Theater of Cruelty

Life is short, and it is urgent to make the right choices

Making the Heavens Speak: Religion as Poetry
Forfatter: Peter Sloterdijk
Forlag: Polity Press, (USA)
RELIGION / Religion constitutes a war against the spontaneous. Is there an equality between being an obedient citizen and being godly?


The Latin religion denotes a strictness in following rules pleasing to the gods. In this sense, true religion was from the beginning opposed to carelessness. Not just Augustine in his Of true religion [About true religion], but also the Roman Seneca and the Jew Jesus agreed that it is time to recognize the seriousness of life – life is short, and it is urgent to make the right choices. Religion, despite the term's many meanings, therefore constitutes a war against the spontaneous – to communicate that we are being observed and that every action counts.

That feeling that someone is watching, that it is urgent, that the truth must be revealed – this is what Sloterdijk calls in this book theopoesis. That the heavens speak is a poetic effect that occurs in the many areas of man's life. From various needs in the situations we find ourselves in, the voices of heaven – the gods, God – break forth. It can be when we feel that something is urgent, or when an unbearable life means that the world is bearable only if something beyond exists.

Or, to paraphrase Nietzsche, do we believe in God or gods not because we need them, but because we want to feel important? The winner, the pious, refuses to believe in chance. Since we are so convinced that we deserve to win, we believe in heavenly powers that confirm and guarantee this.

Religion is not only an expression of the loser's desperation and need for help, but also of the victor's demand for a deeper justification. At the same time, religion does not have to be either. Repetitive movements, asceticism, insomnia – all these are also theopoetic expressions of ways in which the heavens speak to us.

Peter Sloterdijk

Interesting proof of God

The Greek word theologeion, hence theology, was originally the name for a prop from the ancient Greek theatre. It was a platform on which an intervening deity stood to interrupt an intractable conflict between the parties in the play. Sloterdijk thus postulates a humorous, yet interesting proof of God – what he calls for the dramaturgical proof of god's existence: When there is a contradictory conflict that does not go anywhere, a god or goddess is needed who can intervene and unravel the situation – therefore there is the god or goddess.

Sloterdijk's many variations show that religion can be used for many different purposes. The German idealist JG Fichte stated that religion is useful only in so far as it can serve our moral education, and both Fichte and Hegel gave their lectures on Sundays.

The sophist Protagoras equated being an obedient citizen with being godly, which shows the sophist's strict functionalism and emphasis on social order. Religion has thus often justified what one wants to establish – and given it a sense of strict necessity.

Inherent religiosity

Friedrich Schleiermacher believed that this urge for the religious had more to do with an inherent religiosity and religious musicality than with a specific religious content. Across all cultures, people feel a calling, and in the religious market it is not natural that they choose the same path that their parents took. Let us remember all those who emigrated from Europe to America and left their parents' heritage and faith behind. Let us also think of all those who are today leaving what they have come from, since that is what they have to do to get closer the real thing. [See article on page 46, editor's note]

The brutality of violence can give us a sense of approaching something critical and important.

The religious seems to depend on what arouses our interest and draws us in. However, part of what interests us, and gives us a feeling that heaven is speaking, can be grounded in the incomprehensible, absurd and irrational. Rituals not only have a stabilizing and anchoring function, but can also be ways of making room for the bizarre, which will never cease to fascinate us humans and give us a feeling of witnessing something extraordinary.

The poetry of religion has nevertheless produced something that often hides and supplants the aesthetic origins. Because behind the seriousness of the social organisation, doctrines and warfare that one associates with religion, it can be difficult to remember that the religious is an aesthetic category. Again, Sloterdijk shows how the seriousness of violence also forms part of the theopoetic, how the brutality of violence can give us a sense of approaching something critical and important.

Subordinate to aesthetics

Sloterdijk constantly shifts from having a friendly attitude towards religion to criticizing it, and he does so at the same time. The presentation seems to be critical as it tends to portray religion more as subordinate to aesthetics than as something independent. In the book's various variations, Sloterdijk proves time and time again how the diversity of the religious is produced. It is something that allows one to appreciate the richness of the religious from a secular point of view, but also that a believer will be able to enjoy Sloterdijk's insights into the ways in which heaven is expressed.

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