Schliermacher and Kierkegaard
on Religious Experience

Gold rule

Friedrich Schliermacher and Soren Kierkegaard are two nineteenth century thinkers who made significant contributions to the discourse on religion. Schliermacher is often acknowledged as the father of modern theology, and Kierkegaard influenced many twentieth-century thinkers in theology and philosophy. Several parallel interests appear in the writings of Schliermacher and Kierkegaard. First, both elucidate the nature of religious experience in terms of a relationship between the individual and the divine. Both reject the notion that religion is concerned primarily with texts or dogma; for both Schliermacher and Kierkegaard, the study of religion must begin with the study of human experience. Second, both recognize some relationship between religion and ethics, but neither seek to justify religion as a support for morality. Finally, both Schliermacher and Kierkegaard seek a reformulation of religion which would not be a sterile abstraction, but would make religion a concrete, vital experience. Both Schliermacher and Kierkegaard are highly critical of religion as it was practiced in their times.

For Schliermacher, human individuals are the source of religion, not texts or doctrines, and therefore his discussion of religion begins with an identification of the two characteristics which define human nature:

The human soul ... has its existence chiefly in two opposing impulses. Following the one impulse, it strives to establish itself as an individual. For increase, no less than sustenance, it draws what surrounds it to itself, weaving it into its life, and absorbing it into its own being. The other impulse, again, is the dread fear to stand alone over against the whole, the longing to surrender oneself and be absorbed in a greater to be taken hold of and determined. (p. 4).[1]

Often one impulse dominates and produces a pathological personality. An excessive appropriative impulse takes the form of insatiable sensuality; those with this condition "are neither able to feel nor know the common, the whole being and nature of humanity." (p. 5). At the other extreme, those with an excessive desire for absorption are unable "to fashion something of their own, [and] their activity dissipates itself in a futile game with empty notions." (p. 5). However, most commonly, individuals fail to accomplish a "living union of both impulses, but both are distorted and smoothed away to a dull mediocrity in which no excess appears, because all fresh life is wanting." (p. 5). In the ideal situation, the two impulses are reconciled in such a way that both impulses are expressed fully. This ideal can be achieved only through religion.

Before he discusses the nature of individual religious experience, Schliermacher notes that religion is ofen viewed either as a kind of activity or as a way of thinking. Although a full treatment of religion must include both aspects, discussions generally focus on only one aspect, and Schliermacher wants to be certain he attends to both aspects in his account.

With respect to religion as a kind of activity, Schliermacher observes that, "Activity is twofold, having to do with life and with art." (p. 28). Moral laws govern life for the purpose of maintaining social order. Art is important because it is an expression of imagination, which, for Schliermacher, is "the highest and most original faculty in man." (p. 98). Having established a distinction between life and art, Schliermacher then claims that reconciliation occurs through religion alone: "piety is something which truly fuses both[;] ... It cannot be formed simply by bringing the two together, but must be an original unity." (p. 29).

Schliermacher then turns to religion as a way of thinking and identifies another dichotomy -- between physics or metaphysics and ethics or practical philosophy. "The former describes the nature of things, or ... how man conceives ... the world ... The latter science, on the contrary, teaches what man should be for the world, and what he should do in it." (p. 20). Again, the two branches are united through religion:

The pious man does not believe that the right course of action can be determined, except in so far as, at the same time, there is knowledge of the relations of man to God; and again right action, he holds, is necessary for right knowledge. (p. 32).

Schliermacher does not claim that science and ethics are components of religion, nor does Scliermacher wish to establish a hierarchy with religion superior to science and ethics, but, rather, he wants to show that religion is the context within which science and ethics operate. In particular, Schliermacher wants to attack the justification of religion as a support for knowledge or ethics.

The distinctions between life and art, physics and ethics, religion as activity and religion as a way of thinking were all commonplaces of traditional thought, distinctions which Schliermacher also emphasizes; Schliermacher sees the world as "simply a never-ending play of opposing forces." (p. 4). Schliermacher does not consider the polarities as such problematic; instead, an imbalance of polarities is the cause of problems. Schliermacher seeks to demonstrate the singular capacity of religion to reconcile all distinctions in such a way that the dichotomies are maintained yet contained within a larger unity. However, Schliermacher's reconciliation of conceptual categories is only a prelude to showing how religion reconciles the conflicting impulses of appropriation and dissipation.

