The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 3 (Fall 2015)

Can You Change Your Life? Reflections on Peter Sloterdijk and the Confoundments of Religion in Our Time

Charles Mathewes

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 3)

In “The Figure in the Carpet,” Henry James fashioned a failed semiotic detective story, a foiled epistemological treasure hunt, a tale as acute as it is exquisite. The plot is simple: A nameless protagonist, a young literary striver in London, is tormented by a clue, dropped by the respected novelist Verecker, during a weekend at a country house, that a secret pattern lurks in his, Verecker’s, books. This fundamental theme, this core idea, as yet undiscovered, driving all his work, is “the figure in the carpet.” The story unfolds inevitably from there, as the striver tries and fails to uncover what that secret is. Later, others claim, possibly accurately, to have unlocked the answer, and they report, via correspondence, that they have the great author’s imprimatur on their analysis. But then the self-proclaimed discoverers die; Verecker dies; and everyone else who possibly knew the answer dies; and the secret dies with them. The story ends with the young striver, no longer quite so young, infecting, as it were, another person with the exegetical obsession that has ensnared him.

“The Figure in the Carpet” must be considered among James’s most prophetic works. Despite the noisier claims of a gothic ghost story like “The Turn of the Screw,” this work remains for me James’s spookiest and most postmodern. The puzzles of epistemology it explores are almost Pynchonian in their paranoia, and Borgesian in their bafflements. To ponder the story is to confront the question of what parts of our world are flagrantly obvious to some (when asked for a clue at one point, the novelist Verecker replies “I’ve shouted my intention in [the critic’s] great blank face!”) and utterly invisible to others; it puzzles over the fundamental conditions of our epistemic solitude, and perpetual surprise, at what others have always already known. In a world of vast and radical cultural diversity—and James’s was the first real generation for which that sort of diversity could come, however faintly, into widespread view—the befuddlement the story explores is a situation increasingly available to us; James even hints it may just be our fate.

Given that we live in a world with manifestly different “obviousnesses,” with multitudinous and contradictory “common senses,” and given that all of us must in the end rely on one of them, what are we to do? From at least Montaigne forward, the struggle to recognize and then learn to live with this diversity has been one of the most enduring epistemological and political projects of modernity. At their heart, James’s works analyze human efforts to navigate these archipelagoes of otherness; his characters are always coming up against the varieties of human experience, to adapt a line from his brother William. In this one, the tension is refined and accentuated by the palpable proximity of the incommunicate mentalities. Nothing substantial in the way of language or class or culture separates the nameless narrator from Verecker. The only distinction is that one of them knows, while the other does not.

I kept thinking about this story while I was reading Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life.1 Not because I think Sloterdijk is our age’s Verecker, and not because I am the story’s nameless young reviewer. (For starters, I’m not that young.) But Sloterdijk’s book represents his best effort to identify religion’s “figure in the carpet,” its real meaning, from the perspective of someone who is himself resolutely not religious, in the curiously ironic and postmodern way that so many European and American intellectuals are not religious. It is his attempt to bridge this chasm between belief and unbelief—to explain the world of religion, and in fact to show that it’s not a different world after all. Of course, it’s about much more than that. Indeed, much, much more: While it begins by purporting to be about religion, it ends by claiming to have named not just the modern condition but the fundamental dynamic of the human situation. Indeed, it proposes to reinterpret religion on the way to a global redescription of the human as a “practicing animal,” a creature who needs to “make itself,” and perpetually remake itself, in order to be fully human. The question, then, is whether this account can comprehend the “data” that religion, historically and today, offers for analysis.

Toward the Anthropotechnical

A professor of philosophy and aesthetics at Karlsruhe School of Design in Germany, Sloterdijk is not unique in undertaking such a magnum opus et arduum. It has increasingly become apparent in the past several decades that the difference between belief and unbelief is not a difference in stages of human development, with belief being the wishful adolescence of the species and unbelief its clear-eyed maturity. Despite the clamorous yappings of the so-called New Atheists, whose views are neither very new nor morally serious enough to earn the label “atheist,” serious philosophical, sociological, and even demographic scholarship points to an inescapable fact: Religion is not going away; belief is not withering with the expansion of voting or antibiotic use or gender equality. Our societies are not secularizing so much as pluralizing, becoming sites that host multiple and quite radically different ways of being human in our common world, many of them religious. This is a different challenge from the one imagined by nineteenth-century positivists, and we would be better off taking our bearings from people like the James brothers than from Auguste Comte or Ludwig Feuerbach or Karl Marx.

