Can reason make room for religion? by Ruth Jackson

For Schleiermacher, the religious and the political realms did not simply compete over the same terrain. Rather, he saw them as distinctive yet constituent parts of the bigger whole of an individual life. He was profoundly influenced by Plato in his belief that reason is what orders our desires and instincts – enabling people to govern well, to take their place in a moral and civilised society, and to be properly responsible for their environment.

But religion was still the ‘highest’ and most essential of these two parts, Schleiermacher said in On Religion (1799). Unlike politics, religion is a matter of feeling (Gefühl) and intuition; it doesn’t amount simply to praxis or speculation, but is instead the ‘sensibility and taste for the Infinite’. It was a ‘universal’ aspect of being human, something for which we have the capacity, according to our very nature.

This vision of religion as the ‘highest’ part of humanity was a new iteration of a very ancient idea: the notion that politics alone cannot bring about human flourishing, and that political categories can’t completely capture or describe the full extent of a person. Politics isn’t cancelled out or overthrown by ‘religion’. Instead, for Schleiermacher, the business of governing well is a means to a higher purpose.

But just as politics has its limits, so too does religion. It can’t displace or do the work of politics in our world; the work of the church belongs instead to the domain of the spirit. This is why Schleiermacher didn’t believe in theocracy or religious states. On the contrary, he argued for the separation of church and state, on the grounds that this would promote the success of both. In On Religion, we find Schleiermacher pushing this argument to its limit, when he proposes that religion really belongs to the institution of the family. And vice versa, as part of his national vision, he contended that the education of children in Germany (traditionally falling to the church) should be taken on by the state instead. He also argued that full legal privileges should not be withheld or bestowed for religious reasons, an unusual view at the time.

Schleiermacher ultimately fell short in his effort to navigate politics and religion as complementary rather than competing spheres. Nevertheless, his principles provide a valuable source for reflection in our own day. Faced with the question ‘How do we live together?’, Schleiermacher understood that bonds between individuals cannot be truly established or exhaustively described by political power alone.

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