Thinking about Edith Stein


Edith Stein was a Roman Catholic nun who died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz in August of  1942 as part of Hitler’s “final solution.”  Her “extermination” illustrates the irrationality of Christian Jew-hatred embraced in its most racist form by the Nazis.  Edith was born Jewish, she aban­­doned Judaism when she was 13 years old.  After years as a professed atheist, she converted to Catholicism at age 30, entered the Carmelites at 42, and, regardless of her personal history, was killed as a Jew two months before her 51st birthday.

She was canonized a “saint” and designated a “martyr” by the Vatican fifty six years later.

In the spring of 1933 right after the Nazis took power in Germany and before she entered the convent, Stein wrote to Pius XI begging him to denounce what was being done to the Jews:

I dare to speak to the Father of Christianity about that which oppresses millions of Germans. For weeks we have seen deeds perpetrated in Germany which mock any sense of justice and humanity, not to mention love of neighbor. For years the leaders of National Socialism have been preaching hatred of the Jews. Now that they have seized the power of government and armed their followers, among them proven criminal elements, this seed of hatred has germinated. The government has only recently admitted that excesses have occurred. To what extent, we cannot tell, because public opinion is being gagged. … But the responsibility must fall, after all, on those who brought them to this point and it also falls on those who keep silent in the face of such happenings.

Everything that happened and continues to happen on a daily basis originates with a government that calls itself “Christian.” For weeks not only Jews but also thousands of faithful Catholics in Germany, and, I believe, all over the world, have been waiting and hoping for the Church of Christ to raise its voice to put a stop to this abuse of Christ’s name. …

We all, who are faithful children of the Church and who see the conditions in Germany with open eyes, fear the worst for the prestige of the Church, if the silence continues any longer.

The letter was marked as received by the Vatican on April 20.  Pius  XI concluded a concordat with Hitler in July.  The concordat had been negotiated and was signed by the Vatican Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII.  It was a mere six months after the Nazi takeover in January.[1]  Stein’s letter went unanswered, and its existence went unknown for years.  It was not even made available by the Vatican at the time of her canonization in 1998 when all relevant documentation and correspondence had been gathered.  It was released to the public as part of the archived documentation dating from the pontificate of Pius XI, made available for study in 2003.[2]  There was no comment from the Vatican.  The Carmelites picked it up and disseminated its contents.

If the condemnation of silence in the face of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews was one of the reasons for her canonization one would have expected the Vatican to use the occasion to release the letter and make a public display of compunction for its own failures.  Hiding the letter as they did suggests that their interests lay elsewhere.  Stein, after all, was a well known modern atheist philosopher who had converted to Roman Catholicism.

In the spring of 1942 the Dutch Catholic Bishops spoke out strongly condemning Nazi treatment of the Jews.  Hitler retaliated by ordering that all Christianized Jews in Holland be rounded up for extermination.  Edith and her sister Rosa had been transferred to the Carmelite monastery at Echt in the Netherlands for their safety; they were arrested on August 2 and sent to Auschwitz where they were murdered seven days later.  Her “feast day” is August 9.


Her story has background that illustrates the long and genocidal history of Christian anti-semitism in Europe.  Edith was born in 1891 to a wealthy industrialist Jewish family in what was then Breslau, Germany.   The city was made part of Poland after World War II and returned to the Polish spelling of its name, Wroclaw.

Located at the crossroads of two important trade routes, there had always been a settlement at that site since ancient times.  By the 12th century Breslau had grown into one of the three principal cities of Silesia, and by turns belonged to Bohemia or Poland, usually as part of the Holy Roman Empire.