Not everyone realizes the challenges we face, but many have grasped at least part of the problem and are trying as best they can to address it. Recent years have seen a remarkable “turn to religion” among bien-pensant intellectuals in Europe. Consider the late Jacques Derrida’s shift toward messianic thinking, Jürgen Habermas’s recent work on the rhetorical power of religious symbolics, Alain Badiou’s formulation of a “New Paul,” or Giorgio Agamben’s idea of, as his book title has it, Homo Sacer:2 In these works and others, “political theology” has returned, often as an attempt—perhaps a last-ditch one—to save something of the radical core of 1968 that gave so many of these thinkers their start. Whether any of this amounts to a scholarly advance in our understanding of religion, or even of the nature and challenges of our societies’ pluralism, is another matter altogether.

In this context, Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life is genuinely welcome. He recognizes that the older secularist battles are in some important ways beside the point. He sees that the real issue is what to do with the ever-growing plurality of beliefs and behaviors we manifest. He knows that our common life is best enriched not by refusing to talk directly and publicly about this diversity of beliefs but by engaging in such intercourse as we can have with one another on just these matters. His book is by no means perfect, for reasons I will go into, but we can forgive its self-regarding, self-referential, and parochial character because its argument at least has the advantage of being genuinely fresh, of manifesting the advantage of actually new thinking. But has he found the figure in the carpet? Has he managed to find for us a global key to all our mythologies?

Well, what does his vision amount to? Most basically, Sloterdijk recontextualizes what we call “religion” as simply one extended episode in a much longer and wider history of human effort at self-transformation, which he calls “anthropotechnics.” For him, there is no such thing as religion; it is a modern invention that tries to distinguish a cluster of practices in our lives that are somehow more continuous with premodern practices than others are. And such an effort, he thinks, is absurd. All we really have are practices cannibalized from the corpses of earlier cultural configurations of belief, behavior, and ritual. To label some as “traditional” and “religious” and some as innovations is to miss their most interesting facets—interesting both in how they retain continuity with past practice, and in how they innovate from them.

What he offers, then, is not a theory of religion but a “general ascetology,” a study of how humans exist within three “immune systems”—societal, psychological, and what he calls “anthropotechnical”—which collectively (and concentrically) give the human sufficient integrity to inhabit a not entirely hospitable world with enough stability to flourish, more or less, over the course of a typical human life. From this perspective, “all history is the history of immune system battles,” he says, intentionally echoing Marx. The story of what we call “religion” is just one moment in that history. From this base, Sloterdijk retells the history of the modern world, then the Middle Ages, then antiquity, as a series of attempts at human self-fashioning. In modernity, where he spends most of his time, he charts the emergence of a “general training consciousness” that emerges from modern peoples’ “unscrewing from religious codes” and the “informalization of asceticism”; this eventuates in the development of an ethical “acrobaticism,” a regime of practices for self-transformation that he sees saturating modern life, particularly the twentieth century. As he puts it, in the typically inelegant translation, “Modernity … secularized and collectivized the practicing life by breaking the long-standing asceticisms out of their spiritual contexts and dissolving them in the fluid of modern societies of training, education and work.” (He seems not to notice the tension between his critique of “religion” as a modern concept and his unrepentant commitment to a secularization myth of modernity, but let that lie for now.) Sloterdijk tracks the development of this modern “acrobatic ethics” across the past few centuries, notes our movement from “production” to “practice” or exercise, remarks upon the importance of “repetition” as a technique, and in general seeks to sketch the structure of the “practicing life” in its various moments as a sort of abstract, functionalist philosophical anthropology. The aim of all this, as he says, is self-transformation, the revolutionizing of our very being from within. In broad terms, Sloterdijk’s project is materialist and naturalizing, offering a “natural history” of the human in loosely skeptical Humean terms, with a politically Marxist (or post-Marxist) materialist spin on it as well.

