On Race & Religion: A Reflection on Edith Stein

The canonization by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 11, 1998, of Edith Stein, the Jewish philosopher turned Carmelite nun, seems to have caused a new strain in Jewish-Catholic relations. Many Jews see it as a singling out for special honors of a conversion from Judaism to Catholicism or/and as a Catholic attempt to universalize or even take over the shoah or Holocaust. And while there is little truth in the first charge (except perhaps in the minds of those who are pretty much out of touch with the Church's current thinking in these matters) there may possibly be more than a grain of truth in the second -- partly in reaction to those Jews who have seemed to want to deny that anyone but themselves were the victims of this greatest crime of Nazism. Certainly they suffered the most -- overwhelmingly so -- but not exclusively so.

Homosexuals, Gypsies, the mentally retarded, and religious confessors of all sorts, ranging from Jehovah Witnesses to outspoken Catholic and Protestant clergy, were all slated for internment and/or execution, especially those who were most openly critical of the Nazi regime. In fact, it is rather ironical that Edith Stein, as well as her sister who had accompanied her in her removal to a Dutch Carmelite convent from their former home at a German one, were among those especially singled out for arrest, deportation, and execution as a direct result of the outspokenness of the Dutch Catholic Bishops in denouncing what the Nazis were doing to the Jews. So while Jews generally fault the Church for failing to officially speak out against the holocaust, now some are most critical of the Church for honoring those who were the first Catholic targets of the Nazis' wrath -- all those Catholics of Jewish origin who were living in the Netherlands.

But aside from all of this, the present furor only goes further to underline the problem involved with the mixing of race with religion, or more exactly, the confusion of faith with ethnicity. To what extent can these two factors be separated or distinguished? Or to what extent must they be separated before ones religious identity can be seen as a genuine expression of faith or commitment?

Faith and Belief

The question is not an idle or merely speculative. It is, on the contrary, an urgent and pressing one, the lack of resolution of which is causing great unrest, injustice and misery. For wherever we look in the world today, we can find racial, ethnic, cultural or nationalistic conflicts that either have their origin in religious differences or continue to use the banner of religion to deepen the divisions between peoples: this whether it be in Ireland, the Balkans, the former republics of the Soviet Union, the Punjab, Sri Lanka, and perhaps most strikingly for the purposes of this essay, the state of Israel and the "West Bank" regions of the former Palestine. A possible exception to this situation has been in the Rwanda-Burundi- Eastern Zaire region of Central Africa where the Hutu vs. Tutsi conflict might have been at least partially avoided if a relatively new but commonly-shared Catholicism among these people had been able to overcome old tribal rivalries.

But perhaps this exception is the one that most proves the rule or the point that needs to be most stressed: that faith, when properly understood, must be something that transcends ethnic, racial, or cultural identity. Some, of course, may not agree. Philosopher Walter Kaufmann, in his celebrated Critique of Philosophy and Religion (Harper Torchbooks, 1973) follows Jewish philosopher Martin Buber in making a clear distinction between faith as a commitment and belief (or beliefs) as series of propositions that may or may not be true. In this sense, one may have a commitment to a tradition without necessary believing what that tradition has generally held to be true. No doubt there is some truth in this, but then the question arises as to whether or not such "faithfulness" or loyalty really is "faith" in any full sense of the word?

Here is where studies like those conducted by theologian and religious psychologist James W. Fowler throws a great deal of light on the subject in his by-now classic study The Stages of Faith (subtitle: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, New York, Harper & Row, 1981) which itself is based on the work of both theorists and researchers such as Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and Lawrence Kohlberg. Fowler shows how people can pass through as many as six or seven more or less distinct stages of faith, all of which may involve a commitment a tradition, but which in the earlier stages, would hardly qualify as anything like a truly personal or fully reflective commitment -- something analogous to even the kind of commitment one might make to a marriage as a mature adult. In fact, what Fowler's study unfortunately showed is that a very large proportion of adults lack any real commitment to their religion other than a residual loyalty to their ethnic, national, or family traditions. In other words, a good deal of what passes for "faith" is not real faith at all!

Or to restate this in of developmental view of faith, conventional religiosity often falls far short of a truly personal faith commitment. This is not to deny that a person's inherited religious identity may not involve sincere allegiance, on the one hand, or that "born again" types, on the other hand, who may be very much personally committed (sometimes in a way that involves conflict with family or society) are entirely free from cultural influences, but simply to say that faith, that is, a pure faith understood as a firm commitment to following God's will in one's own life, may very much a demand that one be ready to break fully from the influence of kith and kin. Indeed, was not exactly the price that had to be paid by Abraham, whom not only Jews claim as their common father but whom Christians, as well as Muslims all like to claim was "our father in faith"? If Abraham, or others like him, had not followed God's voice rather than their families', where would any of us, religiously speaking, be today?

