When Evil Comes, Look to The Saintly not the Smart

When Evil Comes, Look to The Saintly not the Smart June 1, 2021

In times of great evil, we who are average often look to find some guiding light among our fellow men. When societies reach their boiling point, as our own seems to be, it is only natural to look not just to God and His provenance but also to some human figure to help strengthen moral resolve and make sense of a world gone mad.

One source of authority that the average among us will often look to are the smart people in society. Those who are leaders in scholarly fields, who are known for their intellectual ability and capacity for research and who have created interpretive lenses through which we view culture itself are often seen as civilization’s great hope. Intellectuals can be regarded as chosen ones, wise guides in perilous times. These smart people, or “brights” as one contemporary philosopher calls them, are regarded as the ones who can navigate us through chaos and help us channel the better angels of our nature.

Today we might look to the social scientist or the economist or even the psycho-therapist as cultural life-lines. Ultimately, albeit reluctantly, we turn to the politician. 20 or 30 years ago it might have been the natural scientist who we believed could help us overcome all odds– from cold wars to global warming. Now, maybe not so much. However, to the intellectual many will turn and, in the past, that is where many have turned. As Christians, however, we should know not to put too much hope in the illuminati of a given age. For knowledge according to Paul “puffs up,” and intellect and wisdom are not the same in both Jewish and Christian traditions. Thus, it is not to the smart we should look when the culture seems ready to fall but to the saintly.

Heidegger and Stein: Two Scholars, One Saint

Few names dominate 20th century philosophy more than that of Martin Heidegger. Born in rural Germany, Heidegger’s father was a Roman Catholic sacristan who took care of the local church building, which gave young Martin a sense of the Christian tradition and the life of the Church. Martin, like Edith Stein, went on to study under Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, writing his habilitation (in Germany, a kind of second PhD required to teach) on the scholastic theologian John Duns Scotus.

Steeped in contemporary philosophy as well as Reformation thought, Heidegger’s work in metaphysics was original. Terms like dasein (Being in the world, being there), Zeitlichkeit (temporality), Geworfenheit (being thrown into) and Angst (anxiety) took on technical meanings in a new, existentialist view of the human person and condition. Although criticized by English analytic philosophers as “a mere talker” and “someone who plays with words” (F.H. Heinemann, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, 85), next to Jean-Paul Sartre and perhaps Michel Foucault there was no bigger influence on philosophy in the 20th century than Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger’s Philosophical Religion

Heidegger, unlike Sartre, was not an entirely irreligious, or anti-religious, thinker. However, as a post-Kantian philosopher he too, like so many, considered a system of religious beliefs grounded in classical ontological commitments to be untenable. The mystique of metaphysics had to be made immanent in the world if man was to survive modernity. F.H. Heinemann, a contemporary German philosopher working in Oxford at the time, speaks of two aspects of Heidegger’s thought: his longing for the “holy” (see Rudolph Otto’s classic, The Idea of the Holy) and a personalized willingness to see the holy instantiated in the here and now:

Through the medium of a very personal and arbitrary kind of thinking, fired by an unconscious longing for the Holy (das Heile und Heilige), he [Heidegger] attempts a unification and systematization of the experience of the inter-war generation, and thereby becomes a true expression of his age.
Heinemann, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, 86

This longing for the holy that shaped not only Heidegger’s thought but so many of the “inter-war generation” was coupled with a particular German notion of the “Denkwillen” (will to to intellectual power) that allows the philosopher to build a world of his own. A world he believes can make the sacred real again,

His [Heidegger’s] thinking is, in fact, the building and constructing of a dwelling-place, in which the philosopher can reside, or of a labyrinth, in which he dominates absolutely because he alone has in his hands Ariadne’s thread which will allow him to find his way out….It is an activity of the will dominated by what the Germans call Denkwillen, which is here a will to power, albeit intellectual power, a will to construct something absolutely new, in opposition to the whole preceding history of philosophy.
Heinemann, 86

For many contemporary and subsequent philosophers, the work of Heidegger became and has remained mere enigma. It is little more than an unbearably obscure philosophical mysticism. Nevertheless, his renown as an intellectual force had many in his day considering him a “philosophical Messiah” (Heinemann, 89). Albeit he was a messiah who would deny openly the will, and the existence, of any transcendent Father. Tragically, Heidegger was also a messiah who seemed too imprisoned in his own will to intellectual power that he not only failed to resist the rising political power in his own country but never came to really condemn the Nazi party that wound up unleashing literal hell on earth.

Martin’s Moral Failure

Michael Wheeler argues that this failure continues to “cast a shadow over his life” (see Michael Wheeler, “Martin Heidegger“). Was this flagrant inaction just an error in prudential judgment? It is hard to think that such a great, albeit enigmatic, mind could be so inept. Wheeler, writing for the Stanford Encyclopedia, makes an incisive analysis as to why Heidegger not only latched on to National Socialism but never entirely distanced himself from it.

