No Turning Back

Peter Sloterdijk’s ‘After God’
Michael Burris Johnson, “Dreamtime of Reason,” portrait of Peter Sloterdijk, 2014 (Used with artist’s permission)

The celebrity philosopher, which is an endangered species in continental Europe, is already extinct in our Anglophone world. True, occasionally an enterprising denizen of one of our philosophy faculties (Daniel Dennett, for example, or David Chalmers) succeeds in cultivating a public profile, and in selling an appreciable number of books to stand unread on shelves in the backdrops of Zoom conversations. Sometimes an exotic foreign theorist with a knack for performance art (Slavoj Žižek, for example) catches our attention, at least out of the corner of an eye. But, since the days of Bertrand Russell, no native English-speaking philosopher has achieved any real popular prominence. Partly, no doubt, this is attributable to a general cultural decline in intellectual aspiration, but it is mainly the result of the dominance among us of the analytic tradition, which is so often a perfect combination of formal tediousness and conceptual banality. Having rendered our philosophy boring, we have also rendered it inconspicuous.

So there really is no phenomenon in the Anglosphere today comparable to that of Peter Sloterdijk. In Germany and in much of Western Europe, he enjoys the kind of public visibility that we now reserve for bad popular novelists or second-tier entertainers, even though he makes little effort to accommodate his thought to the limitations of demotic culture, and even though he is so prolific that scarcely anyone can keep pace with his work. Part of his appeal lies in the sheer flamboyance of his ideas, and just how many of his readers truly understand him is impossible to say. But that flamboyance should not be mistaken for superficiality, and his fame should not be dismissed as something accidental or unearned. Sloterdijk poses genuinely interesting questions that provoke one to think in new and sometimes uncomfortable ways about oneself, or one’s culture, or the world as a whole; and the answers he provides are often fascinating, or at least fruitfully infuriating.

There is also a kind of ostentatious world-weariness in his writings that can be oddly enchanting. In one sense, his thought is burdened by that deep historical consciousness that seems to be the peculiar vocation of continental philosophy in its long post-Hegelian twilight. As a result, he possesses too keen a hermeneutical awareness of the fluidity, ambiguity, and cultural contingency of philosophy’s terms and concepts to mistake them for invariable properties that can be absorbed into some timeless propositional calculus in the way so much of Anglo-American philosophy imagines it can. But, in another sense, it is precisely this “burden” of historical consciousness that imparts a paradoxical levity to his project. Many of his books feel like expeditions in search of secrets from the past: forgotten cultural ancestries, effaced spiritual monuments, occult currents within the flow of social evolution. Whether one admires or deplores his thought—or has a distinctly mixed opinion of it, as I do—no one could plausibly claim that it is dull.

The appearance of this volume, therefore, naturally excites certain expectations. To a great extent, sadly, the book itself disappoints them. Ideally, After God would be a continuous, concentrated, and definitive statement on the religious themes that Sloterdijk has addressed often in the past but only obliquely. Instead, it is a collection of disparate essays and lectures, some of them previously published, and as a result it suffers from more than a few needless repetitions, exasperating lacunae, and tantalizingly abortive streams of reflection. Nonetheless, if read with a degree of patience, it does provide a fairly full vision of Sloterdijk’s understanding of the cultural and historical situation of modern humanity. His is definitely a picture of the world that comes into being “after God”—which is to say, after the “death of God,” modern culture’s loss of the encompassing horizon of ultimate meaning that formerly shaped and sustained human existence. And even if the picture as given here is incomplete, it still abounds in interesting and occasionally dazzling details.

 

Sloterdijk is himself, I should note, manifestly incapable of religious belief, and to some extent he clearly regards such belief as a culturally and psychologically exhausted possibility (even if, as Nietzsche noted long ago, not everyone has yet heard the news of the Old Man’s demise). But there is nothing triumphalist about his atheism. His project—controversially so when he first appeared on the scene—is very much in the tradition of Nietzsche and Heidegger, and he is keenly aware that the story of the genesis of modernity is also the genealogy of an all-but-inescapable metaphysical nihilism. Like his two problematic predecessors, he is disdainful of the canonical narrative of “Enlightenment,” and wants to think his way past the complacent “humanism” of the modern age, with its destructive anthropocentrisms, egoisms, and obliviousness to the mystery of the world. He is neither as apocalyptic nor as militantly melancholic as either Nietzsche or Heidegger, but at the same time he is perhaps more conscious than they were of the real peril of an age in which the faiths that once provided our cultural and psychological paradigms have been evacuated of their power to persuade or inspire.