Schliermacher believes that in order to understand religion, "you must transport yourself into the interior of a pious soul and seek to understand its inspiration." (p. 18). Schliermacher does not allow his readers to take a passive role in his discourse because "every activity of the spirit is only to be understood, in so far as a man can study it in himself." (p. 27).

Schliermacher leads the reader through a simple thought experiment in which the reader contemplates a physical object. First, one is aware of the conscious self, but as attention is focused on the object, one becomes less aware of the self. The focus of attention can shift between self and object, but the entire exercise presupposes a moment prior to conscious awareness of either self or object. It is this preconscious object which interests Schliermacher:

Sense and object mingle and unite, then each returns to its place, and the object rent from sense is a perception, and you rent it from the object for yourselves, a feeling. It is this earlier moment I mean, which you always experience yet never experience. ... It is scarcely in time at all, so swiftly is passes; it scarcely can be described, so little does it properly exist. ... It is the first contact of universal life with an individual.

Schliermacher tricks the cultured despisers of religion into having a religious experience! According to Schliermacher, "There is no sensation that is not pious." (p. 46).

Schliermacher refers to his earlier distinction between perception (or intuition) and activity: the former is the domain of science and the latter is the domain of ethics. However, Schliermacher's thought experiment has introduced a third category -- feeling. For Schliermacher, feeling lies within the domain of religion:

The sum total of religion is to feel that, in it highest unity 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. (pp. 49-50).

Through feeling one perceives the unity behind creation, and through this unity behind creation, and through this unity one perceives God. A fundamental characteristic of religious experience is the feeling of dependence on God.

Schliermacher claims that "the whole circumference of religion is infinite, and is not to be comprehended under one form, but only under the sum total of all forms." (p. 54). Religion appears in a variety of forms "because everyone is a person by himself, and is only to be moved in his own way, so that for everyone the elements of religion have most characteristic differences." (p. 54). Each individual expresses one aspect of the Infinite. Therefore, tolerance must be part of every religion; each adherent must "be conscious that his religion is only part of the whole." (p. 54). Even though the "multiplicity of religions is based in the nature of religion" (p. 212), Schliermacher recognizes that few religious institutions acknowledge this fact. Nevertheless, Schliermacher points out, intolerance is a fault of institutions, not of religions themselves.

Association of like minded individuals is the natural result of religion: "If there is religion at all, it must be social, for that is the nature of man, and it is quite peculiarly the nature of religion." (p. 148). However, "man is in this association merely because he is but seeking to be religious, and continues in it only so long as he has not yet attained." (p. 160). Therefore, the only legitimate function of religious association is the cultivation of religious feeling.

Ultimately, however, religious feeling can be cultivated only by the individual within himself; others can serve only as guides or mentors. Piety cannot be learned, but must originate within oneself and be the outcome of one's own feelings. Although Schliermacher states that "[t]he Universe itself trains its own observers and admirers" (p. 124), he identifies two methods for cultivating religion; the first involves movement from exterior to interior:

Study yourselves with unwavering attention, put aside all that is not self, proceed with the sense ever more closely directed to the purely inward. The more you pass by all foreign elements, making your personality appear to be diminished almost to the vanishing point, the clearer the Universe stands before you, and the more gloriously the terror of annihilating the fleeting is rewarded by the feeling of the internal. (p. 138).

The individual is led to where the boundary areas of the ego begin to dissolve, and individual experience experience merges into a larger experience, the experience of the Infinite. Schliermacher defines immortality as the experience of the dissolution of the personality. This method satisfies the impulse towards dissipation.

The second method involves movement from interior to exterior.

Look outside again on one of the widely distributed elements of the world. Seek to understand it in itself, and seek in it particular object, in yourself and everywhere. Traverse again and again your way from center to circumference, going ever farther afield. You will rediscover everything everywhere, and you will only be able to recognize it in relation to its opposite. Soon everything individual and distinct will have been lost and the Universe can be found. (p. 138).

