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Considering the despisers

25 April 2014

John Saxbee finds Schleiermacher still a helpful thinker

Religion Revealed: Christianity and modernity
R. John Elford
Peter Lang £25

Schleiermacher: A guide for the perplexed
Theodore Vial
Bloomsbury £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.49 (Use code CT366 )

"WRITE a book about religion, Dad, which says exactly what you think, and put a laugh in it."

This challenge thrown down by John Elford's sceptical but religiously curious daughter has resulted in an important contribution to the place and plausibility of religion in the modern world.

A parish priest and academic theologian, Elford starts where his daughter finds herself, culturally, historically, and existentially, as a child of the Enlightenment, livingin the shadow of 9/11, and at a time when religion is resurgent in many places and yet under intense scrutiny from the New Atheists and other "cultured despisers".

An early chapter summarises Shintoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity in just 42 pages. This represents a brave attempt to counter ignorance about how individual religions come to be as they are, but clearly leaves him open to a charge of superficiality. Significantly, he gives readers permission to skip this chapter, and from hereon the discussion focuses increasingly on Christianity.

He makes it clear that dogmatic certainty is the key catalyst for religion's threat to peace, the environment, and social cohesion. He effectively demonstrates how, on the other hand, religion has the potential to be a force for good in each of these areas. The problem is that, of course, the promotion and pursuit of these positive aspects of religion demands at leastsome measure of certainty to be effective.

Focusing on issues of the philosophy of religion, he concludes that the fragility of Christian credentials is such that orthodox beliefs about God, incarnation, and redemption are intellectually untenable in the face of modernity. Once this is accepted, Christianity is freed to do what religion does best: "It enables us to cope with being human in the face of the most extreme difficulties."

When it comes to the relationship between religion and faith, Elford is clear that whereas religious beliefs can perform a regulative function when it comes to the way we interpret our experience, it must only ever be the servant of faith, never its master. Here he draws most heavily on Schleiermacher in order to help people to embrace religion without compromising their "modern integrity".

Next, he asks how Christianity can be good news in the modern world - and how it can be seen as true given the prevailing scientific mind set. He reviews the often negative contribution of Christianity to ethics and morality, and certainty is again the spectre at the feast with the claims of provisionality and pragmatism pressed with care and conviction.

Finally, he looks at how this kind of Christianity can be effectively expressed in worship and prayer. As the book moves from religionin general to Christianity in particular, so here it focuses almost exclusively on Anglicanism with its balance of Catholic and Protestant insights - and its enduring senseof humour.

As Elford himself puts it, this book "is nothing less than the ideal of liberalism applied to the practice of religion", so that his daughter can be a member of a Church "without committing intellectual suicide". Whatever Emily makes of it, this engaging and wide-ranging response to her challenge will cheer and encourage many who will be grateful to her for asking.

Of course, he could have simply referred her to Friedrich Schleiermacher. Even better, to Theodore Vial's excellent guide to Schleiermacher's life and thought. Schleiermacher cared very much about the "cultured despisers" of religion,and as "the father of modern theology" he would certainly have embraced John Elford as one of his sons - and Emily as his reader of choice.

Vial's main aim is to challenge the view that Schleiermacher is important only as a theologian who promoted "God consciousness" as the key concept in religion, emphasising subjective feelings at the expense of propositional beliefs and practical action.

The first half of the book has as its principal concern Schleiermacher's writings on epistemology, hermeneutics, history, and culture. These form the foundations for his On Religion: Speeches to its cultural despisers and his magnum opus The Christian Faith. Vial shows how Schleiermacher established, more or less successfully, a middle way between reliance on the authorityof scripture and tradition, andan unquestioning embrace of Enlightenment rationalism and empiricism.

This middle way does place a great deal of weight on personal experience of absolute dependence on God as religion's raw material, and on theology as the vehicle for expressing and communicating such feelings. But Vial clearly demonstrates that this necessitates rather than obviates a part for Christian community to play, and actually requires social and political engagement, as Schleiermacher himself demonstrated during a lifetime of high-profile activism.

This is an accessible and yet sophisticated introduction to Schleiermacher, and can be warmly commended to students and general readers alike.

Dr Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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