The inseparability of those paradigms—the cultural and the psychological—is a guiding principle of Sloterdijk’s thought. He employs the language of psychology and psychotherapy with far more comfort than most philosophers do, but he feels free to do so in large part because he does not limit the psychological to the realm of individual temperament. For him, the course of cultural development and the course of psychic evolution are one and the same process as viewed from different vantages. Thus he frequently speaks in terms of “psycho-political” history or of the different epochs of human “ensoulment.” He sees human history not merely as a chronicle of changing material and social conditions, but also as a record of the changing forms of interiority that define the human “essence.” We are historical beings; even our most inward souls are historical constructions; and this is principally because we possess language. “The doctrine of the human as the being through which there is speech inevitably assumes a radicalized mediumistic form.” Sloterdijk even speaks sympathetically of the traditional Catholic practice of exorcism, rooted as it is in “pre-Christian shamanism,” because it wisely presumes a concept of the soul as a house or open ravine through which spiritual forces come and go.

Given the essential plasticity of our nature, the primary question we ought to ask ourselves is how we have come to be “ensouled” as we have. How have we arrived at our understanding of ourselves as self-creating subjects, beings whose proper essence is absolute rational autonomy, inhabiting a world that exists for us only as an object to be exploited by our will to power? And then we should ask ourselves the further question of whether, in consequence of this psycho-political story, we have now effectively destroyed our capacity for what Sloterdijk calls “co-immunity” against the historical pathogens that threaten us.

 

Behind the carnival mask he often chooses to wear there is a serious philosopher.

Just about any summary of Sloterdijk’s larger philosophical project is likely to sound a bit preposterous. I suspect he fully intends that it should. But behind the carnival mask he often chooses to wear there is a serious philosopher with his gaze fixed on the real predicaments of our nature and of our historical situation as late-modern human beings. His magnum opus (to this point, at least) is his sprawlingly immense, compulsively engrossing, and occasionally bizarre trilogy, Spheres, a work of impressive originality and wanton idiosyncrasy. It is impossible to summarize, but at its heart lies a kind of psycho-physical version of the myth of Eden. We all begin our existence in the safety of the womb, the “intra-uterine” space where we float serenely in our little amniotic seas, enveloped in the sheltering spheres of our placentas. Our first experience of otherness—our first intuition of ourselves as differentiated from the cosmos as a whole—is in fact the experience of the tissues that enclose and protect us. This state is then succeeded, but not necessarily superseded, by a maternal embrace, and then by countless other sheltered clearings in the darkness of being. But that first home will always remain a potent memory pervading and shaping our individual, social, and spiritual lives.

The drama of human existence, therefore—both personal and social—has always been the search for, and the creation of, new, more durable spheres of immunity from the world’s bare, inhospitable essence; and the scope of these spheres, over the course of time, has expanded, from the most animal and local to the most ideal and universal. The den, the village, the state, the empire, the international liberal order; nature’s capricious bounties, the cultivated field, the clustered village, the ramifying city, the City of Man; the local temenos, the tribal cult, the gods and spirits of nature, the higher powers in the heavens, the ever-more universal spiritual authorities, the ever-more “vertically” transcendent spiritual principles—God Most High. All are spheres of community and “co-immunity.” All have their “psycho-historical” causes and occasions and calamities. And all of them can be—and in fact have been—shattered in the course of our journey toward our present state.

No doubt there is more than a hint of playful perversity in Sloterdijk’s “placental” interpretation of human history and psychology; but there is also a powerful moral intuition regarding the nature of human dependency, on others and on the world around us. Moreover, it is not his intention to provide a clinical diagnosis of some “illusion” that must be overcome. As Freudian as Sloterdijk’s language sometimes sounds, he has little patience for Freud’s dourly “enlightened” belief that we must mature beyond this nostalgia for the womb, or beyond the “infantile” fantasies that sustain us. By the same token, as Heideggerean as his sense of humanity’s historical essence is, Sloterdijk shares little of Heidegger’s lugubrious devotion to the myth of a lost first moment of ontological purity. In fact, he regards his “spherology” as a corrective to Heidegger’s curiously lonely picture of Dasein’s place in the world. It is a “spatialization,” as he puts it, of Heidegger’s narrative of human “thrownness” (Geworfenheit). We arrive in existence not within the featureless “there” of the displaced man wielding his hammer in indigent or heroic solitude; rather, we are placed from the beginning within sites of relationship, both interpersonal and inter-animal—sites that nurture whatever powers of fruition we might possess, and shelter us from the “monstrosity” of a world encountered an sich. For just this reason, even the homelessness of late-modern humanity is not an inescapable destiny from which “only a god can save us.”

