Sabatier, Auguste (1839–1901)

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Auguste Sabatier was perhaps the Protestant theologian most influential in the early twentieth century. Many Catholic modernists as well as Protestant liberals believed that his philosophy of religion had achieved its object, a reconciliation between the essential verities of Christian experience and the demands of science. Sabatier was a professor of reformed dogmatics at Strasbourg and Paris and a sometime journalist and literary critic. He ended his career as dean of the Theological Faculty of Paris.

Sabatier described his theory of religious knowledge as "critical symbolism." By this he meant to indicate that religious doctrine and dogma are attempts to symbolize the primary and eternal religious experience (or consciousness) of the believer. He taught that the doctrines of historical religions are secondary, temporal, and transient symbols of this central religious experience. Christian dogmas, then, are necessarily inadequate attempts to "express the invisible by the visible, the eternal by the temporal, spiritual realities by sensible images." Christ and his disciples through the ages have experienced the divine presence of God the loving Father and with it a sense of moral repentance and an inner energy of the spirit. As with all personal experience, no symbolic structure can act as substitute. Such structures are, in every field, merely hypothetical attempts to grasp experience.

Correspondingly, Sabatier held that the cosmologies, legends, dogmas, and statements about the world and man propagated by historical religions in an attempt to express and communicate the fact of religious experience can claim only derivative and relative validity. Moreover, they are conditioned by the state of science and philosophy as understood by those who create such religious symbolism. And just as science and philosophy do not give absolute and final truth, neither does religious dogmahence the decline of older religious symbolism with the progress of science. God lives in man's consciousness, not in dogmas and cosmologies. Man's need for and experience of God's presence prove his existence. Science and philosophy are masters of their own proper domain. Thus, "God is the final reason of everything, but the scientific explanation of nothing."

Sabatier's critical symbolism was exceedingly Protestant in that it rejected Catholic dogmatic absolutism for the absolutism of justification by faith. It appealed to many modern religionists of his day because it seemed to retain valid science and yet avoid positivistic nihilism and agnostic defeatism. Putting personal experience above theories about experience, Sabatier's approach was found congenial in an age that produced Henri Bergson and William James. Like them, Sabatier seemed to give moral claims and value judgments a renewed truth. To know a thing religiously, Sabatier held, is to experience the sovereignty of spirit and to estimate the object known as a means or obstacle to the true moral life of the spirit. Teleology is reintroduced along with objective value, and the meaning of life, as well as the will's freedom to choose good or evil, is made manifest. Sabatier's theories could easily be adapted to the neo-Kantian and neoidealist tendencies at work in philosophy, social science, political ideology, literature, and art in the new century. His continued influence seems assured, for by basing the truth of religion on the personal experience of the believer, he joined the long line of "crisis" and existential theologians of our time.

See also Bergson, Henri; James, William; Life, Meaning and Value of; Neo-Kantianism; Teleology.


works by sabatier

Esquisse d'une philosophie de la religion. Paris: Fischbacher, 1897. Translated by T. A. Seed as Outlines of a Philosophy of Religion. New York: Harper, 1957.

Essai d'une théorie critique de la connaissance religieuse. Paris, 1899.

Les religions d'autorité et la religion de l'esprit. Paris, 1903. Translated by L. Seymour as Religions of Authority and Religions of Culture. London: McClure, Phillips, 1904.

works on sabatier

Michalescu, J. Darlegung und Kritik der Religionsphilosophie Sabatiers. Bern: Buchdruckerei Scheitlin, Spring 1903.

Vienot, J. Auguste Sabatier. Paris, 1927. Contains the best available bibliography.

John Weiss (1967)