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Leeuw, Gerardus van der


LEEUW, GERARDUS VAN DER (18901950), was a Dutch historian of religions, theologian, and phenomenologist.


Born and raised in the Hague, van der Leeuw studied theology at the University of Leiden (19081913), with history of religions as his main field and W. Brede Kristensen as his principal teacher. The faculty also included P. D. Chantepie de la Saussaye, who himself had taught history of religions at the University of Amsterdam and who influenced the young man. Van der Leeuw specialized in ancient Egyptian religion and studied for a year in Germany (19131914), first in Berlin under Adolf Erman and Kurt Sethe, and then in Göttingen under Wilhelm Bousset. He obtained his doctorate in 1916 from Leiden. After having been a minister in the Dutch Reformed church for two years, van der Leeuw was called to Groningen in 1918 to occupy the chair of history of religion and history of the doctrine of God, with responsibility for the "theological encyclopedia" in the faculty of theology. He also taught Egyptian language and literature in the literary faculty. "History of the doctrine of God" was later dropped from his chair's title and after World War II phenomenology of religion was added to van der Leeuw's official assignment; after 1940 he also taught liturgics.

Van der Leeuw was active in the Dutch Reformed church where, like Chantepie de la Saussaye, he adhered to the so-called ethical theology, which stressed the value of religion as a reality of the heart and as an existential datum. Later he was particularly active in the liturgical movement in his church and in attempts to reform it. From 1945 to 1946 he was minister of education, arts, and sciences. In 1950 van der Leeuw became the first president of the newly founded International Association for the History of Religions; this put the seal on his international reputation. He died shortly afterward in Utrecht.

Principal Works

Van der Leeuw's books that are relevant to the study of religion fall into a number of categories. Most of his scholarly work was in the field of comparative studies and phenomenology, for which he wrote an introductory work, Inleiding tot de godsdienst-geschiedenis (1924), later completely revised as Inleiding tot de phaenomenologie van den godsdienst (1948), and the famous handbook titled Phänomenologie der Religion (1933), subsequently translated into English as Religion in Essence and Manifestation (1938). Further, he produced articles and books on subjects as varied as sacrifice, mysticism, representations of Paradise, children in worship, the image of God, and the God-human relationship as well as articles on myth and mythology and on immortality.

In other categories, van der Leeuw's works are almost as numerous. His major historical studies concern ancient Egyptian religion, although he also wrote on ancient Greek religion and produced studies of ancient calling-songs and lamentations and on the meeting of early Christianity and paganism. Also important are his books on liturgics, on religious art, and on music and religionincluding books treating the works of Bach and the history of church hymnsand his several theological works, which often derive their insights from the history and phenomenology of religion. Another category of van der Leeuw's works comprises his writings on his phenomenological method and on issues of philosophical and theological anthropology. He also wrote extensively on Christian topics and on various literary and cultural subjects. The total number of his publications amounts to about 650.

Major Contributions

Van der Leeuw's most original contribution may be his phenomenological approach to the study both of religious data and of the phenomenon of religion itself. Guided by a particular vision of religion as a whole, he looked for structure and meaning in the multitude of religious data. With this approach van der Leeuw rejected certain parochial theological schemes of interpretation, evaluation, and judgment that were current in his time. He thus cleared the terrain for new kinds of inquiries into the various meanings pertaining to religious data and into the potential religious meaning of basic natural and human phenomena. Van der Leeuw's phenomenology was characterized by its psychological orientation and its status as a theological discipline.

In his approach, van der Leeuw leans heavily on psychology and in particular on structural psychology in Dilthey's sense, as he states himself in 1928. He was then even prepared to speak of the "psychology" instead of the "phenomenology" of religion. His concept of psychology, however, is not that of present-day empirical psychology; he sees it instead as a way of approaching a subject through one's own experience. Understanding rather than explanation should be the aim of the study of religion, he believes, echoing a similar aim formulated in psychology in the 1920s by such scholars as Karl Jaspers, Eduard Spranger, and Ludwig Binswanger. In this psychological understanding-through-experience, the "subjectivity" of the researcher is an indispensable datum. In order to understand a religious phenomenon as a human expression, the researcher should allow it to affect him in its wholeness, and van der Leeuw contends that this should be done methodically, in the field of religion as well as in such other humanistic fields as history and psychology. This particular way of understanding implies that the researcher interpolates the religious phenomenon into his own life and "experiences" it, while bracketing (epochē ) both its factual and ultimate reality. Van der Leeuw describes this procedure in the "Epilegomena" of his handbook and adds that such a psychological understanding should be followed by empirical research to control and correct what has been understood. It is precisely the subjective nature of the experience of understanding, as propounded by van der Leeuw, that has given rise to scholarly objections, because this approach may lead to abuse in hermeneutical investigations. The discussion of the value for hermeneutics of van der Leeuw's psychologically oriented phenomenology is still continuing.

