Schleiermacher’s Theory of Religion: Feeling, in Relation to Knowledge and Activity, and how it can inform the study of religion


Note: I am reproducing this article which I originally wrote as a report over one my course readings. Friedrich Schleiermacher was a German theologian and philosopher; he wrote this book in 1893 to address the Western European intellectuals’ criticism towards religion. I particularly enjoyed his conception of religion and reflected on how it can inform our study of religion in the modern age.


“The sum total of religion is to feel that, in its highest unity, all that moves us in feeling is one; to feel that aught single and particular is only possible by means of this unity; to feel, that is to say, that our being and living is a being and living in and through God” (p. 50). Schleiermacher puts feeling or intuition – of unity with God – at the heart of religion such that “religion’s essence is neither thinking nor acting but intuition and feeling” (p. 22). In this paper, we will examine the argument behind Schleiermacher’s conception of the essence of religion as a feeling and piety, its relation with knowledge and activity, and analyze how this conception differs from and impacts the popular understanding and examination of religion.

Religion as a feeling: Schleiermacher is not interested in tracing the historical origin of religion as certain anthropological, psychological, or sociological approaches to religion attempt to do, instead he maintains that in order to truly understand religion, one “must transport oneself into the interior of a pious soul and seek to understand its inspiration. In the very act you must understand the production of light and heat in a soul surrendered to the Universe” (p. 18). Thus for Schleiermacher, religion is this ‘surrender to the Universe’ and not a system, in that he does not consider the theological and doctrinal frameworks erected around the religious feeling to be real religion. “Blame those who corrupt religion, who flood it with an army of formulas and definitions, and seek to cast it into the fetters of a so-called system” (p. 55). By highlighting the dissimilarity between true religion and mere systems, Schleiermacher addresses the critique of religion developed by the ‘cultural despisers’ who, according to Schleiermacher, are only criticizing the systems of religion, which may or may not be truly representative of the kernel of religion. By emphasizing on religion as an experiential category, a feeling or intuition, Schleiermacher has been evidently keen to disentangle it from the domains of knowledge/perception and activity/morality. After establishing that religion is not particularly a way of thinking or acting as asserted by its ‘despisers’, Schleiermacher goes on to suggest that religion is essentially contemplative

but this contemplation is not turned, as your knowledge of nature is, to the existence of a finite thing, combined and opposed to another finite thing… The contemplation of the pious is the immediate consciousness of the universal existence of all finite things, in and through the Infinite, and of all temporal things in and through the Eternal. Religion is to seek this and find it in all that lives and moves, in all growth and change, in all doing and suffering. It is to have life and to know life in immediate feeling, only as such an existence in the Infinite and Eternal… Yet religion is not knowledge and science, either of the world or of God. Without being knowledge, it recognizes knowledge and science. In itself it is an affection, a revelation of the Infinite in the finite, God being seen in it and it in God. (p. 36).

This sums up Schleiermacher’s view that religious contemplation is not finite as scientific contemplation might be, rather it is marked by an immediate feeling, and an affection or feeling oneness with the Infinite, Eternal or God. Even though knowledge may be informed by religion or piety, religion is not to be deemed as any form of knowledge. Religion can thus be seen as the mediatory force between theoretical and practical, between finite and Infinite, but not a combination of the two.

Description of piety: An immediate but fleeting feeling with the infinite world, for Schleiermacher, is the true sphere of religion (p. 41). He describes piety as an immediate union with the Divine which dissipates as soon as the individual becomes conscious of it. This feeling of God-consciousness as well as the oneness with the Infinite universe, rather than parochial particularism or ego-centric conduct, is what Schleiermacher deems as piety. “Your feeling is piety in so far as it is expresses the being and life common to you and to the All. Your feeling is piety in so far as it the result of the operation of God in you by means of the operation of the world upon you” (p. 45).

Relation with knowledge and activity: Both knowledge and activity, the interplay of which constitutes human life for Schleiermacher, are marked by “a desire to be identified with the Universe through an object.” (p.44). Objects pressing upon us to create perceptions is knowledge whereas activity is when we leave our impress upon the world and reflect ourselves in the objects. Thus for Schleiermacher scientific life springs out of knowledge and moral life out of activity. Piety on the other hand is a rejuvenating impulse for both these domains of knowledge and activity; for Schleiermacher, religion is a third sphere whose existence is essential; it is neither entirely independent of, nonetheless, nor identical with science and ethics (p. 41). Schleiermacher makes a remarkable distinction between religion and the knowledge about religion which means theological or doctrinal principles: “These feelings are exclusively the elements of religion… wherefore it follows that ideas and principles are all foreign to religion… if ideas and principles are to be anything, they must belong to knowledge which is a different department of life from religion” (p. 46). Viewing the products of religion as science and religion at the same time, for Schleiermacher, leads to what he considers vain mythology (p. 49). Schleiermacher is of the opinion that “scientific treatment of religion” is merely knowledge about religion and not religion itself, because if theological ideas are not a reflection of a person’s own feeling, they must be externally imposed, forcefully learnt and hence rendered void and stripped off of the true essence of religion, as per Schleiermacher. It is important to appreciate Schleiermacher’s distinction between religion and knowledge in order to understand his claims of difference between religious feeling and religious systems. Just as Schleiermacher distinguishes between knowledge and religion, he also separates activity from religion, such that any acts, moral or physical, committed in the name of religion would not be considered religious by him. He maintains that religion, by virtue of being pure feeling, does not urge humans to activity at all; piety or the feeling of consciousness of the Infinite is passive as opposed to the active concerns of morality. Piety has also a passive side. “While morality always shows itself as manipulating, as self-controlling, piety appears as a surrender, a submission to be moved by the Whole that stands over against man” (p. 36)

