Friedrich Schleiermacher and the Subjective Approach to Religious Studies

Scholars in the first half of the twentieth century sought to answer the question of the historical origin of religion; today, however, most, “simply accept the existence of religion as a given part of our humanity,” employing what is known as the subjective approach to religious studies.[1]  The subjective approach bypasses the question of the historical origin of religion by centering its attention on man.    In other words, it understands religion to be an intrinsic part of what it means to be human and rejects the notion that it is the, “product of an encounter with an external reality.”[2]  Accordingly, the study of religion becomes the study of various expressions of man’s subconscious, non-rational thought. 

The subjective approach finds its beginnings in the mid-19th century, in the writings of noted German theologian and philosopher, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834).  Facing the criticisms of his day, Schleiermacher sought to defend religion from its “cultured despisers.”  His arguments redefined religion and mark the birth of liberal Protestantism.[3]  This paper seeks to define Schleiermacher’s understanding of religion, and explain how his thought has impacted modern scholarship.  To accomplish this goal, it will:  (1) provide a brief synopsis of his life and explain the times in which he lived, (2) outline his concept of religion, and (3) demonstrate the effects his ideas have had on modern religious thought.  

The Life and Times of Friedrich Schleiermacher

When examining complex ideas one should take the time to understand the context in which they were developed.  Hence, before analyzing Schleiermacher’s philosophy, one should acquaint himself with the man.  A brief look at his early life, academic career, and the cultural environment in which he lived and wrote is of inestimable value.

Early Education and Adult Life

Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher was born November 21, 1768 to Gottlieb and Katharina-Maria Schleiermacher.  His father was a second generation reformed clergyman, who served as a chaplain in the King of Prussia’s army during the Seven Year’s War.   In 1778 he and his family were exposed to the teachings of a Moravian community in Gnadenfrei, during which time Friedrich claims to have had his first, “conscious religious experience.”[4]  

In 1783 Schleiermacher entered the Moravian school in Niesky which had a profound and long lasting influence on his life.  While at Niesky, Schleiermacher immersed himself in Moravian life; growing in his knowledge of Jesus and enjoying the camaraderie of his fellow classmates.  He also received a modern humanistic education in which he studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and was introduced to the works of Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Cicero, and other great thinkers.[5]   

In 1785, Schleiermacher was advanced to the Moravian seminary at Barby.  There, he was subjected to an almost monastic lifestyle.  The Moravian seminary stressed the importance of personal piety and separation from the world; as a result, “the reading of modern belles lettres and philosophy . . . was forbidden by strict censorship.”[6]  For, there was great suspicion of modern philosophical thought among the brethren; unfortunately, this frustrated Schleiermacher and other students who began to wonder if the objections made to faith by modern philosophy were too difficult to refute.[7]   Consequentially, Schleiermacher formed a secret society in which he and fellow classmates read Kant, Goethe, and other modern German writers.   Exposure to these writings lead Friedrich to have serious doubts about his faith; and he began to question Christian doctrines and beliefs.[8]    

Growing increasingly unhappy with his situation at Barby, Schleiermacher eventually transferred to the more liberal University of Halle.  There he continued in his studies in theology, philosophy, and philology in a more congenial setting.[9]  While at Halle, Schleiermacher studied under the universities foremost philosopher, Johann August Eberhard, who gave him a firm foundation in all of the various fields of philosophy and further developed his interest in Kant. [10]

Throughout his adult life, Schleiermacher served in various capacities as a professor of theology and philosophy, as a pastor, and even as a hospital chaplain.  However, he spent the breadth of his career teaching at the University of Berlin, where he was four-time dean of the theological faculty and a member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences.[11]  During his lifetime, Schleiermacher showed incredible depth of interests, writing and lecturing on philosophy, theology, ethics, religion, hermeneutics, and psychology.  At his death in 1834, some 20,000 to 30,000 mourners filled the streets, “proof of the esteem in which Schleiermacher was held by all.”[12] 

Cultural Environment

As a young man Schleiermacher was challenged by the writings of contemporary German Philosophers and poets who questioned traditional Christian beliefs and practices.  These writers were part of the broader movement known today as the Enlightenment.  Enlightenment thinkers, reacting to the long-standing social and religious problems of the past, questioned the authority of traditional religious beliefs, exulting in the power of human reason in an effort to reshape the future . . .

