Literature Dedicated to Religion

Praying in front of candles


Under almost total silence published last year the collection of letters Eternal Life by Hans Maarten van den Brink and Michaël Zeeman. It’s a curious book, which might be for partly explains the lack of response. In the midst of their correspondence, Michaël Zeeman — writer, essayist, literary critic, and above all ubiquitous cultural pope in the Netherlands — ill and shortly thereafter he is on a brain tumor died. In arren moede, the correspondence was sent by Hans Maarten van den Brink — novelist, journalist director of a culture fund — using previously written letters and e-mails with a mechanical keyboard (visit for tips about keyboards) completed. The collection ends with an equally tender and poignant ‘Farewell and rest gently, hopefully’ from the latter to the first.

Was that why it was a failed book? This outcome will certainly not have been the intention of the writers. But the overdue events gave rise to the casual unfolding plot a dramatic turn that literature generally does speed. Form and content also seemed unexpected way. wonderful to have found a mutual connection. Because the correspondence that Zeeman and Van den Brink had entered into, was not about random what had gone. An exchange of letters about believing, so goes the subtitle and genre designation of the book. And is it there for the religious faith right in the face of death not on? Then it proves its meaning, and the believer his true streak. On the victory of the horror of nothingness, religion has always been used. Now it must be seen whether he can make that promise. redeem, and whether the believer, for his part, by his own confession really convinced. Dying is the litmus test of the Religious Surrender

Plot and commitment of this book are thus reflected in the title: Eternal life — not even written with a question mark — and in all a little more careful envoi with which it closes. But in between is of dying or metaphysical reflections on a Jenseits hardly any mention. Rather, the letter writers wonder what the faith in which they once grew up—Sailor as the son of a minister in Calvinism, Van den Brink in Catholicism — still has to mean for shaping life and especially for the intellectual integrity of those who lead life.

In other words, not the dogmatic content of religion matters, but its influence on thought and existence. It is in this respect that Zeeman and Van den Brink have changed religion. trying to take seriously: less as a faith than as a discipline that extends to all corners of social and personal life. Faith is a watchword of seriousness, which does not want to get rid of it with an (often called ‘postmodern’ by Zeeman) lightheartedness or indifferent tolerance.

This is how you can walk in the course of this correspondence through a range of topics (from the difference between Northern and Southern European culture to personal relations from each of the two writers to their father; from the upbringing of children to the ugliness of Dutch literary polemics), held together by the realization that in each of these things there is something at stake that is the extreme of life commitment and thinking effort required. If there is anything that is in these letters to be explicitly challenged, then it is the unruliness of an existence that does not allow itself to be steered with a lump in the reeds.


Religion is its embodiment and at the same time the model, and that is why it is of such great importance for the literature. Literature that is about something, whether in fictional or essayistic form, always has something of piousness and naughtiness in it, in the original meanings of those words: devotion and boldness against what is not easily expressed and perhaps still harder to see in the eyes. For a long time, religion and literature have been at hand in this. pulled up in hand. But from the nineteenth century, they first became each other’s competitors, and finally — in the twentieth century, when the cosmos virtually became completely secularized—each other’s enemies. Until the last minute of the new millennium, something unexpected happened. Religion seemed within the literature, essayistics, and the thinking that the two override, its place to conquer back. That didn’t happen without a fight. On the contrary, the struggles between the two camps became fiercer than ever.

This allowed the religious to a new figure appears. It became the embodiment of all that cannot be understood, controlled, and thus accepted. Because what can be done be more unruly than a worldview that seems so blatantly contrary to the insights and attitude to life of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century? With the literal acceptance of Christian dogmatics, you can today, at most, still arrive in a few religious enclaves. The idea that the whole European way of life is of unmistakably Christian cut may under no circumstances be expressed in a founding act document as the preamble to the European ‘constitution’. Not what the religion says, but the fact that he could or dare to do something is the greatest stone of offense for modernity that is emerging in no longer considered her secularism unthreatened.

In this and the next two essays, I want to explain the meaning of this for Dutch literature, and thereby the philosophical does not shy away from consideration. I will first outline the literary and worldview panorama that has unfolded in recent decades, and then (in the later episodes) address the question of what religion in the literary sense could still mean and why it is always an uncomfortable place that will be retained.

The silence with which it letter book of Van den Brink and Zeeman was received is a telling symptom. Religion is an uncomfortable thing. Even in a culture that has largely stripped itself of its traditional taboos, it always appears that at least one subject must remain anathema, for such a culture still know who it is. Not coincidentally, that old-Christian damnation formula is also the denominator including Rudy Kousbroek, one of Dutch fiercest polemicists against religion (and against much more), in the years seventy of his essays.