Phenomenology of religion had a theological foundation for van der Leeuw. The "sacramental" experience of reality on the one hand and the tension between subject and object of religious experience on the other, which are at the basis of his phenomenology of religion, find their theological basis, according to him, in the doctrine of the Incarnation. As a discipline, phenomenology of religion had for van der Leeuw a theological status; he did, in fact, also speak of it as "phenomenological theology." Basically, it was a theological discipline concerned with the meaning of religious data in the experience of the believers, and van der Leeuw wanted to see this phenomenological theology as an intermediary stage between "historical" theology, concerned with literary and historical facticity, on one hand and "systematic" theology, concerned with ultimate truth and reality, on the other. Because it leaves open the status of the phenomenon with regard to ultimate values, phenomenological theology limits itself to the problem of "meaning" and "significance." In practice, however, a theological phenomenologist will interpret the meaning of religious phenomena finally in the light of the "true" religious meaning known in faith, and van der Leeuw's Religion in Essence and Manifestation bears witness in fact to its author's faith as a Christian. This book describes religious phenomena in five parts. The first three parts represent the classical structure given by Chantepie de la Saussaye: the object of religion, the subject of religion, and object and subject in their reciprocal operation. Part 4 deals with "the world" and part 5 with "forms" (religions and founders). Religion, for van der Leeuw, is humankind's encounter with "power," and it implies being "overpowered," for he understood "power" as a philosophical category with theological overtones. Philosophically, in van der Leeuw's view, religion is one of the consequences of the fact that humans do not accept life as given to them: They seek power in life, something that is superior, and they try to find meaning in life and to arrange this into a significant whole. For van der Leeuw, consequently, religion is intimately linked to culture as humanity's creative effort.

Appraisal of Oeuvre

Theological schools have not been prepared to accept van der Leeuw's theological vision, and its most elaborate expression, his Sacramentstheologie (1949), has had little resonance. Nor have scholars of religion, whatever their orientation and persuasion, been prepared to accept van der Leeuw's subordination of the phenomenological enterprise to theology. Further objections have been raised against van der Leeuw's relative neglect of the historical and social realities in which religious phenomena are embedded, and against his notion of "understanding."

Apart from the information it offers and the insights contained in it, one of the definite contributions of van der Leeuw's erudite oeuvre is the attention it draws to the problem of the scholar's role in research in the humanities in general and in religious studies in particular. In his phenomenological work there is an evident tension between the researcher's "participation" and his "distance" with regard to the subject matter; these stances he even considered as representative of two basic anthropological structures, the "primitive" and the "modern" mentality. In many respects van der Leeuw anticipated problems that were to be explored by postwar existential and hermeneutical philosophy in Germany and France. His own presuppositions were largely determined by Dutch theological thought of the beginning of the twentieth century, and this allowed him to be receptive to the ideas of Dilthey, Husserl, Spranger, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, and others. In his search for the right view of human phenomena he protested against any idealistic interpretation of humanity.

Throughout van der Leeuw's oeuvre is a broad mosaic of statements that bear witness to his sensitivity, realism, and open mind. Even now, his insights into his materials sometimes must be recognized as brilliant, and that is why his work, mostly in Dutch, still counts: Suddenly, connections are revealed in an original, striking, and somehow convincing way.


The following books by van der Leeuw are available in English: Religion in Essence and Manifestation: A Study in Phenomenology (1938), rev. ed. (1963; reprint, Gloucester, Mass., 1967); and Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art (London, 1963; reprint 2005), a translation of the third edition, completely revised by E. L. Smelik, of Wegen en grenzen: Studie over de verhouding van religie en kunst (Amsterdam, 1955).

A bibliography of van der Leeuw's publications up to 1950 was compiled by Wiebe Vos, "Dr. G. van der Leeuw: Bibliografie zijner geschriften," in Pro Regno, Pro Sanctuario, edited by Willem Jan Kooiman and Jean Marie van Veen (Nijkerk, Netherlands, 1950), pp. 553638. For lists of works about van der Leeuw and of van der Leeuw's main publications in religious studies, see my Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion, vol. 2, Bibliography (The Hague, 1974), pp. 149156. Further bibliographical information can be found in my article "Gerardus van der Leeuw," in Biografisch lexicon voor de geschiedenis van het Nederlandse Protestantisme, vol. 1, edited by D. Nauta and others (Kampen, Netherlands, 1978), pp. 114120, and in my Reflections on the Study of Religion (The Hague, 1978), which volume also contains my essay "Gerardus van der Leeuw as a Theologian and Phenomenologist," pp. 186253. See also Jan Hermelink's Verstehen und Bezeugen: Der theologische Ertrag der 'Phänomenologie der Religion' des G. van der Leeuw (Munich, 1960). For an autobiographical statement by van der Leeuw, see his "Confession scientifique," Numen 1 (1954): 815.

New Sources

Hubbeling, Hubertus Gezinus. Divine Presence in Ordinary Life: Gerardus van der Leeuw's Twofold Method in His Thinking on Art and Religion. Amsterdam, 1986.

James, Alfred. Interpreting Religion: The Phenomenological Approaches of Pierre Daniel Cantepie de la Saussaye, W. Brede Kristensen, and Gerardus van der Leeuw. Washington, D.C., 1995.

Molendijk, Arie L. "At the Cross-Roads: Early Dutch Science of Religion in International Perspective." In Man, Meaning and Mystery: 100 Years of History of Religions in Norway, edited by Sigurd Hjelde, pp. 1956. Leiden, 2000.

Plantinga, Richard J. "An Ambivalent Relationship to the Holy: Gerardus van der Leeuw on Religion." In Religion in History: The Word, the Idea, the Reality, edited by Michel Despland and Gérard Vallée, pp. 93100. Waterloo, Ontario, 1992.

Religionswissenschaft und Kulturkritik: Beiträge zur Konferenz (The History of Religions and Critique of Culture in the Days of Gerardus van der Leeuw). Hans Kippenburg and Brigitte Luchesi, editors. Marburg, 1991.

Jacques Waardenburg (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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