In the course of the 14th century, Jews were expelled the city several times (1319, 1349, 1360).  In 1453, 41 Jews were burned at the stake and the rest expelled after they had been accused of desecrating the Host by the Franciscan John of Capistrano (a canonized Roman Catholic “saint,” known to history as “the scourge of the Jews”).  An imperial privilege de non tolerandis Judaeis was given to Breslau in 1455 excluding all Jews from the city.[3]  The prohibition remained in force until after the Prussian conquest had made it part of what would become Germany.  In 1744 the absolute ban was lifted but only 12 Jewish families were given residence.  Those that were granted entry were considered necessary for the well-being of the city.  That number was expanded slowly by the authorities, and by 1776 there were 2000 Jews living in Breslau, all by special permission.  An “Edict of Emancipation” only came in 1812 in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, and by the 1890’s Breslau was the home of about 20,000 Jews.  Given the history of their reintroduction, many were well positioned.  The wealthier families enjoyed a privileged life, even seeking education for their daughters, a luxury only the upper classes could afford.  The Steins were clearly of this class because Edith, the youngest of 11 children, was given every academic opportunity available.


She began her University studies there in Breslau in 1911 where she became acquainted with the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl who was a professor at Göttingen University at the time.  (Husserl was also born Jewish and converted later in life to Protestantism.)  She transferred to Göttingen to continue her studies with him and followed him again when he moved to Freiburg where she earned her doctorate under his mentorship in 1916.  Her thesis was on “empathy” — a major Husserlian category.  She worked thereafter as an assistant professor under Husserl and was chosen by him to be his personal aide.  She established a reputation at Freiburg for being one of the university’s leading philosophers and is acknowledged for her original collaboration with Husserl in the development of phenomenology.  She was succeeded in her assistantship by Martin Heidegger who later was given Husserl’s position at Freiburg when the latter retired in 1928.  Heidegger was elected to the rectorship of Freiburg in April of 1933 and joined the Nazi party a month later.

Stein converted to Catholicism in 1921.  She was baptized at the age of 30 and dropped her high level academic career to take a position teaching in a Dominican girl’s school in Speyer.  Being a professional philosopher, however, she was soon drawn to the study of the thought of the classic Catholic philosopher-theologians, especially Thomas Aquinas.  She translated his De Veritate during her decade in Speyer and she said it re-kindled her desire to do philosophical work.

Her interest in Thomism was not an isolated case.  Attention in her time had begun to turn from positivism (scientism) to Europe’s pre-scientistic roots and scholasticism was in vogue.[4]  Integrating phenomenology into the overall scholastic world-view became the goal of her intellectual life.


Edith Stein’s work was part of the scholastic revival of the 1920’s and ‘30’s.  As a disciple and close collaborator of Edmund Husserl she tried to create a rapprochement between his analytical methods and Thomism.  Her major work Finite and Eternal Being completed in the late 30’s, was a new attempt at a project she had initiated with an earlier manuscript, Potency and Act, now separately published, which she wrote as her thesis for post-doctoral qualification as a professor, a requirement in German academia.  Because she was a woman Husserl refused to support her efforts in this regard, and her work was turned down.[5]  Even without it she was offered a lectureship in Münich in 1932, but when the Nazis took over in January of 1933 she was forced to resign because of her Jewish origins.  Neither book was published in her lifetime.

Her serious thinking along these lines, however, had begun much earlier encouraged by Husserl’s own interest in a “return to the roots,” meaning to pre-scientific and pre-philosophical perceptions of reality.  Husserl acknowledged the powerful influence on his thinking by the psychologist Franz Brentano, an ex Roman Catholic priest who taught in Vienna and mentored many thinkers including Sigmund Freud.  Brentano had opposed the 1870 declaration of Papal infallibility and left the Church in the aftermath of its adoption at Vatican I.  His background and abiding interest, however, was always in scholasticism; it affected Husserl and through him, Stein.

Knowledge and Faith

In 1929, in response to a request for a contribution to a Festshrift on the occasion of Husserl’s 70th birthday Stein wrote an article entitled “What is Philosophy: A Conversation between Edmund Husserl and Thomas Aquinas.”  As the title suggests she originally presented her ideas in the form of an imaginary dialog between Aquinas and Husserl.  It was revised before publication at the urging of Heidegger, the editor of the compilation, and the dialog format was dropped in favor of a more conventional presentation.

