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Human experience as the starting point for Christian theology

Human experience as the starting point for Christian theology


Determining the difference between humanity and other forms of life is an archaic quest. Humans have always been aware of some basic distinction between themselves and all other forms of life, but defining that disparity has proven to be controversial. What does it mean to exist? One of the defining qualities of humankind is its awareness of its own existence. It is difficult to allocate what role experience, that is the human’s consciousness of its own existence, plays into theological reflection and doctrinal formation. Martin Luther declared that “experience makes a theologian,” but for many, the essence of religion is a mere facade of the human’s ability to transpose his consciousness to some higher subjective being. For others, such as Karl Barth, God is above us, time and space, and all concepts and opinions. For Barth, God has exclusive separation from human beings and entirely divorces the concept of God and human experience. Despite criticism, F.D.E Schleiermacher maintained his belief that the human experience is the origin for Christian theology. Schleiermacher believed that by exploring the nature and origin of what he labeled as “feeling,” it became viable to trace that feeling back to God.

This paper will focus on Schleiermacher, who continuously held in front of his audience the polarities of what represented Christian thought, and the tension between them: “knowing” versus “doing”; “emotion” versus “logic”; “experience” versus “wisdom”; “individualism” versus “unity”. Schleiermacher sought to contextualize faith in such a way that it directly applied to the community of faith in the present moment. Despite the mountainous criticism that he received and that will be considered in this paper, Schleiermacher’s theology is the “careful marriage of experience and Christology,” says Heltzel. Consequently, this paper will have a total of three primary sections: the first, reviewing the upbringing and formation of Schleiermacher’s theology, specifically his conception of “feeling”; the second shall be a terse report of the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach's underlying thesis, namely anthropology, and his critique of experience-based theologies; and the last section will conclude with Karl Barth, who was a loud critic for Schleiermacher’s theology, yet had similar foundational beliefs in regards to revelation and experience of God. Schleiermacher fully understood Jesus Christ as the one who exclusively embodies “God-consciousness” and liberates humanity, according to B.A. Gerrish, “by drawing men and women into the power of his own awareness of God;” for Schleiermacher, the religious experience for humanity can act as a integral support for Christian theology.

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher perhaps cannot be grouped with the great German philosophers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, including: Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, but he is certainly notable in the development of Christian thought. Throughout his scholarly upbringing that was within the Reformed, Calvinist tradition, Schleiermacher laboriously engaged with the study and criticism of Immanuel Kant. To deal with Schleiermacher’s theological system, one must understand the underlying context, and forceful influence, of Kant’s ideology and the Romantic Movement.

Immanuel Kant’s philosophy was so notably alluring to Schleiermacher that when he became a student at Halle University in 1787, he devoted his study to Kant’s work. Through his study, Schleiermacher became fully convinced that Kant’s threefold classification of the human capabilities were completely convincing. However, one arena where Schleiermacher could not agree was Kant’s identification of religion with morality, being that religion is fundamentally based on morality. Since humanity does not directly perceive God, Kant’s turn toward the subject undermined the claims of orthodox Christian belief. Schleiermacher negotiated Kant’s critique by redefining religion as feeling—the capacity to sense the infinite—believing this to be the best way to perceive the possibility of Christian theology. Schleiermacher’s most significant work in the philosophy of religion, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, was published anonymously in 1799. According to this work, religion is an expressive awareness of a greater being by which humanity is in part and absolutely dependent on God. The essence of religion is declared to rest in a “fundamental, distinct and integrative element of human life and culture,” explains Forester. Schleiermacher is responsive to Kant’s strategy in relation with religious matters of “deny[ing] knowledge in order to make room for faith,” and principally Kant’s charge of the existence of God based on conventional reason. Schleiermacher denies that religion can be established on knowledge or metaphysics alone.

