REVIEW: Peter Sloterdijk. God’s Zeal: The Battle of the Three Monotheisms

Peter Sloterdijk. God’s Zeal: The Battle of the Three Monotheisms. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009

ISBN: 0745645062

$59.95. 166 pp.


Reviewed by ROBERT RIGGS, University of Bridgeport

In God’s Zeal: The Battle of the Three Monotheisms, Peter Sloterdijk warns “none of what will be said here can, whether theologically, politically or religion-psychologically, be thought of as harmless” (4). On the surface, this book might appear to be a study of comparative religion, but it is actually the author’s attempt to encourage greater dialogue on “the path of civilization” (160). In order to encourage this dialogue, Sloterdijk challenges the followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to question their beliefs when he asserts, “the civilizing process of the monotheisms will be complete once people are ashamed of certain statements made by their respective god” (121). Throughout the book Sloterdijk acts as a provocateur, while also offering insightful critiques and observations.   Sloterdijk takes a philosophical approach in his work (which was originally published in German) that draws from the writings of Nietzche and Heidegger to explain the development of what he terms the “messianic-expansionist mass” driving a “missionary impulse” at the core of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (4).  The starting point for his analysis of monotheism is Derrida’s statement that “The war over the appropriation of Jerusalem is today’s world war”; in God’s Zeal, Sloterdijk identifies monotheism’s weakness and offers his solution to the problem he believes it presents. However, despite the provocative title, Sloterdijk rarely compares the monotheisms to one another. Instead, the book reads as an extended philosophical thought experiment with political undertones.  Moving from pre-monotheism to the rise and decline (in his view) of the three monotheisms, Sloterdijk focuses on the underlying thought processes and beliefs codified by clerical elites within the monotheistic traditions.

In the first chapter (“The Premises”), Sloterdijk specifies the psychological issues that drive humans to believe in a god, such as the unknown status of human existence beyond death and the subsequent need for divine revelation from the “ruler” to clarify the mystery (15). In Chapter Two (“The Formations”), Sloterdijk identifies what he views as the three-part development of monotheistic thought.  In his schema, Abraham began with the “summotheistic affect,” a feeling that “creates the template for authentic monotheistic belief” (21). Despite his inability to clearly identify what this “feeling” entails, Sloterdijk posits that the evolving relationship between Abraham and the god Yahweh fundamentally shifted belief to a singular personal supreme God among gods, what Old Testament scholars have termed “monolatry” (24). In a re-reading of early Biblical history relying on Harold Bloom’s Jesus and Jahweh and Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers, Sloterdijk believes that this development within human thought gradually eliminated competing gods, leading to a universalistic supreme God.

Sloterdijk would have us believe that it is the belief in an exclusive God, championed by competing faith communities, which leads to conflict.  He defines the forms that these conflicts could take in Chapter Three (“The Battle Fronts”), providing a list with subheadings such as “Christian Anti-Judaism” and “Islamic Atheism” (40-47). In Chapter Four (“The Campaigns”) the author suggests that there the monotheisms have employed three main tactics to expand and protect their authority: defensive universalism, missionary activity and holy war. Sloterdijk claims that Judaism developed a separatism and defensive theocratic sovereignism.  He stresses Christianity’s missionary impulse while claiming that Islam modified the missionary impulse with military and political expansionism. However, he avoids addressing counter-examples of separatism, missionary and militant activities in each of the monotheistic traditions, which calls into question the usefulness of his divisions for understanding differences between the faiths.  Sloterdijk explores three philosophical views of God in Chapter Five (“The Matrix”), which he labels “personal, ontological or noetic supremacism” (85-90). Sloterdijk argues that the belief in a “personal” monotheistic God leads inexorably to belief in a monarch-like being who directs the lives of the believers with disastrous results. He does not view the “ontological” conception of “the highest,” which he likens to the impersonal “god of the philosophers,” with the same level of skepticism (87). Theologians, philosophers and intellectual historians will find his discussion of epistemology in this chapter particularly thought-provoking.

Chapter Six (“The Pharmaka”) presents Sloterdijk’s attempt to solve what he views as the intransigent exclusive “either-or” elements of Aristotelian logic at the base of monotheistic thought. His solution to the “either-or” is “polyvalent” thinking about transcendence that accepts “both-and” propositions, a middle ground which he describes as “a halfway world of graded shades of grey” (112). Sloterdijk defines “polyvalence” as tolerance for ambiguity in religion, a definition that he argues persuasively.  According to him, polyvalence “embodies the reality of thirdness,” meaning the daily compromises between absolutes (112). Sloterdijk shows a number of examples of polyvalence in monotheistic traditions, particularly drawing on the dhimmi status for non-Muslims in early Islamic societies and purgatory in the medieval Roman Catholic Church. In each of these cases, religious ideologues chose to create a third option between strict inclusion and exclusion of groups within their communities. Non-Muslims could retain their religious identity and live as a secondary class within Islamic societies rather than convert or die. Roman Catholic practitioners could expect an intermediary place in the afterlife between Heaven and Hell.  Proposing a “solution” to the “problem” of monotheism, Sloterdijk argues that the polyvalent tendency should be encouraged and developed. He envisions polyvalence leading to what he terms “mature religious cultures” in which “the good manners of informal polyvalence become second nature to such a degree that many passages from their own sacred texts which voice holy fury seem like embarrassing archaisms to them” (120-121). He ends the chapter by claiming that conflict between the three monotheisms is no longer the primary danger facing the modern world. Rather, Sloterdijk predicts that conflicts will grow within each monotheistic tradition between moderate and radicalized followers of the same religion.