The Seduction of Re-interpretation

The ambition of this work is obviously vast, and to accomplish its aims the author uses an argumentative strategy that is nothing if not “big picture.” Basically, Sloterdijk aims to recontextualize the phenomena under observation—first of all modern “religious beliefs,” but quickly expanding to all forms of human practice in general—in the hope that he can thereby convince his readers that this recontextualization offers a more inclusive and coherent narrative. This is a popular and powerful method employed most often by thinkers who are hunting big philosophical game. In modernity, this approach was inaugurated by Hegel, and counts among its more recent practitioners the likes of Alasdair MacIntyre (After Virtue), Charles Taylor (A Secular Age), and Jonathan Israel (Radical Enlightenment)—all thinkers who have offered powerful and seductive re-interpretations of the entire modern world.3

Invariably this strategy irritates pedants, who feel more at home using a jeweler’s loupe to inspect one specimen than a telescope to see the whole landscape. They screech that the evidence has been manhandled, the narrative massaged beyond all recognition, the logical steps in the argument never firmly set in place, but merely juxtaposed in the hope that the audience won’t ask too many questions. Since I am at least partly a pedant, permit me a little space to complain in this way. Most basically, Sloterdijk exhibits an astonishing insouciance in parading his ignorance of the scholarship on the matters of which he treats. His reading is wide—indeed, for a book on the value of asceticism as a modern way of life, this one is singularly unable to resist temptation—but his learning is not particularly deep. In fact, he has no “learning” at all, in the sense of firm disciplinary knowledge of anything. Despite thirty-three pages of densely packed endnotes, in which he manages to discuss Thomas Mann, L. Ron Hubbard, Moroccan circus troupes (no, really), and the inevitable Slavoj Žižek—the European literati’s version of Oprah Winfrey, although without her firm aesthetic taste or moral fiber—what is remarkable is the absence of any mention of scholars of religion such as Talal Asad, Catherine Bell, Robert Bellah, Peter Berger, Robert Orsi, J. Z. Smith, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, and Anne Taves. The citations are parochially European, and even more so German. As a writer and thinker, Sloterdijk is part Friedrich Nietzsche, part Buckminster Fuller: not a huckster, exactly, but perhaps an untutored yet talented megalomaniac.

For all the book’s limitations, though, it is still an impressive effort. Perhaps inevitably, one finishes it thinking that it is more interesting than right, and interesting in ways that Sloterdijk may not fully appreciate. In one very basic thing, he is absolutely correct: Alongside the question “Why do some people still pray?” we ought to ask the question “Why do more and more people work out?” The story of modernity is best understood not as a story of decline but of advance, not the waning of something but the empowering of many other things; decline is largely a relative matter, a matter of our changing perspective. Our fixation on religious decline in the past century has led us to miss how the energies that the forms of religiosity previously captured remain active, coursing through our world. Sloterdijk’s main aim is to track those energies, back and forth, as they take different formulations throughout history. Recognizing that these energies are not going away is a major and worthwhile insight, and one that largely rewards the effort of sloshing through the translation’s muddy English.

Revelations Already Received

Despite that, the account ultimately disappoints, for several reasons. First, the story he tells, despite its self-presentation, isn’t new. Consider his basic anthropological claim (which is the closest approach the book makes to an original contribution), that the human is an open-ended creature who needs culture to be complete. This is commonsense sociology restated in his own neologisms. The German philosopher and anthropologist Arnold Gehlen made this point, powerfully, sixty years ago (although perhaps in part because of Gehlen’s unrepentant Nazism, Sloterdijk only grudgingly admits to his existence).4

Second, Sloterdijk’s reheated critique of religion as a modern category is disappointingly pedestrian. One of the major research fronts in the academic study of religion began with precisely this insight. It has been more than fifty years since Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s The Meaning and End of Religion (published in 1963) first made this point, even if more recent scholars like Talal Asad lead us to believe they stumbled upon it after reading Michel Foucault. (In fact, the point has premodern analogues, too: Augustine was at least as comfortable calling Christianity “the true philosophy” as he was describing it as religio, a concept that had complicated connotations for him.) Had Sloterdijk known about this work, it might have saved him some time—and his readers several hundred pages—and he could have used the rescued energy to explore more fully what should come after “religion,” which is one of the most topical questions in contemporary scholarship on religion. To do that, however, he would have had to explain how his rather self-referring theory of “anthropotechnics” moves the ball further downfield than did the work, say, of Gehlen, above.

