TRANSFORMATION OF THE SELF IN THE THOUGHT OF FRIEDRICH SCHLEIERMACHER
by Jacqueline Mariña

Authors

  • AIDAN NICHOLS OP


TRANSFORMATION OF THE SELF IN THE THOUGHT OF FRIEDRICH SCHLEIERMACHER by Jacqueline Mariña ( Oxford University Press , 2008 ) Pp . x + 270 , £55

In Catholic theology, appeal to Schleiermacher generally functions as a warning of how theology ought not to be practised, more or less along the lines of the caveat issued by Barth: the distinction between historic revelation and a general disclosure of the divine in all deep human experience is in danger of erasure – to put it no more strongly – at Schleiermacher's hands. And indeed, Schleiermacher has some claim to be regarded as the Protestant grandfather of Catholic Modernism. He is the high priest of the worship of experience, with a capital ‘E’. Tillich, however, cautioned readers that what is in this regard Schleiermacher's key concept, the concept of ‘feeling’, should not be interpreted as principally a psychological category. In fact, in his own lifetime, spent in a Prussia caught between rationalist Enlightenment and full-blown Romanticism, Schleiermacher's writings prompted the accusation of Spinozism, a far-reaching error in metaphysics. He was, so critics suggested, a naturalistic monist, not a theist at all, much less an adequately Christian one. And when Hegel identified Schleiermacher's philosophical weakness as too ready an acceptance of Kant's claim that knowledge strictly so-called is restricted to the realm of the finite, so that only intuition and feeling are left to penetrate the consequent wall, he was at least bearing witness that Schleiermacher is, in some sort, a philosophically minded theologian. Jacqueline Mariña, the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Schleiermacher, seeks, in her new book, to show how this may be so.

As its title indicates, her focus is on Schleiermacher's doctrine of subjecthood, an ontological category, the consequence of an enquiry into ‘the self’, and thus carefully to be distinguished from subjectivism, a philosophical solecism for which only feeling-states count as explanations of what I, where ‘I’ stands for any human subject, consider real. (I avoid here the word ‘subjectivity’, whose meaning could vacillate between the two.) By concentrating on Schleiermacher's philosophical writings (his Evangelical dogmatics, The Christian Faith, are not allowed a look-in until the penultimate chapter), Mariña is able to highlight the underpinnings of Schleiermacher's theological system in an unusual – and not especially plausible – concept of the self. For Schleiermacher, selfhood and consciousness are identical, despite the latter's fluid and transient quality. He is willing to abandon any claims about the self's substantial identity (compare Hume) or transcendental identity (contrast Fichte). His – as we shall see, very qualified – Kantianism leads him to deny the objectivity of our knowledge of the world, which, inverting metaphors used by Leibniz, he treats as the reflection of the soul, the arena where the self sees itself reflected ‘as in a magic mirror’ (Mariña's words: she admits, incidentally, that the relation between ‘soul’ and ‘self’ in Schleiermacher's writing remains unclear).

Schleiermacher is in line with post-Kantian Idealists when he makes his principal philosophic project the discovery of the ground of unity between the human self and the world, though – by contrast with Schelling and Hegel – he denies that access to this ground can be grasped by the structures of consciousness. That ground, of which we have in ‘God-consciousness’ a surmise, can and does, however, transform such ‘structures’. In a word, it can and does transform the self. Hence the title of Mariña's book, and the manner in which it makes contact, in the closing chapters, with doctrinal theology. The fashion in which the ground of unity between self and world changes us is christological (and, one should add, pneumatic, though the role of the Holy Spirit is somewhat occluded here – the ‘second order’ status of Trinitarianism in Schleiermacher's dogmatics is presumably responsible for that).

Mariña's chief claim on Schleiermacher's behalf is, accordingly, this: he successfully demonstrated how an historical occasion, i.e. an occasion when one historical individual, namely Jesus Christ, expressed himself, could be the moment of transformation of human consciousness, even though the defining capacity of that consciousness is a ‘transcendental’ (in the Kantian sense) and thus a universal one – namely, what I have termed a ‘surmise’ of God, as the fontal unity of knowing and willing, available in principle to everyone.

Still, the question remains, Is this ‘historical occasion’ (what the orthodox would call the Incarnation) unconditionally unique, in such a way that it leads to the making of an inescapably binding claim on human allegiance, as distinct from simply furnishing a supreme benchmark for judging religions, notably in their ethical aspect? The last pages of Mariña's book, which deal with the implications of Schleiermacher's thought for inter-religious dialogue, make it plain that her answer to this question is ‘No’. Her book certainly demonstrates the sophisticated character of Schleiermacher's comparatively little read philosophical writings. But insofar as she seeks to exhibit the compatibility of his theology with a de jure (and not merely de facto) religious pluralism it may also be said to attest the flawed character of his legacy to the Protestant mind. A Schleiermacherian who wished to avoid her politically correct conclusions might argue nonetheless that to furnish a supreme benchmark for judging religions, notably in their ethical aspect, is the way in which the Incarnation binds all human beings to its allegiance. It would be interesting to compare the outworking of these ambiguities to those uncovered by the reception of Karl Rahner's thought, which, akin to Schleiermacher's in its debt to Idealism, has found both ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ exponents on very much this point.

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