Friedrich Schleiermacher on Children

schleiermacherFriedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is among the most significant Reformed theologians between Calvin and Barth.[1] What constitutes an area of great neglect in his thought, however, is his thinking on children, explored in a number of his writings: Soliloquies (1800), Celebration of Christmas (1806) and Sermons on the Christian Household (1820). He was concerned throughout to explore a number of questions:

  • What is the child?
  • What is the unique spiritual perspective of childhood?
  • Must maturity alienate us from childhood?
  • How might parents best nurture their children and draw out the unique individuality that expresses itself in children?

These kinds of questions were explored against the backdrop of a rise in the importance of the nuclear family as a social institution, and the sharper demarcation between the roll of mothers and fathers – the home, children and emotions were increasingly seen as the domain of mothers, the withdrawal of extended family, etc. More positively, there was greater emphasis on the value of children’s nurture and development through age-appropriate play and education. The period also saw the development of the kindergarten, children’s literature and children’s toys.

More than most theologians, it was Schleiermacher (and later people like Karl Rahner) who believed that children could teach adults, that children – as children – were full human beings and so worthy of respect and dignity. So, in Schleiermacher’s novella The Celebration of Christmas: A Conversation, one of the characters, Agnes, poses a series of important questions:

Is it then the case that the first childish objects of enjoyment must, in fact, be lost that the higher may be gained? May there not be a way of obtaining the latter without letting the former go? Does life then begin with a pure illusion in which there is no truth at all, and nothing enduring? How am I rightly to comprehend this? In the case of the man who has come to reflect upon himself and the world, and who has found God, seeing that this process is not gone through without conflict and warfare, do his joys rest upon the eradication, not merely of what is evil, but of what is blameless? For it is thus we always indicate the childlike, or even the childish, if you will rather so have it.[2]

In 1834, Schleiermacher preached a sermon on Mark 1:13-16. In exegeting v. 15 [‘anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it’], he noted:

The peculiar essence of the child is that he is altogether in the moment … The past disappears for him, and of the future he knows nothing – each moment exists only for itself, and this accounts for the blessedness of a soul content in innocence.[3]

This, Schleiermacher believes, is a child’s gift to adults, and it is towards a recovery of precisely this perspective that Jesus has in mind for those who would enter the Kingdom of God – that those who know communion with God might live in the present with no anxiety about past or future. So DeVries on Schleiermacher:

Children remind us of the fact that God created humanity to live simply. They help adults shed their obsession with the complexities of work and public life. Indeed, children draw adults back into the most basic of human relationships.[4]

Charles Blackman, 'Children Playing' (1974)

Charles Blackman, 'Children Playing' (1974)

Celebration of Christmas is a revelation into Schleiermacher’s theology (on many levels) and not least his (overly)-optimistic view of human personhood. It was this that Barth, in his 1923/24 Göttingen lectures on the Theology of Schleiermacher, rightly picked up on, criticising Schleiermacher for positing an anthropology too without regard for an adequate account of the realities of sin, conversion and the in-breaking of the Word of God.

In those lectures, Barth’s reading of Schleiermacher’s ‘Christological Festival Sermons’ (as Barth calls them) spans some 50 pages wherein Barth expresses his usual mixture of appreciation and criticism for the Silesian-born theologian. One place where Barth’s praise for Schleiermacher’s Christmas sermons is noted concerns Schleiermacher’s sermon on Acts 17:30-31 [‘In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead’]. On this, ‘the most powerful and impressive Christmas sermon that Schleiermacher preached’, Barth comments:

Let us look beyond the narrow sphere of individual life, Schleiermacher asks in the introduction, to the large and universal sphere. It is the Savior of the world whose coming we celebrate. A new world has dawned since the Word became flesh. His appearing was the great turning-point in the whole history of the human race. What is the change whereby the old age and the new may be distinguished? The fact that ignorance of God is no longer overlooked and tolerated by God. Christ’s life was from beginning to end an increasing revelation. The world’s childhood ended with it. Sin is now known and the image of God is evident. Hence judgement passes on all human action, and we ought to rejoice at this. We are now told that he commands everyone everywhere to repent.[5]