According to Wheeler, there was something in Heidegger’s philosophy itself that was organically related to the ethos of National Socialism, even if not the particular national socialists representing that ethos:

There is no doubt that Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies, however long they lasted, have a more intimate relationship with his philosophical thought than might be suggested by apologist claims that he was a victim of his time (in 1933, lots of intelligent people backed Hitler without thereby supporting the Holocaust that was to come) or that what we have here is ‘merely’ a case of bad political judgment, deserving of censure but with no implications for the essentially independent philosophical programme.
Why does the explanation run deeper?
The answer is that Heidegger believed (indeed continued to believe until he died) that the German people were destined to carry out a monumental spiritual mission. That mission was nothing less than to be at the helm of the aforementioned transformation of Being in the West, from one of instrumental technology to one of poetic dwelling. In mounting this transformation the German people would be acting not imperialistically, but for all nations in the encounter with modern technology. Of course destining is not a fate that compels, so some divine catalyst would be needed to awake the German nation to its historic mission, a catalyst provided by the spiritual leaders of the Nazi Party.
Wheeler, “Martin Heidegger” [Emphasis added]

In other words, Heidegger’s belief that the divine could be made real in the world: either through a series of events, an extraordinary event or a mythical yet real historical person (or some combination of the three) motivated him to hold on to the dream that the German people would lead all people back to a resacralization of the world. Wheeler explains this impulse in Heidegger’s thought:

However, Heidegger sometimes seems to use the term ‘god’ or ‘divinity’ to refer to a heroic figure (a cultural template) who may initiate (or help to initiate) a transformational event in the history of Being by opening up an alternative clearing…. These heroic figures are the grounders of the abyss, the restorers of sacredness…. It might even be consistent with Heidegger’s view to relax the requirement that the divine catalyst must be an individual being, and thus to conceive of certain transformational cultural events or forces themselves as divinities (Dreyfus 2003). In any case, Heidegger argues that, in the present crisis, we are waiting for a god who will reawaken us to the poetic, and thereby enable us to dwell in the fourfold. 

In sum, in spite of Heidegger’s brilliance of thought and his power of the intellect, he ultimately was a blind guide for many Germans. While it should be noted that Heidegger was not a strong anti-Semite, nevertheless it cannot be denied that he did little if anything to stop the Holocaust. Instead of submitting to the will of the God Who is there, the God Who had already broken into history as the Godman, Heidegger instead sought the transcendent in the power of his own mind. In doing so, he wound up indirectly giving credibility to one of the greatest evils in human history.

As such, it would be good for us to heed an important lesson: intelligence alone is insufficient as a guide to truth as well as goodness. It will take something more than just genius to resist evil and to be holy in times of trouble. In fact, it may be that such an intelligence, an intelligence not subjected to a higher power and authority, will inevitably point us directly to a false hope; to an anti-Christ. Therefore, it is not to the smart of the world we should turn as the darkness looms but to the saintly.

Edith Stein: The Intelligent and Submissive Will

Edith Stein was no dummy. So, in this sense, I have set up a false dichotomy in my attempt to contrast the “smart” with the “saintly.” For clearly Stein was both, as Thomas Szanto and Dermot Moran point out:

Edith Stein (1891–1942) was a realist phenomenologist associated with the Göttingen school and later a Christian metaphysician….Stein is known philosophically primarily for her phenomenological work on empathy and affectivity, her contributions as research assistant to Edmund Husserl, and her philosophical anthropology. She was in discussion with leading philosophers of her day, including Husserl, Scheler, Heidegger, Conrad-Martius, Ingarden, and Maritain. Thomas Szanto and Dermot Moran, “Edith Stein” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The title of Stein’s doctoral thesis alone should send shivers into the heart of any aspiring PhD candidate: Das Einfühlungsproblem in seiner historischen Entwicklung und in phänomenologischer Betrachtung (“The Empathy Problem in its Historical Development and its Phenomenological Perspective,” translation mine).

The point of this story is therefore not to say that we should be wary of intelligence as such, but rather that intellect alone is not sufficient to guide us through the deepest waters of the human soul and the darkest chapters of human history. That Stein possessed both intellect and a will submissive to the Divine Will is a contingent fact. Not all of God’s saints will have the scholarly mind of a Stein or an Augustine. Many have been, and will continue to be, farmers, nothing more.