It is in that dialog / article, now called “Husserl and Aquinas: A Comparison” which forms the core of the small volume, Knowledge and Faith, published in English in 2000 by ICS, where Stein makes it abundantly clear that when Aquinas is speaking of faith he means precisely propositional truth — a correspondence between words and reality that guarantees know­ledge.  Faith, she says, is primarily knowledge … and only secondarily surrender: a trusting submission to “God.”  But its “content,” i.e., what faith is all about, is know­ledge, and as such, a choice that Husserl himself always respected as authentically human, because it is part of the search for truth.

Such knowledge is called “revelation” but, aside from its putative source in “God,” it is  still knowledge — every bit as objective and factual as any substantiated proposition of science, and its theological implications are to be elaborated using disciplined scientific methodology.  Faith for believers is even more of a fact than science’s facts which are always hypothetical: for faith facts enjoy absolute certitude and provide premises for certain conclusions.

… for the believer, such is the certainty of faith that it relativizes all other certainty, and that he [sic] can give up any supposed knowledge which contradicts his faith. The unique certitude of faith is a gift of grace.  It is up to the understanding and will to draw the theoretical and practical consequences therefrom.[6]

The reason why the dialog between Aquinas and Husserl is not only possible, but leads to a fruitful recognition of concurrence for Stein is that Husserl, the phenomenologist, who eschews any source of knowledge except human reason and the application of the rigors of disciplined thinking, is looking for exactly the same thing as Aquinas.  Both Husserl and Aquinas are looking for the factual “truth” of the real world.


It’s hardly necessary to point out that “faith” is thought of in very different terms today, even by many Roman Catholics.  For faith as knowledge enters constitutively into the nature of the surrender it accompanies.  “Surrender,” in other words, with different content — different known “facts” — is not the same surrender.  In our time, since the “facts” of traditional faith are increasingly called into question by the discoveries of science, people tend to look at “faith” more from the point of view of its resulting attitudes and behavior, rather than its factuality or the detailed worldview that it depicts.  They are interested in the quality and human significance of the faith commitment, and from there “work backwards” to evaluate the propositional truth adduced for its validity.  “By their fruits you will know them,” were words attributed to Jesus himself that seem to place the priority on action and attitude not newly revealed “facts” or the world those facts evoke.  It is salient to note that among the logia — the words in the gospels thought to have been Jesus’ own — there are no new facts, beyond the received Jewish belief that the one and only Creator of the universe is the one and only “God” of the Jewish people.

There has obviously been a major turn away from focus on Catholicism’s traditional “facts” since Stein’s day and it is worth taking a moment to put it in context.  What sounds strange to our ears is that Aquinas’ version of faith seems so different from the perspective that appears to be Jesus’.  I am going to claim that what happened between 1929 and now is a radically different way of thinking about who we are as human beings, and what the universe is … and from there, what “God,” is.  It is what is called a “paradigm shift.”  It means that we work on a different set of assumptions, aspirations and demands and it covers much more than religion.  The modern world, built on science, turned a corner early in the 20th century prompted in part by people like Brentano, Husserl and Stein.  Without rejecting science as the basis for practical technology, cosmological facts and day to day living, we no longer think that science explains everything, or that valid human choices must conform to its standards of probity.  Observers call our era “post modern,” and post-modern Catholics are gratified to find unexpected allies for their position in Jesus and his first disciples.

The post-modern movement began after the Great War of 1914 – 1919 as Europeans staggered under the weight of the horror that modern science had wrought.[7]  Many see the post war “return to roots” as part of a deep soul-searching among European intellectuals to find alternative truths that would preserve human and not just scientific values.  The work of Husserl and Stein was a part of that quest, and phenomenology might fairly be considered a first step toward the post-modern mindset.  The work of others, like Ludwig Wittgenstein, coincidentally also of Jewish ancestry, has been cited for displaying exactly the same transition away from reductionist positivism.  It should be noted that Husserl, like Wittgenstein, Whitehead, Russel and others, began as a mathematician and philosopher of the scientific method and gradually developed his phenomenology over the course of his career.  Phenomenology was to be the foundation of a new kind of “science” — one dedicated to revealing “facts” that had been overlooked by the sciences.

