Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

Schleiermacher's Social Witness

Academic journal article Currents in Theology and Mission

Schleiermacher's Social Witness

Article excerpt

Schleiermacher's social witness. (1)

The funeral procession for pastor and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher included a line of mourners on foot, stretching over a mile in length. Behind these mourners on a cold February day in l834 came some 100 horse-drawn coaches; in the first of these rode Friedrich Wilhelm III (1770-1840), King of Prussia, along with his son, the crown prince, six years later to be Friedrich Wilhelm IV (1795-1861). (2) And lining the streets were additional masses of people, conservatively estimated at 20,000 to 30,000. Clearly, some organization had gone into this event, but according to contemporary witnesses, it was even more--a spontaneous expression on the part of the people of Berlin, meant to honor the one who had died. (3)

Small only in his physical stature, Schleiermacher had been a pastor, a theology professor, and a leader in the cause of social-political reform. He was loved by the people of Berlin. The presence of the king in the funeral procession raises interesting questions. Schleiermacher had been a leader in the movement to secure freedom for Prussia when the country had been conquered by Napoleon some twenty years earlier. In this he was a supporter of the king. But Schleiermacher also had been a thorn in the king's side for most of his life--a leader in the reform movement that had flourished from 1807-19 that had opposed and criticized many of the king's policies. Does the king's presence in the funeral procession signify his respect for Schleiermacher as a Prussian patriot? Does it signify the fact that he had outlasted the theologian and triumphed over the reform movement?

Critics of Schleiermacher's theology would likely see the king's presence as symbolic of an unholy union between theology and culture. Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and other leaders of last century's "neo-orthodoxy" see Schleiermacher as the headwater of a stream of culture-Protestantism, the progenitor of a theological movement that ended up accommodating itself to the culture around it and having no critical leverage against it. Viewed in light of the crises caused by the World Wars of the first half of the twentieth century, neo-orthodoxy casts Schleiermacher into the place of theological weeping and gnashing of teeth. He is charged with giving up a distinctively Christian identity and selling its birthright for a mess of pottage. He is seen as the beginning of a movement that culminated in Barth's liberal teachers acquiescing to or even supporting the Kaiser's war machine.

H. Richard Niebuhr's assessment is quite similar to neo-orthodoxy's. He places Schleiermacher in the "Christ of culture" category--the least favored of his five types of the Christ-culture relation. I have argued that Niebuhr's assessment is a mistake. In fact, Schleiermacher has much affinity with the Christ-transforming culture type in terms of the particular stands he takes on issues of social ethics as well as the overall orientation of his system. (4) Under the rubric of what Schleiermacher calls restorative action, a prophetic critique is at work in Schleiermacher's thought that rejects the death penalty, violent revolution, wars of aggression, and forceful colonization as immoral because of the violence and coercion inherent in such actions. He also rejects divorce, slavery, and dehumanization of workers, dueling (a serious problem at the time), competitiveness in society, and gambling as immoral and unChristian. Under the rubric of what Schleiermacher calls "broadening action," a transvaluation of cul tural goods finds expression. Here Schleiermacher reflects particularly on the State. He critiques the State's "selfish nationalism," calling the self-interest of the State the most powerful force that can oppose Christianity. He argues that Christian faith relativizes the value of the State and all cultural goods. Where the citizen sees the furtherance of the State as the highest good, the Christian sees the Reign of God, here defined as the "absolute community of all with all," as the highest good and views the State only as a lesser good which must be subordinated to the kingdom of God and brought into its service. …

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