Juxtaposed to Kant’s philosophy, the Romantic Movement played a prominent role in the influence of Schleiermacher's developing theological thought. In accordance with Claude Welch, one aspect of the Romantic Movement boldly accentuated the concept of individuality. The primary force in the movement was the shaping of the individual's self in relation to the rest of the world; Welch claims that, “Romanticism can be seen as a rejection of the precepts of order, calm, harmony, and rationality.” This truly was a rejection of the Enlightenment, rationalism and materialism, with an emphasis of the individual, the subjective, the imaginative, and the personal. It is worthy to mention that the word “feeling” (often specified in Schleiermacher's theological development) calls attention to the voluptuous impulse as well as aesthetics. One last observation of the impact of  Romanticism was the influence of diversity and self-motivation. Within this reasoning, human beings were free to seek various imaginative expressions of their experience. Based on these two influential forces, it is easy to identify the impact Kant’s ideology and the Romantic Movement had on Schleiermacher’s theology.

The Experience of God: The Brilliance of Schleiermacher

It is here that Schleiermacher’s stimulating, unfamiliar construction of religion as feeling will be introduced. He goes on to say:

"Religion is to seek this and find it in all that lives and moves, in all growth and change, in all doing and suffering. It is to have life and to know life in immediate feeling, only as such an existence in the Infinite and Eternal.” “...true religion is sense and taste for the Infinite.”

Schleiermacher’s theological achievement was stemming from this re-conception of religion. According to Holly Reed, from The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology, “Schleiermacher is arguing against religion as mere ‘knowing,’ which would categorize the rational approach of doctrinal orthodoxy, and would fall within the realm of speculative theology. Nor is religion simply ‘doing,’ which is a critique of religion-as-morality, natural religion and behaviors associated with Pietism.” For Schleiermacher, religion falls within the dimension of feelings, “making it an interior, personal experience with an element of the unknowable and the mysterious.” Religion is neither primarily morality, counter to Kant, nor knowledge, counter to Hegel, but a feeling of absolute dependence on God. Contrary to Kant, Schleiermacher would go so far as claiming it is impractical to know God by means of logic or reason, but, rather, by feeling. Feeling is universal to the human experience and, because of its universalism, it is the means by which humans experience God. In his “Second Speech,” Schleiermacher maintains the combination of the theoretical and practical nature of religion:

Religion is for you at one time a way of thinking, a faith, a particular way of contemplating the world, and of combining what meets us in the world: at another, is is a way of acting, a peculiar desire and love, a special kind of conduct and character. Without this distinction of a theoretical and practical you could hardly think at all, and though both sides belong to religion, you are usually accustomed to give heed chiefly to only one at a time.

Keep in mind, Schleiermacher does not methodically ostracize logic and morality from the realm of religion, rather he emphasizes the “experience of absolute dependence,” should be the dominant strength of religion.

Schleiermacher’s Conception of Theology

When conceptualizing Schleiermacher's theology, “feeling” is not the basis for his theology, rather theology points back to feeling. When Schleiermacher talks about feeling, he is referring to the pre-responsive feelings such as joy, remorse, sorrow, etc; these are embodied feelings that are prior to any developing thought. According to Schleiermacher, these develop out of a central feeling, which he titles the feeling of “absolute dependence.” Consider the importance of feeling this way: one cannot expect in the lowest animal sense to be infatuated with another. If love were to be broken down to the most logical and absolute sense, all beauties are a random, temporary pattern created by colliding atoms and your own reaction is merely a combination of adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin being released in your body. C.S. Lewis elaborates further: “You can’t go on getting very serious pleasure from music if you know and remember that its air of significance is a pure illusion, that you like it only because your nervous system is irrationally conditioned to like it.” The warmth and enthusiasm that is produced through feeling and emotion has the ability to enhance the seemingly cold reality of logic. Again, Schleiermacher is not speaking against the importance of knowing (logic) and doing (ethics), but took a dramatically different stance from reformed theology on the imperative aspects of religious reverence. According to Heltzel, “Enlightenment theology viewed the enterprise as reflection on rational thoughts about God, engaged in a type of ‘theology from below.” Schleiermacher set out to paint a new portrait of humanity’s understanding of God; for Schleiermacher, theology is the human reflection of the human experience of God.