In the eighteenth century, western Europe, emerging from the chaos of the religious wars, began to make rapid progress over its long-prevailing natural and social problems.  The result was a great burst of optimism and confidence in the power of man to master himself and his universe.  The tool of this mastery . . . was seen to be human reason.  Man could overcome the past and create the future if only he could restructure his world by the power of his own mind.[13]        

The Enlightenment had deep and long lasting effects on the Church throughout Europe, as Christianity, and religious faith in general, was, “subjected to scrutiny and reappraisal.”[14] 

Do to the success of scientific research and innovation, the rationalism of Enlightenment thinkers rested increasingly on inductive reasoning; thus, empiricism and “experimental methodology” became the underlying basis for all knowledge.   This was in direct opposition to the Church, which was operating under the pretense of a deductive logic grounded in biblical history, church tradition, and the propositional truth of Scripture.   What resulted was a “dethronement” of God who was replaced by the power and ingenuity of man.   The effects of this shift are still felt today.[15]

In Germany, nothing reflected this new wave of thought more than the writings of Immanuel Kant.   Noted for his groundbreaking work in the area of epistemology, “Kant tried to show that both the laws of nature and the laws of morality are grounded in human reason itself.”[16]  Thus, Kant dispensed with the need to explain external reality using metaphysical constructs; arguing that external reality could only be understood in terms of human reason and understanding. 

The writings of Kant and other humanistic authors had a profound impact on Schleiermacher, who found his fragile childhood faith under immense pressure.  Ultimately, the critiques of enlightenment philosophy drove Schleiermacher to defend religion against the arrogance of the intellectual elite in his famous work, On Religion:  Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. [17]  His response to religious critics in the Speeches and in subsequent writings is the primary focus of this paper.   

Schleiermacher on Religion

Schleiermacher’s first book, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, “launched modern theological reflection in a very decisive manner,” shifting religion out of the realm scientific rationalism and into the realm of feelings.[18]  It was his attempt to redefine religion to a generation enthralled by the power of human reason and accomplishment.   The “cultured despisers” referred to in the title were actually close friends of Schleiermacher; all belonging to an intellectual gathering in Berlin known as the Romantic circle.[19]

Schleiermacher’s purpose for writing the Speeches was to, “carve out a space for religion significantly different from what Kant and Fichte had done . . . He wanted to . . . [provide] . . . a new understanding of religion.”[20]  He knew that religion could never provide the type of information about the world that natural science could, but was unwilling to categorize religion as simply being moral or artistic action, as Kant had.  Thus, Schleiermacher relegated religion to a third category:  that of the ‘experiential,’ that of feelings.

       The feeling he described was the inherent, “awareness of the infinite,” that everyone senses as they interact with the universe.[21]  It flows from the idea that “the infinite” or “God” is somehow tied to or exuded through external reality.  However, these feelings are not based upon any previous knowledge, “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.”[22] Thus, when man subconsciously experiences the infinite he is experiencing something apart from himself and nature and expresses these feelings in terms of religion.  Put in his own words, “true religion is sense and taste for the Infinite.”[23]

It’s important to note that Schleiermacher was not advocating a completely subjectivist view, as some have accused.  Total subjectivity places religion in the hands of one’s feelings alone; Schleiermacher believed that there was an “Infinite” that all humans could experience, “We have in Schleiermacher an intensely relational view of humanity.  Emotions are significant not simply because they are ‘felt’, but because they are inward witnesses and responses to realities other than the self.”[24]

It’s also worthwhile to mention that Schleiermacher’s choice of feelings to describe religious experience was rooted in his time spent with the Moravians.  For, he held their commitment to piety with much esteem.[25]  The Moravian’s stressed inner devotion and relationship with Christ, and one can see the faintest hint of this in Schleiermacher’s concept of the inner subconscious experience.

