Recognition and Religion

Contemporary and Historical Perspectives

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Maijastina Kahlos, Heikki J. Koskinen, Ritva Palmén
  • New York, NY: 
    , March
     340 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.



The theory of recognition, while a relatively recent conceptual construct, happens across all human history and is subject to scrutiny from all human inquiries. After beginning to take shape in the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel’s master-slave dialectic—in which the master relies upon his/her slave for being recognized as the master, while the slave is content with the due recognition granted from her/his master—the theory underwent a sort of metamorphosis to become a political theory of the struggles for recognition (Axel Honneth), as well as a discourse of identity formation in terms of dialogical relations of oneself with another in contemporary political life (Charles Taylor), each of which has significant overlap with the other.

Recognition and Religion: Contemporary and Historical Perspectives brings a fresh perspective to the overall landscape of the discourse of recognition through the book’s invitation of religion into a discourse generally regarded as nonreligious. The twofold aims of the book are: (1) trying to show that current notions from recognition theory can be used as valuable conceptual instruments for reading and interpreting various historical sources, especially on religious issues, and (2) arguing that the authors’ analysis of the textual material can usually increase readers’ understanding of the concept of recognition (4).

With such goals in view, the authors, by “covering disciplines of theology, history, political theory, philosophy, and social sciences,” (3) present “some carefully chosen reflections on particular systematic issues and specific historical topics” (6), particularly as they pertain to issues of religion. A potential methodological risk in undertaking such endeavor would be that of anachronism, to which the authors are never blind: “we are not, then, claiming that ancient authors say something that they do not say” (4). Nonetheless, they attempt to shed light on the texts and events of the past and present in light of the contemporary theoretical construct of recognition, in order to see if there is anything to learn more about both the theories of recognition and the historical events and texts themselves.

Instantly the astute reader might notice the ambitious nature of the project, which is not just interdisciplinary but also historical and contemporary. This ambition is successful because each chapter focuses on a specific historical and contemporary topic, narrow enough to cover in just twenty to thirty pages, from the perspective of particular discipline(s). In other words, while the book indeed takes up an ambitious subject, each chapter written by different authors has made such ambition manageable. For example, in chapter 4, entitled “Early Christians and the Transformation of Recognition,” author Hartmut Leppin traces how the minority religious group called the Christians in its nascency were aspiring to be “recognized,” not only amongst themselves, but also by the outsiders. They reach for recognition by setting themselves up as superior models of virtue and morality and latently appealing to the authority in the Roman Empire, thereby aligning with the values of the empire. Leppin writes: “By underlining that they (Christians) were better than others, they could not help but to reaffirm their (outsiders’) values. Christians who argued for superiority had to live up to standards that had been set by others” (82).

Jumping over more than a thousand years in history, Andrea Aldo Robiglio delves into another interesting topic of Aquinas on recognition, showing that various treatises in Aquinas’s vast corpus could be read through the lens of recognition: “To recognize whom and how God is, a change and enhancement of the self is needed. If it is so, it is fair to say that, for the medieval thinker, the human recognition of God (in which, according to John 17:3, happiness consists) passes through a form of divine self-recognition” (168, emphasis original). Such jumping around appears neither incidental nor haphazard because the five separate sections in the book, respectively dealing with the roots, history, and limits of recognition, help the reader explore the vast trajectory of religion and recognition. Therefore, the reader should study the table of the contents as well as the introduction as thoroughly as possible lest she get lost in the adventures of reading the book.

An apparent strength of the book is that it engages religious discourse through recognition theories. One of the benefits in doing so is to dig deeper into what God means in terms of the self and others, as God obviously is someone or something to be reckoned with either through recognition, misrecognition, or nonrecognition in the realities of human lives. What does it mean to recognize God in terms of recognizing the self and others? How does such act of recognition square with living an ethical life? As someone whose research interests include what Heikki Ikäheimo calls “the representations of God” (63) and its implication for the work of theology and politics, the present reviewer sees an intimate dynamic between the act of recognizing God and that of the self and others.

Thus, an area of dire need in the book, which does not necessarily constitute the book’s weakness, is that the book itself calls for further research and development in the direction of looking at recognition and religion together. As an initial work in that direction, the book is an interesting and enlightening read for anyone sharing the interests in the dynamic of recognition and religion. The present reviewer highly recommends the book as one of the original contributions to the emerging field of recognition and religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sang-il Kim is a doctoral candidate in practical theology at Boston University.

Date of Review: 
January 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Maijastina Kahlos is Senior Researcher at the University of Helsinki.

Heikki J. Koskinen is Senior Researcher at the University of Helsinki.

Ritva Palmén is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.