Schleiermacher and Sustainability

A Theology for Ecological Living

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Shelli M. Poe
Columbia Series in Reformed Theology
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , November
     180 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The 19th century Prussian Reformed theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) is most well known for his magnum opus Christian Faith (2016 ET) wherein he provides his most mature modern theology. It is Schleiermacher’s innovative doctrines in this work and other minor works that the contributors engage with in this edited volume believing they can aid in the construction of a viable and sustainable Christian understanding of ecological living in our present context of environmental crisis. The authors of the volume interact with certain doctrines as radically reformulated by Schleiermacher such as: ecclesiology, ethics, election, ecumenism, creation, providence, and sin. In doing so, the contributors critically and charitably appropriate and occasionally adjust Schleiermacher’s conclusions to offer a suggestive prescription to the contemporary church (particularly in the West) on how to live a more ecologically sustainable lifestyle, not only to preserve the earth, but also to spread the influence of the kingdom of God to the ends of the earth for all humans to flourish.

While the traditional reception history of Schleiermacher’s theology has been that he focuses inordinately on subjective human religious “feelings,” this volume argues that Scheliermacher also focuses on the social aspect of humanity’s sin and redemption, including how humans treat one another and the earth they live upon. Thus, this volume is an interdisciplinary work that does not simply walk alongside Schleiermacher’s theology, but seeks to adopt and adapt it to provide solutions to our current ecological crisis.

Although this is an edited volume with multiple contributors, the various authors have written their respective essays conscious of what the other authors have also written, giving this volume a truly systematic flavor, showing how—like Schleiermacher’s Christian Faith—Christian doctrines are all interdependent. In chapter 1, James Brandt draws upon Schleiermacher’s ecclesiology and ethics. He provides an overview of Schleiermacher’s life and how his theology and ethics influenced how he lived socially and politically in quite tumultuous times. Brandt contends that the church has a twofold mission, an inner mission to form an organic community of faith that communes with God, Jesus, and one another; and an outer mission to transform the whole of one’s society/nation so that the righteousness of the kingdom of God may rule over all the earth.

In chapter 2 Shelli Poe focuses on Schleiermacher’s doctrine of creation as the interconnected process of nature (Naturzusammenhang) as found in his Christian Faith and contends that this concept is fruitful to construct a more ecologically sustainable economics in our contemporary world. Poe then proceeds to revise Schleiermacher’s doctrine of the afterlife that is more humanly holistic and epistemically humble. Chapter 3 sees Ed Waggoner argue that because—according to Schleiermacher—divine activity is nontemporal and nonspatial, individual Christians and whole churches cannot trace back current ecological issues to God, nor look solely to God for a solution to them; rather, it is best to view creation as an interdependent web of living forces guided by the omnipresent God. Chapter 4 sees Anette Hagan build off Waggoner’s essay and discuss Schleiermacher’s doctrine of preservation (i.e. providence) as advantageous for contemporary ecological living. Hagan argues that God’s activity in creation is the necessary presupposition for all other finite activity in the universe, particularly planet earth and its inhabitants.

However, as Hagan understands Schleiermacher’s doctrine of preservation, this does not mean God determines particular (human) acts but preserves and governs the whole of creation in which free acts are made. In chapter 5, Kevin Vander Schel looks to Schleiermacher’s doctrines of sin and the cultivation of nature. Vander Schel points to Schleiermacher’s argument that the church is to complete creation by properly cultivating it so that all humanity and creation can flourish. In the conclusion, the seasoned Scheliermacher scholar Terrence Tice provides a theological autobiography inspired by Schleiermacher’s thought for ecological living. Tice reiterates key themes from the previous chapters and integrates life experiences from his childhood and work in academia to argue for a robust repentance away from rapacious policies and actions that wreak planetary havoc and towards more sustainable economic and environmental polices and practices that will preserve the planet for future generations and gradually actualize the kingdom of God on earth.

This short volume may not seem like it could effect much change in the academy, not to mention in wider, Western society; however, by combining seemingly two polar opposite subjects–theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher and ecologically sustainable living–the contributors have demonstrated that not only is this possible, it is also highly advantageous for those who are conscious of the reality of the kingdom of God and the dire need to curb and hopefully reverse the shocking rapidity of planetary devastation and degradation. Shelli Poe has amassed a group of experts on Schleiermacher’s theology (including herself) to offer provocative suggestions for how Schleiermacher’s theology provides Christian validation for individual Christians and the churches they attend to become more conscious and conscientious of their environmental (in)actions. We greatly appreciate this rich tapestry of interconnected essays that will hopefully generate and stimulate further discussion on Schleiermacher’s theology and eco-theological reflection and its ethical prescriptions. Although some critics may insist that it is anachronistic to view Schleiermacher as a proto-environmentalist and that to read eco-theological concerns into his theology is eisegesis, I believe the contributors have done due justice to Schleiermacher’s theology and then attempted to show not uncritically how his theology funds current ecological concerns.

My only disappointment is that we would have wished that the theme of economics would have been given more attention in the essays. Although Poe and Tice spend some time on the topic, we are left wondering if, in fact, a truly eco-theological society is in some minimal way commensurate with capitalism or not. From our reading, it seems that a chastened, bridled, and regulated capitalism is most complementary to sustainable ecological living, but no definitive-evaluated conclusion is provided by the contributors.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bradley M. Penner is adjunct professor of theology at Briercrest College and Seminary

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shelli M. Poe is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Initiative for Vocational Inquiry at Millsaps College.


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