Saturday, June 20, 2009

Revelation via Feelings: My discovery of Schleiermacher

What is revelation? Does it exist or is it merely a pious fiction? John Shuck’s recent post on “Religion without Revelation” ( got me thinking about this, and, as you can read below, I wrote a comment on the post. In it, I wrote that feelings are our revelation, however ever unreliable they are.
In thinking about feelings and revelation, I was led back, via Google, to Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768–1834), the father of modern liberal Christian thought. The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology has a helpful set of papers on Schleiermacher ( For example, John Tamilio III points out that “Schleiermacher begins by distinguishing the cognitive from the visceral: knowing God intellectually and experiencing God affectively. The latter is the foundation of Schleiermacher’s systematics. Religious experience is grounded in a feeling of absolute dependence on God. Absolute dependence is both the ‘primary datum of religion’ and the way in which we are ‘to be in relation to God.’ This is a precognitive experience.” Tamilio continues: “…for Schleiermacher, faith is not the experience of isolated individuals, but rather the lived experience of a faith community.” So, for Christians, revelation is most likely to come from the experience of worship. The acts of worship and the behaviors involved in worshipping produce the feelings that led to revelation.
In the same set of papers, Holly Reed writes, “Schleiermacher is accused of being anti-intellectual in his emphasis on piety and feeling over reason. Schleiermacher, however, would not deny the need and value of “knowing:” he simply would not give it primacy over feeling. His concern was to enforce the fact that human knowing is limited and does not have access to all there is to know. We are not God, and our abilities are not as broad or deep.”
So, I guess that my emphasis on feelings as conduits for revelation goes back at least as far as Schleiermacher. File this under “Nothing new under the sun.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Comment on Religion without Revelation

I enjoyed John Shuck’s post on "Religion without Revelation" at his blog, “Shuck and Jive,” ( Here is my comment on that post, slightly edited:

Religion is a human activity. We humans have feelings and experiences that we name religious. We are often passionately convinced of the truth of our religion because our feelings about it are so strong. Such strong feelings must make right, yes? However, feelings are unreliable. They are fleeting; they are often gone before we can bring them fully to consciousness; they change; we can’t reproduce them at will. So we try to find a way to hold on to them, to preserve them. We are much like Peter in the story of the Transfiguration wanting to build booths to preserve the moment. Our booths are the institution, the doctrines, and the supernatural. These are all designed to hold on to and reproduce the feelings at the core of all religions. However, as Jesus pointed out to him, we must move on, even to death. Life and its feelings can’t be stored but must always be poured out until we too pass away.
So, far from there being no revelation, our religious feelings give us a sense of the Spirit moving in us. They are our revelation. If others have similar feelings and share them with us, we can arrive at a consensus as to what the feelings mean. It is from consensus that doctrines are developed: “Believed by everyone, everywhere, at all times” is a definition of orthodoxy.
Some feelings can lead us to “Delight in the law of the Lord” and to “Conform our lives to his.” Of course, these feelings are sometimes there, sometimes not and they can be overwhelmed by other more self-serving feelings. Regular worship can on occasion summon forth those feelings that, it is hoped, are more in keeping with a God of love, and we can leave worship remembering these feelings with the aim of acting upon them.
In “Radicals and the Future of the Church” (1989), Don Cupitt still thought that the church was needed because “It is a theatre in which we solemnly enact our deepest feelings.” With the publication of “The Meaning of the West” in 2008, he announced that he has left the church, because, in the West, Christianity lives on most vitally in secular society, while the churches have become weak or irrational. Although I agree this assessment, I think that it is possible to imagine churches that can be useful to people. Most importantly, churches must embrace their role as vehicles for managing feelings.
I write more about this in my post of March 17, 2009, “The Church of the Afterlife,” which is below. I would appreciate your comments.