private, subjective perspectives. Such a relativized picture of religious difference would be a real problem for Schleiermacher, because it suggests that religious people are simply gripped by private emotions which are meaningful to them on an individual level, but can’t be shared or communicated on any coherent level in public, or between groups in society. Instead then, if you turn to Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre, you are told that religious faith is not simply a self-referential product of the human mind, but always has an external, real, referent—in his case, as a Christian, he articulates and understands this referent to be the Whence of all finite existence. And Schleiermacher’s doctrine of creation also gives him an obvious starting point for articulating how there’s a unity to human life which persists beyond all difference; a unity which enables us to begin making sense to one another. We return again here to the extremely basic point that we’re all of us finite – i.e., that we are all subject to change and decay, all fundamentally the recipients of our existence in the world, rather than the authors of it. This seems to me to be a constructive place to begin, when it comes to the political issue in our modern world of managing seemingly competing truth claims, different forms of life, or modes of discourse.

Schleiermacher’s own interest in hermeneutics also encouraged me to attempt to face up to the question of how we’re supposed to read and engage with him and myriad thinkers like him from the past, whose biases and prejudices we obviously do not share in the present day. What is left of his thought, after we’ve made those criticisms you mention in your question? And more broadly: How do we reference thinkers from the past? How do we remain mindful of tradition and how tradition works on us, while still remaining critical of past prejudice and discrimination? One of the things I find most compelling about Schleiermacher’s theology is that built into its very structure is the principle that his word will not and cannot be the last on the matter. He writes with the expectation that not only will his words be misunderstood by many, but, as contributions made at a specific point in human history, they may also turn out to be misguided and poorly expressed to those who come later. When it’s laid out like that, this conviction may come across as disarmingly pessimistic—as too demoralized about the relationship between temporality, history, and truth to form the backbone of a decent theological hermeneutic. But one of my suspicions about Schleiermacher is that he has what you might call a good and healthy attunement to the sinfulness of humanity, and of human structures too. His pessimism is a healthy mechanism in this regard, I think.

PDJ: Near the end of chapter two, you write: “If religion is to flourish, then it must not isolate itself from reason or rational enquiry, nor sunder the self from the world, in one’s devotion to the divine” (p. 61). These words are an apt riposte to those who continue to read Schleiermacher as an advocate for a “subjectivist” or “expressivist” view of religion. These words also open out into an interesting perspective on the relationship between “religion” and the “public” in the present. What does Schleiermacher have to offer in this respect?

RJR: In the book, I was really keen to feature some episodes of religious doubt and disillusionment that Schleiermacher suffered in his early life, because I think that these episodes help us to undercut this vision of him in his mature career as a religious subjectivist or expressivist. Let’s consider that in his late teens, while he was at a Moravian boarding school in Barby, Schleiermacher wrote to his father to say that he could not believe in a Father God who would require the death of his own Son for the salvation of humanity. And in the ensuing couple of years, we see Schleiermacher troubled by Christianity as promoting a particularly difficult narrative of redemption and doubting its suitability as a reliable basis for a system of universal morality. My argument is that religious doubt as it occurs here in Schleiermacher is not just an abstract methodological doubt, like that of Descartes, but a shattering crisis of faith and meaning in which he finds out that the Christianity of his childhood can no longer provide him with a compelling, arresting narrative for the worth of life. Schleiermacher will return to faith, of course, but this return to being compelled once more by a form of life that is religious, this return to life within a religious community, is a delicate, difficult thing which for him includes dialogue with others, as much as it also includes, and is not separate from, a strong critical engagement with various philosophies and theologies. I therefore wanted to tap into this part of Schleiermacher’s life, to resist the idea that he goes on to render religious belief safe in human hearts and minds beyond the work of reason, language, dialogue and dialectic. I fervently disagree with the notion that for him, religious conviction among various individuals is always inwardly the same, just expressed differently according to one’s cultural and social surroundings. Religion and reason are distinct for Schleiermacher, but they are not at odds: with a commitment to the former comes the task of interrogating it and thinking it through to the end.

In terms of the implications of this for how we understand the relationship between (the Christian) religion and the public: One of the things I really enjoy exploring in Schleiermacher is his vision of religion as inherently social. His theology from his Speeches to his Christmas Dialogue suggests to us that Christians learn to speak about God in dialogue with each other, and that Christians can only learn who God is for them through dialogue with each other too. As I mentioned earlier, for Schleiermacher, the language that humans use of the divine can never be purified entirely of worldly referents, and there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ religion, held apart from the push and pull of culture, language, politics and the natural world. And so while the object of religion or theology is not the world, the world is nevertheless now the site of religion and theology.

As you’ve already stated, there is an utterly Christological focus in Schleiermacher’s theological writings. Just like for Augustine and for the early Greek fathers, the Incarnation is fundamental as the eternally willed mediatory event through which God puts on flesh and speaks to us in ways we can better understand, while also healing us from within our worldly human condition. To put it another way: For Schleiermacher, the incarnation, as an event in history with infinite reach and meaning, is what gives us the language to speak in a distinctively and essentially Christian way about who God is. Schleiermacher has often been criticized for teaching and preaching a Christ who is overly ideal, and without saying too much here, I do think there’s some weight to this, in the sense that his christological doctrine downplays the cross and the resurrection and suggests that Christ mediates between the divine and the human in a way that almost seems structurally to obviate the need for scripture and sacrament. Nevertheless, the strength of his Christology, his incarnational theology, is that it further enables us to see how in his work the self and the world aren’t sundered, and that as theologians we can also be surprised to find the grace of God at work in the most unlikely of places—the ox, the donkey, and the manger, as well as within the walls of the church as institution.

Paul Dafydd Jones is an associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and the co-director of the Religion and Its Publics project. Ruth Jackson Ravenscroft is the David Thomson Research Fellow at Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge.