(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Edith Stein’s Knowledge and Faith, a collection of five philosophical essays (three of which are fragments), was written between the years of 1929 and 1941 after the Jewish woman’s conversion to Christianity. In 1942 Stein, then a Carmelite nun, was executed by the Nazis at Auschwitz.

The five documents in Knowledge and Faith are “Husserl and Aquinas: A Comparison,” “Knowledge, Truth, and Being” (a fragment), “Actual and Ideal Being” (a fragment), the foreword to “Finite and Eternal Being” (a fragment of a draft), and “Ways to Know God.” The first complete document presents similarities and differences between the ideas of Stein’s teacher Edmund Husserl (founder of phenomenology) and the medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas. The second complete work, “Ways to Know God,” investigates the instructions given by Dionysius the Areopagite about the mystic’s path toward God.

Stein presents Husserl’s main theories about knowledge and consciousness in the first essay. He held that reality consists of objects, events, and ideas as they are understood by human consciousness alone. No other reality exists above or apart from human consciousness that cannot be accessed by human consciousness. In examining consciousness, philosophy aims to apply the same rigorous methods as science, with the goal of achieving perfect, complete knowledge. This knowledge is gained only by an intentional act of will and by careful, step-by-step analysis. Over time, humankind can know all there is to know, including the Logos (ultimate truth).

Thomas Aquinas would agree with Husserl, Stein believes, that human beings can come to understand the Word, or Logos, that supports all of creation. Stein notes disagreement between them, however, in how far Husserl’s method can take human thought toward ultimate truth. Aquinas would not accept that full knowledge can be achieved by means of an unending process of inquiry. Instead Aquinas thought divine knowledge is infinite; it embraces all knowledge. The extent of the knowledge humans can have on earth is limited by the finite character of their minds. Complete knowledge is possible only in the presence of God after death. Aquinas believed that...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Berkman, Joyce Avrech, ed. Contemplating Edith Stein. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. Chapters on Stein’s life, humor, original scholarship, and contributions to the women’s movement, and on her translation of John Henry Newman’s letters before his own conversion to Catholicism.

Borden, Sarah. Edith Stein. New York: Continuum, 2003. An analysis of Stein’s treatment of being and essence in her major writings. Borden displays the breadth of Stein’s interests and the power of her thought as well as reviewing the negative reactions to her canonization in 1998.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue, 1913-1922. Oxford, England: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006. MacIntyre analyzes Stein’s life and thought prior to her conversion to place her philosophical theories within European schools of the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Sullivan, John, ed. Edith Stein: Essential Writings. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2002. Stein’s spiritual writings reveal her high regard for Saint Teresa of Ávila and other mystics who inspired in her a desire to emulate the sacrificial life of Christ.