Gerardus Van der Leeuw

Religion in Essence and Manifestation, vol. 1

Review by Lawrence A. Whitney, 2008

Gerardus Van der Leeuw, Religion in Essence and Manifestation, vol. 1. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.

Van der Leeuw makes a standard distinction between objective and subjective perspectives to be taken up in turn in his phenomenology of religion.  In the first instance he analyzes human religious behavior in order to get at the religious object to which the behavior is a response.  Here he employs a threefold typology for understanding the religious object: power, form and will.  Power is the immediate experience that evokes certain attitudes in the religious person.  Here, Van der Leeuw draws on Rudolph Otto to describe this attitude as an experience of awe prior to moral valuation.  He also invokes Schleiermacher and the notion of the feeling of absolute dependence, and sides with Leibniz against Spinoza in describing the object as transcendent and remote.  He notes that power is often recognized as potency in and through the environment, and is also attributed to the heavenly realm in its interaction with the natural world.

The potency of the world in the environment is already one form that power takes, and Van der Leeuw notes that this form is often given expression in the mother/feminine image.  Furthermore, the evocation of power by the environment gives rise to ascriptions of will to members of the environment according to their levels of potency.  Van der Leeuw makes a distinction between the union of power and form as feminine and the union of power and will as masculine.  Personality is ascribable to the latter, and so it is the latter that receive names.  He uses this distinction to then explore the religious savior figure as fundamentally masculine willing of power toward people while the environment itself is fundamentally feminine formation of power.  A variety of manifestations of power, such as angels, demons, and kingship, are presented. 

The analysis of the objective side concludes with an analysis of religious reflection on the experience of power leading to an enunciation of antecedent power that creates the universe in which power interacts with people by will and form.  Thus Van der Leeuw concludes with the final ultimacy of the creator whose potency is the ουσια while the trifold power, form and will are the ύποστασις. It is important to note that he concludes with a virtually trinitarian culmination to objective religious expereince in spite of his employment of mostly primitive examples in elaborating his phenomenological analysis.

In the second part, Van der Leeuw turns to the subjective side of religion in which he analyzes how religious people understand their behavior to be participating in the sacred, individually and culturally.  He begins with a distinction between sacredness as given and as possible.  This is analogous to the classical distinction between humanity in the image and then in the likeness of God as a way of understanding the process of divinization.  Van der Leeuw spends significant time explaining the importance of relating to the sacred through representations.  These relations occur in various ways according to the type of representation: king, priest, medicine-man, prophet, preacher, consecrated.  He also notes the relation to saints as recognition of the sacredness of the body and the relation to those who are demon-possesed as recognition of the violation of the human.

In his analysis of religious community, Van der Leeuw distinguishes between community as place of given belonging and covenant as place of chosen identification.  For him, family and tribe exhibit the former while sects exhibit the latter.  The church, then, is the place of perfect coincidence of the two.

The analysis of the subjective side concludes with a look at the soul.  Van der Leeuw traces the evolution of the idea of the soul from an ultimate principle to particular potencies and the history of the separation of the sould from the body.  Once completely separated from the body, the sould achieves the possibility of immortality, often in a spiritualized country, dependent upon the conduct of the soul during life.  Nevertheless, he asserts the fundamental unity of soul and body in Christianity, through the evocation of the person as creature of (created by) God.

Van der Leeuw provides an important look at religion through categories not entirely derived from history.  Nevertheless, he does have a tendency to drive toward an evolutionary view of religion that concludes with Christianity, virtually ignoring Islam and critiquing Buddhism for allowing the soul to be overcome by the potency of the religious object.