(a recycled post from another life)
Though a good number of modern liberals whom I’ve read make specific appeals to Schleiermacher for their sentiments about God and the nature of Christianity, few make any appeal to the origins of their ethical foundations. While many positive statements are made regarding ethical behavior, yes, may even come from relativist liberals, the ethic is generally expressed without appeal to an identifiable origin.
The sentimental approach of Schleiermacher makes for a difficult foundation for ethics as sentiments shift so easily. What appears to be the case is that late 19th century theological liberalism may be closer to being their source for ethics than those of the early 19th century; specifically, Ritschl.
Ritschl resoundingly rejects Schleiermacher’s appeal to feeling but accepts many of this other fundamental tenets, including his view of religion as a social construct (Orr, 42-43). This “fellowship” or “community” is itself the “redemption” that is the Kingdom of God (Orr, 44-45). This is a view of religion, and specifically of Christianity, which is more than troubling to anyone who holds to any historic orthodoxy. Ritschl, like Schleiermacher, here removes from Christianity its uniqueness and unique relationship with God.
One might rightly call this a relative theology because the theology itself is not merely composed of relativistic components, but is itself subject to value comparison against other theologies (religions), and against an individual’s sense of reality. Even though Christianity might be found to have positive historical value (according to Ritschl) it is left without its ontological foundations. This sense of relativism reflects Ritschl’s dependence upon Kant* in other areas.
Ritschl’s ethic is derived from a Kantian sense of greater good. It is almost purely Kantian, encouraging the individual toward making “value-judgments” (Orr, 43). This is, of course, a necessary approach, for Ritschl’s approach to the actual existence of God is, like De Wette, one of religious symbolism rather than objective existence (Orr, 46). This leaves Ritschl with a relativistic ethic that goes hand-in-hand with his relative theology.
As evangelicals we can provide a richer ethic than can the world of relativism. All you ethicists out there, take heart. We have something far better, far sounder, and far more consistent than relativism might ever provide.
*Yes, Kant was an absolutist, but reallyy of a strange sort. His views on personal knowledge certainly yielded (at least largely contributed to) the fruit of modern relativism. Likewise, though he was not a particularist, he did treat both matematics and the categorical imperative as though they are self-existing particulars. So it seems quite difficult to pin down Kant with specificity.
Orr, James, The Ritschlian Theology and the Evangelical Faith, Second Edition, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1898