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Arend van Leeuwen

1913 to 1993

Arend Theodoor van Leeuwen (1913–93) was a theologian and writer deeply involved in the intersections of politics, theology, economics and missiology. As a young man, he was a disciple of Karl Barth, who would prove to be a longstanding influence on van Leeuwen’s life and thought. In keeping with many of the ‘red ministers’ who emerged in the wake of world war two he was deeply involved with left-wing politics and thought though fell out with the PvdA (the Dutch equivalent of the British Labour Party) due to his support of Indonesian nationalists. He was a missionary in Indonesia but returned to the Netherlands after suffering a serious accident. When back in Europe he dedicated himself to promoting dialogue between Christian theology, Marxism and economics and was heavily involved with both the World Council of Churches and the Prague Peace movement.

He became widely known for his book length study on secularization, Christianity in World History (1964) before turning his attention to what he termed the ‘needle’s eye’ that theology must pass through in the modern age. In his writing on the secular he moves away from a fear of the de-christianized modern world, seeing the process of secularization as both inevitable and potentially positive. Like Barth before him, van Leeuwen’s work was marked by a criticism of natural theology—by which he means the deification of any earthly reality, whether that be the natural world, or, in the modern era, the idols of capitalism, military might or imperialism. Van Leeuwen speaks of modern capitalism as the ‘civil religion’ par excellence. In a secular age van Leeuwen argued that theology must be radically transformed—especially in regards to the prophetic critique of natural theology. In his book Critique of Heaven and Earth (1972) based on the Gifford Lectures delivered at Aberdeen, as well as his book De Nacht van het Kapitaal (1984) van Leeuwen turns to the work of Karl Marx in order to help radically reorient theology. Marx, as a vicarious theologian, plays the role of midwife, bringing to birth a new theology for a new age. It is this which van Leeuwen refers to as ‘economic theology.’

Unlike many of his contemporaries he does not see the modern age as a moral vacuum, or as a world in need of traditional re-evangelization, but rather as a space in which theology must expose the new pseudo-gods of the bourgeoise middle class.

  • Jon Greenaway, Manchester Metropolitan University