The Future of Religion Preface
by Dr. Lee W. Bailey
Simon Vestdijk (1898-1971) has been called "the most important Dutch writer
of the mid-twentieth century". Originally a physician, he published over
fifty novels, numerous essays and translations, and was awarded many prizes
and a Doctorate of Letters because his work had a great influence on Dutch
culture. His book, De toekomst der religie, now translated by Dr.
Jacob Faber as The Future of Religion is an important study of
the problem of religious projection. Vestdijk wrote this book during World
War II, while confined to a Nazi internment camp. He first offered the
chapters as lectures for a captive audience, his fellow prisoners. But,
when it was published in 1947, his analysis of religious projection was
immediately rejected by most of the Dutch religious community, because
he criticized metaphysical projections of God.
But from our perpective, forty years later, we can see that Vestdijk was
an articulate, bold messenger of an important modern idea. Initially proposed
by Ludwig Feuerbach in 1840, the theory of projection was developed by
Sigmund Freud between 1895 and the 1930s, and comes as no surprise today.
Vestdijk was simply taking seriously their claim that God is a mirror
image of "nothing but" our own human face cast forth into the heavens.
He was reporting home and expanding on a serious charge against religion
that must be examined. This does not mean that he wholeheartedly accepted
this criticism of religion; on the contrary, his contribution to the discussion
of it actually "saves" certain types of religion and re-examines the theory
of projection itself. Twenty years after Vestdijk wrote his book, the
"God-is-dead" movement, and, later, the feminist critique of overly masculine
metaphysical projections in theology have illustrated the powerful effect
of the theory of projection on religion. Vestdijk's courage in facing
this issue showed great foresight.
In our materialistic, technological culture, metaphysical claims generally
fall on tone-deaf ears, and religious metaphysics seems quantly out of
tune. Vestdijk surely did not welcome industrial society's materialism.
But neither did he welcome an arid, spiritless devoid of faith. While
he forthrightly rejected metaphysical religious projections, he did not
follow Feuerbach and Freud all the way. On the contrary, Vestdijk struggled
to awaken a living, vital, introspective religion.
Vestdijk accepts Freud's theory of projection, to a limited extent. For
him, both pathological projections (such as hallicinations) and religious
projections (such as heavens) reveal some infantile regression. These
must be exposed. But Vestdijk rejects Freud's emphasis both on the primacy
of infantile sexual wishes in religion and on simple rationality in opposotion
to religion. Vestdijk sees in religious projections not only infantile
emotional needs, but, far more important, the striving to unite with what
he calls the universal eternal man. Behind God's family mask hides a treasure.
Wether it appears as a hero, angel or God, the eternal man symbolizes
humanity's relation to the All. And human life is incomplete without awareness
of this relationship.
Furthermore, Vestdijk criticizis and begins to rethink the theory of projection
itself. More than a slavish servant of this theory, he begins to question
its asumptions concerning 'illusion" and "normal reality". In this important
move Vestdijk crosses the bridge to the other side of the archetypal dialectic
between two slippery terms: "illusion" and "normal reality". Projection
is a concept that bridges the full range of this riddle, constantly raising
the question "what is illusory/normal?" while attempting to answer it.
Each suggestion that a projection is an illusion implicitly opens the
issue of the other side of the bridge; each is the shadow of the other.
Freud only glanced across this paradox in a largely neglected note to
the effect that a normal share of our "attitude towards the external
world ... too, deserves to be called projection."(2)
Vestdijk broadens this discussion significantly by pointing out a philosophical
reason for seeing projections as normal. In the realm of reason, he says,
Kant's a priori categories, such as space and time, can be read
as normal projections. Everyone projects in this way, not only
as an illusory distortion of pure perception but inevitable and necessarily.
A prior categories are necessary orienting frameworks given
only in projection.
In addition to the rational Kantian projections, Vestdijk adds that other
types of normal projections may include feelings such as suspicion,
guilt, or psychosomatic illness. As long as the feeling is possible,
he considers it normal, not pathological or religious. In politics, for
example, guilt is normally, rather than pathologically, attributed. And
in medicine, psychosomatic illness is normally imagined, whether present
or not, because it is possible. Here Vestdijk has opened up a fundamental
issue. If feelings and God are projections, so are space and time. So
exactly how are "illusion" and "reality" to be distinguished in religious
projection? Vestdijk is a forerunner in exploring this issue. And it becomes
increasingly central for subsequent Dutch thinkers on this problem.
Vestdijk's typologies further explore possible relations between illusory
and normaal projections. He makes the important move to three types: Absolute,
Relative, or Detached. Absolute Projections imply dogmatic certainty.
When pure conscious and intellectual, they ignore their unconscious shadow
side: doubt. Then this doubt becomes projected, and it may escalate into
intolerance in defent against doubt. Relative projections allow
more self-criticism and awareness of one's own involvement in projections,
thus avoiding extreme intolerance. Detached projections let one
see through the fiction to the wishes involved, like a Buddhist who sees
through the images of the gods. All these degrees occur in normal, pathological,
and religious projection.
Vestdijk's typology of religious character types roughly correspondents
to these degrees of projection. His metaphysical type of religious
character projects gods into a transcendent world. Images harden into
literal, hypostatized entities and dogmatic construcs that ignore the
unconscious underside. Aside from intolerance, the serious problem for
this type is the great gap created by the projected "wholly other". Humans
are therby too often reduced to only worthless, isolated sinners. Across
the great gap, empty due to the projectors' blindness to their own imagination,
is pictured a perfect heaven, a transcendent leaves mankind disintegrated,
cutt off from awareness of its own involvement in these projections.
