Ten Modern Christians 2: Friedrich Schleiermacher


The question we want to begin with here is feeling- what role does it play in the Christian life? In the 18th century, at the dawn of the modern West, the ‘pietists’ in Europe, forerunners of the evangelicals, were critical of what they saw as a dry-as-dust orthodoxy, all head and no heart. They wanted a conjunction of the two.

But by the beginning of the next century, elite society had its own version of today’s ‘nones.’ A famous German theologian named Schleiermacher called them ‘the cultured despisers.’ You can still find them a-plenty today! He wanted to defend the Christian faith, with them in mind, in a series of lectures called ‘On Religion.’ His argument went like this: doctrines are old-fashioned ways to describe feelings we all have. ‘Creation’ expresses our contingency and fragility, ‘atonement’ a sense of divine sympathy, ‘resurrection’ hope in tomorrow, etc. Obviously he went too far- the medicine of relevance killed the disease and the patient too!

Why is Schleiermacher important? He, among others, began a kind of revisionist theology which is still alive today, though it is at times hard to recognize. Often it also aims that the old-fashioned account should induce feeling toward some contemporary social end. That goal may or may not be worthy, but reducing ultimate claims only to human feelings is too high a price to pay.

Ten Modern Christians

Our politics and culture churn with conflict at numerous levels. The ecclesial demographic arrows are downward, not only by aging but also by ‘dechurching.’ The definition of Anglicanism is ‘in play.’ Even what it means to be human seem to wobble. How did we get here? I want to answer this question by succinctly introducing ten modern Christians (with one exception), with a lesson affixed to each. I hope you’ll take them together. 

John Locke - 

This 18th Century British philosopher, an Anglican, was a major influence on the American Revolution. But he also wrote a treatise called ‘The Reasonableness of Christianity. He boiled everything down to the existence of God, eternal life, and the Golden Rule. These are true, but leave out too much! This minimalism is still afoot in the Church.

But I offer him for a different reason. Why did he feel such a least common denominator was needed? Because Christians had been busy killing one another over doctrinal differences for several hundred years. The religious wars left Europe exhausted. I have in mind not just the Inquisition, but mayhem over finer distinctions between Lutheran and Calvinist.

It is hard for us to realize that virtually no one before the modern era thought that a pluralistic state could avoid civil war. Their motto was ‘whatever king’s region, his religion.’ But Europe had learned that political control and the Gospel should not be consolidated. Locke sought a minimally Christian basis for a broad society. The framers of the Constitution bore the same conclusion in mind. And of course their reticence may be found long before, if cryptically, in Jesus’ comment about ‘rendering to Caesar what is Caesar, but…’

One example in our own time may be offered. Take the expression ‘Christian nationalism.’ It could simply (and justifiably) mean being patriotic, honoring our constitutional order, and hoping the Gospel will influence our society. But it might mean Christians aspiring once more to established political power, which they would do to our peril.

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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.