A good question: must not a personal faith commitment be seen as a sacred duty or trust which like the voice of conscience itself, can be made subject to no "higher" authority, whether it be state, or family, priest or potentate? Right or wrong, this "voice" or the vocation it enjoins upon a person, is, for those who so discern it, the voice of God. We may judge them misguided, or even occasionally restrain them when we see them as a threat to the good of society (terrorism in the name of religion contradicts the very thing we are trying to protect) but we must nevertheless respect the autonomy of their conscience and their right to hold their beliefs as it affects their personal life.

Even as difficult as some of these extreme cases may be to stomach, this principle must be honored, even when it so often causes us, in less extreme cases, merely to wince. Each of us carries within us the history of a people (or several peoples) whose cultural background(s) are rooted in a religious identity, an all-sustaining faith that incorporated a firm sense of purpose enshrined in set of beliefs. When those beliefs are put into doubt by someone else's defection, we feel, quite naturally, somewhat threatened and rightly worry about the future of the group with which we identify. Perhaps many of us, with a somewhat diluted or mongrel ethnic-religious background like myself (that includes on one side, among other things, German-Lutherans, Yankee-Congregationalists, and even a small dose of French-Huguenot and who knows, maybe one of the last of the Mohigans!) or those long accustomed to living in a culture long-used to accommodating religious pluralism, find it hard to empathize with Jews who get all that upset with the idea of one of their own becoming a Catholic nun. But on the other hand (or I should say, on my Irish-Catholic other side) would not even Pope John-Paul II, who has both expressed as much sympathy with Jews as he has been captivated by Carmelite spirituality, himself wince a bit should one of his own Polish kin turn Pentecostalist or become a devotee of the Hari Krishnas? Old allegiances die hard, even in the most sophisticated of us. How hard? Well, perhaps in these modern times not so much in a formal explicit way. But even then, maybe this ambiguity itself represents a new way of commitment or even a new kind of witnessing or even martyrdom.

Edith Stein and Personal Faith

Several things must first be understood about the conversion of Edith Stein. The first is that it came only after a prolonged period of atheism (some eleven years of it) followed by four more years in which she remained undecided as to where her religious future lay. While she made no efforts to conceal her Jewishness, she had by then long severed her ties with the idea that Judaism as a religion must somehow be automatically binding upon her by circumstances of birth. Perhaps this attitude was at least partially the result of the example of the large number of "assimilated" Jews in Germany at the time. But even if that were so, it must have been reenforced by her subsequent training as an assistant and brilliant understudy of the philosopher Edmund Husserl whose "phenomenology" (we'd probably call it "existentialism" on our side of the ocean) exults the primacy of the individual person over and against the demands of society or the collective masses. Add to this not only the discrimination she experienced as a Jew, but perhaps even more, as a woman seeking entrance into the higher levels of academia. In the face of this sex discrimination, she also forged her own strong sense of feminism, insisting on the rights of women to determine their own future as full human beings in the face of society's insistent demands that women play second fiddle to men.

The second thing of note is how closely linked her final decision (in 1922) was to her almost-by-chance discovery of the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, that extraordinary 16th. century Spanish mystic who sparked a major reform in the Carmelite order -- which itself had its origin on Mt. Carmel in the Holy Land of her ancestors. The fact is that Edith, at the time of her baptism, had intended to immediately seek admission into the Carmelites, and could only be dissuaded from doing so by her spiritual director, who also helped find her a position at a Catholic teachers college for women. Still hankering for the cloister, she still had to be persuaded for a second time (in 1929) that her vocation, at least for the time-being, lay in putting her talents to use in the world. Accordingly, she moved from the somewhat cloistered world of Catholic education back into the secular world, renewing old contacts and even lecturing on the radio especially in the cause for women. All this just when Hitler was about to come into power (January 1933) with Edith going so far as to personally plead with Pope Pius XI that he openly and officially condemn the Nazis for their anti-semitic policies. But the Pope remained silent -- although his emissary in Germany, Cardinal Pacelli (the future Pius XII) had already made it clear that he considered the National Socialist Party an enemy of Christianity and European civilization.