And finally, the larger story of modernity as a story of growth as well as decline—this too is a revelation we have already received. It is at least as old as aristocratic critics of modernity such as Tocqueville and Nietzsche, and was thoroughly explored in the twentieth century by thinkers such as Max Weber and Foucault. Furthermore, Sloterdijk’s most powerful idea, that an imperative to change is latent in human culture, is remarkably akin to Charles Taylor’s discussion of modernity’s “drive to reform,” but Sloterdijk never mentions Taylor’s work. Of course, Sloterdijk formulates this imperative in a different idiom, and for a different audience, but it would have been handy had he looked around to others toiling in nearby fields.

The ur-Moment of Modern Individualism

Still, those are minor, in some ways pedantic, quibbles. The book’s main flaw is not its specious assertions of originality but the way it misrepresents reality, and thereby exemplifies the flaws of a much larger modern intellectual project. Sloterdijk’s “ascetology” proposes a phenomenology of human experience, that is, a description of what that “felt” experience is like. Even more centrally, it offers a phenomenology of religious experience. And this phenomenology is, I think, crucially flawed. It assumes that all religious experience—indeed, pretty much all experience—can be described in terms of autonomous agency, that is, agency determined fundamentally by the individual’s own initiative and effort. This assumption (which may be the first principle of the modernist creed) leads, I believe, to a mistaken picture of what religious belief looks like from the inside. Sloterdijk talks continually about our practices, our efforts to make ourselves into something other than what we are. For him, humans act out of their subjectivity in a fundamentally passive world. We have agency. Or, precisely, each I is a solo agent. Everything else is merely acted upon, by physics or instinct or gravity or whatever. Sloterdijk’s is an essentially lonely, not to mention exhausting, grammar of human life.

This exclusive emphasis on agency completely misses the way people often understand the changes in their lives, not in terms of what they do but in terms of what happens to them and, in some cases, what is done to them. Sloterdijk is not alone in this mistake; I would bet that nine out of ten readers of that last sentence would imagine that things “done to them” are almost by definition bad. And that just shows the degree to which we today are captive of a terrible picture of ourselves and our relation to the world.

To begin to get a better picture, ask yourself: Was I cared for by others, at least when I was a child? If I am in love, did I choose to fall in love? Did I decide what my vocation would be? In truth, many of the most mundane and the most momentous events in our lives happen because of a complicated dialectical dance between what we do and what we suffer—what, that is, is done to us. To imagine that we are essentially agents, that behind all the appearances of things happening to us is our own agency, or that of some other humans, and that we understand our lives most basically as a pattern established and shaped by practices that we do—this fundamentally traduces our own most basic experiences of life.

Martin Luther is famous for saying “Here I stand, I can do no other,” and inadvertently making himself thereby the archetypal example of the solitary person standing up to the clamorous pressures of the crowd. But few people realize that he finished that declaration with “My conscience is captive of the will of God.” This great ur-moment of modern individualism rests on Luther’s claim that he is unable to act, to do what his interlocutors wish him to do, that he is in fact, as he will spend many thousands of pages over the rest of his life making clear, an instrument of another, greater, actor—as, in his thought, we all inescapably are.

Luther wasn’t unusual in stating this so frankly. A claim like this is unusual neither among Luther’s fellow Christians nor among religious thinkers more generally. It is not unusual even when compared with the findings of putatively non-religious thinkers such as the Stoics, whose analyses of human agency, for all their longing for a radical autonomy of the self, frankly recognized how rare such autonomy was, and how accidentally (or graciously) it was bestowed. Indeed, one common feature of premodern (or anti-modern) depictions of human existence is their emphasis, not on the prospects of human freedom, but on the radical conditioned-ness and constrained-ness of human agency. It is we moderns who are unusual, in finding this emphasis odd. And it is only in modernity that we have begun to imagine ourselves as

self-begot, self-raised
by our own quickening power….
Our puissance is our own; our own right hand
Shall teach us highest deeds, by proof to try
Who is our equal.

