Rather than an attempted retreat into an irrecuperable past, what Sloterdijk believes we really require is a new sphere of solidarity that can encompass all life, a shelter strong enough to create a robust co-immunity for the defenseless whole: global society, animal and vegetal life, nature, the earth itself. Religion has been irretrievably lost as a binding system of values, so we need a new piety devoted to, and sustained by, the oneness of the earth that we inhabit, share, and depend on. As far as Sloterdijk is concerned, moreover, the history of revelation—if one may use that word—has continued to the present day, and there are many things we have learned on the way to modernity, such as the nobility of the individual soul’s “proud” search for a system of personal freedom. These are lessons we must not forsake or let ourselves forget if we are to create a habitable future. For him, they constitute a “Newer Testament.”
Here, for me at least, the details tend to become a bit nebulous. I find Sloterdijk’s politics largely unintelligible, though I concede that it may all have some sort of deep coherence that I have simply failed to grasp. All I can hear are the dissonances. At times, he can sound as childishly inane as any American libertarian fulminating against social-welfare provisions. At other times, he gives voice to a healthy disdain for the liberal democratic cult of mediocrity, as well as the prison of routine in which the modern state and modern economy hold so many people captive. At yet other times, his Nietzschean dread of the age of the “Last Men” seems to overwhelm his vision of global solidarity and his sense of our pathetic human dependency on spheres of co-immunity. And yet it is that vision and that sense, as well as the essential, unpretentious humanity of both, that illuminate and guide his thinking at its best. Still, because I remain as unconvinced of the real existence of Sloterdijk’s greater political vision as of the real existence of snarks, I am no more disposed to dilate on the contents of the former than to speculate upon the biology of the latter.
What might Christians make of any of this story? Why should they care? Well, to begin with, they should acknowledge that Sloterdijk, in confirming Nietzsche’s diagnosis of God’s death in the developed world, is doing nothing more than stating an evident fact of history. The disappearance of that transcendent horizon of meaning and hope within whose commodious embrace just about all persons and cultures once subsisted is simply a fait accompli. The frantic extremism of the fundamentalisms and religious nationalisms and crypto-fascist integralisms of our current moment poignantly attests to the inconceivability for late modern culture of a God who is anything other than the construct of either the will to power or a desperate emotional need. None of them is a true sign of a revival of faith; all of them are only the hideous contractions of a deepening rigor mortis. And inasmuch as the genuinely living Christianity of the past was the vital wellspring of “Enlightenment” in the Western world, the departure of that Christianity from Western culture has carried away all those earlier possibilities of “co-immunity” that it had summed up in itself.
Epochs of the spirit are not reversible, or even susceptible of recapitulation. This is an Hegelian insight that no one should doubt: great historical and cultural transitions are not merely ruptures, but also moments of critique. The rationality of history lies in the ceaseless triumph of experience over mere theory, and so in the impossibility of any simple return to pre-critical naïvetés. Sooner or later, just about every cultural economy is defeated by its own inner contradictions, barring interruption of this natural process by a sudden foreign conquest. And the new order that succeeds it is probably no freer from contradictions of its own, which will be exposed in their turn. More to the point, every cultural order’s collapse is also the exhaustion of the synthesis that that culture embodied. Innocence yields to disenchantment, and disenchantment cannot revert to innocence.
Certainly this has proved so in the case of Christendom and its sequel, secularization. The Christendom of the empire or the nation state, being an alloy of two ultimately irreconcilable principles, inevitably subverted itself. It persisted for as long as it did by virtue of a genuinely organic cultic devotion with a durable practical and theoretical infrastructure. But its inherent contradictions ultimately destroyed that basis. The language and principles of the Gospel frequently illuminated the society that cherished them; the offices and powers of the state consistently sheltered, preserved, and advanced the religion that legitimated them. But the alliance was a suicide pact. The most devastating solvent of Christendom, in the end, was the ineradicable presence of Christianity within it. The corrosive force most destructive of Christianity as a credible source of social order was in the end the crushing burden of Christendom upon it.
Resistance to this destiny has always proved fruitless, precisely because it has tended to proceed from within the rationality of the old Christendom. In Catholic culture, for example, since at least the time of the Council of Trent, the struggle against the reality of the old order’s intrinsic fragility has been constant and utterly futile. It has been like an attempt to save a house already swallowed by the sea by adding new locks to its doors. Despite the countless cultural and social riches created by the unstable accommodation between the Gospel and empire—and even though many of those riches could yet perhaps be recovered within a new Christian synthesis—still the Christendom of the past was a fruitful catastrophe and its inevitable terminus was always secularism. And in the fullness of time, this secularism had to become a fully self-conscious metaphysical nihilism.
