Hegel's Interpretation of the Religions of the World

The Logic of the Gods

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Jon Stewart
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     2018.
     352 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198829492.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Do we really need a new book on Hegel and religion? What is left to be said? One could easily dismiss Jon Stewart’s book as an “old story” with a catchy title. Nevertheless, such an uninformed evaluation would be fundamentally wrong. Hegel’s Interpretation of the Religions of the World is a thorough study of a neglected aspect of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s philosophy of religion: the role of history in Hegel’s overall philosophical construction. Here, Stewart is blunt: “[n]one of the standard works on Hegel’s philosophy of religion really takes seriously the historical dimension, which he spends so much time and energy elaborating. It is clear that this historical material is absolutely central to his argumentative strategy and ultimate goal, but yet it has been almost completely neglected” (6). Stewart points out that scholars and students of Hegel’s philosophy of religion tend to focus on either his account of Christianity, or his discussion and understanding of the concept of religion. The crux of Stewart’s book is to reach to these two central and popular elements of Hegel’s philosophy not merely philosophically but also historically; that is, by examining how Hegel’s concept of history informs his philosophy of religion, considered by Stewart to be the inextricable element in the overall understanding of Hegel’s thesis.

Stewart’s methodology and organization of his book is excellent. Foremost, one must mention his attention to detail. Nothing is left unexamined. The volume opens with the introduction, in which Stewart outlines the pros and cons of previous studies on Hegel’s philosophy of religion, while simultaneously pointing out the lacuna encountered with regards to the study of Hegel’s historical dimension. Subsequently, in chapter 1, Stewart offers a brilliant discussion of Hegel’s methodology, also presenting the structure of Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, and his place within the broader German and European historical and cultural milieu. The remainder of the volume is dedicated to the religions that Hegel discusses.

It is in these remaining ten chapters that both Hegel’s erudition and Stewart’s masterful discussion shine. From Magic to Chinese religion, Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and from the religion of the Egyptians and Judaism, to Greek and Roman polytheisms, Stewart takes the reader through the different levels of sophistication that Hegel saw in the religions of the world. The culmination is found in Christianity as the most advanced religion, in Hegel’s view. One may wonder whether anything is new in this discussion. Don’t we know already that Hegel begins with magic (or natural religion) and ends with Christianity as the epitome of religion? Yes and no, according to Stewart’s analysis. In his assessment, what we seem to have overlooked is Hegel’s insistence that “the conception of the divine reflects and corresponds to a people’s conception of itself, it is clear that this self-conception is historically mutable. This means that in order to understand it, one must trace its development” (16). 

Stewart is not merely relying on Hegel’s text. For each chapter highlighting a religion that the German philosopher discussed, Stewart opens with either the sources Hegel himself used, or the state of the study of the given religion at the time of Hegel’s writing. This introduces the reader to Hegel’s materials before delving into the actual analysis. However, at the same time it informs us that Hegel read everything available to him at that time regarding the tradition he was about to analyze. This contradicts the common misconception that Hegel was not very well versed in the traditions he discusses. Stewart makes sure to indicate Hegel’s knowledge, and although one may charge him of being an exponent of Hegelian philosophy—replete with all its Eurocentrism, at times racist statements, and colonial identity through and through—I would not share such an assessment. On the contrary, Stewart’s work functions as a great reminder that, despite our departure from Hegel and his period, there are still valuable lessons to learn from one of the greatest philosophers of religion. Hegel’s impeccable methodology and theory in Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion remains a brilliant example of theorizing about religion—regardless of his conclusions, influences, and presuppositions. It is for this matter that Stewart’s book must be regarded as an extremely valuable piece of scholarship for both philosophers of religion and—more importantly—scholars of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nickolas P. Roubekas is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the Insititut für Religionswissenschaft, University of Vienna, Austria.

Date of Review: 
March 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jon Stewart is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Philosophy at the Slovak Academy of Sciences. He is the founder and general editor of the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception and ResourcesTexts from Golden Age Denmark, and Danish Golden Age Studies.

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