Stein, a phenomenal (pun intended) understudy of Edmund Husserl, would have landed a research post in 1920’s Germany had at that time academic positions been based strictly on ability. However, as gender constraints prevailed, she providentially returned to her home town of Breslau where, after reading St. Theresa of Avila, she “immediately felt she had found the truth” (Szanto and Moran, “Edith Stein”) and converted to Roman Catholicism. Several years later she would fill a teaching position briefly in the city of Münster. Unfortunately, this would not last as her Jewish ethnicity became cause for her removal in 1933. By this time Stein had not only rigorously studied Thomas Aquinas, but even translated De Veritate into German. In between the wars she had even reached out to Heidegger himself who was initially supportive of her work.

Intellect in Service to Christ

After her removal Stein chose to commit her life completely to the Catholic faith, joining the Carmelite convent in Cologne. Her time as a professional philosopher had come to an end, seemingly prematurely. Unlike Heidegger, her very life would soon follow. In convent she took on her new identity, Theresa Benedicta a Cruce, and began to pursue theology in addition to her philosophy. Her new name would fit well with her ultimate fate, just as her new regiment of studying the triune God and contemplating the love of Christ would prepare her in ways that the mere love of philosophical knowledge could not. A letter written December 9th of 1938 sums up her new identity and mission:

Dear Reverend Mother. Many thanks for your loving letter of November 23. I must tell you that I already brought my religious name with me into the house as apostulant. I received it exactly as I requested it. By the cross I understood the destiny of God’s people which, even at that time, began to announce itself. I thought that those who recognized it as the cross of Christ had to take it upon themselves in the name of all. Certainly, today I know more of what it means to be wedded to the Lord in the sign of the Cross. Of course, one can never comprehend it, for it is a mystery… …
Our Reverend Mother has asked our sisters in Echt (Holland) to receive me. Today their loving acceptance arrived. If it is possible to get all the necessary papers together in time, we would like to make the transfer even before December 31st. These are the facts. And now I would like to wish you a very grace-filled Christmas feast. As the atmosphere around us grows steadily darker, all the more must we open our hearts for light from above. Most cordial thanks once more for all thelove you have shown me in these five years in the Order. Since your way sometimes leads to Holland, I may even have the hope of seeing you again. I commend myself to your prayers for the next weeks and months. In caritate Regis qui venturus est (in the love of the King who is to come), your grateful, Sister Teresa Benedicta a Cruce.
quoted in “The Passion of Edith Stein-Revisited” by Sr. Prudence Allan, RSM, PhD

Reports attest that Theresa, along with her biological sister, Rosa, was eventually arrested by the Gestapo and sent via cattle train to Auschwitz on August 2nd, 1943. She and Rosa died only a few days after their arrival–by gas. A poem written late in her life seem to sum up her final philosophical conclusion:

The inmost chamber of the human soul Is favourite dwelling to the Trinity, His heavenly throne right here on earth. To free this heav’nly realm from hostile hand, God’s Son descended as the Son of Man. He gave His blood as ransom. Within the heart of Jesus pierced with lances, The realm of heaven and earth become united. And here we find the spring of life itself. This is the heart of Trinity divine, The center also of all human hearts. Source of our life from God. It draws us close with its mysterious might, It keeps us safe within the Father’s lap And floods us with the Holy Spirit.

One commentator speaks to the truth that Stein found and that motivated her moral action, a truth and an action that cannot be generated by mere philosophical cognition:

The way of faith gives us more than the way of philosophic knowledge. Faith reveals to us the God of personal nearness, the loving and merciful God, and therewith we are given a certitude that no natural knowledge can impart.
On human being: a dispute between Edith Stein and Martin Heidegger.” The Free Library. 2007 Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas 15 May. 2021

Look to Those Who Look To the Cross

In the end one of these great thinkers was left muddling about in his own mind, trying to create his own “dwelling place” for a god conceived by his own power of the intellect, and hoping see it actualized through mortal men. This was the merely smart man. Yet, in the strength of his own will, he ultimately could not be the salt and the light he needed to be in the midst of a very bitter and very real night. For there is no courage in a god concept, only in God is one brave.

The other, turning from the immanent domain of her own thoughts, found the God Who has always been there and, placing her hope in eternal Creator and eternal Son, displayed the faith of the saints– a faith given by God and not generated by His creature. This is the apostolic faith that saves us from ourselves through the submission of both intellect and will to their Maker. This is the fides salvifica that relieves our Angst as we come to see ourselves as not thrown recklessly (Geworfen) into existence but placed here with intent, an intent that includes our own death as well as everlasting life (should we choose).

Thus, for the Christian who makes not his own dwelling place in the mind, but who receives the Holy Spirit to dwell in the heart, “in the inmost chamber of the human soul,” death is no enemy, for it has no sting. And so, in faith, Edith was transformed into Theresa of the Cross, while her contemporary stayed but Martin Heidegger, philosopher. True, we may read and even profit from the one but, when the time comes, let us follow in the footsteps of the other.

About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design– a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.

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