Schleiermacher: “The goal and character of the religious life is not the immortality desired and believed in by many. It is not the immortality that is outside of time, behind it, or rather after it, and which still is in time. It is the immortality which we can now have in this temporal life; it is the problem in the solution of which we are forever to be engaged. In the midst of finitude to be one with the Infinite and in every moment to be eternal is the immortality of religion.”
I’ve already mentioned how Schleiermacher criticized two of the foundational doctrines of Christian orthodoxy – the providence of god and the immortality of the soul. Later on, Nietzsche would pick up this criticism with new vigor. Together they stand in a philosophical time-stream that has come to be called by several names – perspectivism, constructivism, nonrealism – and generally postmodernism.
Whereas the modern West had rested on the confidence of a fixed objective world (out there), postmodernism has realized how much of what we assume as out there is really our own projection. The modern mind had also looked “up” to a god who actually existed in a supernatural space (heaven) above and outside the world, while the postmodern mind rejects metaphysical realism. And if modern religion had regarded the individual soul as indestructible and immortal, postmodernism (if it has a place for soul at all) defines it merely as our “inner life” where individual existence emerges from and dissolves into the present mystery of reality.
So Schleiermacher was an early postmodernist, living at a time when the modern paradigm was losing energy and falling apart. His challenge wasn’t merely to reinterpret traditional religion for a new (nontraditional) audience, but rather to reconnect Christianity to its spiritual grounding. For him, this grounding is subjective and experiential – in the human experience of reality – and not objective or external to us. In his magnum opus The Christian Faith, he defined faith as “the feeling of absolute dependence” on the living presence of God.
In Christian orthodoxy the doctrine of providence refers to god’s control over world events and his predetermined purpose for the future. I shifted to a lower-case “g” to indicate that we’re talking about the god of Christian mythology, the main protagonist of the Bible who created the universe, chose a favorite nation, handed down a law code, intervened on historical events, raised Jesus from the grave, and now governs all things from a high point outside human affairs.
For Schleiermacher – and others like me – providence has to do with present existence and not future destination. In each moment, I am grounded in a reality that is creative, supportive and interdependent. To the degree that I can release my ego need for security and personal control, my life begins to relax into being. This heart-beat, this breath, this life, this passing moment are simply “provided” to me. I don’t need to grip down and worry them into effect. Indeed, my nervous effort to control them actually interferes and puts them in jeopardy.
Just as we can distinguish between the mythological god and the living presence of God, the soul can be defined as the part of me that lives forever (immortality in the temporal sense) or as that deep place in my life where I am grounded in the divine presence. This is where the distinction between “everlasting” and “eternal” becomes especially important. Immortality is about now, not later. It is about going deeper into reality (and becoming more real), not farther ahead in time; it’s authentic life, not life without end.
Of course, this process of redefining religious terms – or rather recovering their original meaning as metaphors of religious experience – is still enmeshed in words and thoughts about the mystery. The modern commitment to building systems and constructing meaning can get caught in the web of its own making. A postmodern spirituality simply regards all of this as secondary reflection on the primary process of experience itself.
We need to get back to experience, which might involve back-tracking through this construction site to the original inspiration that got it all going in the first place. This is Schleiermacher’s agenda as a late-modern clergyman and Christian theologian. But we might also just skip the project of rehabilitating doctrines and go directly to experience itself. Once there – a place we always are and only leave in our minds – we can begin to feel our absolute dependence on the greater reality beneath us (ground) and all around us (universe).
It’s not about being right, but being real. Aware of my relative position in the grandeur of it all, and cultivating my own internal access point to the present mystery of reality, I no longer feel the need to cling regretfully to the past or wait anxiously for the future. This is where I Am.
Where are you?