This essay compares Friedrich Schleiermacher’s theory of “religion as feeling” to Robert Orsi’s theory of “lived religion”–meaning religion as lived experience. I will show that for Schleiermacher, religion is an internal, subjective mystical experience felt directly by an individual, whereas Robert Orsi finds religion in the external world expressed communally by people in their everyday lives. I will, however, show that Schleiermacher and Orsi agree that religion reveals its true identity in the immediacy of the moment. Robert Orsi takes a phenomenological empiricist approach to “lived religion”, that is, to meet the religious practices of people in their everyday activities as the best method for observing and answering such questions as, what is religion, what does it mean to be religious and what role does religion serve? (Orsi 1997:7). Orsi explains that human beings are perpetually caught up in the daily pursuit of cultural creation which periodically gets disrupted by certain occurrences known as cultural “hot spots”–events that do not fit neatly into daily life such as death, pain, sickness, social upheaval, transition, economic catastrophe, etc. These incidences produce feelings of vulnerability in people, which activate religious beliefs that manifest in religious practices to express what matters most in their world. When people appropriate religious symbols, rituals and myths to understand, encounter, adapt and change specific cultural circumstances, religion is manifested in the human experience (Orsi 1993:3).
Conversely, Friedrich Schleiermacher declares that religion is basically an introspective endeavor. It is in the religious reflection of pious surrender that individuals seek and find immediate consciousness of the infinite and the eternal. Schleiermacher articulates religion as a feeling or experience of utter unity with all existence–to feel one’s essence as being mediated in and through God. To search and connect to this infinite and eternal deity in all that is worldly–to directly experience God–that is where religion is defined and fulfilled. (Schleiermacher 1969:79). Schleiermacher refers to a religious life as a private internal affair–a continual revitalization of a two-fold process: 1) surrendering oneself to the cosmos and letting oneself be stimulated by whatever earthly elements one encounters; and 2) expanding the pious feeling that results from this direct experience and communing with it in absolute unity. The religious person turns their sensitivity inward with contemplation of their direct experience. Having been moved in a special way by this process of complete and total inner unity, people conduct themselves with religious feeling in all their affairs (Schleiermacher 1969:105).
Rather than look inward for religious experiences, Orsi focuses his attention outward, explaining that the study of lived religion requires the ethnographer to be aware of the following contexts: 1) an idea of the scope of idiomatic choices and restraints of what can be preferred, visualized and experienced; 2) what, within the culture, is incorporated into the physical body of religious participants–that is, what they know, say, hear, and feel; 3) what are the basic social structures, such as marriage, family configurations, moral and legal accountabilities, etc., and 4) an idea of what kinds of typical conflicts occur within these social structures (Orsi 1997:7). This approach demands a dynamic integration of religion and experience that explores all media such as, people and institutions, rituals and sacred texts, practice and theology, artifacts and ideas that people use to engage their immediate cultural world. We see that religious idioms are inherited, remembered and reformulated by people as a response, not to reflect the world, but to meet particular circumstances and reinvent the world (Orsi 1997:8). For example, in America, people suffering from physical distress were visiting charismatic faith healers, ordering prayer cloths and trying magic potions. Grieving individuals who visit spiritual mediums in hope of contacting their deceased loved ones; Catholics who devoutly believe in reincarnation; Presbyterians who read palms; all are examples of how the impulses of religion manifest under particular social conditions (Orsi 1993:5). This illustrates that lived religion cannot easily be separated from other activities in day to day life. To approach lived religion requires an empiricist orientation that delves deeply into the religious beliefs as practiced in the context of current culture. Rather than decipher fossilized texts, lived religion must query the intricacies of the messy, on-the-ground religious practices that illuminate the relationship between theology and practice. (Orsi 1997:8).
Schleiermacher asserts that “religion must be social if it is to exist at all” (Schleiermacher 1969:208). Religion detests loneliness. Elaborating, Schleiermacher affirms that humans are predisposed to fellowship and interdependency. Humans need to communicate and collaborate with one another to validate for themselves that this profound feeling of piety is sincerely human and not foreign or undeserving. Having experienced the infinite and eternal and realizing oneself is but small part of it, humans appreciate by articulating these mystical experiences to one another that both may witness and enjoy their religiosity together. Furthermore, Schleiermacher says that religious communication is lost in books–that the print medium is insufficient to capture the original religious experience, thus inhibiting the anticipated pious feeling. Nor can this language of the inner heart be transmitted in everyday language. Awe and reverence are ingredients for religious discourse in an environment that is more conducive to friendship, love and even solemn silence (Schleiermacher 1969:211). In a congregation of pious individuals, everyone is a priest insofar as communicating the stirrings of their unity and equality, injecting one another with sacred feelings and thoughts of the divine. Likewise every person is also a layperson when inspired to follow and appropriate all that others have to give. Everyone is joined together under this associative bond of universal unity (Schleiermacher 1969:211). This mutual communication forms a pious religious society–a collective experience of infinite consciousness in and through each other. Schleiermacher speaks of a coming renascence of religion where the eternal is experienced and revered in many ways. Numerous expressions of religion are feasible in both immediacy and combination. (Schleiermacher 1958:252)
From a social perspective, Orsi believes, like cultural idioms, religious idioms are intersubjective. Together, young and old people make up the religious world as it pertains to their relationship with sacred beings and with each other. This happens not only with local or intimate affairs, but also occurs in a global context. In our modern-day global village, religious practices are carried through immigration and migration that extend relational and spiritual ties worldwide, as witnessed in Brooklyn Voodoo rituals–Haitian practices that maintain relational and spiritual ties with those in New York, Haiti and the ethereal (Orsi 2003:173). By studying lived religion from an existential viewpoint, the ethnographer is exposed to immediate and intimate encounters with religious practices. In this domain the ethnographer can clearly identify what people urgently require and to what rituals, symbols and doctrines they will use to navigate their religious world, obscuring the boundaries of “us” versus “them” and facilitating an environment where religious practices can be encountered and engaged to uncover hidden agendas, qualify judgments and reveal religious prejudices. (Orsi 2003:174). Both Schleiermacher and Orsi take an empirical approach to defining and understanding religion. Schleiermacher retreats inward into immediate consciousness seeking religion as intuited contemplation of self and other and experiencing communion with the divine eternal; Robert Orsi searches for meaning in outward religious behaviour.