That the voice speaking those noble and aspirational sentiments is Satan (in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book 5, lines 860−61, 864−66) ought to make us wonder whether this ambition is one that it is in our best interest to affirm.

It ought to make us wonder that, but it probably won’t. The reason it won’t seems invisible to Sloterdijk, as it often is to the rest of us moderns, at least most of the time. That reason is one of the crucial facts about religious life—and much premodern life—that make it so hard to get into focus for moderns in general, Sloterdijk among them. Here his ignorance of scholarship sabotages his project. For decades, scholars have explored the genuinely unprecedented quality attendant on modern religiosity, what they call its reflexivity, the peculiarly self-conscious way that people are religious in the modern world. Scholars have used insights from these studies to advance moderns’ understanding not just of their religiosity, but also of the nature of human agency in general. Consider the simple fact that modern people can know religion as a discrete and, in some important way, contingent part of themselves; because of the unavoidable fact of religious plurality, moderns know that their religious views are not natural or inevitable. Their religion is contingent, and the relaxed connection between their beliefs and their selves makes those beliefs easily begin to feel like a “preference,” an “option,” rather than a primordial attunement to the ontological basis of the cosmos. This is just as true for the “fundamentalists” among us, who can only be fundamentalists because they know there is another way to be; “fundamentalists” are, after all, intentionally opting out of a certain mode of being modern—but in the very act of “opting out,” they are affirming the more fundamental framework of agency into which modernity seduces us. (Scholars of fundamentalism from Martin Marty to Olivier Roy have made this case across different religions.)5

This inescapable reflexivity and imputed voluntariness make modern religiosity significantly discontinuous with earlier forms of the same phenomenon: Moderns think that our deepest convictions are always at best shellacked onto an undeniable, hence inescapable, exercise of human volition. The ironies of this situation are manifold: Modern religion, indeed, all modern agency, operates under what Peter Berger has called “the heretical imperative.” This “imperative” is indeed unquestionable, and so we are in the paradoxical situation of being, as it were, compelled to choose, heteronomously autonomous.6

Self-mastery of the Most Monadic Sort

We need not explore those paradoxes at all here; suffice to note that Sloterdijk’s presumption of the primacy of our agency reveals that he assumes this heretical imperative to be the natural human condition. He does not see how much of what he takes to be generically human is in fact distinctively modern. In this, he is a creature of the Enlightenment, equipped not only with the Enlightenment’s many virtues but also with some of its vices, including a smug, unquestioning, Whiggish confidence in the progress of history and a deep blindness to the parochialness of what the Enlightenment took as “common sense.” He projects his own mindset backward to include thinkers remarkably different, and distant, from him. Augustine is condemned, Marcus Aurelius is commended, Indian gymnosophists are seen as making choices akin to those made by early twentieth-century French aesthetes, and never is there any evidence that Sloterdijk has contemplated the possibility that these historically distant figures might see the world in a way very different from how he does. This blindness hampers his account of the past, when even “pagan” philosophers like the Stoics had a less reflexive understanding of human beings and their place in the world. It also damages his account of the phenomenology of religion, even today—even under conditions of “the heretical imperative.” Weber called himself “religiously unmusical,” and a similar condition afflicts Sloterdijk, but more generally, across his consideration of whole swaths of historical human behavior, religious and non-religious alike.

Consider his account of asceticism, arguably the most fundamental category in his discussion of anthropotechnics. Sloterdijk argues that asceticism was quarantined in Christian monasteries in late antiquity, although he misses how later Christian reformers (from Augustine through Calvin) pushed it perennially back into the world, into the saeculum. But fundamentally, he misses the inner logic of the monastic life. He presents that life as a frank expression of a desire for self-control: “Whoever joins the path of philosophical practice … does so not in full possession of their self-control, but because they realize a lack thereof—and at once in the hope … of one day mastering the art of self-governance.” The paradigm he assumes here is a withdrawal of the self from the world, a withdrawal that creates the possibility of talking about “the world” at all, of bringing “the world” as a whole into view, as if from a perspective fundamentally outside of it. This presumes that the self is what is hived off from the world. Asceticism, so understood, is primarily renunciatory, a matter of secession; its aim is autarkeia, self-mastery of the most monadic sort.

