Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Christianity: Slave Morality or Anthropotechnics?

By Dean Dettloff

Fernando Niño de Guevara, Inquisitor
In On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche famously argued that Christianity bound humans to what he called “slave morality.” On his telling, morals are not absolute goods but relative, developing out of historical situations. Slave morality arose in response to what he calls “master morality,” which is characterized by strong will. Weak willed individuals, according to Nietzsche, unable to overcome the strong, responded by inventing morals to keep the strong in check. This invention, however, was not done out of love (despite its claims to the contrary), but out of resentment, fear, and pessimism. The weak, unable to overcome the strong, asserted themselves by the creation of arbitrary values. Although these values are presented as shining examples of altruism, they are haunted, says Nietzsche, by a hidden and embarrassing egoism. 

With the “death of God,” explored poetically by Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, these values were revealed to be empty shells, stunting the growth of human beings by privileging the weak over the strong. In the wake of this change, humans were finally liberated beyond the shackles of repressive morality. Freed, for better or worse, from the strictures of slave morals, human beings gain the ability to determine for themselves what they are to become. Now it falls to those who have ears to hear, the strong-willed, to rise above the chatter of those who do not yet know that God is dead, to make something of themselves and refuse to bend to the resentful will of the weak, a will most perfectly expressed in institutional religion. Nietzsche calls for a joyous affirmation of life and optimism, the releasing of forces long subdued by dry and repressive religious schemes. 

Nietzsche’s critique of Christian morality is damning, and indeed all too true all too much of the time (to paraphrase Merold Westphal). But can the history of Christianity be reduced to the history of values crafted by resentful victims? Contemporary German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk disagrees. “I concede that I am unsure whether a major event such as the ‘slave revolt in morality’ invoked so forcefully by Nietzsche ever occurred,” he writes in his recently translated book You Must Change Your Life (129). Sloterdijk suggests Nietzsche’s critical insights were important, yet unfortunately raised to an excessive scale. Instead, argues Sloterdijk, Christianity has always also been a fundamental source for the kind of strong-willed self-creation Nietzsche puts forward as a positive project. “Christianity undeniably has a share of the copyright on the word Übermensch, incurring royalties even when it is used for anti-Christian purposes” (128). What we know as religion, argues Sloterdijk, is a vast wealth of what he calls “anthropotechnologies,” that is, the technologies of human beings by which humans create and transcend themselves. 

Nietzsche’s critique of religion, on Sloterdijk’s reading, fails to see the deep, implicit practices, anthropotechnology, at work within religious culture. In fact, Sloterdijk goes so far as to say there is no such thing as “religion,” per se, but rather “misunderstood spiritual regimens” (3). Religious discourse is not simply a cover for resentment. Instead, Sloterdijk suggests spiritual regimens should be examined for the ways in which they help (or fail to help) human beings in the process of transcending their given situations. Thus the better question becomes who is better trained, better equipped, for the circumstances of life and, most importantly, the overcoming of those circumstances. Where Nietzsche accused Christianity of an insidious slave morality, Sloterdijk sees in it the possibility for rigorous and healthy exercises that allow humans to become spiritually strengthened--Christianity, at its best, is a technology for the creation of better human beings, not reducible to a clever and disingenuous means of suppressing the strong. Thus Sloterdijk suggests we must look to the real practices at work in religion, not simply the doctrinal or dogmatic content it professes. 

Saint Francis of Assisi
Of course, suggesting the analysis of practice is more revelatory than the analysis of theory is nothing new, nor is the decision to examine religion as a set of habits and practices (as for example in Wittgenstein or certain versions of pragmatism). Indeed, Nietzsche himself was attempting to do just that, looking to the secret motives behind Christian actions instead of the doctrines of pity and mercy which cover them over. The novelty of Sloterdijk’s theory lies in its insight that the practices housed in traditions we call religion need not be viewed as mere descriptions of everyday life, but may in fact be employed for the radical change of everyday life—hence the title of his book, You Must Change Your Life. Drawing positively from Nietzsche, Sloterdijk’s understanding of spiritual exercises presents the possibility of self-creation, with all its opportunities and dangers. Far from being a necessarily “conservative” or “regressive” force, spiritual practices contain the tools for extending ourselves beyond ourselves, training ourselves for a Kingdom which is both coming in the future and yet already among us. 