Friedrich Schleiermacher died of pneumonia on February 12th, 1834, but not without leaving a legacy for modern Christianity, and an abundance of criticism for his radical doctrine. The focus of this paper will now shift, for it is crucial to consider the opposition to such a profound doctrine. Philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach identified the weakness of Schleiermacher’s model, and argued that such “experience” which had been identified by Schleiermacher was little more than “experience of the self.” Before moving to Barth, this paper will shift to Feuerbach’s psychologizing attempt to interpret religious consciousness and express the essence of religion.

Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach

Ludwig Feuerbach was a German philosopher and moralist who is most notably remembered for his influence on antropologic essence of religion. Feuerbach directly spoke against the theology of Schleiermacher on many fronts, including the nature of religion and human consciousness. Although never deeming himself as an atheist, Feuerbach maintained the position that God and religion were sheer illusion and his works became revolutionary for anti-Christian publicist.

Feuerbach’s Reduction of Theology to Anthropology

Many theologians used experience-based theology as an escape from the Enlightenment grandeur. As seen to this point, Schleiermacher is an exemplary of a theologian tenacious to use human experience as an origin for Christian theology. Schleiermacher was determined of the importance of theology as "a feeling of absolute dependence."While many were attracted to exploring the relation between feeling and God, Feuerbach moved away from idealistic pantheism. He sought to rule religion as an alienated form of human consciousness. Feuerbach claimed that there is no form of consciousness that presides over the human experience for "the object of any subject is nothing else than the subject's own nature taken objectively." This ideology is often categorized as anthropologism: that humankind is the basic philosophical category that is the measure of all things. In order for one to fully comprehend this philosophy of all things, a proper evaluation of the governing theory of consciousness must be undertaken. As stated by Feuerbach in the forward of his Essence of Christianity, his purpose is "to show that the supernatural mysteries of religion are based upon quite simple natural truths." Straightforwardly, the preeminent objective of Feuerbach's work is to show how humanity has constructed their own gods and religions, “which embody their own idealized conception of their aspirations, needs, and fears.” The following section will be a terse, yet precise, reconstruction of Feuerbach's position and the means by which he comes to this end.

Feuerbach’s Theory of Consciousness

Feuerbach upholds that "consciousness in the strict sense exists only where a being has its species, its essential nature, as its object." By this, Feuerbach maintains that an I-Thou (me and you) relationship must be established between oneself and one of the same species; one cannot be independently aware of oneself. Human consciousness is, in essence, a species consciousness.

Feuerbach helps his audience grapple this ideology: imagine a caterpillar who has mere instinct, which is a limited species nature, "The limit of the nature is also the limit of consciousness. The consciousness of a caterpillar, whose life in confined to a particular species of plant, does not extend itself beyond this narrow domain." Regardless of this reality, the caterpillar remains unaware of this limitation. For the caterpillar, who is unable to heed his own species nature, sits on a leaf which is "a world, an infinite space." This is not a limitation for the caterpillar for he does not recognize himself as limited. In order for the caterpillar to be troubled by this, he must step outside of his species consciousness and therefore cease being a caterpillar. According to Feuerbach, humankind is capable of being aware of the inner and outer life, while the animal inner life is one with the outer. Humankind is capable of transcending the boundaries of individuality, whereby Feuerbach labels humankind’s consciousness as infinite. Feuerbach summarizes his argument through one of his most prominent quotes: "Man—this is the mystery of religion—projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject" Virtually, the relationship between God and humankind is merely an association between species and its individual members. For Feuerbach, "God-consciousness" goes no further than human self-awareness and is, in fact, a product of humankind's infinite mind.