That said, Sloterdijk believes that humanity has experienced no more consequential “psycho-historical” transition than that of the Axial Age, which was the beginning of a history of progressive estrangement from the most primordial and particular forms of human belonging, and therefore also the beginning of humanity’s incessant search for ever-more exalted and secure spheres of immunity. Sloterdijk’s pointedly sardonic view of the tale of “Enlightenment” is directed not only at the pontifical privileges the tale is meant to confer on its tellers—the sort that flowered in the Jacobin Terror, as well as in all the “rationalist” atrocities and coercions that followed. It is directed also at the naïveté of those who do not recognize that modern “Enlightenment” is, for both better and worse, the culmination of a very long history of religious revolutions and liberations. For at least two and a half millennia, humanity has been the psycho-historical product of an ancient impulse to move away from barbaric superstition toward a “high culture” of rational adherence to some elevated and unified spiritual principle—Brahman, Tao, the Good beyond Being, the One God—and thus to move out of the ritual slaughterhouses of cult and into schools of doctrine.

From the start, this process has involved a certain impulse of the soul away from its first organic, local shelters and toward more abstract citadels of certitude. With this, inevitably, has come a certain estrangement from life. Hence this impulse has often expressed itself as the pursuit of a wisdom that transcends the world, a quest for release or moksha, a contemptus mundi that frequently becomes a neurotically fastidious fear of being touched. The impulse reaches an extreme expression in those virtuosos of despair whom the developed religions regard as holy or wise or uniquely illumined. These are souls for whom the absolute exaltation of a single incorruptible principle of spiritual “truth” is a call to unremitting remorse, a measureless psychic labor of repentance, a search for ultimate release only in a realm beyond the triviality of common humanity. The mystic in a state of fused contemplation has returned to something like that aboriginal, intra-uterine state of “floating”—but now in the “womb” of the One God, which is the most impregnable sphere of immunity imaginable.

The chapter of After God devoted to Gnosticism, while the most uneven in its scholarly grasp of the materials, offers an acute interpretation of the gnostic impulse as the characteristic gesture of this “Axial” ascent into an ever-more vertical transcendence. It is the same drive or pathos that one finds in the Johannine distinction between being “in” the world and being “of” it. All the high dualisms of the Axial Age contributed to humanity’s increasing mastery over any number of instrumentally useful distinctions: soul and thing, soul and mechanism, subjectivity and objectivity, purpose and tool, and so on. And the “monotheologizing” process by which higher levels of divinity progressively subordinated and expelled intermediate divine realms and powers—a process that reached one of its most consequential zeniths in the first creation account in Genesis, where the creator God is depicted as radically superior to his creation—was also the progressive ensoulment of human beings as isolated sovereign selves, individuals in the image of the one God Most High, fully realized persons, and finally modern subjectivities.

The Christian story brings this history to one of its epochal watersheds. In the Gospel there is a radical assault upon all the mediating structures of patriarchal authority—all the religious and social institutions, all the established offices of pedigree and privilege, all the nested stations of kin, people, kingdom, empire, and priesthood—by the individual soul’s claim of an immediate filiation to the One God. For Sloterdijk, Christ is “God’s bastard,” the Father’s natural child, as it were, conceived and born outside all legitimate lines of inheritance and all licit structures of authority. And his anti-patriarchal revolt became in time a license granted to every soul: now each of us, in our individual humanity, liberated by this social and spiritual apostasy, can become God’s bastard too, someone in whom God directly dwells as Father. At the same time, and by the same logic, a new order of social and political desire was implanted in human nature: that of “infinite egalitarianism,” a passage from the psycho-politics of command and obedience to one of equal self-determination, the transformation of vertical into horizontal difference.

In any case, the old pieties and enchantments are irretrievable.

Here again Sloterdijk’s favored image is exorcism, which should be understood, he believes, as a kind of purification of a sacred space, a cleansing of the Temple. The soul was once conceived “neither as a theater nor as a factory, as is typical of the modern age, but rather as a sanctuary in which no image was allowed to be on display except that of the god-man—whose image, in turn, had to represent an indescribable God.” In driving out the more elemental spiritual forces that once reigned with such capriciousness in nature, society, and the soul, the One transcendent principle of the Axial Age also became the source of a sovereign selfhood. This is because the expulsion of evil spirits from the soul had to be completed by the subsequent “entrance of a bright principle, which, as warden of the purified soul, became its new monitor and source of inspiration.” The soul thus underwent a change of possession: now it was the Spirit of God himself that was at work within it.

