How do Schleiermacher and Process relate? – May 2012

Question: Schleiermacher’s theology is very close to process theology, so could process be a bridge between American and continental theologies?

Publication Month: May 2012

This is a complex question. Let me first describe where I agree. Schleiermacher was certainly an important figure in German theology. He is often called the father of liberal theology. During the nineteenth century, along with Hegel and Kant, he was a major shaper of the tradition. His basic program was renewed by Rudolph Otto, and there are clear continuations in Paul Tillich. There are certainly today adherents of this tradition. In this tradition one first identifies the characteristics of religion generally and then studies what distinguishes Christianity from other forms of religion.

Nevertheless, to suppose that this approach characterizes a large swathe of continental theology today is misleading. In addition to the continuing influence of Kant and Hegel, there is the break brought about by the influence of Kierkegaard who rejected all these forms of theology. This rejection was taken up in a somewhat different form by Barth who denied that Christianity is a religion at all. Although the influence of Kierkegaard and Barth does not determine everything about the current scene, to focus chiefly on the continuing influence of Schleiermacher would not provide any sort of overall bridge to the continental discussion.

On the process side, the questioner is certainly correct that there are affinities. Process theology is a liberal theology and it is closer to Schleiermacher than to either Hegel or Kant. With Schleiermacher it holds that here is an experiential relation to God that can be conscious. With him it views this experience or feeling of God as one aspect of experience among others that can be related to other aspects in various ways.

Even here, however, the differences are also important. From a process perspective, it is particularly unfortunate that Schleiermacher was more influenced by classical theology than by the Bible or ordinary Christian experience in his identification of the experience of God. He identified it with the feeling of “absolute dependence.” By this he meant that whereas we in relation to creatures we have reciprocal relations, in relation to God we do not. God is in no way affected by us. He is, accordingly, describing a relationship to something like Being Itself, but as Tillich fully realized, Being Itself is “beyond” the God of the Bible. To identify Being Itself with love is very problematic, and to say that Being Itself loves us makes no sense. Being itself is that whereby we exist or have being.

One of Whitehead’s great contributions was to distinguish Creativity, his replacement for Being Itself, from God. We are certainly dependent on the God he describes. Without God, nothing would exist. But God also is affected by us. Our joys contribute to God’s joy, our pain is shared with God. There is no question in my mind that it is this God that the Bible presents to us.

Today we can see that a focus on Being Itself can also be of religious importance. In the West it leads to apophatic mysticism, which has little support in the Bible but has certainly enriched the tradition. Something like that is also encouraged by important forms of Hindu and Buddhist meditation, that is, the realization that what one most fundamentally is, one’s being, is identical with the being of everything else. It is Brahman or Dharmakaya or Being Itself. This realization has quite wonderful consequences.

My explanation of differences between process theology and Schleiermacher is not intended as a criticism. He moved theology forward, opening the door to serious examination of actual human experience. He rightly emphasized the importance of feeling or emotion, what he called “affect,” in the religious life. Thoughtful observers are noting how much more successful the conservative churches are, than the liberal ones, in shaping the emotional life. The form of liberalism that stems from Schleiermacher should be able to respond to this failure of liberalism generally, but I doubt that it can do so if it focuses only on the feeling of absolute dependence.

On the American scene, William James’ work on Varieties of Religious Experience seems to me more promising. James belongs clearly to the process family, and I believe that far more of us can identify with some of the experiences he describes than with Schleiermacher’s account. The plural form opens the door to far more empirical study.

To far too great an extent today the study of religious experience has been separated from theology. It belongs to “religious studies” and especially to psychology of religion. Theology is more likely to deal with cognitive beliefs. The actual life of the believer falls between these disciplinary stools. Schleiermacher and James can help process theologians to enter into the existential reality of Christian experience. That is no small contribution.