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 the types.

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 component.

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 Invisible).(13)

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 College
Ithaca, New York
September 1988

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."