Laid next to the correspondence between Zeeman and Van den Brink is the irony of this all the more. If the mind is to have meaning, it will inevitably stand out again religious termen back. And who is preparing for an exchange of views on ‘believing’ inversely surrenders to an intellectual duty in which what is thought must matter deeply: a surrender that the philosopher Martin Heidegger once — albeit in a completely different context — has mentioned ‘piety of thought’.


That sounds richly heavy on the hand and easily makes Zeeman and Van den Brink there in Eternal life than not even from. Perhaps this religious seriousness, in turn, is one of the most striking features of the religious debate that has been going on for about fifteen years rages in the Netherlands, but whose roots reach back much further. If there is must be believed, therefore with full commitment and dedication. And what for the faith applied, so did anti-belief. Even, or maybe just the literary polemics that occurred from the sixties with authors such as Hermans, Kousbroek, and to a lesser extent Karel van het Reve turned against religion, did that with a doggedness bordering on proselytizing. A younger generation of polemicists (Herman Philipse, Paul Cliteur, Hans August den Boef) seems to be this since the mid-nineties to want to surpass intensity. “It is both equally hysterical,” Zeeman writes in Eternal Life, ‘but the exciting naturally resides in the rhetorical borrowed neighbor play of the unbelievers among the believers.”

That too could be ironic as the dogmatic trap in which every philosophical conviction gets caught up so easily, it didn’t make it so visually illustrated. Article of faith then comes sharply against the article of faith stand, between which only the price shooting on the mutual crown jewels still gets a chance. This religious war is no longer pious, for the truly religious seriousness that this sensitive problem would deserve, does not tolerate the alternately violent and witty violence of polemics good.

Understandable is this vehemence or — as Zeeman called it — “hysteria” all too well. She swelled quickly to then enlightened atheism that from the sixties-seventies the future thought she had been in rent, was confronted with something about which she had her eyes could not believe. In the nineties, the retreat of religion seemed to be from Dutch public and private life came to a standstill, and carefully turned into a renewed presence. Token figures seemed to be a handful of writers (Vonne van der Meer, Désanne van Brederode, Willem Jan Otten) who openly converted to Catholicism. Prompt they were proclaimed the figureheads of a new religiosity, mainly of Roman cut.

What the self-conscious enlightenment thought as a historical impossibility, or at least as a monstrosity, took place under his own eyes. No wonder that a certain despondency takes hold of its representatives made. And that it turned into a frenzy when the monster of religion still turned out to have many more heads: intellectual and non-intellectual. Because also the growing self-consciousness of Islam — an integral that is less driven by philosophical rather than socio-economic motives seemed — came the specter of a renewed-religious society in Strengthen the Netherlands.


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Why that struggle was fought so much more fiercely in that country than in Flanders, is — despite the polemical contributions that Etienne Vermeersch has in his pocket — hard to say. Perhaps it was secularism in the Netherlands, where the secularization had started earlier and had progressed further, stronger than south of the border. Because that’s where the first battle of faith was still going on. was always going on, could the intellectual disillusionment in the Netherlands, where the triumph already seemed to have been achieved, the greater. Perhaps the aforementioned, rather Protestant confession culture in the Netherlands plays a role in this. Conviction one also has, must always be spoken out loud, preferably in the face of an imaginary or non-imaginary opponent to become principled played out.

But above all, the influence of writers and intellectuals who are suddenly sensitive to the richness of religious culture and tradition has been catalyzing this violent backlash. Obviously, right-thinking people, often from your own environment, do not just push aside half yarn to whom always a stitch has been loose. And especially in this environment, especially around the traditional NRC Handelsblad, which is as liberal as it is foreign to religion, focused this debate on themselves. ‘Willem Jan, come back!’ cried Kousbroek with an uncharacteristic and that is precisely why the recently converted Otten in the newspaper is telling pathetic which they both published for years.

That didn’t get any less with the gradually breaking realization that this new interest in religion was not at all as sudden or precedent-less as initially allowed itself to be prestige. In his survey work dutch writers published last year and religion: 1960-2010 Jaap Goedegebuure shows that God and religion had never completely abandoned Dutch literature. Thus, in 1983, in the heart of the self-conscious secular time, a volume appeared in which some of the leading writers of those years thought about God. Not all authors (including Frans Kellendonk, Oek de Jong, Joyce & Co, and Doeschka Meijsing) managed to free themselves from the irony that for this Revisor generation was so characteristic. But it was telling that the then almost mandatory disdain for all the religious should have left any feathers to a renewed gratitude and seriousness on the other hand.

