Human and Divine Being

What can Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and Edmund Husserl teach about what the human person is in the twenty-first century? Apparently there is a lot. According to Donald Wallenfang, Edith Stein (1892-1942), the Carmelite mystic and nun, brought these three intellectual and spiritual giants together in a deeply engaging and constructive dialogue towards understanding the human person for a post-modern society, where “widespread materialism, consumerism, secularism, and technocracy” rule (76). Wallenfang sets out to show how Stein does that work in his Human and Divine Being: A Study on the Theological Anthropology of Edith Stein. Specifically, this book asks such perennial questions as “What is it to be human? How are human beings different from other types of being in the universe? What are the integral parts that make up the human being?” (xxi). The reason that these questions have become peculiarly important, says Wallenfang, is that the contemporary society, with its post-modern Zeitgeist, tends to take the verdicts of natural science to be ultimately authoritative however, the unfortunate consequence of this approach is that “the human soul—as a category of spiritual being—has been censured effectively by contemporary critical thought” (55).

Thus, Wallenfang’s project is to furnish a pneumatology-based theological anthropology that is at once critical and public. For this reason, some mention of method is absolutely crucial in understanding how this book unfolds its arguments. In Stein’s construction of theological anthropology, Aquinasian metaphysics and Husserlian phenomenology come together in an Aristotelian hermeneutic of potency-act. The potency-act dialectic is important for Stein given that “all existents are composed of an admixture of being and nonbeing, actuality and potentiality” (6). It is in this light that she argues that pure actuality is the divine mode of being, while creatures’ modes of being include both potentiality and actuality. Between the dialectic of actuality and potentiality, the analytical tools of phenomenology and metaphysics come in quite handy considering that phenomenology “intends to be a purely descriptive method of investigation” (xxiii), while metaphysics “examines that which is inherently necessary for all that is” (xxiv). In the midst of the countless ways of potentiality becoming actuality, phenomenology—studying potentiality—is backed up by metaphysics—studying actuality—as Stein delves into the dialectics of being and nonbeing in the world, especially as regards the human person.

In terms of a brief summary of the book, chapter 1 sketches Stein’s overall vision of the human person through human vocation, which cannot be accomplished through mere “self-examination plus a scrutiny of the various possibilities” (2). Rather, “universal human vocation is conceivable as being shaped from without and from within, being shaped personally and spiritually into the collective form of community” (9). In other words, “intersubjective communion” is what is predicated upon here, and the details of such vision are further depicted in the following chapters (13). In chapter 2, Wallenfang suggests that Stein’s third way for pneumatology between conservative—“couching its discourse in an amalgam of confession terms”—and progressive positions—“regarding spirit as a fictitious construct” (22). That third way is “being open for oneself and for what is other is the highest and hence also the most proper form of spirit whereto all other spiritual being harks back” (45-6). This spiritual discourse is a public, critical one in that it is buttressed by what Stein calls the logic of the cross (double negative), found in the equally public, critical discourses such as grammar and math, which Wallenfang expounds on in chapters 7 and 8. After these preliminary and foundational two chapters, chapters 3 to 5 constitute the core arguments of the book, which Wallenfang summarizes to be “pedagogy on human soul” (xxxi). Introducing Aristotle’s four causality—material, efficient, formal, final—Stein argues in chapter 3 that natural science is incapable of telling anything about the formal and final causality. This is where a critical discourse of the human soul needs to be articulated, and where Stein’s pneumatology plays the foundational role for understanding the human person. Therefore, in chapter 4 Wallenfang shows that the soul is not only the form—as in the formal causality—of the body, but also the substantial image of God the Father, for just as the human soul is “the hidden depth for the formation of corporeal body” (84), “the Father, in relation to Son and Spirit, is the hidden Substratum of the Godhead” (115). This shows Stein’s peculiar, somewhat Augustinian assumption of the analogical relationship between the Triune structure and the human structure, “soul, body, and spirit mirror the nature of divinity as revealed in Christ” (115). It is precisely for this reason that the human soul is a kind of spiritual vessel in chapter 5, especially in its relationship with God, in that “it (soul) alone is able to receive love in a personal spiritual way” (131). In this light, chapters 6 to 8 read like an addendum, for the overall arguments have been all sketched out already by the end of chapter 5, except that these three chapters fill in the important blanks of the human materiality, empathy, and the logic of the cross.

As a scholar of religious education/Christian formation, the present reviewer finds this book addressing a very important vision of the human person that is not only at once contemplative and critical-public, but also foundational for the question of education and formation. Wallenfang emphasizes how Stein’s theological anthropology is deeply rooted in her prayer life, which might serve as a model for all who engage in similar work today. Even so, this book’s audience is not just a religious one, but it is also inclusive of all who are interested in the role of philosophy and religion in a society dictated more and more by natural science and technology. At the same time, Stein’s theological anthropology has important bearings on the current theories and practices of religious education, such as the question of intersubjective communion as human vocation. I recommend this book to all who ponder the meaning of being human in the present age and the coming future.

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