This purification of the self’s inner precincts may have been a thoroughly religious experience, but it was also a crucial episode in the history of Enlightenment, and thus of secularization. For, when that most elevated of sheltering spheres finally shattered—as it had to do—the sovereign self became the sole remaining sanctuary of whatever mysteries might be left. All the other possibilities of shelter had been successively exhausted, and had then been assumed into that ultimate transcendence, and had finally disappeared with it.

Not that the longing for those other shelters has ever abated. In the aftermath of God’s departure, humanity’s attempts to retreat again into a protective sphere have taken many forms. For some, the holy liberty of God’s bastards became an idealist and then psychotherapeutic struggle to fortify the besieged ego against the divine depths of the unconscious. All the offices of religious comfort now had to be discharged by the soul itself, through a ceaseless self-invigilation and self-absolution. For others, the withdrawal of religion in advanced societies made it possible for faith to become an individuated experimental regime—a “will to believe,” understood as a kind of private, constructivist therapy or psychic hygiene, naturally tending in the direction of mysticism. (Sloterdijk considers William James the most impressive advocate of this post-religious, thoroughly Americanized religion-as-vitamin-supplement.) For others, there are fideistic fanaticisms and reactionary dogmatisms to fill in the absences left by the withering away of a living faith.

In any case, the old pieties and enchantments are irretrievable. With no God to watch us, there really is no sin to be resolved before his gaze, and so no power that can reconcile us to, or rescue us from, indecipherable fate. The modern human being wants not to obey a higher power but to be that power. As soon as God and the soul had been liquidated, we were left with only the world as a brute event. In this “hyper-immanent” space, a purposeless energy idly unfolds around us, with no fingerposts to guide us across the featureless terrain. The world has truly become a monster to us, and we, far from finding shelter in any redoubtable spheres of co-immunity, discover only that the controlled exodus toward final freedom that was promised to us by the myth of Enlightenment has proved instead to be a precipitate slide toward social and ecological disintegration, psychic vagrancy, and what Sloterdijk calls an unsheltered “heteromobility.”

The sciences, of course, may take no note of the world’s monstrosity, but philosophy must, and then must ask what we should now do. The answer is elusive, though. Religion, clearly, will not return to resume its old authority. Such religions as still exist among us are at most, in Sloterdijk’s view, local social subsystems at the edges of civic life. Even the churches, rather than truly organic associations of souls occupying the center of things, are marginal sodalities whose only real purpose is to nurture and control a deep melancholy over the impossibility of the church that was. Various simulacra of organic religion—therapeutic spiritualities, fundamentalisms, apocalyptic sects, integralist authoritarianisms, and so forth—may thrive for a time here or there. Religious yearning may briefly increase wherever the welfare state begins to withdraw or civil society becomes too chaotic. But we have found no true sphere of social co-immunity adequate to our era of globalized “hyper-polities” and ecological crisis. And even private immunity can be preserved over time only within the embrace of such a sphere.

Sloterdijk identifies three kinds of immune system that he regards as necessary for human existence: the biological (naturally), the social (which consists of solidarity and shared support), and the symbolic or ritual (which grants human beings power from higher sources whenever they feel themselves to be powerless). The third of these has been weakened irreparably by secularization and individualism, while the second has been subjected to continuous dilutions and dissolutions. We still have not discovered any efficient system of co-immunity for the global society that is now emerging, or devised any new shelters against the monstrosity of a world of empty fate.

       

If I have given the impression that Sloterdijk’s grand narrative is simply a tale of decline, it is only because I have confined myself to his critique of a certain standard narrative of the modern. He believes, it is true, that in an age of global ecological crisis and of social and political fragmentation, something like religion’s power for creating community and solidarity is dearly needed. He notes the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of faith with a certain wry ruefulness. He heartily detests, for instance, the irreverent consumerism of tourists wandering through cathedrals dressed for the beach and taking photographs. But he has no desire to return to the myths or hierarchies of the past. Nor does he rage against technology in the abstract, or even mournfully resign himself to it in a fit of Heideggerean anomie. From the moment a human being cracked one rock with another, our destiny was to employ ordered force against disordered force in order to achieve our ends, and we cannot hope for a better future that will not also be a feat of technological prowess.

What Sloterdijk believes we really require is a new sphere of solidarity that can encompass all life.

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. 

After God
Peter Sloterdijk
Trans. by Ian Alexander Moore
Polity
$24.95 | 280 pp.

Published in the July/August 2021 issue: 

David Bentley Hart is a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His most recent book is Roland in Moonlight (Angelico Press).

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