Reader's Guide to Schleiermacher's Christian Faith

Summary and Commentary from Frank Cross

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George Cross, The Theology of Schleiermacher


Section 3. Doctrine of the World. The Nature of the World, Which Is Implied in the Religious Self- Consciousness, so Far as It Expresses the Universal Relation between God and the World

Since the religious consciousness expresses a relation between God arid the world, it implies a religious view of the world-constitution. The doctrinal statement which describes that view will be the answer to the following question: If the consciousness of absolute dependence on God arises only in connection with the world, how must the religious self-consciousness view the world which excites this experience? Consequently, such a doctrine of the world is not to be confounded with a scientific account of it or to be considered as a rival thereto, since the latter proceeds by objective perception and ratiocination.

The religious principle is an essential and universal element in human nature, but this principle never comes into consciousness except under the influence of impressions received from the world, of which human nature is an integral part. Further, that the God-consciousness be connected with every experience is a demand upon our nature; consequently every world-impression must be capable of exciting the religious feeling. Otherwise the God-consciousness would be only a contingent feature of human existence, and God's eternal, living omnipotence would be unable to obtain expression in the world. That is to say, if all finite being as it affects our consciousness is refer able to the eternal almighty Causality, the world must be such a world that every impression it makes upon us tends to produce in us the religious feeling. In other words, the religious consciousness presupposes the original (i.e., independent of special circum stances) perfection of the world. This is not to be understood as the equivalent of a doctrine of a definite condition of the world, past, present, or future, but it refers to the permanent ever self-identical relations which underlie all historical events. Such a perfection is ideal, never provable, and never demonstrably realized, but for our consciousness it is necessarily postulated as the presupposition of all world-history. The world-history is the developing, but ever incomplete, manifestation of that perfection.

But the self-consciousness is not exhausted in that identity with the world of which we are aware in our consciousness of dependence, along with the world, on God; for in self-consciousness we also recognize the antithesis between ourselves and the world. Hence a religious view of the world involves, besides a doctrine of the original perfection of the world, a doctrine of the original perfection of man.

1. The Original Perfection of the World

Since this original perfection of the world is a postulate of the self-consciousness, it can be a doctrine of the world, not as it is in itself, but only as related to man, the religious being. The relations between man and the world are twofold--each acts upon, and is acted upon by, the other. The perfection of the world in relation to man is therefore likewise twofold: (1) By means of the human physical frame, which both unites him to the world and becomes the organ of his spirit in relation to the world, it affects him on the real side; and on the ideal side it presents itself as knowable by him, and thus furnishes to him every where and at all times incitements to activity; it both supplies to him sensation and stimulates his powers of knowledge. (2) As receptive of man's activity and through the physical organism which is operated by his activity, the world offers itself to man as the organ of his self-expression; and as he thus extends his dominion over it more and more, it awakens in him the consciousness of the divine causality as that of which his own is an image.

NOTE.--This doctrine of the original perfection of the world is to be distinguished from that doctrine of the world which represents the present world as the best out of many possible worlds, and as well from that of a former condition of the world which has passed away and has been changed into the present imperfect world. The former is the product of rationalistic speculation; since the time of Leibnitz particularly, it has been assigned a place in so-called natural or rational theology. It is not a product of the religious consciousness, and it at tributes to God such anthropomorphic conceptions as mediate knowledge and alternative choice. The latter doctrine has sprung from the narrative in Genesis and the legendary lore of many peoples; it appears in the story of a prehistoric golden age. On the one hand, as bare history, it could have no dogmatical importance; and, on the other hand, it destroys the entirety of the divine control and preservation of the world, and so is prejudicial against the religious feeling.

2. The Original Perfection of Man

As the original perfection of the world is perceived only in reference to man, so the original perfection of man is here considered only in reference to God. The God-consciousness appears in the feeling of absolute dependence. This feeling of absolute dependence, as has been said before, occurs always in connection with the sensuous consciousness; the tendency to the God-consciousness thus appears as a condition in separable from human nature, because this tendency is experienced in the character of a demand upon human nature to rise to that state in which the human soul is conscious of communion with God. Now piety (religion) consists in this, that we are conscious of this tendency as a living impulse issuing from our very nature and constitutive of it in the sense that the destruction of this impulse would be the destruction of our nature. Therefore those states which condition and are involved in the appearing of the God-consciousness throughout the whole life of man after the spiritual (mental) functions are developed, must be essentially involved in human nature. Hence it must be possible for man so to govern the world and appropriate it to the aim of his life that all the impressions he receives from it, whether they offer hindrances or helps to his life, whether they are transformed into intellectual cognitions or merely affect his sensuous nature in feeling, may be so brought into connection with the God-consciousness that it dominates them all.

But besides this inner impulse to arrive at the realization of the God-consciousness, and inseparable from it, there is an impulse to externalize this religious feeling, that is, to communicate to others that same religious feeling; and this is the same as to establish a communion (association) among men based upon that religious feeling. With this impulse is involved the adaptability of human nature to circulate and appropriate the religious consciousness. In short, the self-consciousness, which is fundamentally religious, by development necessarily becomes a race-consciousness, and the possibility of this is grounded in human nature itself. Out of this original perfection of human nature proceeds the possibility of the propagation of a specific religious experience, i.e., the possibility of founding a religious communion.

But as to the degree in which the religious consciousness has been developed in particular men, that is a matter for the historian and not for the dogmatician. Accordingly all that dogmatics may predicate of primitive man is: since religion is a necessary and universal element of human nature, it must have existed in primitive man to the extent that he was able to communicate it to posterity. Religion must be as old as the human race. When, however, men speak of an "original righteousness" in Adam, they make the mistake of taking as a type of righteousness a mere original capacity for development out of which no positive gain came to mankind since, according to the common view, that "righteousness" was lost; whereas, the true manifestation of righteousness is to be sought in Christ, in whom it came as a gain to all mankind. Summarily then, original perfection pertains to human nature, in that man possesses the original capacity of connecting all his experiences with God, that he is capable of propagating that same religious attitude to all men, and that all men are consequently capable of receiving it (57-61).

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