With the breakdown of scientific pretensions faith easily stepped in to fill the gap, and yet we recoil at the way Stein speaks of Aquinas’ “faith.”  And I believe we react the way we do because  “faith” — at least as Stein spoke about it in her writings — was simply “science” with a different provenance.  It represented a first step away from scientism and toward another source of truth, but philosophically speaking, she saw the mindset of both Husserl and Aquinas as that of the scientist, and the knowledge she claimed they were seeking was what all scientists seek: “the facts.”  Stein, moreover, had been persuaded that the traditional Catholic facts represented reality.

Stein’s efforts also illustrate the overarching significance of scientific thought in the long development of western Christianity over two millennia.  Christianity was the religion that historically embodied the cultural aspirations of the European sub-continent, which has now become the model for the entire planet.  The focus on “factuality” has been characteristic of Christianity’s appeal since the second century.

Apologists like Athenagoras were emboldened to appraoch the emperor Marcus Aurelius, a known “philosopher,” with the argument that Christianity should be looked on benignly by the Empire because it dealt in historical facts — the truth — unlike the obvious absurd myths of the traditional gods of the Mediterranean pantheon.  Augustine of Hippo whose theological interpretations of Christian life and faith dominated Europe for a thousand years after his time, consciously brought philosophical premises and methodological rigor to his polemics with his opponents.  Mediaeval thought began where Augustine left off and employed the known canons of logic and the newly discovered writings of Aristotle to the understanding of the known facts of faith.  Modern science emerged from the slowly developing awareness that the “facts” themselves needed to be questioned and could not simply stand as premises.  It’s at this point that Stein took a step back.

Stein’s work was part of that spiraling dialog; she leapt beyond the limits of science (or, in Husserlian terms, returned to its pre-scientific roots), to a belief in the Catholic view of the “facts” and used modern methodology to ground and defend that view.


The tragic reality is that it was precisely Stein’s ultra-doctrinaire version of Christianity — characteristic of Roman Catholicism — that was responsible for the violent anti-semitism that developed very early among the Christian population of the ancient mediterranean and simply grew more violent through the centuries.  After a while it outgrew its justifications and became something of an unchallenged assumption: Jews were intrinsically evil, their repudiation of Judaism notwithstanding.  Jew hatred even survived the Reformation completely intact.  It was that same irrational Christian hostility toward Jews which the Nazis embraced in its most racist form, that drove Hitler’s program of extermination.

Stein’s was a Christianity of a transcendent other-worldly “God” who “revealed” absolute infallible doctrine; and on those premises “error has no rights” as the Inquisition was fond of pointing out.  The unbelief of the Jews was the most flagrant and persistent example of doctrinal error.  “Judaism,” as a propositional constellation, had no right to be given a hearing, therefore the Jewish people, who promoted those propositions with their lives, had no right to live.  We have to realize that what the Nazis did with such thoroughness and efficiency had been done, partially and inefficiently, but with no less genocidal intent by Christians throughout Western history seeking a “solution” to the Jewish “problem.”  Hitler acknowledged that legacy by calling the Shoah the “final” solution.

We have to honestly face the Christian doctrinal confluences that conspired to make it virtually impossible to have avoided the travesty of Christian Jew-hatred that endured with such virulence over the course of two millennia:

(1) As mentioned, there are the supposed “revelations” of a Transcendent other-worldly “God” making Christian beliefs scientific “fact” and the Catholic Church infallible.  As “fact” Christian beliefs were not considered a matter of opinion, and to claim otherwise was both a personal moral failure and a crime against the well-being of the communitty.  Obstinate denial was punishable by death and proven heretics were burned at the stake.  Jews were the quintessential deniers of Christian truth.  If they were not all burned at the stake it was a gratuitous forbearance on the part of Christians who deferred to the will of a “God” who had nostalgic feelings for his former coventanters.[8]

(2) The “doctrine of Original Sin” as explained by Augustine, following lines of thought clearly evident in Athanasius and other earlier witnesses, tied the very meaning of “redemption” to the sacrament of baptism and membership in the Church; that made it a dogma of faith that “outside the Church there is no salvation.”  The unbaptized “belonged to Satan” and just for being born human were slated for eternal punishment, regardless of their moral innocence.  Augustine was so sure that this was true that he insisted that without baptism newborn infants who died went to the eternal torment that was their destiny as the offspring of Adam.  If Augustine’s belief that “God” actually sent babies to hell was never explicitly espoused by the Church, his “principle” that all unbaptized humans merited damnation and eternal torment was never rejected either.  Even in our times, the Vatican Catechism of 1992 acknowledges that if babies are not sent to hell, it is an unexplained mystery of “God’s” mercy.  Please note: this is official doctrine.

