Schleiermacher and Sustainability - A Review

Schleiermacher and Sustainability: A Theology for Ecological Living asks the basic question: “Can Friedrich Schleiermacher’s theology be used to support a greener lifestyle?”

In the teeth of what some consider to be a potentially human-species ending climate crisis, this seems to be a vital question, which the five essays of this volume seek to answer. From the start, it should be clear that the question of the book is not whether Schleiermacher’s theology is truly Christian, or whether it is representative of reality. Instead, the question of concern is the usefulness for a given goal. This is a point that is worth returning to toward the end of this brief review.


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After a short introduction, the book launches into five essays followed by an exhortative conclusion. Chapter One deals with Schleiermacher’s ethics and his understanding of the church. James Brandt deals with the life of faith within the church, concluding that the connection between theology and ethics Schleiermacher draws can be useful for motivating ecological action. An important question in this essay is the function of the church in moving people to live ethically. In the second chapter, Shelli Poe (who also edited the volume) tackles the relationship between economics, the doctrine of election, and ecological concern. Poe recommends significant revision of the arch-revisionist Schleiermacher, expressing particular concern over his fragile and latent belief in some sort of particularity of Christianity. Schleiermacher tended toward universalism, but to be a proper ecological source, his vestigial biases must be overcome to enhance mutuality and openness.

Chapter Thee picks up the important topic of creation from Schleiermacher’s perspective. A key element of this chapter is the summary of Schleiermacher’s belief that God does not act in space and time. This, of course, means that miracles are not possible, but also that human action is the only recourse for preserving the planet. This is deemed as useful for motivating human action for curbing ecological degradation. In the fourth chapter, Annette Hagan focuses on Schleiermacher’s treatments of preservation and divine providence. Again, the focus is on minimizing the active role of God in creation, thus arguing for the importance of human action is causing and alleviating environmental discussions. There is interesting interplay between this essay and the preceding one, because they stating their cases differently. This is a good example of how to put essays with differing views in conversation in an edited volume.

In Chapter Five the concept of social sin comes to plan in an essay by Kevin Vander Schel. Schleiermacher, the father of modern liberalism, was much more concerned with formation and communal sin than individual deviation from the good. Beyond the mere local impacts of so much systemic evil, ecological degradation proves to be the ultimate, far reaching cause that can be seen to prove Schleiermacher’s point. According to Vander Schel, Schleiermacher’s theology is ultimately useful for reformulation human activity around “proper” ecological living.

The book closes with a conclusion by Terrence Tice, which is largely an exhortation to live ecologically. He is a significant voice in Schleiermacher studies. Most of his essay has little to do with Schleiermacher, properly speaking, but is intended to motivate readers to apply the revisionist principals of Schleiermacher to motivate action across any boundaries, since it is of ultimate importance.


I believe that the book largely accomplishes its purposes. The six authors make a cogent argument that the ideas of Friedrich Schleiermacher can indeed be built upon to support a version of the sort of ecological living they deem necessary. Thus, when Tice celebrates both the anti-Christian Lynne White and the misanthrope Paul Ehrlich in his conclusion, there is little question that the celebration of these modern ecological heroes is consistent with the ideas set forth throughout the book.

As an example of focused study on a particular theologian for a particular topic, this is a good book. Though the strange divergence from material relating to Schleiermacher in the final chapter challenges the coherence of the volume. However, that may be explained by accepting whatever product the emeritus professor was willing to provide. This book will likely help some ecotheologians in their study of historical sources for environmental ethics.

Goal Based Ethics

The book also serves another purpose, which is to illustrate the dangers for Christians who pursue theological ethics with a specific goal in mind. In this case, the primary goal is to motivate people to live a certain approved lifestyle, which is deemed green. This sort of book can be useful, but it is a far cry from the pursuit of truth. This is scholarship with an agenda.

Part of the problem of this book is that they are asking a dangerous (and often futile question): “What would Schleiermacher have said about conditions he could not have imagined?” This is very different from the more valid question: “What did Schleiermacher say about the human-divine-creation relationship and is that helpful today?” The second question puts the historical thinker directly in the spotlight of the book. The first question makes the contemporary author and her present problem the focus of scholarship. It seems to me that, at its best, the essence of scholarship is looking beyond one’s self for truth, goodness, and beauty. A certain form of goodness and beauty are assumed for this book, but those assumed attributes are valued so highly that the question of truth is not raised.

Scholarship should always be for a purpose, but that purpose should rarely be a utilitarian one. To pursue an agenda instead of truth is to cut reps in your gym workout. No one may recognize it at first, but over time its going to be pretty obvious that something about your fitness routine is not right.  As such, Schleiermacher and Sustainability is very helpful for understanding Schleiermacher and the given authors better, but it falls short of a faithful attempt at pursuing truth.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.