Redeeming Relationship, Relationships That Redeem

Free Sociability and the Completion of Humanity in the Thought of Friedrich Schleiermacher

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Matthew Ryan Robinson
Religion in Philosophy and Theology
  • Tübingen, Germany: 
    Mohr Siebeck
    , August
     220 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Redeeming Relationships, Relationships that Redeem is an excellent book reconstructing Friedrich Schleiermacher’s well-known notion of “free sociability” through the close reading of a number of his early writings and documenting the importance of this notion for Schleiermacher’s understanding of ethics and religion. For the most part, the focus is on the young Schleiermacher, but in the final chapters author Matthew Ryan Robinson engages Schleiermacher’s mature dogmatics and explores the potential relevance of Schleiermacher’s thinking for contemporary theologians and scholars of religion.

In the early chapters Robinson tracks the development of Schleiermacher’s understanding of free sociability. Robinson documents the rise of the themes of social relationship and community in German intellectual discourse, making it clear that Schleiermacher inherited rather than invented the idea that social relationships are fundamental to human experience and human flourishing. Robinson also explores the significance of this theme for the young Schleiermacher himself, upon whom the experience of pious fellowship among the Moravian brethren made a deep and lifelong impression. Robinson then tracks Schleiermacher’s work on the theme of sociability in the “Notes on Aristotle” and “On the Highest Good,” culminating in Schleiermacher’s formal account of free sociability in “Towards a Theory of Sociable Conduct” of 1799. 

Robinson then proceeds to document the importance of the notion of free sociability for the Brouillon zur Ethik, the Speeches (On Religion), and the “Soliloquies.” It is in these middle chapters that Robinson defends his central interpretive claims. Perhaps the standard way to understand free sociability is as small-group relationship unconstrained by convention, social location, or “external ends.” Robinson conjoins to this understanding Schleiermacher’s idea that free sociability has a “moral end”: the “formation of the whole of humanity” through individual development (63). The claim that is central to Robinson’s argument is that the “completion of humanity” is also the end of religion (as described in the Speeches) and of the ethical formation of the individual (as described in the “Soliloquies”). Since free sociability is the necessary process through which this end is attained, Robinson interprets “Schleiermacher’s whole ethical vision as a freely sociable structure” (78) and asserts that “the sociable exchange of thoughts and feelings concerning ‘all of the elements of humanity’ is itself a religious project” (116). These are novel claims, and both their meaning and their ultimate significance for understanding Schleiermacher’s thinking could withstand further clarification.

In the penultimate chapter, Robinson engages the Christmas Eve dialogue and Schleiermacher’s mature dogmatics. Robinson argues that free sociability is important for these later works in that Schleiermacher understands redemption to be, once again, a matter of “the completion of humanity.” Key points here are Schleiermacher’s character Eduard’s long speech in the dialogue connecting the role of the “host” of a (freely-sociable) human gathering to Christ’s role as the convener of Christian religious community and Schleiermacher’s dogmatic rendering of the “doctrine of the keys,” which makes “binding and loosing” a product of the (freely sociable) dynamics of religious community. Ultimately “the relationships of the community members with each other constitute the substance of the religious pursuit of the completion of humanity” (167). 

Robinson’s final chapter explores the potential of free sociability to overcome social evils such as “anxiety, deceit, hate, violence, and oppression” (168). In conversation with more recent literature, he finds free sociability to be of real but not unlimited utility. Robinson argues that something like free sociability failed in the case of John Howard Yoder, who for many years effectively exploited the informal nature of his communities’s oversight structures to preserve his ability to engage in abusive sexual practices. Robinson also points to the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jennifer McBride for signs that the dynamics of free sociability might, through practices of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation, make radical forms of social healing possible. Ultimately, the range of free sociability’s efficacy is somewhat elusive: perhaps it does not lend itself to “swift, large-scale social revolutions,” but rather, operating “most directly at the person-to-person level … can help to foster, ever-so-slowly, integrated human life before the vastness of all things” (177). 

In Redeeming Relationships, Relationships that Redeem Robinson pursues a unified interpretive thread through Schleiermacher’s early corpus with skill and determination. Robinson’s engagement with both primary and secondary material is thorough and well-executed. He establishes beyond dispute that Schleiermacher’s interests in the dynamics of human sociability at small scales was fundamental for his early ethical and religion-theoretical thinking—indeed, that his ethical and religious programs were crafted around a particular ideal of human sociality. Of course, such an ambitious interpretive program will open up complex issues. Two interconnected topics deserve further reflection. First: Schleiermacher’s ideal of free sociability was, after all, an ideal; but in his writings on religion, in particular, he did not restrict himself to describing ideals, but also reflected on the distance between these and the actual realities that they “inform.” Robinson’s treatment focuses primarily on Schleiermacher’s ideal thinking, and more attention could be paid to his reflections on actual social realities. Second: in the fourth of the Speeches, Schleiermacher discusses more than one of religion’s “social forms.” Robinson’s treatment casts into high relief the contrast between freely sociable religion and the sort of state-sanctioned and -supervised established religion against which the young Schleiermacher polemicized. In the Speeches Schleiermacher already saw a legitimate role for something other than freely sociable religion; and his later thinking embraced more fully the idea of established religion. I suspect that there is an interesting story to be told about the development to maturity of Schleiermacher’s estimation of the importance of free sociability in actual religious community. Finally, one familiar question hangs over the book’s final chapter: whether the most pressing social problems can be solved through people’s resolving to relate to each other in ways that are not determined by existing social structures or whether, in contrast, some can only be meaningfully addressed through changes to those structures themselves.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew Dole is Professor in the Department of Religion at Amherst College.

Date of Review: 
March 27, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Ryan Robinson is Research Assistant in Practical Theology in the Protestant Theological Faculty of the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn.


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