Heiler, Friedrich

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HEILER, FRIEDRICH (18921967), German theologian and historian of religions. Born into a pious Roman Catholic family in Munich, Heiler studied theology, philosophy, Asian languages, and psychology at the University of Munich and received his doctorate in 1917 with a study of prayer that is still a classic, Das Gebet. One year later he published Die buddhistische Versenkung (Munich, 1918), a study of Buddhist contemplation. His work attracted the interest of the Swedish archbishop Nathan Söderblom, who invited him to Sweden. There he became active in the Lutheran church. In 1920 he accepted a professorship in comparative religion at the University of Marburg, where he remained until his retirement. During the Nazi era he was transferred from the Faculty of Theology into the Faculty of Arts and became its first dean after 1945.

Heiler's book on prayer shows his talent for explaining a central religious phenomenon in a purely inductive way, free of any philosophical presuppositions. Without losing sight of historical relationships, the book provides a phenomenological exposition not only of non-Christian religions but also of the Christian churches and their leaders, whose personalities Heiler interprets within the framework of the general history and phenomenology of religion. This achievement prevails in all of his writings down to his last major work, an introduction to the phenomenology of religion, Erscheinungsformen und Wesen der Religion (Stuttgart, 1961).

Heiler's double allegiance to the Catholic church and his new, Lutheran affiliation was never completely resolved, as his correspondence with Söderblom shows. In order to bridge the gap, he founded a high church movement, and he was later consecrated as a bishop in the Gallican succession. As much as he was critical of the historical development of the Roman church, the celebration of the Mass according to the ancient Christian rite remained central to Heiler's spiritual life. This orientation is evident from Der Katholizismus (1923; new ed., Munich, 1970), which provoked much controversy, and from two of his later studies, Urkirche und Ostkirche (Munich, 1937), on the development of the Eastern rites from earliest times, and Altkirchliche Autonomie und päpstlicher Zentralismus (Munich, 1941), on the Roman rite and its centralizing tendencies. His early interest in the modernist movement, which influenced him considerably, prompted him to write a biography of one of its leaders: Alfred Loisy, 18571940, der Vater des katholischen Modernismus (Munich, 1947).

Heiler had both a liberal attitude and a strong mystical bent. Opposed as much to Bultmann's demythologization as to Barth's radical theology, he saw in Christianity a microcosm of the world of religions in general, and he believed in the presence of the ever-working Logos Spermatikos. His personal piety was shaped by the ideals of Franciscan devotion as he experienced it in relations with his Italian Franciscan friends. Like the medieval Franciscans, he hoped for the Papa angelicus who would usher in the age of the Holy Spirit and the one holy church. Toward this end, he worked all his life, devoting numerous articles, many lectures, and his editorship of a journal, Eine heilige Kirche (Munich, 19191941), to bringing it about.

The ideal of the one church Heiler extended to non-Christian religions as well, for he saw in them manifestations of the same basic religious truths he found in Christianity. He was particularly inclined toward Buddhism, especially the figure of the compassionate Buddha, and toward mystical Hinduism, which is demonstrated in Die Mystik in den Upanishaden (Munich, 1925). Eventually he was to defend Sadhu Sundar Singh in a long literary feud with the critics of this convert from Sikhism to Christianity. In both his writing and his teaching, Heiler always emphasized the role of women in religion. His numerous sermons combine wide knowledge of religious history with his very personal faith in the God who manifests himself as love.

Although Heiler was misunderstood in various quarters during his lifetime, many of his ideas were realized after his death. His major books, which demonstrate his philological erudition and which provide an immense wealth of bibliographic sources, will remain standard works in the history of religions and in the study of early Christianity. Taking up and enlarging the promise evident in his first masterwork on prayer, Heiler's later works reflect his ideal of an "evangelical catholicity" and his hope for a synthesis (rather than syncretism) of the world's religions and their highest ideals.


Although a number of Heiler's articles have appeared in English journals and anthologies, none of his books is available in unabridged form in English. Das Gebet, 5th ed. (Munich, 1923), was published as Prayer, translated and edited by Samuel McComb (1932; reprint, Oxford, 1958), but the translation lacks the extremely valuable footnotes of the original. Likewise, Heiler's book on Sadhu Sundar Singh is available only in abridged form, as The Gospel of Sâdhu Sundar Singh, translated by Olive Wyon (Oxford, 1927).

There is no biography of Heiler in any language. For a better understanding of the man and his work, two books are recommended: Die grössere Ökumene: Gespräche um Friedrich Heiler, edited by Emmanuel Jungclaussen (Regensburg, 1970), and Friedrich von Hügel, Nathan Söderblom, Friedrich Heiler: Briefwechsel 19091931, edited, with an introduction and commentary, by Paul Misner (Paderborn, 1981). The latter presents the revealing correspondence of Heiler, Söderblom, and Baron Hügel.

Annemarie Schimmel (1987)

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