Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion

Ambivalence and Attraction

Alexander van der Haven, Associate Professor in Religious Studies, talks about placing forms of religiosity in a context that makes sense out of them.

Portrett av van der Haven
Alexander van der Haven

- I think I am fascinated by religion because I feel so ambivalent about it. The strangest forms of religion, like music or stories, have to me a logic of themselves. I am also often jealous when I observe others able to commit themselves to particular beliefs and practices. At the same time, I can be bothered by how some sluggishly and fanatically believe in things that are not only intangible but also quite different from what their neighbors believe in. Maybe because of this ambivalence I am attracted to studying the more fantastic forms of religion that for insiders demand absolute commitment while outsiders regard them as madness or an unacceptable transgression.

After finishing his history degree at Utrecht University, Alexander van der Haven studied comparative religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. There he did fieldwork among foreigners who believed they had been sent by God to Jerusalem on a redemptive mission. – I was a bit of an anthropologist. I discovered, that these people were part of a eschatological subculture that provided religious meaning to behavior that elsewhere would be regarded as pathological.

Van der Haven did his PhD at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His project was about a late-nineteenth-century German judge turned psychiatric patient who believed that his body needed to be miraculously turned into that of a woman in order to save a universe fallen into disorder. When put in the context of contemporary thinking about science and religion, many (but not all!) of his strange ideas started to make sense.

After his PhD, Van der Haven taught religious studies at Webster University in St. Louis, and then spent seven years at several Israeli universities. There he engaged with a more 'normal' topic, namely conversions to Judaism in the Dutch Republic, but ended up again with a motley crew of religious entrepreneurs, such as the Danish messiah-madman Oliger Paulli, who spent his fortune in Amsterdam at the turn of the 18th century on printing his revelations. 

- My trick is to place these forms of religiosity in a context that makes sense out of them, and I have done this in all my 'weird' projects.

One of van der Haven's current projects at AHKR is coordinating the planned online master’s programme, Religious Minorities. - This is a topic that, with all its conflicts, contradictions, and ambivalences, probably will not be such a change in direction.