In Chapter Seven (“The Parables of the Ring”), Sloterdijk introduces Communism as a failed fourth monotheism, albeit one in which “human” replaces “god” as the source of authority.  By doing so, Sloterdijk shows how the “personal supremacism” that he had described in Chapter Five can lead to religio-political extremism, even separate from belief in God.  Sloterdijk concludes his book with a final chapter (“After-Zeal”) that provides his vision for a “post-zealotic” version of monotheism (158). He engages Nietzchean thought and utilizes Nietzchean anti-dualism from Thus Spoke Zarathustra to show the importance of dialogue as the antidote for extremism.

Sloterdijk’s philosophical approach leads him to skirt the edges of the political and social complexities of the relationship between religious belief and practice in historical context. Instead, he focuses his analysis on the structural and theoretical points of contention between and within the belief systems of the monotheisms. Eschewing case studies or individual historical examples, Sloterdijk presents an overly abstract analysis; this conceptual approach is the greatest weakness of Sloterdijk’s book. The author’s oversimplified historical narratives of the three monotheisms, give the false impression that religious communities are monolithic unchanging entities.  He ignores scholarship by social historians and anthropologists such as Jonathan Berkey (Formation of Islam) and Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities), who have interrogated the complicated religious and cultural synthesis that has taken place between the monotheistic communities throughout history. His focus on epistemology leads Sloterdijk to ignore how religious practices both reflect religious beliefs and simultaneously form new ones.

Additionally, Sloterdijk does not include a close reading of how monotheistic cultures developed, therefore mistakenly implying that Jews, Christians and Muslims possess inherently different thought processes. He argues that these ideological differences manifest in communal tendencies – separatism (pacifistic Judaism), missionary universalism (partially militant, partially pacifistic Christianity), holy war (religio-politically militant Islam). Differentiation based on ideologies alone excludes many other factors (socio-economic, linguistic, geographical) that could have prevented his overgeneralizations.  Moreover, Sloterdijk insinuates that the Islamic tradition is uniquely prone to violence in a way that distinguishes it from its fellow monotheistic traditions. He uses terms such as “bitterness,” “veil of anger” and “a chronic feeling of resentment” to describe the “culture of Islamic countries” (75). Sloterdijk uncritically draws from the books of Bernard Lewis to construct this characterization of Muslims without referencing the scholarly debates of Saidian Orientalism and postcolonial theorists such as Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak.  Sloterdijk fails to consult numerous scholars such as Richard Bulliet (The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization) and Mark Cohen (Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages), who show how broad generalizations hinder an accurate understanding of Islamic societies. Sloterdijk places the mystical and largely-pacifistic Sufi tradition within the context of violent jihad despite recent research by Shahzad Bashir (Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam) revealing the development and spread of Islam peacefully through Sufi orders (77). Such ahistorical and uncareful assertions obscure Sloterdijk’s useful observations on the epistemological development of monotheism and seem out of place.

In spite of these limitations, God’s Zeal does provide a useful starting point for understanding the epistemology of religious belief in monotheism. Non-specialists in philosophy or religious studies may struggle with the book’s technical terminology and occasionally- cumbersome prose. Although Sloterdijk’s tone throughout the book places monotheism in a decidedly negative light, he ends his book by calling for reconciliation between reasonable religious thinkers and avowed secularists.  Upon completion of this book, the reader realizes that the title Battle of the Three Monotheisms refers mostly to conflicts within the religious communities, not between them. Sloterdijk’s comparative analysis points to the possibility of a new alliance between moderates from the three monotheisms, providing a welcome addition to the growing scholarship on Christian-Muslim-Jewish relations.

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  1. #1 by Segun Emmanuel O. on April 3, 2012 - 4:17 pm

    Sloterdijk has done a good job on why we must guard against spiritual extremes but stop short from mentioning that ‘physical extremes’ as modern distorted Capitalism and Democracy
    are just as bad if not worse than the zealotic arm of the Abrahamic religions and Communism combined.

    “God’s Zeal” is a great book both for its novel approach to monotheistic conflicts and “excessive haste” and the mind-blowing depths of analyses employed by the author! 8/10 for me!

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