Recognition and Religion

A Historical and Systematic Study

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Risto Saarinen
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Literature on recognition philosophy, recognitional social ontology, and the politics of recognition in the last fifty years tends to trace the origins of recognition to Hegel (e.g., oeuvres by Axel Honneth). Although Paul Riccoeur’s philosophical, historical gloss of recognition (2004/2005) begins with Kant (on identification), and progresses to classical Greek literature, including Aristotle and Bergson (on recognizing oneself) before examining Hegel and Hegelian proponents (on mutual recognition), the Hegelian influence remains paramount in continental and North American development of recognitional ideology. The contribution of religion as an antecedent to Hegel and as a trajectory parallel to contemporary recognition ideology has not been registered in philosophical and political-theoretical investigations until Saarinen’s present volume. Even theologians who drink from the wells of recognition ideology (including my own monograph, Ecclesial Recognition, that was published with Brill, 2017) did little to demonstrate that recognition in religion and other sources that predated contemporary recognitional discourses could be of value (20-24). I did however introduce social psychology research to redirect an overtly mid-twentieth century psychotherapy discourse in recognition history, and suggested other antecedent and parallel insights pertaining to recognition.

Recognition and Religion, the book under review, was developed in light of the broad contexts mentioned above, and as part of Professor Risto Saarinen and the University of Helsinki’s multi-year ReKognition project (funded by the Academy of Finland) for reshaping a better social world, and secondarily for rethinking interreligious relations. In the book, Saarinen fills a much-needed lacuna by recovering the contributions of religion (in this case, Christianity) to recognition history. Chapter 1 reviews current research on recognition and its limits, and explains his project. Among other things, Saarinen critiques how Riccoeur’s retrieval of Marcel Henaff did not account for the implicit recognitional ideology (such as the doctrine of justification and the heteronymous religious identity) in Protestant traditioning, and how Honneth’s paradigm could profit from Veronika Hoffmann’s re-appropriation of Henaff and Thomas Bedorf’s notion of the gift of recognition. Chapter 2 concisely retrieves recognition in the Latin tradition, giving relatively even treatment to the New Testament, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Marisilio Ficino, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, and a much lesser review of the contributions made by Augustine, Jerome, and Origen. Chapter 3 turns to the modern era, covering thinkers from Hobbes to Pietist thinkers like Johann Friedrick König, Philipp Jacob Spener, and Ludwig von Zinzendorf. The chapter also covers Fichte and Spalding, Hegel and Schleiermacher, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, the legal canons, Vatican II, and the modern ecumenical movement. Chapter 3 also parses how the modern German lexical use of anerkennen, bekennen, erkennen, and cognate terms, and the Latin notion of recognoscatur became important in contemporary conceptions of recognition. Chapter 4 concludes the volume with a systematic outline of recognition in religion: in it, Saarinen teases out the nature of religious recognition and the contribution of gift and language to recognition in religion, and critiques the paradigm of recognizing oneself, before ending the volume with ways and aims of recognition. Saarinen postulates that theologically, recognition is observed in conversion narratives, and in the divine promise of protecting and blessing worshippers, and recognition is undergirded by an existential attachment to God/the divine as a precondition.

To be sure, Saarinen did not claim to produce a comprehensive account of recognition in religion. Still, Saarinen’s monograph provides more than just a survey. Saarinen painstakingly shows how the lexical references of Greek and Latin terms such as agnitio, anagnorismus, anagnorisis, cognitio, epignosis, epiginosko, ginosko, notitia, oikeiosis, recognosco, and cognate terms already present in the religious texts, narratives, and thoughts in the Latin and the modern traditions actually illuminate the directions/spheres of relational recognition (taxonomized by Heikki Ikäheimo, and found in Saarinen’s reformulation, 19, 27-41, and chapter 4). Simply put, Saarinen’s systematic outline and his preceding chapters provide a sketch of recognitional themes—pertaining to God’s downward recognition of humanity, humanity’s upward recognition of God, humanity’s downward and equal recognition of others, humanity’s identification of self and selfhood in relations to God, community, religious change/conversion, and so forth—that have been embedded in religious texts, histories, and narratives. However, Saarinen has unwittingly read revelation, salvation, justification, and sanctification through the lenses of recognition because his recovery depended much more on retrieving the verb usage of recognitional terms. I have yet to examine if the resources Saarinen drew from contain any noun expression of recognition. One may wonder if theologians, and particularly dogmaticians, may dispute Saarinen’s lexical commentary as claiming too much recognitional composition in the religious textual, historical, and narratival resources.

Notwithstanding the dilemma, Saarinen’s analyses are spot on: the God/divine factor provides insights for conceiving the recognition of divine-human relations. The corpuses Saarinen retrieved indeed register the role of religion in enabling interpersonal and intra-social relations of recognition. Accordingly, Saarinen’s research leads him to assert that religion could be read as an antecedent to the contemporary development of recognition. Hence, as a religious scholar who also dabbles into the study of recognition ideology, I offer hearty congratulations to a senior colleague for producing an unprecedented volume that adds to scholarship on recognition. Having perused innumerable monographs on contemporary recognitional development in philosophy and political theory, I can say that Saarinen’s reading of recognitional themes in the religious tradition of Christianity could generate new trajectories in contemporary theorizing of recognition. After Saarinen’s Recognition and Religion, theorists of recognition no longer have to retrieve only non-religious and a-religious resources. Religious datum could be mined for recognitional research. Recognitional research contains invaluable insights for benefitting not merely non-religious settings, but can also support the conciliatory process of recognition within and between religious groups. With Saarinen, scholars of recognition could welcome religionists in appropriating recognition for contributing to the complex realities of the sacred and the secular in the social world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Timothy T. N. Lim is Visiting Lecturer at the London School of Theology.  He teaches Global Theology, Theology, Social Justice, and World Religions.

Date of Review: 
February 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Risto Saarinen is Professor of Ecumenics and Chair of Ecumenics at the University of Helsinki. Saarinen has published extensively in the fields of medieval and early modern philosophy and theology as well as contemporary ecumenism. He is the author of Weakness of Will in Renaissance and Reformation Thought (OUP, 2011).

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