Much earlier Gerard Reve had the good-bourgeois religious enmity know how to embellish with a theatrically played-out conversion to Catholicism, which, however, for a long time was mainly perceived as a sublime form of irony. That a notorious agent provocateur like Reve could have talked about, after all, any religious sincerity could not possibly be true. The sincerity of this penetrated as slowly as the realization that there was in the work by writers such as Kellendonk and Oek de Jong a consciously religious theme presented itself, which of the anathemas of the post-war generation little Attracted. The first signs of this (Kellendonk’s novel Mystical Body; De Jong’s collection of stories The Squid) evoked just as much confusion, discussion, and even disgust when it slowly thaw breaking the realization that under large parts of the population, not least the younger generations, although ecclesiastically had declined dramatically, interest had declined for or at least open-mindedness towards the religious is therefore far from had kept pace.

Only for those who are long in the delusion of the inescapable secularization had lived, could the return of religion in intellectual and literary life thus come as a sudden turn. Previously had this religion long gone underground, pushed away by those same circles behave unwillingness to take even the slightest degree of seriousness towards it. to want to pay. The return of religion in many ways amounted to the increasing inability of these culture-bearing circles to the anti-religious dogma to be imposed even longer, on pain of losing intellectual (and sometimes even moral) prestige.


The irony, which in the Revisor generation should have masked the loss of ideological anchoring, had already proved unconvincing within that either, along with the sarcasm of the generation before her lost strength. Again we could speak about what “goes beyond visible reality, whether you want to call it God, or the higher,’ declared Jan Siebelink on the occasion of the appearance of his immensely successful novel Kneeling on a Bed of Violins, about his father’s religious folly in the blackest Calvinism imaginable. ‘There will be spoken of faith with deep seriousness. Apparently, that’s possible again.’

That novel appeared in 2005, some ten years after the changing climate towards religion Herman Philipse had tried to turn the tide with his Atheist manifesto from what suddenly threatened a minority camp seemed. For the time being a lack of success mainly occurs reflects in the increasingly shrill tone of supporters in the English language areas (where the battle is fought along some other lines) as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. In the meantime, Jaap also notes Goedegebuure in the very personal afterword to his overview book that the ‘logical-positivists who say they are not interested in God’ do not only ‘myopic [are] also short-sighted… Wittgenstein was the only one in there in the middle of it, you understood something about it: what you can’t speak about, you have to silence.’

But a writer by definition is not silent, and so in the meantime, the religion spoken and written with the seriousness that Siebelink notes and that connects him with Zeeman and Van den Brink. Siebelink made that statement in the book Nothing in me believes that from 2007, in which the essayist and literary scholar Liesbeth Eugelink talks to a number of writers about their relationship to the faith, and the work of a number of examines writers meticulously for religious traces. It also notes that the self-evident anti-God era is over, but it remains uncertain what that is for the future. And she also speaks with Hans Maarten van den Brink, who confesses to hoping that one day he will be ‘the great Catholic novel’ will write.

Van den Brink says what he by that means: a novel that makes the central dogma of Catholic doctrine a literary reality. That form and content merge into something new and bigger is not yet so remarkable. That is the ideal that every writer strives for. But Van den Brink goes Further: ‘I want a work of art to produce a real sensation.’ The boundary between reality and fiction must be exceeded in the fiction itself: the work of art becomes reality.

In this, the unheard of happens, in the first place in relation to the view of literature that, roughly from the Second World War, literature mainly wanted to consider it aloof and form the inexorable primacy given over the content, let alone the experience. Would it be par excellence? such ‘physical’ literature is the link with the — as often as purely spiritual—religion could restore? It is body and sensory as the ultimate taboo of modernity which — as Gottfried Herder put it in the eighteenth century — wants to think but doesn’t want to be?

Then, on the theme of religion, not only religion but also the self-awareness of modernity take a full turn. No longer would the latter be the discovery of the earth, but rather the loss of it: in an existence that only wants to be form and idea, but no longer has a body. And so too, van den Brink might continue, no more tragedy, and no need for hypocrisy: that eminently Romanesque virtue, which only has meaning in the recognition that life is not perfect ‘idea’, and man is not just consciousness. A tragic, hypocritical, and physical literature: not as a resistance to, but as a solution to the renewed promise of religion—and thus perhaps as a reformulation of the content of that religion itself? The history of religion has experienced twists and turns that were less remarkable.