Ends of religion: For Schleiermacher, the goal of religion is not establishing a just society, a perception of immorality among individuals, or attempting to conceive God; such attempts for him are “seldom entirely pure and always inadequate… Religion is in the midst of finitude to be one with the Infinite and in every moment to be eternal in the immortality of religion.” (p. 101). Since religion, for Schleiermacher, is grounded in feeling, he makes his point that each individual would access this feeling in his own unique way, hence for him in religion there is no place for “the bald uniformity which would destroy this divine abundance” (p.55). For Schleiermacher, even philosophy brings its followers to common knowledge, however “there is in religion such a capacity for unlimited manysidedness in judgment and in contemplation as is nowhere else to be found…Religion is the natural and sworn foe of all narrow-mindedness” (p. 56). It is interesting to note how Schleiermacher reconciles universality and particularity by terming religious feeling as a feeling of union with and surrender to the Universal and the Whole, and also allows individuals unique and particular ways to experience that feeling. According to Schleiermacher, the charges of narrow-mindedness advanced towards religion are, again, a consequence of confusion between religion and theology, the former being a feeling and the latter a mere branch of knowledge.

Approaching religion: Schleiermacher’s approach towards religion is inward as opposed to outward, as he suggests to view the “interior of a pious soul” to understand religion, by which he suggests the individual experience as truly representative of religion. This differs from the mainstream method of examining religion through either studying doctrines and commentaries, or critiques of religion as well as propositions of its historical origins developed by non-religious philosophers. Schleiermacher would not discourage this approach per se, but he would insist that this is only a way of acquiring more knowledge, and it should not be considered as if it enhances understanding of the essence of religion. Since all other disciplines are studied as they are, Schleiermacher would contend that similar treatment should be advanced towards religion as well instead of approaching it as if it were science. This can be taken to suggest that if one wants to examine religion, one needs to understand it first, and this understanding is more effective if it comes from within i.e. the individual feelings and motivations behind the experience of religion, rather than without i.e. critiques of externally imposed constraints in the name of religion. Schleiermacher would suggest that studying the critiques of religion contributes nothing towards understanding religion, because these critiques are in fact only a product of confounding systems of religion with the true religion, and that these critiques have been advanced by the remote observers of the religious traditions and not by those who have experienced the religious feeling first-hand.

Whereas most approaches towards religion in the beginning of twentieth century attempted to trace the historical origin of religion, and viewed it as a result of an encounter with the external world, Schleiermacher seems to propose a different approach to studying religion whereby he accepts religion to be a necessary, essential and eternal part of human existence, which, instead of tracing the historical or anthropological explanations of religion, focuses its attention on human and his religious experiences. This can perhaps be termed as subjective or traditionalist approach to studying religion. Schleiermacher’s view of religion also goes against modernist approaches to religion that – because of their viewing the world through the lens of rationalism – tend to deny or doubt everything that appears to be supernatural or non-rational. Schleiermacher seems to accept, as the starting point of understanding religion, the supra-rational nature of religion, as he talks at length about religion being the expression of human’s subconscious and non-rational thought, and abstract, metaphysical principles such as union with the Infinite, and the universal state of consciousness as the religious feeling. This conception of religious feeling may be diametrically opposed to popular psychological or anthropological explanations of feelings that view emotions as self-seeking, rational, or inward-looking.

Whereas some popular approaches to religion tend to view it as a means to the attainment of certain social ends such as perception of immortality amongst individuals, or justice and morality in the society, Schleiermacher, on the other hand, considers the notion of religion having a purpose beyond itself as “degradation” (p. 20). For him, religion has no outer task or utility but it is an end in itself: and that end is to create, among individuals, a “sense for the unity of the original source of life” (p. 55) and the “love for the World-Spirit” (p. 65). Interestingly, for Schleiermacher, it is true that moral action springs from piety, but that is incidental, and morality is not the purpose of piety. Schleiermacher’s conception of religion as a feeling – of a merger with the Divine- which mediates between Universal and the particular can also inform the study of religions in that all religions can be viewed as trajectories springing from the same Divine source, but manifesting in different ways.

In sum, we have examined Schleiermacher’s conception of religion as a feeling and described, at length, the nature of that feeling from which the notion of piety entails. We have then looked at Schleiermacher’s distinction between religion, activity and knowledge, which is important because this distinction has helped Schleiermacher distinguish between religion and systems of religion, and also helped him to establish that the ends of religion are not to be considered to lie in the sphere of activity or morality. In the end, we attempted to view how Schleiermacher’s approach towards religion is different from other popular methods, and how his approach gives us an insight into looking at religion differently as an experiential category.


Schleiermacher, Friedrich. On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. Trans. John Oman. New York: Harper, 1958. Print.


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