St John's Church, Harpenden - letter from the Ministry team

We publish a Parish Magazine 4 times a year and in each Magazine there is a letter from the vicar or a member of the Ministry team.

Letter from the Vicarage

Passing the famous Charity Hospital in Berlin earlier this year I was reminded of its most famous chaplain, Friedrich Schleiermacher. Schleiermacher - author of On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799), and renowned translator of Plato's dialogues - had moved on to become Professor of Theology and Preacher at the University of Halle. In early December of 1805, he was plunged into grief over the ending of a relationship and decided to cancel his lecture on ethics to attend a concert at the town hall. So inspired was Schleiermacher that, on leaving the concert, the idea of writing something on the joy of Christmas suddenly came to him. Three weeks later, on the morning of Christmas Eve, 1805, Schleiermacher submitted his manuscript A Christmas Celebration: A Dialogue. Of all his works, it has been the one most often printed. It depicts a home beautifully decked for the holidays and a close circle of friends gathered on Christmas Eve. All of them - men, women, and a girl named

It is quintessential Schleiermacher in both thought and style. Much has been written about the dialogue, its historical context, and its significance. In particular, scholars have focused on the role of women in the dialogue; raised the question of whether Schleiermacher modelled this after a Platonic dialogue; and explored the underlying anxiety that runs through the work of whether the Christmas holiday that Christians celebrate has any historical relation to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

He intended the work as a Christmas gift for his friends. The story centres on a Christmas celebration in a typical middle-class German home. Through the dialogue the author hoped to evoke a mood or feeling of Christmas joy in the reader. After descriptions of the main activities on a German Christmas Eve - singing carols, opening gifts, the initial banter of friendly conversation, and sharing the latest family news - the focus shifts to a more serious set of issues. First there is a discussion about the nature of music itself. In keeping with the author's own love of music, one of the gathered guests suggests that music is a more basic means of expressing the essence of religion than the spoken word. This idea is considered for a short time until the very precocious young Sophie steals the scene and directs the reader towards childlike Christmas simplicity and spontaneity. This is the second movement, if you will, of a kind of musical dialectic that goes from elemental feeling through childlike naivetÉ and on to... 'feminine nature.'

Here, in the middle portions of the dialogue, Schleiermacher slowly reveals that for him 'the feminine' presents the clearest picture of what religion in general and Christianity in particular is all about. For him, a romantic, women had a distinct advantage over men because of their intuition - that is, their ability to intuit 'the heart of the matter,' to get beyond cold rationalising and to stress warm emotion. Women, thus, are a perfect example of the nature of religion, which is a matter of feeling, mood, and intuition - and most definitely not a matter of knowledge, praxis, ethics, or outdated doctrines.

When the male guests begin asking critical questions about the sources for the historical Jesus, casting doubt on their reliability, and wondering what the historical Jesus meant for redemption, the party takes a turn for the worse. In fact, the men almost totally destroy the mood that had been created by the children and women. As the men are arguing and debating among themselves, a latecomer, Josef, flatly refuses to join them in their critical discussion and exhorts the company to be religious and joyful. And this is how the Christmas party ends, at the piano, with hearts full of joy, and a pious sentimentality infusing the proceedings.

For Schleiermacher, the task of Christian theology is to reflect critically on the kind of Christian piety that is displayed in his Christmas Eve dialogue. Indeed, the dialogue form is essential to the work. For just as in Plato's dialogues, which Schleiermacher had begun translating and editing, truth only emerges through the entire dialectic of the dialogue itself. In other words, no one person in the conversation or scene has a complete purchase on the truth; each contributes something to the larger whole.

In the case of the 'Christmas Eve' dialogue, the essence of Christmas emerges as a dialectical movement through non-verbal music, the naiveté of the spontaneously free and uninhibited child, the intuition of the woman, the joy and love of the pietist and the critical-historical analysis of the men. But the latter rational analysis is clearly subordinated within the larger contexts of the former elements.

But as a witness to the Christ of Christmas this 'celebration' is perhaps too purified, too clean, too refined, too neat and tidy, dare one say it, too rosy. It was this anodyne picture that so irked one of Schleiermacher's greatest critics, the 20th century theologian Karl Bath, that he wrote his famous response, the Church Dogmatics. In this Christmas Celebration there seems no place for the messiness of a crying baby in the smelly straw, no place for the man who lovingly aches, suffers, bleeds, and eventually saves us from our sins by stretching out his arms on the cross - that's all missing from Schleiermacher's Christmas story. In the end we have no choice but to wrestle with Gospels.

Wishing you, and those whom you love, every blessing for Christmas and the New Year,

Nicholas

Nicholas Anderson



Visit the Diocese's web site: Living God's Love.



Read about Lauryn's visit to the Holy Land



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