DeVries suggests that Barth’s reading of Schleiermacher’s (positive) child-anthropology is not nearly as nuanced as it ought to be. She notes that, for Schleiermacher, children a not perfect and sinless mediators of the higher life and are born with as much potential for sin as for salvation, and that it is the parents’ duty to nurture their children’s ‘higher self-consciousness’ which connect them to the transcendent and also opens their hearts to others.[6]

Rather than follow the formal catechesis that Calvin and Luther had stressed (and which Schleiermacher thought were too impersonal), the Moravian/Pietist-educated Schleiermacher stressed that the Christian home is the ‘first and irreplaceable school of faith’, for only here can children really experience the full range of what Christian faith is about and so come to faith in Christ. Schleiermacher believes that faith is more ‘caught’ than ‘taught’.

Still, he notes that parents can also damage a child in a number of ways:

  1. by failing to take their concerns/interests seriously.
  2. by failing to respond empathetically or appropriately to their emotions.
  3. parents whose own emotional lives are chaotic or unreliable will drive their children into secrecy.
  4. by attempting to live their own dreams/aspirations through children.

Lewis Hine, 'Children playing with Campbell Kid dolls' (1912)

Lewis Hine, 'Children playing with Campbell Kid dolls' (1912)

Schleiermacher also stresses that pastors have a pivotal role to play in children’s faith, among the most important duty of which is informal and personalised catechises where the focus is on leading children to develop, in DeVries words, ‘sound and sophisticated abilities in reading and interpreting scripture. Such instruction might begin with memorizing Bible verses, but it should eventually lead to developing in children a way of thinking (Gedankenerzeugungsprozess) that can be applied to questions or situations that will arise when the catechizing process is over’.[7] In other words it is about helping children to think theologically about all of life. DeVries continues:

Schleiermacher holds high expectations of the catechizing pastor. He states that when children who have been raised in the church lose their faith in adulthood, it is often because they have received poor catechetical instruction. Mindless repetition of correct answers will not sustain faith through the journey to adulthood. Pastors should treat children as fellow seekers who will be no more satisfied with pat answers than adults. If there is a virtue to be developed in the teaching pastor, it is the virtue of humility, for teaching the faith is probably his [sic] most difficult task. Schleiermacher urges his ministry students always to consider their teaching a work in progress, and challenges them to be quick to admit their mistakes.

What children need more than anything else is living faith in Christ. Parents, teachers, and pastors must devote all their energy and enthusiasm to presenting Christ to their children. This is best achieved through the whole of life itself, lived with children. They should feel the love of adults as “reflecting the splendour of eternal love” in Christ. Children who have received the Spirit in baptism and who have been raised within the loving discipline of the Christian community give us reason to hope for the future.[8]

[1] Here I draw heavily upon an essay by Dawn DeVries, ‘”Be Converted and Become as Little Children”: Friedrich Schleiermacher on the Religious Significance of Childhood’ in The Child in Christian Thought (ed. Marcia JoAnn Bunge; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 329-49.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Christmas Eve: A Dialogue on the Celebration of Christmas (trans. W. Hastie; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1890), 33.

[3] Friedrich Schleiermacher, Friedrich Schleiermachers sämmtliche Werke (vol. II/6; Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1834-1864), 71-2.

[4] DeVries, ‘Schleiermacher on the Religious Significance of Childhood’, 341.

[5] Karl Barth, The Theology of Schleiermacher: Lectures at Göttingen, Winter Semester of 1923/24 (ed. Dietrich Ritschl; trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1982), 72.

[6] See DeVries, ‘Schleiermacher on the Religious Significance of Childhood’, 341-2.

[7] Ibid., 345.

[8] Ibid., 346-7.


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