"If feeling in the essential instrumentality or organ of religion, then God's nature is nothing more than an expression of the nature of feeling. [...] The divine essence, which is comprehended by feeling, is actually nothing other than the essence of feeling, enraptured and delighted with itself—nothing but self-intoxicated, self-contented feeling."

In summary, God is the product of humanity’s infinite mind.

Critical Evaluation of Feuerbach’s Theory

According to the basic axiom of Feuerbach's argument, in the most comprehensive sense, truth is relative to man. Stated another way, humankind is the measure of all things, including God. According to Edmund Husserl, Feuerbach's theory is open to serious objection, including being incoherent. One of Husserl’s main objections on anthropologism is its making of truth and legitimacy reliant on questions of fact. According to Robert, “To assert that truth is relative to man is to make truth dependent on the fact of existence of the human species.” Following this theory one step further, if there were no human species, there would be no truth. Consider the absurdity of this claim and the inconsistency it creates. Based on this logic alone, it would be true that there were no truth. This is one of the weaknesses of Feuerbach’s theory and brings light upon his assertion that the highest conceivable version of oneself is, in essence, God. Robert Williams summarizes this ambiguity thoroughly:

"The conclusion of the argument is accepted, but its meaning is made relative to man, and this means that the entire argument is qualified by and made dependent upon a fact—man’s existence. Now if the existence of the human species is a fact, then its nonexistence is possible. But this possible nonexistence contradicts the sense of Anselm’s formula, for possible nonexistence is completely excluded by ‘something than which nothing greater can be conceived.’ Moreover, here is one truth which is not relative to man: a being whose nonexistence is impossible would exist whether or not the is a contingent human constitution." 

Martin Heidegger, in his book Being and Time, justly states that human beings are distinguished from other species “by their capacity to put their own existence into question. They are creatures of whom existence as such, not just particular features of it, is problematic.” This brings about the crisis of meaning in retrospect to Feuerbach’s theory of man’s infinite mind. Humans are the only living things that wonder about the meaning of life, yet this is only fulfilled through the senses of purpose and significance. This is a twofold complex that points outside of the human experience to a higher being, one by which the standards of morality and virtue have been given.

Feuerbach’s analysis that the existence of God is simply held in the imagination and projection of the human experience continues to be persuasive in western liberal Christianity. As Feuerbach emphasizes, human experience might simply be an expression of oneself, rather than of God at all; humanity is projecting its experience outwardly and labeling it as “God”. It must be noted that Feuerbach's critique losses much of its strength when managing the nontheistic religion of Karl Barth. According to Barth, a divine encounter with humankind happens outside of the human experience, and therefore holds its ground.

Karl Barth

Karl Barth was born in Switzerland and started out his life conventionally enough; he was the son of a New Testament professor and studied at some of the best universities. Barth was never impressed with liberal theology, often sounding themes that had been muted by it. He was deliberate in his pursuit to institute the sound principle that God can only be known in consonance with his nature, rejecting the romanticized view that human experience of self-consciousness was a means to the Spirit of God.

Rejection of Schleiermacher

Barth’s critical stance towards Schleiermacher is no secret. Despite his criticism, Barth did have a deep respect for Schleiermacher himself. The remarks of Barth at the end of one of his lectures is revealing:

"The higher one values Schleiermacher's achievement in and for itself, and the better one sees with what historical necessity it had to come and how well - how only too well - it fitted the whole spirit of Christianity in the 19th and 20th centuries, the more clearly one perceives how easy it is to say No in word but how hard it is to say it in deed, namely with a positive counter-achievement. Schleiermacher undoubtedly did a good job." 

However, for Barth, there is a rational discontinuity between humanity’s pursuit of God, which leads to religion, and God’s self-revelation to humanity, which leads to faith. Theology derives from the hearing and witnessing of the Word of God which elicits and calls to faith. Barth states:

It cannot properly allow its agenda to be dictated from ‘outside’ if that ‘outside’ is taken to be any kind of philosophical, metaphysical, sociological, psychological or otherwise ‘scientific’ account of human existence in the world rather than the ‘from without’ of the inbreaking, perennially new revelation of God himself.

