Edith Stein On the State and Religion

In Special Topic on October 1, 2012 at 1:10 am


It would seem that the topic of the relationship between the state and religion has no new insight to be had since it is such an old topic.  The role of the state in Western societies has long been the topic of many historic philosophers from Socrates in Plato’s works, to Aristotle to John of Salisbury and Thomas Hobbes, to modern theorists, except, many people probably haven’t heard what one of the first female phenomenologists, Edith Stein, who studied under the famous founder of phenomenology Edmund Husserl and worked with Martin Heidegger, has said about this relationship which she witnessed first hand.  Stein was from a Jewish family, became an atheist in her teenage years, converted to Roman Catholicism becoming a nun and was later killed with the millions of Holocaust victims during World War II, and declared a saint in 1998.  Stein explains the inherent conflict between the state and religion and the possibility of compromise between the two if and when possible.

In her book, An Investigation Concerning the State (Trans. Marianne Sawicki. ICS Publications: Washington, D.C. 2006), Stein first shows the structural conflict in the person between loyalty to one’s religion and loyalty to the state.  Stein says, “First and foremost, every human being stands under the supreme sovereign, and no earthly relation of sovereignty can change anything about that.  If the believer receives a command from God…then he must obey, whether or not he defies the will of the state in doing so.”(p. 185)  What is interesting about this statement is that she says “every human being,” seemingly implying believers and non-believers, atheists, agnostics, cynics, skeptics alike, still are subject to the sovereign omnipotence, omniscience and will of God.  This reality affects all persons and therefore those in positions of authority in government, whom are mortal persons too.  It is also a nice reminder that she says “…no earthly relation of sovereignty can change anything about that,” meaning that no matter how hostile a regime may become, the regime has no power or authority over the cosmic justice of God over all things.  Socrates and Edith Stein both died with the assured belief that the regimes that had power over their earthly lives, had no control whatsoever over their next lives.  So, it makes sense that Stein would say, “If the believer receives a command from God…then he must obey, whether or not he defies the will of the state in doing so,” this idea can remind us too of the courage of believers who have confronted government’s unjust laws of state sanctioned slavery, racial segregation and abortion (which is the “death penalty” for innocent unborn persons, totally hidden from public view, which Michel Focault fails to mention in his Discipline and Punishment) for example, among many other important issues.  Socrates believed that he was following the will of God in pursuing wisdom no matter where it led him, whether questioning those politicians in power, the poets or the craftsmen.  Edith Stein heroically met her death by the Nazi regime, like millions of other persons in the tragedy of the Holocaust.

It is also the case that the state can uphold the laws that the believer believes,when there is concordance between positive law and the natural law.  However, when governments go against the natural law, Socrates says in the Gorgias that even the sovereign himself still must answer to God.  Stein says, “Therefore it’s entirely understandable if the state treats the individual believer, but above all the church–with distrust and occasionally with open hostility.  Conversely you can understand that the among believers the conception of the state as an Antichrist would emerge again and again.”(p.185)  Jean Jacques Rousseau pointed out a similar conflict in The Social Contract that there is an inherent conflict internally in the believer and in his patriotism to the state.  However, Stein is wise to use the word “distrust” here, that the state though sovereign on earth is not omniscient, and therefore fallible; as a consequence, it cannot always be trusted because of that very fallibility.  Whereas, as she points out, believers who do believe in the infallibility of the Church’s teachings are simultaneously aware of the limitations of the state while also aware of the state’s immediate authority over them and therefore she says, “There is no solution in principle for the conflict arising from the properties of the civil and religious spheres.” (p. 185)  This is a very difficult compromise to live and a regular tension between the church and state.  But, she follows, “Only a factual compromise is possible…through the word of the Lord: Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.  This indicates that the state and obedience with regard to it are willed by God or at least permitted by God.” (p. 185)  In other words, just as Jesus Christ taught to tolerate the just demands of the state, regarding taxes, therefore, by implication  the other necessary duties of the state for its self-sustenance.  Since the Magna Carta of 1215, in the West, it has been necessary to acknowledge the compromise of the co-existing, parallel dual sovereigns of the church and the state, separation of church and state.  So, it is possible for the two to live together in mutual distrust unfortunately, which is a reminder that this life is not the life, fortunately.


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