Gerardus van der Leeuw on ‘primitive mentality’

Gerardus van der Leeuw (1890-1950) was a true polymath. He was in his day an expert in the field of phenomenology of religion. He was a leading liturgist in the Netherlands. His writings about art are still widely read. Besides he served as the Secretary of State for Education and Science (1945-1946).

In his book ‘Primitive Man and Religion’ (only edited in Dutch: “De primitieve mensch en de religie” [1937]) Van der Leeuw wrote about the concept of primitive mentality. It was coined by Levy-Bruhl in the early twentieth century and Van der Leeuw  discusses this concept quite extensively.

Van der Leeuw stresses in his discussion the fact that this so-called ‘primitive mentality’ shouldn’t be interpreted in an evolutionary way. We are not talking about an outdated mindset. On the contrary, Van der Leeuw emphasizes that this primitive mentality is still part of modern man. However, it is largely suppressed in our day. We act and live according to our ‘modern mentality’. But what, we might ask, is then the difference between primitive and modern mentality? Van der Leeuw lists eight ‘aspects’ of the primitive mentality in contrast to modern mentality. I will single out three of them, which I consider to be the most important.

1. Van der Leeuw points out that for both mentalities the world is ‘given’. However, the way we deal with this ‘givenness’ differs largely. Modern man asks how we experience the world, what we know of it, what we can do with it. Modern man seeks to ‘handle’ the given world, makes it to an ‘object’. Wood is ‘material’, which can be used to make something. Primitive man on the contrary doesn’t see the world as object, but as subject. He doesn’t look for opportunities to handle the things he meets, but tries to discover its power. Everything has power, life, holiness. Primitive man seeks, not to handle, but to relate to this power, this holiness in every aspect of life.

2. Modern man thinks analytically. He is used to divide reality in parts and bits, in order to get a better understanding. Primitive man thinks synthetically. His thinking is directed to the totality. Modern man makes generalizations and abstractions; whereas primitive man doesn’t. Modern man thinks and speaks in general terms, whereas primitive man thinks and speaks in concrete ways. I’d like to remind that the notions modern and primitive man don’t stand for distinct periods in human history, nor stand for different kinds of civilization. Both modern and primitive mentalities are, according to Van der Leeuw, a lasting part of humanity.

3. A third difference involves the way we participate in reality. For modern mentality, it’s obvious that a person could be present only at one place at once. But for primitive mentality, it’s not obvious at all. Van der Leeuw provides the example of an Indian, who just became a father. He isn’t allowed to see his child the first weeks, but he acts as if (to use an expression which is thoroughly modern) he is present with his child and his child with him. The first weeks he limits his journeys, in order not to fatigue his childs. He avoids trespassing the creeks, in order to avoid the bad influence of waternymphs. For the primitive man living means participating in reality. The differences between these to mentalities becomes obvious in our use of the term ‘symbol’. For modern man a symbol is a kind of allegory which shows us something; for primitive mentality it means participating in its reality.

Van der Leeuw describes these differences in mentality primarily as a phenomenologist of religion. However, he doesn’t hide his regrets about the (relative) loss of primitive mentality in the contemporary culture. According to Van der Leeuw the loss of this primitive mentality causes a loss of ‘unity of life’ (“eenheid des levens”). This loss of unity of life affects the realm of religion (liturgy!), art and indeed the whole culture. For this reason Van der Leeuw seems not to be optimistic about the developments he observed before, during and shortly after World War II.

In short (and applied to the subject of my research) Van der Leeuw’s thoughts on primitive mentality signal a loss of this mentality in our modern society, which blocks a proper understanding of liturgy and the sacraments. Fortunately, his own works in liturgics and sacramental theology provide a good remedy!

Torrance on the sacraments

In The School of Faith (1959) Torrance discusses the Reformed conception of the Covenant of Grace. He makes in this regard a sharp distinction between Mediaeval theology, thinking in sacramental terms and Reformed theology, thinking in convenantal terms. Whereas Mediaeval theology, according to Torrance, considered the church as the extension of the Incarnation, against the background of a sacramental universe, the Reformers employed the Biblical terminology of the Convenant of Grace and its total fulfilment in the Person and Work of Jezus Christ as the incarnate Son and Word of God (p.lii).

After citing Karl Barth’s formula of the Convenant as the inner ground and form of the creation and creation as the outer ground or form of the Convenant and Calvin’s statement that Godwrapped himself up in earthly signs and symbols, so that the whole of creation is to be regarded as a mirror or theatre, Torrance continues by saying:

“Thus while the whole of creation is formed to serve as the sphere of divine self-revelation, it cannot be interpreted or understood our of itself, as if it had an inherent relation of likeness or being to the Truth, but only in the light of the history of the Convenant of Grace and its appointed signs and orders and events in the life of the Convenant people, that is to say, according to its economy prior to the Incarnation and according to its economy after the Incarnation” (p.liii).

