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Edith Stein’s Cross

HARVARD DIARY

By Robert Coles | September 1983

Among the 20th-century conversions to Ro­man Catholicism, that of Edith Stein is surely one of the most edifying and memorable. She was born in Breslau, Germany, to Jewish parents. Her father was a timber merchant who died when she, his last child, was only two. Her mother took over the bus­iness and managed well. She was, however, a wom­an of divided loyalties — a passionate commitment to the Jewish religion and culture lived uneasily with the requirement of participation in com­merce. When Edith Stein was nine, the 20th centu­ry began — and soon enough her own personal, in­tellectual, and spiritual journey would intersect with the fate of the German nation.

She was an exceedingly bright child who luck­ily was not denied the advantages of an excellent education. By the late 19th century, Germany’s Jews, even the most orthodox, had obtained rela­tively secure access to a progressive society’s schools, not to mention its advanced literary, artis­tic, and musical life. The ghettos of Europe were elsewhere — to the east, in Poland and Russia. The Germany of Kaiser Wilhelm II was significantly tainted with anti-Semitism, but it was not by any means of a kind to threaten the likes of a gifted, ambitious student such as the young Edith Stein.

Moreover, by adolescence she had abandoned Ju­daism in favor of an agnostic assimilationist pos­ture not at all rare among early 20th-century Ger­man Jews.

By 1913 Edith Stein had become a serious student of philosophy, and was studying with Ed­mund Husserl. His phenomenological mode of in­quiry would influence her greatly — and arguably, turn out to be the first major religious influence of her adult life. He had dared object to Kant’s con­tinuing hold on so many German philosophers — a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the capacity hu­man beings have to comprehend in a reasonably conclusive way the nature of this world. Husserl, it can be said, embraced with enthusiasm a world shunned by neo-Kantians, for whom thinking — one idea after another, and philosophical systems galore — was the great reality. He saw Truth in “the things of this world,” and never for a moment doubted that the here and now of this life was real and knowable. His brilliant assistant, Edith Stein, quickly absorbed that point of view — an impor­tant contrast to the hermetic relativism of idealistic philosophy. Her doctoral dissertation, published eventually as a book, On the Problem of Empathy, earned her quick recognition as a brilliant scholar, able to negotiate the treacherous and turbid waters of the question of “consciousness.” (Quite on her own, incidentally, she postulated the equivalent of the Freudian unconscious, thickly textured in re­sponse to childhood experience — in her term “the mode of non-actuality.”)

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