Identity politics often promotes a limiting, dehumanizing conception of the human person that places people into narrow categories — such as by race, ethnicity, sexuality, or sex — as the primary locus of personal identity. This progressivist project inverts human nature, claiming people are not individuals created in the image of God with a unique soul and body, but it fixates on other traits that possess a secondary, derivative value.
Instead, individuals are primarily “persons of color,” or victims of racial or biological oppression, or defined by their sexual impulses and identity. This understanding of people’s inherent worth creates significant, inescapable philosophical problems.
Often, stories of people who buck problematic, soul-crushing narratives such as these offer a more interesting and compelling means of proving their falsity. So it is with Edith Stein, also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, whose feast day the Catholic Church celebrates today. Stein, in her humble, unparalleled, intelligent devotion to God, represents a necessary counternarrative to this era of identity politics and intersectionality.
A Powerful, Brilliant Jewish Woman
Stein was born in 1891 into an observant Jewish family in what was then called Breslau, in the German Empire (now Wroclaw, part of Poland). In perhaps a sign of her destiny, she was born on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Hebrew calendar. Raised in a family that encouraged critical thinking, Stein was quickly identified as a uniquely precocious girl.
Despite her admiration for her widowed mother, Stein also became increasingly suspicious of Judaism, and by her teenage years, she was an atheist. She then enrolled at the University of Breslau.
In 1913, Stein spent a summer semester studying under German Edmund Husserl, widely recognized as one of the great philosophers of the 20th century. Stein determined to pursue a degree in philosophy under Husserl. Yet World War I interrupted her studies in 1914, and she decided to volunteer as a Red Cross nurse in a German hospital.
By 1916, she had completed her dissertation, earned a doctorate summa cum laude, and became Husserl’s assistant. Some scholars have argued that Stein began influencing Husserl’s academic work. She then became a member of the faculty at the University of Freiburg, although Husserl did not support Stein trying to secure an academic chair because she was a woman. Another thesis she submitted to the University of Göttingen in 1919 was also rejected, presumably again because of her sex.
An Unexpected Conversion
Soon thereafter, Stein began studying Roman Catholicism, particularly the writings of mystic Teresa of Ávila. She was baptized in 1922 and began teaching at the Dominican nuns’ school in Speyer, where she stayed until 1931.
She translated works of Thomas Aquinas into German and attempted to fuse Husserl’s phenomenology to Thomism. She became a lecturer at the Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Münster, a Catholic institution, in 1932. However, antisemitic legislation of the Nazi government forced her to resign this post in 1933. She wrote to Pope Pius XI, requesting he denounce the Nazi regime.
That same year, Stein entered the Discalced Carmelite monastery St. Maria vom Frieden (Our Lady of Peace) in Cologne. She took the religious name of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, in honor of her inspiration, Teresa of Ávila. She wrote books on metaphysics and spirituality.
She and her sister, Rosa, who also converted to Catholicism, then fled to a monastery in Echt, Netherlands, to avoid Nazi persecution. After the Nazi invasion of Holland in May 1940, Stein began “quietly training herself for life in a concentration camp, by enduring cold and hunger.”
Stein’s premonitions proved accurate. On July 26, 1942, the Nazi leadership in the Netherlands ordered all Jewish converts to Catholicism be arrested. Stein and her sister, along with 243 baptized Dutch Jews were arrested by the SS on Aug. 2, 1942.
First imprisoned at the concentration camps of Amersfoort and Westerbork, they were eventually moved to Auschwitz. A Dutch official, impressed by her faith and courage, offered her an escape plan, but she refused. Sometime about Aug. 9, 1942, the Nazis murdered Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and her sister, alongside other Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity, in an Auschwitz gas chamber.
God and Truth Trump Other Identities
Edith Stein had plenty to be angry about. Although brilliant and talented, she obstructed from pursuing her well-deserved professional goals because she was a woman and Jewish. Her own male mentor, a fellow Jew the Nazi regime persecuted, actively worked against her professional development.
In our day and age, such stories are ripe for appropriation as cudgels to beat traditional ideas regarding God, politics, and sex. Yet, quite remarkably, Stein chose an approach other than resentment and anger. She converted to Catholicism and embraced a life of piety and poverty.
Rather than a hindrance, Stein’s brilliance and ambition were the means to embracing the truth of Christianity. Moreover, it was the Catholic Church, rather than secular academia, that provided the venue for her to pursue her intellectual interests in earnest.
In the church, she did not find male oppression of females. Rather, the church allowed to her flourish, as a woman and as an academic. Indeed, it was in finding her first calling, as a woman whose origin and end are in God, that Stein became so much more than just a smart professor.
It was that religious calling, in turn, that demanded of her the greatest sacrifice, her life, as it had for her Savior almost 2,000 years before. She offered it willingly, with an otherworldly courage that serves as an amazing exemplar for us today.
Thus, we remember St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross not so much because she was a brilliant, unfairly marginalized Jewish woman, although she certainly was this. Rather, we honor her love for God and her willingness to die for Him, which reminds us of what is most important in life. Only when we see ourselves through that prism — rather than the false comforts and promises of identity politics and victimhood — can we find lives with real, permanent meaning.
Casey Chalk is a graduate student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College.