Sloterdijk’s work on religion hardly does away with Nietzsche’s critiques, which function as necessary, even prophetic correctives to the pathologies present in Christianity. And Sloterdijk’s own position provides as many ambiguities as it does clarifications. But in showing how Christianity also corresponds to, and in fact anticipates, the positive dimension of Nietzsche’s project, Sloterdijk offers Christian thinkers the possibility of thinking along new, creative lines. Instead of maintaining a status quo or bandying about abstract ideas with no ties to concrete experience, we might relate to the rich wealth of the Christian tradition and its practices with a mind toward putting it to work in the process of confidently becoming better persons, the kinds of persons who are at home in a world of peace and who refuse to settle for a world of resentment, fear, scarcity, and violence. Sloterdijk rightly notices the ways in which Christianity is fixed on the task of conversion, of radically changing ourselves and our activity such that the world itself must change. At its best, this is what religion has always, traditionally, striven to do.

Dean Dettloff is a Junior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies, pursuing an MA Philosophy, where he is working on a thesis examining cynicism and creative action.

First image used from wikipedia, in the Public Domain. Second image used is also from wikipedia, in the Public Domain.


  1. Nicely done, Dean. The reformational tradition of thought has from its inception tried to think about religion as the "encounter" between the world of creatures and its Creator looked at from and so as to see and acknowledge the creaturely side of the encounter. Is there a way of triangulating the "conversation" between Nietzsche and Sloterdijk to include a Dooyeweerd or a Vollenhoven, or perhaps an Olthuis to make the discussion up-to-date? Sloterdijk's functional view of religion is certainly a view from and about the creaturely side of things, but it also seems not to imply or rather need a Creator side, as if the Creator is a way of thinking through what it means to move into our creaturely future in hope or something like that. I could be convinced that moving into our creaturely future in hope is an important part of seeing and acknowledging the creaturely side of the "encounter" or "covenant" (coming together) of world of creatures and its Creator. But I would hope for such movement was responsorial in its origin, the taking up of a prior divine invitation to be and to work-with: with each other to be sure but above all with our Creator. Is this a way of triangulating the discussion that learns from both of your interlocutors (especially Sloterdijk as I read you), in a way that acknowledges a transcendent presence and agency at the same time?

    1. Thanks for your perceptive and suggestive comment, Bob, which articulates exactly my own worry about Sloterdijk's materialist reading of religious discourse. As a thinker thoroughly permeated by sociology and systems theory a la Luhmann, Sloterdijk is prone to "flatten out" religious discourse in such a way as to miss the "covenantal" dynamic at work within it. Thus while Sloterdijk profoundly investigates the creative creaturely side of religion, an investigation to which Christian thinkers today should be sensitive (I think), there's no denying that his work can and should be supplemented.

      Curiously, there is a sort of gift/response dynamic at work in Sloterdijk, but it begins, in good materialist fashion, with the placenta rather than God. As a committed (though complicated) atheist, Sloterdijk naturally can't account for God's gifting/calling to be. But while Sloterdijk might be hard to convince, putting him in dialogue with gift/call strands in the Reformational tradition could yield new paths forward for Reformational philosophy. Because Sloterdijk is an atheist who is nonetheless extremely charitable to religious concerns and phenomena, the Reformational tradition could stand to blossom in a way not unlike its fruitful dialogue with Derrida, another complicated atheist.

  2. Yes, an approach similar to Jim Olthuis' patient learning from/criticism of Derrida is most probably a model for how to approach a thinker like Sloterdijk. Where you see yourself in relation to him and what he has to teach you (at least in your response to me) is also exemplary in my book. In addition, it seems to me that the nineteenth and subsequent centuries have bequethed us quite a number of "complicated atheists" who make for fruitful discussion partners if we are to carry on the Reformational Christian and deeply spiritual project of attending to this world in all its dynamically structured creaturely mystery as the very site in which we meet and serve our God. Zizek might be one of these as well. I think of all the many things that Lambert Zuidervaart has learned from Adorno and Habermas. Nietzsche certainly was one. Jeffrey Stout is a good example within the pragmatist tradition or so I understand from Ron Kuipers. We do not lack for interlocutors from whom we've things to learn and since we are all creatures living in God's world there are no religious or ideological differences that prove so perverse as to preclude insight into the world we all share. When we Christians start to feel ever more misunderstood and embattled (whether rightly or wrongly), it becomes hard to remember that. But halleluia there are the adventurers among us whose trust in the guidance of the Spirit allows them the freedom and confidence to find help wherever it is to be found. And you seem to be emerging as one of those. I am prepared for now to buckle before your swash; I am eager to see what more you come up with.

  3. The early Christian community functioned as a sect, much like Judaism during the time of Jesus. Sects and counter-cultures generally defy the broader world, they are moralizing and a sect is exclusivistic. The Christian community in the first three centuries is defined by these characteristics.