Liberal Protestantism and the Rise of Religious Anti-Intellectualism or Whenever You Point Your Finger there are Three Fingers Pointing Back


It’s popular, these days, to bash fundamentalists for being “anti-intellectual”–I’ve read entire books dedicated to explaining how evangelicals are responsible for dumbing down Americans.  My purpose today is not to refute these claims (after all, most of them are true); but, merely, to point out that the grass is not all that greener on the other side.  By the other side, of course, I mean Liberal Protestantism (with all of its modern manifestations).

Friedrich Schleiermacher is acknowledged by virtually everyone as being the “father of Liberal Protestantism.”  According to Roger E. Olson, he was the, “first professional Protestant theologian to call for sweeping changes in Protestant orthodoxy to encounter and come to terms with the Zeitgeist of modernity.”  The key phrase here is that he was the first to call for, “sweeping changes.”  He was not the first Protestant to respond to the challenges of modernity (there were, in fact, other Christians attempting to do this).  What makes Schleiermacher significant is the solution he brought to the table.  In his famous work, On Religion: Addresses in Response to Its Cultured Critics, Schleiermacher outlined this position; and, in Olson’s words, “laid the foundation for liberal theology to come.”

In his book Schleiermacher argued that, “the essence of religion lies not in rational proofs of the existence of God, supernaturally revealed dogmas or churchly rituals and formalities, but in a ‘fundamental, distinct, and integrative element of human life and culture’–the feeling (Gefuhl) of being utterly dependent on something infinite that manifests itself in and through finite things.”  In other words, he insisted that religion is epitomized by feelings rather than rationality.  In his mind, Christianity did not deal with concrete objective truths–it simply expressed an overarching feeling of dependency shared by all human beings.

Olson explains that Gefuhl is, “the distinctly human awareness of something infinite beyond the self on which the self is dependent for everything,” and that, “Christianity has its own unique form of Gefuhl, which Schleiermacher believed to be its highest form.”  Christianity, therefore, is merely the best of the various human attempts to express Gefuhl.

Albrecht Ritschl later built upon Schleiermacher’s ideas and is perhaps the most influential of the two progenitors of Liberal Protestantism.  Ritschl set out to, as Olson puts it, “disentangle Christianity from science.”  By “science,” he meant any objective discipline whose stock-in-trade was “facts.”  Essentially, Ritschl advocated a form of moderate scientism in which only scientific claims could be counted as knowledge.

As Olson explains:  “Ritschl believed and argued that religious propositions, including Christian doctrines, must be understood as completely different from scientific ones.  Science deals with facts and speaks the language of assertions of facts.  Religion deals with values and speaks the language of judgments of value.”  By judgments or values Ritschl did not mean objective truths about reality; but, subjective opinions or feelings that individuals hold–which may or may not be true.

My point is this:  if anti-intellectualism is characterized by an uncritical, blind, dogmatic allegiance to one narrow set of propositions, or, as uplifting feelings and emotion above reason, then Liberal Protestantism has, in deed, fostered a form of religious anti-intellectualism.  Both Schleiermacher and Ritschl docilely embraced the entailments of modernity with little to no criticism (as do their followers today).  Their mindless acceptation of the “death of metaphysics” (via Hume and Kant) and scientism has led to a complete intellectual retreat–culminating in the removal of religion from the sphere of knowledge and rationality.  If Christianity, as they argued (and as many still argue), is merely a set of subjective emotions or values it can hardly be viewed as an intellectual pursuit.

Consequentially, it is extremely rare to find Liberal Protestants who are Christian intellectuals.  This is because Christian intellectualism entails the belief that Christianity can function as a rational enterprise–that Christian beliefs fall within the realm of knowledge and reason and not just subjectivity.  Furthermore, Christian intellectuals, being intellectual, are inclined to question the philosophical viability of modernism and challenge its basic presuppositions–something Liberal Protestants seem incapable of doing.

The conclusion, of course, is this:  one should clear the anti-intellectual log out of their own eye before attempting to clear the anti-intellectual speck out of another’s.

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2 thoughts on “Liberal Protestantism and the Rise of Religious Anti-Intellectualism or Whenever You Point Your Finger there are Three Fingers Pointing Back

  1. I do like the article. It is informative and well written. My caveat: avoid the hyperbole in the third from the last paragraph to improve the article. In that paragraph you state: ” Their mindless acceptation of the “death of metaphysics” (via Hume and Kant) and scientism has led to a complete intellectual retreat–culminating in the removal of religion from the sphere of knowledge and rationality. If Christianity, as they argued (and as many still argue), is merely a set of subjective emotions or values it can hardly be viewed as an intellectual pursuit.” No single reason, such as you suggest, has led us to a “complete intellectual retreat….” Nor has the work of Schleiermacher/Ritcshl alone led to a “removal” of Christianity from the realm of reason.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Dr. Williams. You’re right, I went a bit over the top with that statement.

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