I just met Friedrich Schleiermacher. [i] I really never thought any theologian could replace Martin Luther in my heart of hearts, but the more time I spend with Freddo, the more seriously I’m considering having his name, elaborately lettered and wreathed in roses, tattooed on my ass.[ii]
Brilliant, sharply dressed Moravian with glossy blonde locks seeks frumpy Calvinist seminarian with an interest in exploring “total depravity.” Also likes long walks on the beach and salsa dancing.
As I’m sure you all know,[iii] this 18th century German Enlightenment scholar and “father of modern liberal theology” was one of the most influential systematic theologians who ever lived, right up there with John Calvin,[iv] Thomas Aquinas, and Karl Barth.[v] I comprehend about 5% of what he writes.
But here’s one thing I think I can accurately articulate. Religion, for Schleiermacher, isn’t about morals and it isn’t about elaborate cosmologies. It’s about personally intuiting our intimate and integral connection, as particular individuals, to the universe entire and eternal; this includes God, the natural world, and each other. Those capable of this kind of intuition are “religious” in a sense that seems very similar to our contemporary notion of “spiritual.” The totally cool thing about this theology is that it calls upon individuals to live their lives authentically, i.e. uniquely. Every thing in the universe is interrelated to every other thing in the universe. Since we each have our own limited and particular viewpoint, it is only by sharing our personal intuitions of an infinite God that we, as a species, stand any chance of understanding who and what God is.
I love this definition of religion for several reasons. First off, it honors the entire human community, comprised of infinitely unique individuals, as essential to the very fabric of the universe. This seems a worthy alternative to Christianity’s long history of doctrinal tyranny, imperialism, colonialism, and sexism. Secondly, it’s an antidote to our contemporary notion of “spiritual, not religious,” which effectively rejects anything having to do with organized religions. Now remember, per Freddo, religion is about personally intuiting one’s own relationship to the eternal. So, for Schleiermacher, the true church is simply a group of people whose similar religious experiences give them a shared language with which to discuss their religious experience together.
Two hundred years ago, Schleiermacher described why I’m a Christian today. In a nutshell, I’m a Christian because when I was five, I went to Sunday school and learned all the words I’d need to make sense of God in that particular way. I want to be in community with other religious people in a way that helps me tap deeper and deeper wells of meaning and relationship with God. I agree with Schleiermacher that there are an infinite number of ways to accomplish this, and believe me, I sampled a lot of them. After years of dabbling in Wicca and Religious Science, I realized that I had no interest in becoming fluent in another “religious language,” so I returned to my Christian roots and got back to the business of intuiting God with people who intuit God in the same way – through the life and message and miracles of Jesus Christ. As a religous person by temperament, I am confident that if I’d gotten my formative education in a synagogue or mosque, I’d still be there today. And that would be okay.
Per Schleiermacher, another essential element to being truly religious is love for other people and their points of view. This is why most of my non-church friends are not Christians. As an introvert, I have to be selective about who I spend my time with and there’s only so much time outside church. This is also why I attend an ecumenical seminary and seem to gravitate toward the Buddhists, pagans, and atheists. I want to hear what they have to say, I want to see the universe through their eyes. Doing so never fails to help me clarify my own religious experience within my own vocabulary of faith.
In this new year, I encourage all of my faithful readers to spend deliberate time with people who share their understanding of the infinite and people who see the world through very different eyes. Both are entirely necessary to a full experience of one’s place in the universe, regardless of whether God figures into your vocabulary. And bear in mind that for the truly religious person, every moment is sacred and every experience is church.
[i] Affectionately referred to by me and a handful of my less reverent classmates as Freddo Knickerbocker
[ii] Because I’m too commitment phobic to get a tattoo on a part of my body I can actually stand to look at. Because, you know, unlike marriage, tattoos are so…so…permanent.
[iii] I’m totally kidding. Who the hell is Schleiermacher and how come I never heard of him?
[iv] Affectionately referred to by me and everyone else as John Calvin
[v] I’ll leave it to others to add Charles Schulz to the list.
© Marian the Seminarian, 2013