As for the liberal secular order that succeeded Christendom, its own inner stresses and volatilities are all too obvious. In the economic realm, it has created prodigies of material production and destruction, as well as forms of power and oppression on a scale formerly unimaginable. In the social realm, it has created ceaseless struggles among incompatible visions of the good while providing no clear transcendent index of values for adjudicating their conflicts. For better or worse, it has eliminated or marginalized almost all mediating or subsidiary forms of social agency and reduced meaningful social order to the interdependent but necessarily antagonistic claims of the state, capital, and the sovereign individual. And Sloterdijk is quite right: under such conditions, we have little defense against the ecological and social calamities that we have created for ourselves. So, again, given these realities, what ought Christians to do?
Certainly, what they should not do is indulge in sickly nostalgias and resentments, or soothe their distempers with infantile restorationist fantasies. History’s immanent critique has exposed too many of the old illusions for what they were, and there can be no innocent return to structures of power whose hypocrisies have been so clearly revealed. There are any number of reasons, for instance, for dismissing the current vogue of right-wing Catholic “integralism”: its imbecile flights of fancy regarding an imperial papacy; its essentially early-modern model of ecclesial absolutism; its devotion to a picture of Christian social and political order that could not be any less “integralist” or any more “extrinsicist” and authoritarian in its mechanisms; the disturbingly palpable element of sadomasochistic reverie in its endorsement of various extreme forms of coercion, subjugation, violence, and exclusion; the total absence of the actual ethos of Christ from its aims; its eerie similarity to a convention of Star Trek enthusiasts gravely discussing strategies for really establishing a United Federation of Planets. But the greatest reason for holding the whole movement in contempt is that it is nothing more than a resentful effort to reenact the very history of failure whose consequences it wants to correct. Secularity was not imposed upon the Christian world by some adventitious hostile force. It simply is the old Christendom in its terminal phase.
To this extent Christians have much to learn from Sloterdijk’s narrative, even if they might demur from some of its details. That said, the lovely burden of historical consciousness of which I spoke above can also incapacitate the political and moral imagination. Too much “genealogy”—too much history, as Nietzsche warned—can produce a paralyzing fatalism. Sloterdijk himself is acutely aware of this, but it is notable how parochial is his assumption that the current situation of the West must determine the future of religion, or even just the Christian “sphere” of immunity. He may be right, of course, but I think he sometimes fails to appreciate the degree to which history is always also a realm of radical novelties. Genealogy tends to create the impression that cultural evolution is governed by an inflexible law of efficient and material causality, but in fact historical processes are constantly redirected by formal and final causalities that simply cannot be predicted.
The configurations of the old Christian order are irrecoverable now, and in many ways that is for the best. But the possibilities of another, perhaps radically different Christian social vision remain to be explored and cultivated. Chastened by all that has been learned from the failures of the past, disencumbered of both nostalgia and resentment, eager to gather up all the most useful and beautiful and ennobling fragments of the ruined edifice of the old Christendom so as to integrate them into better patterns, Christians might yet be able to imagine an altogether different social and cultural synthesis. Christian thought can always return to the apocalyptic novum of the event of the Gospel in its first beginning and, drawing renewed vigor from that inexhaustible source, imagine new expressions of the love it is supposed to proclaim to the world, and new ways beyond the impasses of the present.
The ultimate result, if Christians can free themselves from the myth of a lost golden age, may be something wilder and stranger than we can at present conceive, at once more primitive and more sophisticated, more anarchic in some ways and more orderly in others. Whether such a thing is possible or not, however, it is necessary to grasp that where we now find ourselves is not a fixed destiny. It becomes one only if we are unwilling to distinguish the opulent but often decadent grandeur of Christendom from the true Christian glory of which it fell so far short. The predicaments of the present are every bit as formidable as Sloterdijk’s diagnosis suggests, and our need for a global sphere of solidarity that can truly shelter the life of the whole is every bit as urgent as he claims. But it is also true that we are not actually fated to live “after God,” or to seek our shelter only in the aftermath of God’s departure. In fact, of all the futures we might imagine, that might prove to be the most impossible of all.
Trans. by Ian Alexander Moore
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