Vestdijk's second religious charcter type is the social type, who
projects not onto a impossible heaven, but onto concrete literalized social
relations. Rejecting the gap of trancendence, projectors of this kind
strive to achieve perfect freedom and power through realizable utopian
ideals. Yet the social type's realizable utopias suffer from their utiletarian,
materialistic, and banal programs.
Vestdijk's third religious personality is the mystical or introspective
type. Following a Buddhist paradigm, he proposes that this ideal type
would not be secuded by projections, but would see through them, because
the eternal man would be seen for itself. Though Western mystics tend
to project a more trancendent, metaphysical Godhead, Eastern mystics have
realized the god within, the immanent eternal man, and strive to recognize
their involvement in making projections. The Buddhist goal of detachment
from projected images offers a valuable contrast to the literalism of
Vestdijk was a brilliant creative thinker, a well-educated generalist,
but not a polished scholar. His wartime prison-camp writing is sometimes
sparkling, sometime rough. While he intuitively presss forward issues
that most religious professionals research or even credit Feuerbach, for
example. Nevertheless, Vestdijk's insights are on target, for The Future
of Religion takes up the challenge of the theory of projection, applies
it creatively, and begins to reshape our understanding of it.
Vestdijk's critics were furious. He was accused of "atheistic rage",(3)
and of a superficial, unscholarly attempt to psychoanalyze Christianity
away.(4) The Future of Religion was called "diluted extract of
Feuerbach, covered with psychoanalytic sauze".(5) At the heart of criticism
seemed to burn indignation at his claim that God is a metaphysical projection.(6)
Two religion scholars defended Vestdijk, through not uncritically. At
the University of Amsterdam, C.J. Bleeker, editor of the international
journal Numen, argued that, even after subtracting the writer's
scholarly flaws, enough substantial argument remains to generate important
discussion. He believed that Vestdijk had valuable insights and must be
taken seriously. His psychological renewal of Feuerbach went deeper than
Feuerbach's, Bleeker said, due to the image of the eternal man. Bleeker
discerned that Vestdijk "has above all put his finger on the weak spot
in the social and psychological position of Christianity".(7)
At Leiden University, Fokke Sierksma charges some of Vestdijk's cirtics
with being intolerant and setting Christianity as the standard for all
religions. He praised Vestdijk's vision, his grasp of psychology, and
his emphasis on the eternal man, picturing him as a prophet who raised
the very question that the religious specialists refused to face. But
Sierksma also criticized Vestdijk's typology as arbitrary, because many
other types could be named. He also suggested that Vestdijk underrated
the force of powerful projections such as God and the Devil, imagining
that they could be withdrawn into the mystic's subjectivity.(8)
Response to Vestdijk's book in Holland continued into the 1980s(9) For
example, in 1980 Martin Hartkamp argued that Vestdijk's picture of the
meatphysically projected God can be seen as an image of Vestdijk's own
father. Because the parent-child conflict theme is so important to this
novels, Vestdijk's understanding of the mystical-introspective type can
also be viewed as his own regressive yearning for the lost paradise of
the child in the mternal embrace.(10) In response, L.G. Abell-van Soest
and L.F. Abell acknowledged Vestdijk's notion that the child's infantile
experience of totality in the family bond is essential to forming a relgious
development. Furhtermore, Vestdijk saw that not only sexuality but other
inconscious drives, such as death and resentment, also complicate the
religious quest. (11) Vestdijk's views cannot be reduced to their Freudian
The controversy generated by Vestdijk's book contributed to Fokke Sierksma's
determination to write his importent book De Religieuze Projectie
(Religious projection) in 1956.(12) Later Han Fortmann broke further new
ground with his book Als Ziende de Onzienlijke (Envisioning the
Now those who do not read Dutch can be grateful that Dr. Jacob Faber has
translated Vestdijk's book into English, so the controversy and the fresh
thinking concerning the theory of projection that he stimulated can now
be spread beyond the Netherlands. Faber's valuable manuscript lay unrecognized
for too long in Holland, and I thank him for his careful and spirited
translation. I also look forward to his next translation, which will be
Fokke Sierksma's Religious Projection.
Lee W. Bailey
Ithaca, New York
1. Peter King, et al., "Dutch Literature", Encyclopedia Brittanica
7 (1968) 798, and Reinder Meijer, Literature of the Low Countries (The
Hague: Nijhoff, 1971) 334-41
2. Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works
of Sigmund Freud, ed. J. Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1974)3:66
3. Fokke Sierksma collected much of the initial Vestdijk criticism in
his book Tussen twee vuren [hereafter cited TTV]
4. K.H. Miskotte,TTV 117.
5. H. de Vos, TTV 99.
6. K.H. Miskotte, TTV 117.
7. C.J. Bleeker, "Het gesprek met de 'Ongelovige' "TTV 129-39
8. F. Sierksma, TTV 3-96
9. A valuable review of the literature is: Monique Despret, "De receptie
van S.Vestdijk's De toekomst der Religie,"diss., U. Louvain, 1980
10. Martin Hartkamp, "De Schrijver Achter de Religie,"Vestdijk
Kroniek 30(dec. 1980}: 73-87
11. L.G. Abell-van Soest and L.F.Abell,"Vestdijk en de religie."
Bzzlletin 10.93 (Feb. 1982): 13-18
12. Fokke Sierksma, De Religieuze Projectie (Delft: Gaade, 1956).
13. Han Fortmann, Als Ziende de Onzienlijke 4 vols. 1964-1968; reprinted
in 2 vols. Hilversum, Netherlands, Gooi en Sticht, 1974.
Further examination in English of these three thinkers can be found in
Lee W. Bailey, "Religious Projection: A New European Tour,"
Religious Studies Review 13.3 (July 1988) 207-11, and his forthcoming
book, temtatively entitled "Religous Projection Today."