The second method satisfies the appropriative impulse. Thus, religion has the unique capacity to satisfy both primary impulses while maintaining, even enhancing, the intensity of each.

Regardless of the method, the result is the same because religious experience leads to the realization that interior and exterior are the same:

The outer world is only another inner world. Everything is the reflection of his own own spirit, as his spirit is the copy of all things. He can seek himself in this reflection without losing himself or going outside of himself. He can ne'er exhaust himself in contemplation of himself for in himself everything lies. (p. 141).

Schliermacher's most succinct formulation of this idea is "All that is human is holy, for all is divine." (p. 180).

For Schliermacher, one of the superior virtues of Christianity is the central position it assigns to mediation, and here the difference between Schliermacher and Kierkegaard become most apparent. Kierkegaard claims that mediation is incompatible with the very essence of the religious experience; according to Kierkegaard, the religious experience occurs when "the single individual as the single individual stands in an absolute relation to the absolute." (passim).[2] Fear and Trembling is, to a great extent, an explication of this phrase.

First, Kierkegaard distinguishes between the knight of infinite resignation and the knight of faith. The knight of infinite resignation has the "power to concentrate the whole substance of his life and the meaning of actuality into one single desire." (p. 43). Then the knight must "concentrate the conclusion of all his thinking into one act of consciousness." (p. 43). The knight of infinite resignation then renounces his desire, and reconciles himself to the impossibility of its actualization. However, the desire is not attenuated; one is a knight of infinite resignation only if one holds onto the desire in perpetuity. Notwithstanding the constant presence of an unconsummated desire, the knight of infinite resignation does not live a life of constant torment: "In infinite resignation there is peace and rest; ... Its pain reconciles one to existence." (p. 45).

The knight of faith must first make a "preliminary expectoration" by making the movement of infinite resignation. Kierkegaard emphatically asserts the necessity of this first step:

Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith, so that anyone who has not made this movement does not have faith, for only in my infinite resignation do I become conscious of my eternal validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith. (p. 46).

The knight of faith makes one additional movement which distinguishes him from the knight of infinite resignation: the knight of faith believes that, despite his renunciation, he will attain the object of his desire, "by virtue of the absurd, by virtue of the fact that for God all things are possible." (p. 46). From the perspective of the empirical world, the world of logic, the realm of the finite, some things are impossible, but in the realm of the infinite, all things are possible. In making the movement of faith, "one does not lose the finite, but gains it whole and intact." (p. 37).

In the second phase of his discussion, Kierkegaard distinguishes between the universal and the absolute. According to Kierkegaard, "The ethical as such is the universal and as the universal it applies to everyone, which from another angle means that it applies at all times." (p. 54). Every individual has a duty "to annul his singularity in order to become the universal." (p. 54). Failure to comply with the demands of the universal is ordinarily denoted as sin. However, the example of Abraham demonstrates a "teleological suspension of the ethical" a realm in which the demands of the universal do not apply.

The story of Abraham and Isaac presents a dilemma: "The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac." (p. 30). Abraham's faith elevates his act to the status of a religious expression. His acts cannot be justified or explained in terms of the ethical.

Faith itself cannot be mediated into the universal, for thereby it is canceled. Faith is this paradox, and the single individual simply cannot make himself understandable to anyone. (p. 71).

For Kierkegaard, Abraham represents the paradigm of the knight of faith: Abraham resigns himself to the fact that God will have him sacrifice his long-awaited son, but, paradoxically, he simultaneously believes that Isaac will be restored to him.

Abraham's belief is absurd; he cannot speak of his belief because anyone can point out its absurdity. Abraham removes himself from the realm of the universal altogether in order to express his faith. Only in this manner does Abraham become a "single individual as the single individual stand[ing] in an absolute relation to the absolute." Abraham can express himself as an individual only by setting himself in opposition to the universal, and his story has significance only by reference to the absolute. All interpretations which do not involve a relationship with the absolute require an interpretation by the standards of the universal, of the ethical; all interpretations of the universal standards deny the greatness of Abraham's acts.

