Gerardus van der Leeuw
Gerardus van der Leeuw is today one of the best examples of an early
to mid-twentieth century scholar applying some of the methods of philosophical
to the study of religion, conceived as something distinct from theology.
As with many of his--and even subsequent--academic generations of religious
studies specialists, he began with the study of theology, earning a Doctor
of Theology degree at the University of Leiden, in the Netherlands, in
1916, with a dissertation on the gods of ancient Egypt. After working
briefly as an ordained minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, van der
Leeuw was appointed in 1918 to a newly created position in the History
of Religions at the University of Groningen--a position that also entailed
teaching Liturgy [Greek leitourgia, meaning public service to the
gods; the study of how to carry out the proper rituals of worship]. Arrested
briefly by the Germans in 1943, during their occupation of Holland, he
later served as the first post-World War II Dutch Minister of Education,
and, shortly before his death in 1950, was elected as the first president
of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR)--which
remains the primary international organization of scholars of religion.
Although the phenomenological method is still largely employed in the
field--despite a number of criticisms of (i) the presumption that someone's
experiences can be understood by another and (ii) the presumption that
it is sufficient to study something merely "as it presents itself,"
without inquiring into its natural causes--today, van der Leeuw's work
is likely read mostly as an example of an early attempt to distinguish
the study of religion as a cultural, historical practice from long-established
theological studies that sought to assess the adequacy of each religion
and religious practice. Given his life-long interest in Christian theology
and the phenomenology of religion, the success of establishing this distinction
has been questioned by commentators.
Historical Christianity (1919)
Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion (1924)
The Structure of the Primitive Mentality (1928)
Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy In Art (1932; English translation
Religion in Essence and Manifestation (1933; 2 vols.; English translation
Introduction to Theology (1935)
The Primitive Man and Religion: Anthropological Studies (1937)
Theology of the Sacrament (1939)
"[R]eligion implies that man does not simply accept the life that
is given to him. In life he seeks power; and if he does not find
this, or not to an extent that satisfies him, then he attempts to draw
the power, in which he believes, into his own life. He tries to elevate
life, to enhance its value, to gain for it some deeper and wider meaning....
He who does not merely accept life, then, but demands something from it--that
is, power--endeavors to find some meaning in life. He arranges life into
a significant whole: thus culture arises. Over the variety of the given
he throws his systematically fashioned net.... From the stone he makes
an image, from the instinct a commandment, from the wilderness a tilled
field, and thus he develops power."
- from Gerardus van der Leeuw, Religion in Essence and Manifestation
Select Web Resources on van der Leeuw
der Leeuw Foundation in Groningen, the Netherlands
Secondary Literature on van der Leeuw
Eric J. Sharpe, Comparative Religion: A History, pp. 229-35. Open
Ninian Smart, "Foreword," to Gerardus van der Leeuw, Religion
in Essence and Manifestation. Princeton University Press, 1986.
Walter Capps, Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline, 128-32.
Fortress Press, 1996.
Jacques Waardenberg, "van der Leeuw, Gerardus," The Encyclopedia
of Religion, 2nd edition. vol. 8, pp. 5390-5393. Macmillan Reference
Back to Essentials of Religion
Back to Biographies