Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) – Schleiermacher
Introductory Note: My colleagues have been doing an excellent job with the very dense and difficult material that has faced them in this series. In light of their industry, I almost feel ashamed to include the minor reflections on Barth’s treatment of Schleiermacher that I have gathered below. But, I wanted to note that I have been reading along with all my colleagues, and I can honestly say that this Schleiermacher chapter was the most difficult for me. This is likely because while I have very little independent knowledge of the other thinkers covered in this series, I have just enough independent knowledge of Schleiermacher to make me dangerous, but not enough to make me insightful. So, this chapter seemed to me to be particularly hazy. In addition to this, I should note that I’m not sure whether Barth got Schleiermacher exactly right. Unfortunately, I am not clear enough on why I have reservations in that regard, and thus my reservations will not find their way into the below, which hopes to simply be a brief (or, as brief as possible!) exposition on Barth’s treatment of Schleiermacher.
Barth’s treatment of Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (11.21.1768-2.12.1834) begins in charity that borders on open adoration. Barth makes numerous statements extolling Schleiermacher’s import: “The first place in a history of the theology of the most recent times belongs and will always belong to Schleiermacher, and he has no rival” (411). Despite the fact that Hegel was at first a real rival, 19th century theology constantly returned to drink from Schleiermacher’s well, and those who criticized Schleiermacher did so on the basis of a shared footing. Barth’s admiration of Schleiermacher waxes:
“we have to do with a hero…Anyone who has never loved here, and is not in a position to love again and again, may not hate here either…the man who could not only criticize Schleiermacher but measure himself against him, [has] not yet appeared” (413)And yet, despite this epochal significance of Schleiermacher, and despite his heroic stature, Barth is not unaware of Schleiermacher’s historical situatedness. Indeed, as Barth’s treatment makes clear, the specters of Kant, Herder, Novalis and even Hegel flit about behind Schleiermacher’s work, arising here and there to make themselves known, and ultimately contributing to the significance of this theological giant. Barth does not hesitate even to mention Schleiermacher in the company of Calvin and Luther.
This comparison of Schleiermacher with Luther and Calvin possesses an aspect other than mere similarity of theological impact. Barth is adamant that Schleiermacher be treated as a Christian theologian. “However weighty the questions we wish to put we must reckon without reserve with the fact that Schleiermacher was a Christian theologian at all events as well” (415). In order to drive this point home, Barth offers four considerations as to why we should think of Schleiermacher as a Christian: First, despite the obvious potential that Schleiermacher had for study in areas like philosophy and philology, he chose to devote his life’s work primarily to theology; second, Schleiermacher did not distance himself from preaching but sought out such a station and remained devoted to it throughout his life; third, even in his study of academic theology Schleiermacher did not take the easy route of capitulating to history or philosophy but tried to carve out an independent place for dogmatics; fourth and finally, though Barth will criticize Schleiermacher for not being more careful in this regard, Schleiermacher at least saw that theology should not be “essentially apologetic in its approach” (417).
But what of Schleiermacher’s theology? It is here that Barth quickly outpaces my capacity, and my modicum of independent knowledge of Schleiermacher gets in the way. But, the broad strokes of Barth’s treatment are discerned easily enough. Of course, any student of theology worth his or her salt knows that Schleiermacher’s theology is characterized by the ‘feeling of absolute dependence’. Barth elaborates: “The great formal principle of Schleiermacher’s theology is at the same time its material principle. Christian pious self-awareness contemplates and describes itself: that is in principle the be-all and end-all of his theology” (443). But, this is ultimately not the most important point in Barth’s exposition.
Barth is first of all (in the sequential sense) interested in the fact that Schleiermacher was deeply concerned with ethics. This is counter-intuitive, especially in light of Brunner’s Die Mystik und das Word. But, Schleiermacher is not a mystic, Barth contends. Even when Schleiermacher’s feeling of absolute dependence looks like it could only naturally lead to a mystical passivity, Schleiermacher re-directs it in terms of “[teleological] religion” (422; the English text has “theological religion”, but I am convinced that this is a mistake although I do not have recourse to the German at present), that is, an ethical religion (cf. Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, 9.1). In support of his reading, Barth identifies four areas of special ethical concern for Schleiermacher: First, the state as the surety of peace and order; second, that Christians are to prove themselves in civil profession; third, Schleiermacher was concerned with marriage and family life; fourth and finally, Schleiermacher was concerned with the “responsibility of the upper classes towards those placed at a material disadvantage by the advance of civilization” (425).
Barth also gives considerable attention to what he perceives as Schleiermacher’s apologetic vocation, although this is apologetics as ground-clearing and not apologetics as proof of Christianity, theology, etc. It is Schleiermacher’s function as a mediator between the content of dogmatics on the one hand and his modern readership on the other that disturbs Barth, and Barth seems to be able to see this mediatorial activity only in terms of the (albeit temporary) subjection of dogmatics to philosophy of religion. Barth is worried that Schleiermacher has so ‘mastered’ the content of dogmatics that he begins to ‘interpret’ it, an activity of which Barth is suspicious even though Barth makes it perfectly clear that Schleiermacher did not place dogmatics upon a speculative foundation. Barth summarizes his thoughts on this point:
“[I]t must certainly be said that it is only by having as his background the positive vindication of the doctrine of faith by means of the science of mind that Schleiermacher is able to form this doctrine of faith into an apologetics...by means of this bold virtuoso playing on the instrument of Christianity, by this complete freedom in the handling of the store of Christian tradition, and by the brilliance of the system applied to it” (436).The last two sections in Barth’s treatment really belong together. Section IV deals with Schleiermacher’s dialectical method, which owes more to Novalis than to Hegel, and section V deals with the application of that method to the themes of ‘experience and history’ in Schleiermacher’s theology. The basic idea is this: Schleiermacher likes to find the middle ground between two opposing poles. Barth ties this to Schleiermacher’s great interest in peace, and brings things together thus:
“The truth – once again in contrast to Hegel – is not to be found in some definable third thing, but in the indefinable centre between the first and the second, at the point where peace reigns, a point to which from all sides only approximations are possible” (439).This comes to life in Barth’s final section, which includes brief discussion on Schleiermacher’s doctrine of the Trinity and especially the relation of Holy Spirit and Word / Jesus Christ, which are ciphers in Barth’s usage for the subjective and objective poles respectively. Schleiermacher’s subjective or psychological motif is opposed by his retained focus on the historic person of Jesus. But, it is at this point that Barth does not think that Schleiermacher can hold together his dialectical position. While Schleiermacher’s theology was meant to be an ellipse with two foci, experience and history or subjective and objective, Barth notes that “the ellipse tends to become a circle, so that its two foci have the tendency to coincide in one centre-point” (450), although this center-point is not dead center, but drifts toward the subjective / experience side.
As per Barth’s reading, this collapse leads Schleiermacher to missteps in Christology and in the relation of sin and grace. Each has been reduced to quantitative difference. Christ is only quantitatively superior to the Christian, and the Christian’s experience of grace (or sin!) is merely quantitatively superior to the experience of sin (or grace!). Following this, Barth leaves us on a rather somber note, stating that such a quantitative relationship “cannot be what the Christian Church intends, and therefore could not be what Schleiermacher intended either” (459). And, though Barth doesn’t explicitly make this move, it seems – at least to this reader – that we are finally left with a picture of Schleiermacher not as a hero, but as a tragic hero.