By April of 1933 Stein was fired from her teaching post at the German Institute in Münster. It was only then, that she felt free to pursue her old dream, almost immediately seeking admission to the Carmelite cloister, and once accepted, finally entering in October of that same year. She made her final profession as a nun five years later in 1938, only a few months before "Kristallnacht" and almost immediately negotiations began for her transfer to a Carmelite convent in Echt, Netherlands. Later on, as the Nazis were about to overrun Holland, further negotiations were begun to transfer Edith and her sister to a convent in Switzerland. But by then it was much too late.

Victim or Martyr?

Was Edith Stein, like so many countless Jews and other minorities despised by the Nazis, executed because of her ethnic origins? No doubt she was. But was she a "martyr" besides -- a true "witness" to the point of giving her life in testimony to her faith? On the one hand, Edith had already asked her superiors for permission to offer her life, on "Passion Sunday" (two weeks before Easter) of 1939, as "a victim for real peace". But we can also have no doubt that her Jewish ancestry would have caught up with her eventually, regardless of her Christian faith. Yet it seems clear that she, like the rest of the some three-hundred or so persons arrested by the Gestapo, were arrested because they were both Jewish as well as Catholic -- an anomaly that seems to have been particularly galling to the Nazis. The Nazis retaliated against the Dutch Church for its speaking out in defense of Jews by going after, first of all, those Jews whom they knew were, naturally, closest to the Church. So it was these Catholic Jews who were first on the Gestapo's list.

The time-table of the events speaks for itself. The Nazis had gotten wind of a plan by the leaders of the major Christian denominations in the Netherlands to denounce the Nazis for their treatment of Jews. The Nazis in turn threatened retaliation and the leaders of all but the Catholic Church backed away from the plan. The Bishops' pastoral was issued on July 26, 1942. The very next day the Nazis issued ordered for the arrest of all these people within the week. Obviously, the list of these special targets had been prepared beforehand. The end came, perhaps mercifully, almost as quickly. On August 2, Edith and her sister Rosa (who had joined her in Holland to assist the sisters as an "extern" to the convent) were arrested and taken immediately to Amersfoort Prison Camp, then on August 5 to the Westerbork Concentration Camp and arrived at Auschwitz on August 7th. Edith Stein, now designated prisoner #44074, was executed on August 9th. Her "passion" had taken all of two weeks.

On the other hand, considering how long so many other victims of the Nazi camps were kept alive, whether to work, or to slowly starve to death -- of both, is it not obvious that these particular deaths took place because they were Jewish Catholics -- an oxymoron no doubt to many -- but to the Nazis, as it is to so many prejudiced Catholics and other Christians, a virtual impossibility. Likewise, it is not hard to see that this singling out of Jews who had become Christian was not also meant as a warning from the Nazis that if anything more were said that the SS would go after all those Jews around Europe who were being saved or sheltered by false baptismal papers? Certainly the Gestapo must of suspected what was going on. Indeed, one cannot but wonder if the Nazis, at least some of whom liked to still think of themselves as Christians, were not also driven by some inner compulsion to expunge the Jewish roots of Christianity itself? Indeed, there is still neo-Nazi literature being printed today decrying the "Judaization" [sic] of Jesus and the corruption of Christianity by Jewish influences!

So while in many ways the fate of Edith Stein seems to have been like so many others who are now classed as "martyrs", as well as the millions of other Jewish victims of the Nazi atrocities, rather than being put on trial and given the chance to repudiate their faith, as was often the case during specifically religious persecutions, they were simply, because of who they were, regardless as to whether or not they were believers, much less what they believed, caught in the wrong place at wrong time.

Ambiguity and Faith

Considering all this, and that the reason for the Church's singling out of Edith Stein for formal canonization or sainthood still escapes many who are not aware of the facts as well as the nuances of her personal odyssey is understandable, especially considering that most people (according to Fowler's findings ) tend to be caught in a stage of human development where issues like these tend to be seen in an all or nothing, and black and white terms, particularly when their understanding progresses into the first stage beyond purely "conventional" or inherited "faith". But Fowler has also shown how the kind of personal faith I have described (which Fowler terms "individuative-reflexive" and which often is preceded by a period of an apparent loss of faith, much as was the case with Edith Stein) is often succeeded by a further stage, which Fowler terms "paradoxical- consolidative". But this next stage might just as accurately called "conjunctive", inasmuch as it represents a stage, usually reached in mid-life or later in which, according to Fowler, there is "an integration of elements in ourselves, in society, and in our experience of ultimate reality that have the character of apparent contradictions, polarities, or at least paradoxical elements."