While Speeches was a defining moment in the field of religion, it was never meant to be an academic piece.  Martin Redeker states, “Stylistically the book is neither a sermon nor a philosophical treatise, but rather a typical literary performance in the spirit of the romantic age.”[26]  It’s clear that Schleiermacher’s original audience was his circle of friends, those intellectuals of the times, known as the Romantics.  It was they who scoffed at religion and reveled in the new philosophy.[27]     

For a more mature and fully developed presentation of Schleiermacher’s ideas one must turn to his later work, The Christian Faith.  In this work, “Schleiermacher’s formula for the ‘essence’ of religion-or more precisely, of ‘piety’ or personal religiousness-is that it is a ‘feeling of absolute dependence.”[28]  One can see the evolution of his thought; while previously, he had defined religion as an experience, the feeling of the infinite, in The Christian Faith this definition is narrowed.  Religion is the feeling of absolute dependence.    

Schleiermacher argued that God (or, the Infinite), “ is the source toward which the self-consciousness of absolute dependence is directed.”[29]  As God reveals himself to man through his interaction with the finite, man becomes increasingly aware of his complete and total dependence upon God to sustain his very existence, and this feeling of dependence is ultimately what defines religious experience.[30] 

     On the surface level, Schleiermacher’s argument, that religion is the feeling of absolute dependence, seems abstract and convoluted, but in actuality the logic behind it is easy to follow.  In its most basic form, it simply points out a common feeling sensed by most human beings, that man does not exist on his own, but is dependent upon something bigger than and outside of himself.  Ultimately, Schleiermacher uses this reasoning to conclude that the Infinite does exist, because, “we can hardly be absolutely dependent unless there is something, other than ourselves, on which we are absolutely dependent.”[31]  This “something” he concludes is God.  

By ‘God’, however, he does not mean the God of the Bible.  Schleiermacher argues that God is simply an “expression” which one uses to describe the feeling of absolute dependence.  It’s the personification of one’s interaction with the Infinite, and by no means finds its basis in prior knowledge.[32]  The word God is simply a linguistic convenience used by Schleiermacher to express something which is abstract and almost non descript.[33]

Schleiermacher’s Impact on Modern Religious Scholarship

Keith Clements believes that Schleiermacher, deserves the title, “Pioneer of Modern Theology,” and surely this is no exaggeration.[34]

Schleiermacher’s ascription of religion to the realm of feeling marked the start of modern Protestantism’s [liberalism’s] habitual emphasis on the knowledge of God as inward and experiential.  It is an emphasis seen variously in a succession of figures as diverse as Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55), Albrecht Ritschl (1822-89), Adolf von Harnack (1851-1931), Ernst Troeltsch (1855-1923), Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), John Oman (18601939, H.H. Farmer (1892-1981), and John Baillie (1886-1960) . . . Post-Enlightenment theology not only allows but often insists upon the place of ‘subjectivity’ in belief.[35]    

Of course, this list is not exhaustive.  Winfried Corduan traces some of the most significant effects Schleiermacher’s ideas have had on the study of religion in his textbook, Neighboring Faiths

Influenced by Schleiermacher’s subjective approach, philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach taught that the idea of God is simply a conglomeration of “idealized” human traits.  He reasoned that common characteristics or traits, such as love or power, that all humans share, could be idealized internally and expressed in terms of “God.”[36]  Thus, like Schleiermacher, he traces the idea of God back to man, but goes further by claiming that the concept of God is simply a part of our imaginations.