Although Kierkegaard speaks of what Abraham is not (i.e., the universal), he has little to say in Fear and Trembling about what the absolute is. Johannesburg de Silentio lapses into silence. In other writings, however, and especially in Philosophical Fragments, and Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard identifies knowledge of God with knowledge of the self. Therefore, Kierkegaard's definition of the religious experience can be reformulated as "the single individual as the single individual standing in an absolute relation to himself." Like Schliermacher, Kierkegaard claims that knowledge of the divine can be found by looking within oneself.

Thus, for both Schliermacher and Kierkegaard, the study of religious experience begins and ends with the individual. Furthermore, both thinkers claim that the religious experience itself is ineffable, although Schliermacher and Kierkegaard give somewhat different reasons for this inexpressibility. For Schliermacher, to talk about religious experience already indicates a separation from that experience. Religious experience defies articulation because there is always more to that experience than can be described. For Kierkegaard, however, not only does one speak from the level of the universal; because the religious experience takes place at the level of the absolute, that experience is not available to the universal.

Both Schliermacher and Kierkegaard demonstrate suspicion towards traditional ethical concepts, although, again, there are differences in focus. Schliermacher rejected universal ethical norms altogether. Instead, he combines an ethics of individual self-expression with an ethics of love, recognition and tolerance which he then sets against the traditional ethics of duty. Schliermacher seeks a transformation of society as a whole so that each individual can live out his/her life in accordance with his/her own experience of the Infinite. On the other hand, Kierkegaard does not reject universal ethical norms altogether. Although a "teleological suspension of the ethical" dictated by the absolute may necessitate an abrogation of universal ethical norms. However, neither Schliermacher nor Kierkegaard advocate an "anything goes" ethics. As noted above, Schliermacher places limits on self-expression by relating all actions to the experience of the Infinite, and by requiring love and tolerance. Kierkegaard distinguishes between the selfish violation of ethical norms by the aesthetic character and the teleological suspension of ethical norms by the religious character.

For both Schliermacher and Kierkegaard, contemporary religious practices completely miss the core of religious experience. For Schliermacher, religion as practiced in churches is based on authority, and thus is not a reflection of authentic religious experience. Doctrines and beliefs, rituals, concepts of God, and so forth, are imaginative constructs which reflect religious experience, but do not encompass religious experience. For Schliermacher, heresy is not a perjorative term. But even though Schliermacher is critical of religious institutions, he does not condemn all aspects of all institutions. The goal of the "true church" is to assist those who seek religious experience, and Schliermacher gives his approval to the extent churches meet this objective. For Kierkegaard, however, priests, rituals, doctrines, and so forth are not only irrelevant to religious experience, they are impediments; only the individual's relationship to the absolute matters. Kierkegaard flatly states: "The one knight of faith cannot help the other at all." (p. 71).

In addition to the differences noted above, two other differences between Schliermacher and Kierkegaard bear emphasis. First, Schliermacher claims that "religion is essentially contemplative." (p. 36). According to Schliermacher, "religion by itself does not urge men to activity at all." (p. 57). For Kierkegaard, however, the knight of faith is an active, creative force:

[T]he whole earthly figure he presents is a new creation by virtue of the absurd. He resigned everything infinitely, and then he grasped everything again by virtue of the absurd. He is continually making the movement of infinity, but he does it with much precision and assurance that he continually gets finitude out of it, and no one ever suspects anything else. (p. 40-41).

For Schliermacher piety, a state of mind, is the quintessential expression of religion, but for Kierkegaard, religious experience is an affirmation of the self. Passion is an essential character trait for both the knight of infinite resignation and the knight of faith. Second, Schliermacher believes anyone is capable of having a religious experience. While Kierkegaard believes anyone can become a knight of infinite resignation, only an extraordinary individual can become a knight of faith.

[1] Friedrich Schliermacher (John Oman, tr.), On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, New York: Harper & Row, 1958.

[2] Soren Kierkegaard (Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, eds. and tr.).Fear and Trembling; Repetition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Gold rule

Written for Nineteenth Century Intellectual History at University of Washington, March 1991. Grade: A.

Gold rule


Gold rule

Please use the links below to reach other areas of this site:

Last revised: July 10, 2016.

Contact Me   About Me