But this is not in fact what Christian asceticism was about, at least not as manifested in Christian monasticism, if we are to believe the testimony of Benedict’s Rule, or the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux, or Bonaventure, or Augustine. The aim was not control but compassion, charity, and above all mercy, a movement toward an ever-deeper communion among members, collectively beseeching God for God’s presence. And what goes for monasteries goes, for a thinker like Augustine, for the whole of the saeculum, the “world” in this dispensation. Saeculum autem hoc eremus est, he said once in a sermon: The world itself can be our hermitage. We needn’t flee to a monastery to live a holy life. Christian churches are best understood not as training camps for theological ninjas but as hospitals dedicated to the healing of wounded souls. (Augustine intentionally used the metaphor of “hospital” for the church, in contrast to the metaphor favored by his Pelagian opponents, who talked about the life of the faithful as a gymnasium—although even the Pelagians left space for the gracious energies of God.) To assume that the whole history of religious thought is uniformly a matter of the exercise of agency misses the fact that premodern thinkers understood the human not as primarily acting but primarily responding: responding, precisely, to a set of conditions and dynamisms, sociopolitical and metaphysical, that were seen as fundamental to the human condition.

Warring with Finitude, Longing for Infinitude

Seen in this light, Sloterdijk’s account is nothing more than a sloganeering version of the Nietzschean vision of the Superman—and a reheated and shallow version at that. Nietzsche understood the power and glory of asceticism, especially when used for (what he called) life. And he also understood that human “individualism” is a terrible misconstrual of who we are and what the cosmos is, and that human agency is not the most basic force in reality, and that our fantasy of being our own causa sui was simply another part of our blinkered (and post-Christian) bourgeois vision—what Nietzsche himself called “the best self-contradiction we have invented so far,” as if one could, “with more than Münchhausen’s audacity, pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness.”7 In large part precisely because he saw the inanity of this view, Nietzsche was the greatest tragic thinker of the modern age. This view also explains why he was so contemptuous of the formation of moderns, and particularly our formal education, regarding it as rendering us largely insensate to the full dimensions of human beings and the real perplexities of the human condition. Recall that Nietzsche was, first and foremost, a classical scholar, trying to recover for our world the vision of the Greeks and Romans; as such, he saw the emptiness of the sort of historical imagination that Sloterdijk presumes. Sloterdijk’s depiction of the ancient world as a place populated by people longing for yoga classes is precisely where Nietzsche prophesied the “last men” would end up. And he didn’t think that was a good thing; in fact, he called it nihilism.

I don’t think it’s nihilistic. I think there is a core vision of the good that is driving Sloterdijk’s proposal: a vision of endless human dynamism, creating ever-new kinds of creatures out of ourselves. But I suspect that that vision only partly describes the world we live in today, is far more ambiguous and ambivalent in itself, and has more tangled roots than Sloterdijk can allow. Modernity is definitely driven by a vision of reform, and that vision definitely has both distinct and indistinct religious roots. Thinkers from Nietzsche and Weber through Gerhart Ladner and Charles Taylor and Philip Gorski have repeatedly made this point.8 Sloterdijk’s book would have been much better, more profound, if he had contemplated that fact, and tried to account for it. And it most definitely would have made for a better and richer account of religious belief as itself not entirely different, in its inarticulacies, from the secular confidence that we ought, and consequently can, radically reform our own lives.

But Sloterdijk’s refusal to think about this, his almost faith-based confidence that this must be right, that there is no alternative to this vision of hyper-agency, is what makes him so interesting as a symptom of our age. His work crystallizes the correct opinions of a certain class—European intellectuals—and even more specifically a subspecies of that class, namely German post-1968 secular intellectuals. He is what Wittgenstein once called a bourgeois thinker—one who thinks “with the aim of clearing up the affairs of some particular community,” not of asking basic questions.9

The very radicality of Sloterdijk’s misapprehensions, the subterranean level at which his errors most properly belong, and the way in which he manages to miss the point all give us some sense of the particular difficulties we moderns have in coming to understand what often goes today under the label of “religion,” whether “traditional” or not. It is no surprise that those moderns to whom some such religion has been given, and who have taken it upon themselves to try to communicate it to other moderns—modern evangelists, if you will—have overwhelmingly tried to speak in tones of indirection and irony. It is the focus on the You, in Sloterdijk’s title, that these authors confront: How do we escape thinking we are the most important thing about ourselves?

