In PRISM's Book Bag: Sarah Borden's EDITH STEIN (Continuum)

Image credit: Amazon.com

reviewed by David L. O'Hara

Most of Edith Stein's family never went to college, but she earned a Ph.D. in Philosophy under one of the greatest philosophers of the century, Edmund Husserl. She was born and raised Jewish, but converted to Christianity as a young adult. She helped win the legal right for women to teach in German universities, but, despite her prolific and significant writings, was never given a university position. She became a Carmelite nun, but was ultimately murdered in Auschwitz in 1942 for her Jewish ancestry. She was recently named one of three co-patroness saints of Europe, but she is still largely unknown in the English-speaking world.

Want to know more about Stein? Good! Look no farther than Borden's excellent EDITH STEIN. Borden, a professor of philosophy at Wheaton College in Illinois, has penned the latest in Continuum's "Outstanding Christian Thinkers" series. More than mere biographies, these books are theological and philosophical introductions to the ideas of important Christian thinkers. Borden's book is written in such a way as to be useful to academics and non-academics alike, and is one of the best in the series so far.

Borden's clever solution to the problem of writing for such a varied audience was to write so that each chapter stands alone. The average reader will want to skip several chapters that deal with technical details of Stein's phenomenology and metaphysics.

The remaining chapters on her "life and writings," "woman and women's education," "Christian philosophy," and "spiritual writings" are rich enough that the reader who skips the technical chapters won't feel cheated. The final chapter gives a brief but hopeful account of the Jewish-Catholic controversy since Stein's death.

Stein was born, auspiciously, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in 1891. I say "auspiciously" because her life and writings are marked by a concern with reconciliation and atonement. Her thought is richly suggestive for transforming our tired modern biological and cultural notions of race and community.

Perhaps of greatest interest to PRISM readers will be Borden's account of Stein's labors on behalf of women, Jews, and the disenfranchised generally, and Stein's thoughts on race, gender, and Christian philosophy.

Against the Nazi slogan "race is destiny," Stein insisted on a different notion of race. The human person is not mere biology, she contended, and therefore biological race cannot determine the whole person.

Arguing that the image of the Trinity is found in all things, Stein proposed that people also are a three-in-one composite unity of body, mind, and spirit. Just as there is community in the Godhead, so too people are not radical individuals but inextricably knit together in local and humanity-wide communities.

Race, Stein argued, is the result of a community of people choosing to commit to each other and to their land over a period of time. It is not destiny so much as heritage, and it is a plastic heritage, moldable by our commitments to one another. Under this account, race becomes a tribute to the beauty of God's creation in making humans adaptive to their environment, and it is a profound reminder of the importance of commitment, community, and a connection to common land. Whether Stein's notion of adaptivity is biologically relevant or correct is perhaps of little importance. Of more importance is the suggestion that race might be little more than a marker, an imprint on the body, made by a shared life. The possibility for re-thinking our tired modern notions of race as tied only to biology or to culture is attractive: what if we were to take up Stein's idea and re-think race as the adaptive result of a shared life? The implications for slowly transforming racial relations are enormous.

Stein was denied a position in the university first due to her gender, then, when she won the right for women to become professors, she was denied a position due to her ethnicity. Stein continued her advocacy through her writings and through petitioning Rome to denounce Nazism and anti-Semitism. Ironically, it may have been precisely this Christian resistance to Hitler that led to her death: the Nazis had agreed to leave Dutch Jewish converts to Catholicism alone in exchange for official silence on the part of the church. Outraged, on July 26, 1941, ministers from 10 denominations across the Netherlands read a pastoral letter from their pulpits, denouncing the deportation of Jews. Stein and other Jewish Catholics who were residing in the Netherlands were promptly arrested. She died in the gas chamber in Auschwitz shortly after her arrival there. She was a brilliant light snuffed out by insidious hatred of her heritage.

In our time, not just a single nation but the whole world is being polarized by race, religion, and ethnicity. When ethnic enmity and rancor threaten to eclipse compassion, Stein?s thought cries out for consideration. Thankfully, Dr. Borden's timely book is an excellent – and eminently readable – introduction to the whole of it.

David O'Hara of this review is a doctoral student in Philosophy at Penn State University.

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