Edith Stein on Faith and Philosophy

In Dignity of the Person on October 28, 2012 at 5:38 pm



It would seem that faith and philosophy are opposed to each other.  At first glance, when compared to philosophy, it is faith that appears subjective, irrational or emotional.  Also, it seems that considering philosophy in light faith is how philosophy was done in the olden days, way back in the Middle Ages or during the pre-Scientific Revolution times, or in pre-Modernity.  So, even if this is a valid way of doing philosophy how could be relevant now? So much time has passed, so much “water under the bridge” already, that it seems irrelevant to the Information Age, or the post-Modern era to even begin to discuss seriously faith and philosophy. Well, Edith Stein, the female phenomenologist and saint thought quite differently and seriously about how the two could work together even today.

In her book, Knowledge and Faith, (Trans. Walter Redmond. ICS Publicastions: Washington, DC, 2000, p. 11) Stein says, “Phenomenology proceeds as though our reason had no limits in principle.”  The beauty of phenomenology is its openness to knowledge from all sources.  Such an epistemological disposition is only limited by one’s capacity for imbibing knowledge, understanding it and interpreting it.  For Stein, the only problem with natural reason alone is that it is incomplete.  She continues, “Certainly, it grants that its task is endless and knowledge is an unending process.  But it heads straight for its goal: that is, the full truth, which as a regulative idea sets the course it is to take.”  One might say that the only limit to the phenomenologist is her intentions and her capacity for the reception of knowledge, ultimately finding the truth.  But Truth is what the phenomenologist is searching for in all being.  She says, “From the perspective of philosophy, there is no other way to the goal.  St. Thomas’s view is also that this is the way of natural reason.” (p.11) Truth in its totality, truth in all of its manifestations, therefore includes faith as a subject.  She continues discussing natural knowledge that “Its way is endless, and this implies that it can never reach its goal but only approach it step by step.  Another consequence is that all human philosophy is bound to be fragmentary.” (pp. 11)  Fragmentary knowledge fails to display being in its totality ontologically.  Such a failure begs for completion, the true phenomenologist wouldn’t fail to search faith for this missing insight.  Surely, Stein understood this when she says, “This it grasps in faith, which on our earthly pilgrimage is a second way of gaining knowledge alongside the natural way.  At our goal, both what we now know and what we now take on faith, we will know in another way.”(p. 13)  In other words, in Eternity, we will attain knowledge in its totality according to our capacity, while faith supplants that lack here and now through supernatural reason with the addition of our natural knowledge through reason.  She says, “For philosophy is also a mater of ratio for me (in the broad sense that includes natural and supernatural reason.)  And you gather, of course, from what I was just saying, that I do not take faith to be irrational at all; that is, having nothing to do with truth and falsehood.”  What Stein seems to be interpreting of Saint Thomas Aquinas here, is that faith is not unreasonable, or irrational, or devoid of logic, but rather it is a reasoning that starts with Revelation and proceeds with its supernatural reasoning with an openness to the insight from faith about the knowledge that God has made known to man about Himself which he otherwise would not know or be able to grasp with out the aid of Revelation, certainly not reason alone.  As a consequence, for Stein “…faith is a way to truth.  Indeed in the first place it is a way to truths–plural–which would otherwise be closed to us, and in the second place it is the surest way to truth.”  This is a strong statement, to say that faith is the surest way to truth.  However, when analyzed from from a phenomenological perspective, the claim is that those who have received this Revelation start from a position of contemplation of what is purported to be divine knowledge, and when such knowledge proves to be reasonable supernaturally, it carries with it a certainty that natural reason neither claims nor can claim by itself.  She continues, “For there is no greater certainty than that of faith; what is more, for human beings [in the state of being on our earthly journey] no knowledge lends a certainty that can come up to that proper to faith…”(p.17)  In other words, with knowledge coming from faith one can behave in real, materially manifest ways, which include resting one’s entire life upon faith’s truth and even investing one’s eternal life on the truth of faith.

Who would be willing to rest his life on knowledge solely based upon human reason without belief?  Who can say that what she knows by reason alone, she is therefore willing to risk her life upon it?  Surely not her eternal life upon it. Whereas, the person of faith would be willing to risk both her earthly life and eternal life on her supernatural knowledge from faith if necessary, and many martyrs in the history of Christianity have done that very thing.  Whereas, any rationalist who was willing to risk both her earthly life and the possibility of her eternal life on what she knew by reason alone would be thought of as a fool.  Hence, it would behoove philosophers to consider faith more seriously, as Stein did saying, “Philosophy aspires after truth to the greatest possible extent and with the greatest possible certainty.  If faith makes accessible truths unattainable by any other means, philosophy, for one thing, cannot forego them without renouncing its universal claim to truth.” (p. 17)  All philosophers seek truth, truth is their aim from whence it comes.  If it comes from faith, as Stein discovered, in order for philosophy to claim to seek truth honestly, it cannot renounce the truth deriving from knowledge of faith without giving up its universal claims, which can be said that some Postmodernists have done in order to ignore and to discount that very discovery.  Stein wisely advises philosophers who neglect truth deriving from faith by saying, “Furthermore, it cannot forgo these truths without risking that falsehood will creep even into the body of knowledge left to it, since, given the organic interrelationship of all truth, any partial stock, when its link to the whole is cut off, can appear in a false light.  One consequence then, is a material dependence of philosophy on faith.”  The importance of the aforesaid cannot be understated, for more than 500 years some philosophers since Machiavelli have actively excluded availing themselves to faith as a source of truth, (which would have been considered strange in the prior 1500 years).  Stein says, “Then too, if faith affords the highest certainty attainable by the human mind, and if philosophy claims to bestow the highest certainty, then philosophy must make the certainty of faith its own.  It does so first by absorbing the truths of faith, and further by using them as the final criterion by which to gauge all other truths.” (p. 18)  Blessed John Henry Newman, in his The Idea of the University, refers to this phenomenon in the university, of having removed the study of theology and philosophy from the academy, as one of the greatest pedagogical errors of the West.  Stein alludes to a similar sentiment toward philosophers at large in the prior quote saying that philosophy informed by the aid of faith would contribute to its own certainty rather than simply the aid of natural reason alone, instead with this aid of supernatural knowledge philosophers could benefit even in their judgement of being with the use of natural reason.  Stein exhorts phenomenologists by recalling Thomas Aquinas saying that, “He would never admit that this is the only way of knowledge, nor that truth is but an idea that must be actualized in an unending process–and hence never fully.  Full Truth is; there is a knowledge that embraces truth completely, a knowledge that rather than unending process, is unending, infinite, fullness at rest.  Such is the divine knowledge.”(p. 12)  In other words, divine knowledge, or knowledge from faith, does not endlessly seek more and more knowledge or does not continually process for the sake of processing, as if knowledge or process is the end in itself, but that the fullness of truth is God and faith embraces this knowledge, a knowledge that is both infinite yet complete, unending but at rest.   God, as Pure Act, knows His Self perfectly and completely, the person of faith recognizes this, loves this and appreciates this Truth as genuine knowledge with a certitude that no other natural knowledge can claim, yet it is only the starting point of reasoning for the philosopher who is a person of faith.  The philosopher who adds the aid of her reason with the supernatural knowledge of faith is no longer confined as the Heideggerian being in time and space, but a new being in time and space who is also simultaneously a being outside of the cosmos, outside space and time, with insight from faith of the knowledge of God.  This advantage is truly something about which we should celebrate and be grateful.

  1. It is refreshing to read how Edith Stein holds that reason is perfected by a supernatural reason (faith), and that reason whose object is the truth is not afraid of faith.

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