Indeed, perhaps strategies of “indirect communication,” such as Kierkegaardian irony, Nietzschean aphorisms, and other modes of what Michael Sells has called in his book of the same title “mystical languages of unsaying” (University of Chicago Press, 1994) really are the best kind of rhetoric to communicate religious insights to so fundamentally and hopelessly irreligious an age as our own—to people so self-trained to misapprehend what is being said. But then, after saying that, I think: That cannot be the whole story because, seen in another light, no age is more religious, in many senses, than this one—consider the vast and unquestioning moral pressures put upon us by what Taylor has called “the drive to reform.” Certainly this age is no less religious than any other before it (when great piety was often paired with great inhumanity). Here we give due weight to the idea that, as Sloterdijk’s Rilkean imperative has it, you must change your life. Whence does this imperative, this must, arise? This imperative is most definitely felt by all, even if we typically misconstrue it in the thin terms of modern liberal individualism. So the question remains: How is it possible for religious insight to be delivered to a people simultaneously so fundamentally unattuned to its frequencies yet so unquestioningly driven by its energies?

Perhaps things are fundamentally no different on this front than they have ever been. Perhaps we have always been engaged in a battle against the bewitchment of our spirits by the means of our amour-propre. Signs and wonders abound, had we but eyes to see and ears to hear them. But this generation, like all before it, seeks signs on its own terms, and those terms will never be honored. Speaking confessionally, and perhaps perilously, from one religious perspective, I would say this: One core manifestation of the miraculous, one central thread in pretty much any revelation, is the rupturing, rapturing, and refiguration of our terms, their transformation and transfiguration into something altogether other. The problem is most deeply described not as the next step in anthropotechnics but as the ever-new, and ever-old, struggle of the human spirit at war with its finitude from the perspective of its longing for infinitude.

Sloterdijk might well dismiss this redescription, seeing it as one more version of “the error that theologians are ex officio constrained to make,” confusing the “vertical tension” of human subjectivity with God’s call. And admittedly, it’s not clear that there is any neutral ground on which to stand to deliberate about which side is right. It may just be that we are, on matters of this most fundamental issue, ships passing in the night, finally cut off from one another. That would be sad, but something’s being sad is not an argument against its being true. “You must change your life”: The dispute is in some ways about the grammar of this statement. Is it best said in the imperative, that you are the agent who will and must effect this change? Or is it better said in the indicative, so that you are the subject whose life is changed, perhaps by an agency beyond you? That is the crux of the debate. Sloterdijk’s proposal is to date the most systematic, perspicacious, orotund treatise for the former. I suspect that most of the religious folk I know—and I myself—would boost for the latter. It remains to be seen whether either side can make itself properly understood to the other. But we can at least thank Sloterdijk for presenting the issue as frankly, and as fully, as he has.


  1. Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics, trans. Wieland Hoban (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2013).
  2. See, e.g., Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001); Jürgen Habermas, Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002); Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).
  3. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981); Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650–1750 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).
  4. Arnold Gehlen, Man: His Nature and Place in the World, trans. Clare McMillen and Karl Pillemer (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1988), 109–10.
  5. See, e.g., Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, eds., Accounting for Fundamentalisms: The Dynamic Character of Movements (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), and Olivier Roy, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
  6. Peter L. Berger, The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1979).
  7. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to the Philosophy of the Future, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989), §21.
  8. Along with books mentioned already, see Gerhart Ladner, The Idea of Reform: Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959), and Philip Gorski, The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
  9. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, 2nd rev. ed., ed. G. H. Wright (Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 1998), 24e.

Charles Mathewes teaches at the University of Virginia, where he is Carolyn M. Barbour Professor of Religious Studies and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. His books include The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts in Dark Times (2010), Understanding Religious Ethics (2010), and A Theology of Public Life (2008).

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.3 (Fall 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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