Sigmund Freud explored the psychological aspect of religion, believing he had discovered the need in every human being for a father figure or “image.”[37]  Note how similar this is to Schleiermacher’s claim that in every man is an inherent feeling of absolute dependence.  Reflecting the ideas of both Schleiermacher and Feuerbach, Freud believed that God was simply mans “idealized” image of a Father.[38]

Famed religion scholar, Rudolf Otto, also mentioned in Clements list, “traced the basic religious impulse back to an encounter with the consciousness of holiness.”[39]  As with the others, one can easily spot Schleiermacher’s influence in Otto’s thought.  However, instead of speaking in terms of absolute dependence, Otto uses words like “fear’ or “awe” to describe one who is faced with the reality of his own insignificance in the universe.  These feelings, of course, lead to the foundation of religion.[40]

To present a comprehensive list of all who have been influenced by Schleiermacher’s work is far beyond the scope of this paper.  However, one can sense the tremendous impact this man has had on modern thought in these few pages, and can easily understand his part in shaping the new subjective approach to religion.


In today’s world, religious pluralism reigns supreme.  People no longer think of religion in terms of verifiable fact or objective truth, but simply as a grouping of abstract feelings and emotions.  The subjective approach to religion taught in most world religion courses, bolsters this belief when it places man and his subconscious feelings at the center of religious thought.  These presuppositions, while distinctively modern or post-modern in their conclusions can easily be traced to the man Friedrich Schleiermacher.  His concept that religion is the subconscious feeling of absolute dependence ignited a revolution in religious thought, and helped form the basis of liberal Protestantism.  C. W. Christian sums up best when he states, “it is no mere matter of convenience to call Friedrich Schleiermacher the ‘father of modern theology.’ By almost any standard, he must be judged among the most significant figures in the history of Christian thought.”[41]      






Bongmba, Elias K. “Two Steps Forward, One Step Backward.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa (March 1997): 81-96.

Christian, C. W. Friedrich Schleiermacher. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1979.

Clements, Keith. Friedrich Schleiermacher: Pioneer of Modern Theology. London: Collins Liturgical Publications, 1987.

Corduan, Winfried. Neighboring Faiths. Illinois: IVP Academic, 1998.

Heard, Gerry C. “Schleiermacher’s Concept of Religion.” Perspectives In Religious Studies (Fall 1980): 19-43.

Marina, Jacqueline, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Friedrich Schleiermacher. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Redeker, Martin. Schleiermacher: Life and Thought. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973.

Schleiermacher, Friedrich. On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. Translated by John Oman. New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1958.

Sykes, Stephen. Friedrich Schleiermacher. Richmond: John Knox Press, 1971.



[1] Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths (Illinois: IVP Academic, 1998), 21-22.

[2] Ibid., 22.

[3] Martin Redeker, Schleiermacher: Life and Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), 2.

[4] Ibid., 8-9.

[5] Ibid., 9-11.

[6] Ibid., 12.

[7] Stephen Sykes, Friedrich Schleiermacher (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1971), 6.

[8] Jacqueline Marina, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Friedrich Schleiermacher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 2.

[9] Ibid., 2.

[10] Redeker, 15.

[11] Marina, 2.

[12] Sykes, 15.

[13] C. W. Christian, Friedrich Schleiermacher (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1979), 20.

[14] Sykes, 3.

[15] Christian, 20-23.

[16] Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1st ed., s.v. “Immanuel Kant.”

[17] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, trans. John Oman (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1958), ix.

[18] Elias K. Bongmba, “Two Steps Forward, One Step Backward,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa (March 1997): 81.

[19] Ibid., 81.

[20] Ibid., 82.

[21] Ibid., 82.

[22] On Religion, 46.

[23] On Religion, 39.

[24] Keith Clements, Friedrich Schleiermacher: Pioneer of Modern Theology (London: Collins Liturgical Publications, 1987), 37.

[25] Christian, 55.

[26] Redeker, 34-35.

[27] Bongmba, 82.

[28] Marina, 37.

[29] Gerry C. Heard, “Schleiermacher’s Concept of Religion,” Perspectives In Religious Studies (Fall 1980): 22.

[30] Ibid., 23.

[31] Marina, 37.

[32] Ibid., 37.

[33] Ibid., 38.

[34] Clements, 7.

[35] Ibid., 36.

[36] Corduan, 22.

[37] Ibid., 23.

[38] Ibid., 23.

[39] Ibid., 23.

[40] Ibid., 23.

[41] Christian, 11.