(3) Natural disasters and historical catastrophes were universally considered to be under the control of “divine providence” and they still are.  Even Augustine spoke of “God’s” abiding anger being the only explanation for the sufferings visited upon humankind.  It was logical that such anger would be primarily directed at those regions where the unbaptized “contaminated” the earth, for according to Augustine, “God’s” anger at the progeny of Adam was only assuaged by the death of Christ — appropriated by the individual in baptism.  Thus the unbaptized Jews were a perennial “problem” that needed to be “solved.”  Earthquakes, plagues and other calamities were almost always accompanied by pogroms of Jews — the “solution.”

The dogmatic identification of the “non-baptized” as “unregenerate,” “satanic” and “demonic” was pervasive among Christians and applied across the board in practice; it was not something dredged up simply to justify violence against the Jews.  For it was used with ruthless consistency in the 16th century by the Spanish and other “Christian” nations who brutalized and enslaved the primitive peoples — the “heathen” — they “conquered” in the Americas, which they explcitly justified as Christianization.  This confirms that it was not simply the bad behavior and clever camouflage of a few lusty latinos, too hot and greedy to obey the commandments.  It was conceived, justified, thoroughly debated and officially institutionalized at the highest levels of Christian society involving the direct complicity of Popes, Kings, theologians and the “saints” who put their policies into practice.  These “policies” were considered the valid derivatives of Christian doctrine.

But Jesus said, “by their fruits you will know them.”  Doctrine that leads directly and inevitably to this kind of behavior cannot be “true.”  For me it is standing proof that the need for doctrinal reform is not a matter of aggiornamento — making the Church relevant to the modern world — doctrinal reform is necessary because the truth claim for the body of Christian doctrine that has come down to us is a lie.  It is damaging to individuals, it promotes hatred between peoples, it justified the conquista and slavery of the colonial era and it was responsible for the officially sanctioned two thousand year hatred and marginalization of Jews that resulted in the Holocaust.

We are not talking about bad people here; we are talking about bad doctrine.  For it was Christian doctrine that generated hatred for Jews and proved itself powerless to stop it.  It was the same doctrine that lent itself so readily to the exploitation and enslavement of natives in Africa and the New World.  Bartolomé De Las Casas’ denunciation of the enslavement of the Amerindians actually called for a heroic choice against the accepted conventional wisdom of his age and religion — a choice that many good people could not bring themselves to make because it ran counter to the implications of Christian beliefs.  How can a doctrine be true if you have to heroicly disregard its logical implications in order to live morally?  We love to blame the Nazis; they are a convenient scapegoat for the violent Jew hatred that originated with Christianity’s institutionalization at the time of Constantine.  Making Christianity the exclusive religion of the Empire took what had been a religious polemic between rivals and turned it into the dogmatic justification for state sanctioned violence against the Jews and Christian dissenters.

Jew-hatred was a logical deduction of Christian doctrine.  It’s time we realized that discovering religious “truth” is not a deductive top-down process moving logically from infallible premises to irrefutable conclusions.  Religion is not “science.”  “By their fruits you will know them,” is not just a wise aphorism, a cautionary proverb designed to protect the gullible from slick-talking hypocrites.  I claim it expresses the essence of the only valid theological methodology open to us.  Authentic religious thinking is necessarily inductive and inferential.  We can only move from moral choices to the grounds of their possibility.  Jesus offered his maxim as a formula for evaluation.  He took his stand in synderesis — conscience.  And by that standard the practical results of 1700 years of Christian doctrine indicate that a serious mistake had been made in the original assumptions, and what is needed is not an updating, but an overhaul of the premises.

