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Sovereign Gratitude: Hegel on Religion and the Gift

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In this paper I argue that one of the most important impulses that structure Hegel’s account of religion is the need to show gratitude for the gift of creation. Beginning with the “Love” fragment and 1805-6 Realphilosophie, I first explore what it means to see God’s relationship to spirit as one of externalization or divestment (Entäusserung). Then, relying on the Berlin Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, I argue that Hegel takes Christianity to be the Consummate Religion because it not only offers its own divestment to match God’s, but actually takes itself to participate in God’s own divestment. This leads to a discussion of revealed religion in the Phenomenology, which, in contrast to simpler forms of religion such as the worship of luminous being (Lichtwesen), is able to conceive of a divine generativity in which spirit actively participates. I conclude by identifying two political implications of the centrality of divestment in Hegel’s account. First, it means that, since Hegel takes Christianity to be unique in its representation of divine divestment, he cannot be a simple pluralist on religious truth. Second, Hegel’s emphasis on divestment in his various accounts of religion helps set up his critique of sovereignty from the standpoint of philosophy or absolute knowing. While religion still clings to a vision of humanity as sovereign over nature, its origin in gratitude for creation proves to be incompatible with this vision.

Affiliations: 1: University of Hawai’i-Hilo

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