Orsi understands religion as a lived experience. Orsi is concerned with what religious idioms people will use in a particular circumstance and to witness how religious symbols, practices and myths dynamically unfold to explain how people interpret their world. This approach is highlighted in Orsi’s account of events at St. Lucy Roman Catholic Church, in the Bronx, where city is considered Lourdes water. Here we see living religion as strange conceptual mixture of scared and profane symbols. Pilgrims (not ordinary people) carrying profane plastic white jugs and paper cups to collect transmuted city water, now holy pouring out from beneath the sacred symbolic feet of the Virgin Mary. The water is used by the pilgrims for drinking in hope of release from physical pain or illness, or poured into the car radiator water to protect them on the drive home (Orsi 1997:6). Outsiders react to this example with outrage and offer definitions with distinct categories of profane and sacred. This example illustrates Orsi’s view that to study lived religion requires a fundamental rethinking of what is religion and what does it mean to be religious. The real world of lived religion is cluttered with both cultural and religious idioms that are not easily arranged in a neat theological order and are exposed for everyone to see and examine. Alternatively, although his approach to religion is experiential, Schleiermacher asserts the religious experience is a quiet, internal matter. Religion is a deep and personal endeavour that is pursued from within and expressed entirely as subjective feeling–a direct experience that illuminates a relationship with the Infinite and the Eternal. For Schleiermacher, the religious experience is mediated by numinous encounters with earthly occurrences such as a gazing upon a starlit night or witnessing a morning sunrise. Religion is a special way of acting, a certain kind of conduct whereby a religious feeling can be conveyed in worldly affairs. In contrast, Orsi emphasizes that certain life experiences, such as death of a loved one, physical sickness or poverty, can stimulate religious beliefs which in turn manifest into religious behaviour as a cognitive attempt to understand and cope with these incidences, as seen in his example of the Roman Catholic Church of St. Lucy in the Bronx. Interestingly, both Schleiermacher and Orsi acknowledge that for religion to exist there must be a social aspect. Schleiermacher finds religious texts devoid of the original experience and incapable of provoking or communicating any kind of true experience. Here Schleiermacher looks outwards. Theology, for Schleiermacher is the articulation of religious feelings to a fellowship of men and women who share similar direct experiences with the Infinite. When people communicate their mystical experiences to others who receive and acknowledge their testimony it validates their experience as genuine and part of the Infinite. This process of articulation facilitates a community of religious individuals whereby they can expand their direct experience by witnessing the Infinite through one another. Likewise, Orsi sees the social component as a “dialectical partner of the religious”. (Orsi, Everyday Miracles p. 8). Religion does not happen in a vacuum, nor is it neatly arranged in the corners of the religious elites or in the hands of the popular. Religious people meet, struggle, associate and confront one another with a diverse and complex set of motivations in the streets as well as in the shrines. Lived religion must investigate, by empirical means, religious belief systems as they manifest in the context of human activity if they are to have any relevance.
Schleiermacher’s approach to religion as a feeling of utter unity, in the immediacy of the moment with everything, is almost monistic–reminiscent of the eastern Sufi mystics where all is God and God is all. Although it can be agreed that profound mystical experiences qualifies as religious phenomena, not everyone who practices religion has experienced this profound feeling of oneness. Schleiermacher’s theory–religion as feeling–fails to provide an adequate model for explaining other religious expressions and relationships such as ritual practices, revealed sacred texts, religious artifacts, temples, shrines and other such religious manifestations. Alternatively, Orsi provides a pluralist model of religion where almost anything goes. Unlike Schleiermacher’s internal subjective feelings of union, Orsi is willing to evaluate all expressed behaviours for possible religion. Here, religion is thickly textured with the intersubjectivities of historical, cultural, individual, social and religious identities intertwined in the clutter of day-to-day life. Although both theorists explore religion in opposite places–Schleiermacher, looks for religion deep inside the individual whereas Orsi explores religion as expressed in human behaviour in the outside world–both agree that religion manifests in the immediacy of the moment. It is in a particular moment that religion reveals its identity, nature, motivations and desires. Furthermore, both theorists convey that religion must exist socially, expressed or articulated to one another, if it is to have any identity at all.
Orsi, Robert A., Everyday Miracles: The Study of Lived Religion, Chapter One, Lived religion in America: toward a history of practice, edited by David D. Hall, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J. 1997
Orsi, Robert A., Is the Study of Lived Religion Irrelevant to the World We Live in? Special Presidential Plenary Address, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Salt Lake City, November 2, 2002, Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Jun., 2003), pp. 169-174
Orsi, Robert A., George Marsden, David W. Wills and Colleen McDannell, Forum: The Decade Ahead in Scholarship, Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, Religion and American Culture, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Winter, 1993), pp. 1-28
Schleiermacher, Friedrich, On Religion, Addresses in Response to its Cultured Critics, trans. Terrence N. Tice, John Know Press, Richmond, Virgina, 1969
Schleiermacher, Speeches on Religion, trans. John Oman, New York: Harper Touch Books, 1958