In short, Torrance seems to deny any intrinsic connection between the sacramental signs and their signification. That, however, raises several questions. Think, for example, of the Lord’s Supper. According to Torrance, it’s signification originates from Divine appointment, e.g. the words of institution spoken by Christ and repeated by the minister every time the Supper is celebrated. True as that is, does that mean that, say, its character as a meal is completely arbitrary? Could the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection as well have been instituted in the form of a shared dance around an old tree? Or would in that case the ritual have had a different meaning, at least partly? I think so.

It seems that Torrance, in his effort to avoid a sacramentalism based on a kind of natural theology, did cut off, not only the branches of the tree, but also some of its vital roots. Furthermore, while claiming to describe the Reformed position in sacramental theology, he seems to distantiate himself from the position of Calvin. For Calvin makes use of the analogy between our daily eating and drinking and the eating and drinking we have in the Lord’s Supper (for example in his sermon about Psalm 65, edited in Supplementa Calviniana VII (ed. E. Mülhaupt); p.32-40). Obviously, Calvin doesn´t want to know about an intrinsic sacramental operation. The signs and the rite don´t have an operation on their own, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. But that does not mean that the relation between the sacramental signs and their signification, between the rite and its operation is completely arbitrary.

Divine Presence in the Lord’s Supper

In the Reformation the Lord’s Supper was one of the most important theological topics. In the controversy with the Roman Catholic Church, the theologians of the Reformation developed alternative views of the Lord’s presence in Holy Communion. Last SupperUnfortunately, Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, to mention only the three best known Reformers, didn’t agree which option was best. For the moment, I won’t work out how these differences historically developed or how they may exactly be spelled out. Instead, I’d like to sketch four models of interpreting Christ’s presence in the Holy Meal. These models, I believe, are not mere theoretic options, but – to speak so – ‘live options’. We are talking about the way how pastors and members of the church view, consciously or unconsciously, the Lord’s Supper.

  1. Symbolic presence. With symbolic presence I mean those thoughts and theories that rely on a symbolic theory to explain how the Lord is present in the Eucharist. This seems to me a especially in Roman Catholic circles a viable theory. Under the influence of French philosophers like Ricoeur and others, the old dogma of transsubstantiation has, at least in Europe, been largely displaced by symbol-theories. Note, that according to this line of thought the presence in the Eucharist requires no specific action of God, apart from the original institution of the sacrament. 
  2. Ritual presence. This model is akin to the symbolic presence model. Rituals are commonly understood as symbolic actions, that is: actions with the aid of, or on the basis of, symbols. However, it is very well possible to make a distinction between these two models. In contrast with the first model, theories of ritual presence emphasize ritual action, instead of the symbol itself, as a vehicle of meaning. In the Zwinglian tradition we find examples of this model. Zwingli himself taught his congregation that not bread and wine, but they themselves were the Body of Christ, in celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
  3. Spiritual presence. The third model I call ‘spiritual’, which might give rise to some misunderstandings. The aforementioned Zwinglian tradition is sometimes called ‘spiritual’, to mark the contrast with ‘real’ presence. However, by ‘spiritual’ I mean those theories, which explain Christ’s presence in the Eucharist in terms of the Spiritus Sanctus, the Holy Spirit. John Calvin is of course the best known representative of this insight. In contrast with Zwingli, Calvin did not care much about the specific forms of the Eucharistic rite. The key in his understanding of the Communion is the so-called ‘Sursum Corda’: “Lift up your hearts…”. In doing that the participants will experience that Christ is present by his Spirit.
  4. Local presence. The difference between Luther and Calvin with regard to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist can be largely traced back to different opinions with regard to the Ascension of Christ. While Luther held that Christ’s body in heaven is omnipresent (thanks to the ‘communicatio idiomatum’), whereas Calvin emphasized the heavenly location of Christ’s body (the so-called ‘extra calvinisticum’). This model tends therefore to be Lutheran in its intention. Crucial in this model is at least an interpretation of Christ’s Eucharistic presence in terms of spatiality and locality.

It’s important to stress that these options are not mutually exclusive. It’s perfectly possible to combine for example aspects of the ritual presence and the spiritual presence model. However, I believe that an approach like this can clarify some of the important differences with regard to the Lord’s Supper.

Young Calvin about the Lord’s Supper (1)

As a first example of the rich theological tradition a quote about the Lord’s CalvijnSupper from John Calvin. He was only 27 years old at the moment he wrote this. It’s from the relative unknown Epistolae Duae, written in Basel, January 12th, 1537. You might recognize some of the important aspects of Calvin’s later teachings about the Lord’s Supper: the emphasis on the congregation’s participation, the proclamation of God’s promises as essential part of the liturgy, and indeed the symbolic signifance of bread and cup.

“Coenam esse Domini nego, ad cuius spirituales epulas, non in commune omnes qui adsunt fideles invitentur, nisi in qua et sancta panis ac calicis symbola ecclesiae proponantur, et promissiones, quibus obsignandis data est, enarrentur, et aquisita nobis per Domini mortem vitae gratia praedicitur.”

In (my own) translation: “I deny that we can talk about the Lord’s Supper, if not all believers, who are present, altogether are invited to the spiritual meal, and if not the holy symbols, bread and cup, are presented to the congregation, and if not the promises, which are given by the seals, are declared, and if not the gift of life, acquired for us by the death of the Lord, is proclaimed.”