Ironically, Barth considered Schleiermacher as the jovial defender of a theology which could be stripped to its bare essence as anthropology. On this account, Barth countered Schleiermacher.

Antithetic to popular belief, Schleiermacher and Barth’s theology of God’s affiliation to humankind are not polar opposites. Both theologians believe God’s rapport with the living is unconditional, unrestrained, and unregulated. However, the esoteric relationship between God and humanity is worked out differently between the two. According to Schleiermacher the “feeling of absolute dependence” is the fuel for his theology, while for Barth it is best understood as the dialectic of God’s veiling and unveiling.

The truth is, however, that God veils Himself and that in so doing- this is why we must not try to intrude into the mystery- He unveils Himself. It is good for us that God acts as He does and it could only be fatal for us if He did not, if He were manifest to us in the way we think right, directly and without veil, without secularity or only in the innocuous secularity that can be pierced by the analogia entis. It would not be love and mercy but the end of us and all things if the Word were spoken to us thus. The fact that it is spoken as it is, revealed in its concealment, is a decisive indication of the truth that it has really come to us instead of our having to go to it, an attempt in which we could only fail. In its very secularity it is thus in every respect a Word of grace.

The revelation of God, according to Barth, is always “being given,” not merely a “given,” which relies solely on the sovereign God. In other words, humanity is passive in the process of reception. In this regard, both Schleiermacher and Barth can find agreement, but the ways by which this reality is manifested are conflicted. In the wake of the Enlightenment, and being in the midst of the Romantic movement, Schleiermacher was apt to search for self-identifying, yet a perpetually enduring, "essence" inserted in Jesus Christ as the embodiment of mercy and judgement. For Barth, the whole of humanity was covered by the judgment and mercy spoken once; the Word which is “always new, always immediate, always challenging, always calling, always commissioning.”


The term “experience” is imprecise and often leaves room for confusion and error. In the broadest sense it means to accumulate knowledge by means of encounterment, however an acquired meaning has been juxtaposed to this. This terminology has come to invoke the hidden, personalized life of individuals, in which those individuals become cognizant, or aware, of their own embodied beliefs and emotions. “The study of theology is the cultivation of the soul,” and according to John Wesley, the communication and meaning of the Bible must be acknowledged in the heart—hence the importance of experience. The Christian faith transcends beyond ideas or reason, but it is about interpretation and renewal of the inner life of the individual. Christian theology can find its underlying roots in the act of the human religious experience. This level of redefinition does not have to exclude the testimony of reason, but as Jaroslav Pelikan states, “it could seek to put experimental theology on equal footing with Biblical theology or confessional theology...” Although his doctrine was considered radical at the time, Schleiermacher’s emphasis on the importance of “feeling” does have merit for Christian theology. God’s creation has a sense of longing for its Creator that it is unable to be satisfied by itself; that longing, or “feeling”, is the basis of Christian theology.

In conclusion, this paper provided a broad overview of the conception of experience and how Schleiermacher's theology influenced its importance in the religious formation. Schleiermacher maintained his belief that human experience was the starting point for Christian theology and that through exploring the nature and origin of what he labeled as feeling, it was possible to trace it back to its origins with God. Despite those who rejected experience-based theologies such as Feuerbach, Schleiermacher’s impact on modern theology is indisputable. Like Barth, Schleiermacher believed God could not be revealed through humankind’s doing, but for him only through an absolute and total dependence of God. Schleiermacher’s understanding of human experience is the encountering of the increase in power and clarity in the essence of religion by virtue of the work of Jesus. The essence of religion “... is not to be sought in books, like that of intellectual conceptions and scientific knowledge...for that which originally represented, must be represented in its turn; and yet the effect on the whole man, in its complete unity, can only be imperfectly set forth by continued and varied reflections.” The essence of religion, according to Schleiermacher, begins with the human experience.


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