Certainly the apparent contradictions were there in Edith's life for all to see. But such paradoxes, it seems, are all but impossible to understand, not only for those whose own faith is tied to ethnic or cultural identity (i.e. "conventional" faith) but perhaps even more by those whose faith is intensely "personal" yet still bristles with unresolved tensions or is besieged by real or at least perceived threats. And certainly this situation still exists among Jews today -- for reasons that hardly anyone can fail to understand. In view of this present situation, perhaps it might be completely out of line to suggest that Stein's canonization might have been postponed -- at least until such a time that Jewish-Christian tensions have cooled a bit more? Perhaps. But I think that something more needs to be said.

Final Integration

According to Erik Erikson, the "grand-daddy" of developmental psychology, complete maturity is gained only upon the final integration of all those conflicting elements which divide a person all through the earlier stages of life. For this same reason, according to Fowler, there remains an even further stage of faith -- one which, I think, again can be seen in the life, as well as the death, of Edith Stein.

According to Fowler, this final "universalizing" or unitive stage of faith, is one in which one is "called and lured into a transforming relationship with the ultimate conditions of life" or, I should add, with the Ultimate Reality itself. Very few, perhaps, reach it during this life. But I suspect that sooner or later persons who find themselves suffering from the complexities of the conjunctive stage of faith will also find themselves longing for an ultimate or final integration or deliverance from the pain of these tensions and paradoxes. I also think that these "tensions" and "paradoxes" could not have been but excruciating for Edith Stein, almost from the beginning of her life as a Catholic.

Perhaps there is, in this regard, in what almost seems an aside in Erikson's study of Luther, a remark that can give us a much deeper insight in to both Stein's later life as well as what almost seems to be her desire to die as a "victim". Erikson tells us for those seeking such a final resolution, that the two most extreme solutions often present themselves under the guise of either martyrdom or else solitude (Young Man Luther, New York, W.W. Norton, 1958, p. 261). In fact, in early Christianity, the vocation to live in solitude as a hermit or anchorite, was often seen as a substitute for the chance of martyrdom now generally denied once Christianity had reached legal status within the Roman Empire.

Did not Edith Stein in some way recognize this? The fact is that the religious order that she sought to join had its origin in the attempts of some medieval ex-crusaders to revive the ancient pattern of eremitical (i.e., "hermit") contemplative life on Mt. Carmel in the Holy Land -- many of them ending up as martyrs during the Moslem recapture of the area in 1215. The particular "Discalced" (i.e, "barefoot") reform branch of that same order started by Teresa of Avila represented an attempt to bring this same sense of desert solitude to nuns, even while they lived within the confines of a closely-knit community, usually within an urban setting. In other words. Stein's ambition to join the Carmelites seems to have been driven by her desire to take up that ancient eremitic life-style as closely as was still possible for a woman in the first half of the twentieth century. Had she survived, developments within the Church following the Second Vatican Council would have made it possible for Stein to have become truly a hermit or "anchorite" -- one living in complete solitude. But instead she died in a gas chamber crowded with people packed together like so many sardines in a can.

The Science of the Cross

That the cross is a symbol of contradictions and paradox need hardly be said. And it is a sign that has been particularly offensive to her own people. Yet it took a prominent place in Edith's 1933 choice of her "name in religion". For in addition to the taking of various saints' names (an old custom coming from regarding religious vows as a kind of second baptism) there was the Discalced Carmelite custom of adding another patronal name or theme, which by her choice was to be "Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross". Not only that, but she was to soon after to undertake writing a commentary on the famous Carmelite mystical theologian, St. John of the Cross. Even if the text of this book, The Science of the Cross, remained uncompleted, might not her life, and especially her death be seen as its final chapter?

The message of the cross, for all its contradictions, is one of ultimate reconciliation. Among them not only, according to St. Paul, the reconciliation of humanity with God, but of humans with each other and particularly, of Gentile with Jew. But it is not something that can be accomplished on our own. Only God can bring that final act of reconciliation about.

Nevertheless, as Erikson taught, every advance is precipitated by a crisis of some sort. Our "final integration" comes only from facing the challenge of aging and death. So too the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile will only begin when the challenge posed by a person like Edith Stein is faced squarely by all parties -- Jew and Gentile alike. For if the entrance of this promising young feminist philosopher into a medieval Catholic lifestyle must have seemed like the wildest sort of "foolishness" to her secular and academic colleagues, so also Edith must of have known that her choice would remain a real "scandal" to Jews. It is only in rising above, in dialectical fashion, those conventional reactions, that we can expect a higher synthesis or reconciliation to begin.

R.W.Kropf 10/24/1998


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