Edith Stein was a good person.  But her thinking, I’m afraid, would not countenance even the possibility of reform at that depth.  By her standards Catholic dogmas are infallibly true, and need no re-examination or change; all moral failures are due to the individual’s inability to correctly interpret the true import of doctrine and/or are due to the intentional resistance to putting their true implications into practice.

Religion is a moral enterprise, and religious thought must move from moral premises to moral conclusions.  Stein’s version of Christianity does not do that.  Her own personal conversion may have been the result of her resonance with moral goodness, but once she embraced Catholicism she focused, as a thinker, exclusively on its rationalist justifications — its infallible premises and logical argumentation — implicitly defending the Church’s claims to religious superiority based on infallible truth.  And those were the very premises that gave rise to and sustained perennial Jew hatred among Christians.

The contradictions here may be apparent to many people.  But for Stein’s Catholic mentality where faith was focused on “infallible truth,” the anomalies were fatally blurred because she was ready to “give up any supposed knowledge that contradicts [her] faith.”[9]  Many of us know what that’s like; we were there ourselves.  That kind of faith forms an opaque horizon beyond which there is no visibility.

It is significant that in the “Spiritual Will” that she wrote as she contemplated the probability of her “extermination” by the Nazis, she embraced the solidarity with her lineage that would bring her martyrdom, and she offered her death, among other things,  “… in reparation for the unbelief of the Jewish people.”[10] 

Tony Equale, Willis VA, May 2015

[1] Cf James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword, ch 49 ff, p.405 ff.


[3] The Jewish Virtual Library

[4] Stein claims in the mid ‘30’s that the synthesis between modern philosophy and scholasticism “dominate the philosophic scene.”  “Author’s Preface,” Finite and Eternal Being, ICS 2000, p. xxviii

[5] Wobbe, Theresa (1996). “Should Academic Careers be open to Women. Edmund Husserl and Edith Stein.” Edith Stein Journal, Tome 2, p. 370,  cited in

[6] Edith Stein, Knowledge and Faith, tr Redmond, ICS pubs. Washington DC, 2000, p. 21

[7] The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was over 37 million: over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.

The total number of deaths includes about 10 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians. The Entente Powers (also known as the Allies) lost about 6 million military personnel while the Central Powers lost about 4 million. At least 2 million died from diseases and 6 million went missing, presumed dead.

[8] Cf Paula Fredrickson, Augustine and the Jews, who argues that Augustine supported “forbearance for the Jews” as a scriptural mandate.  But like Pius XI 1700 years later, Augustine’s modified anti-semitism never went so far as to involve denouncing the violence that was actually practiced.  Besides, his “doctrine” was relegated to the shelves of the intellectuals.  When Bernard of Clairvaux preached a sermon to the Crusaders in which he urged Augustine’s doctrine that “God had commanded that the Jew be left unharmed,” the audience reacted with utter shock:  they had never heard of this before!

[9]  Op.cit.,  Stein, Knowledge and Faith, p. 21

[10] John Sullivan, review of Edith Stein by Sarah Borden; The Catholic Historical Review, Volume 91, Number 1, January 2005, pp. 179-180 | 10.1353/cat.2005.0133

Guest post, Glen T. Martin: Trans-Pacific Partnership versus National Sovereignty: A False Dilemma

In light of the current controversy over the Trans Pacific “free trade” agreement, already negotiated privately whose executive authorization is now being debated in congress, this article by Dr. Glen Martin, Professor of Philosophy at Radford University in Virginia, adds a note that is seldom heard.  That the specific organization he promotes as the “solution” is the only way to go may be open for discussion, but the fundamental critique and global principles he offers seem to me beyond dispute.  What do you think?

We are faced here with a terrifying false dilemma because we refuse to recognize the bigger picture that includes the history of capitalism in relation to the system of sovereign nation-states. In the past several decades, the globalization inherent in capitalism has gone off the charts in its drive to colonize the entire world economy in the service of private corporate profits for the 1% who own and control these corporations.

Scholars commonly define “globalization” as “a multifaceted process that includes foreign investment, information exchange, and world cultural commercialization, as well as integration of trade and production” [1]. Karl Marx himself had characterized capitalism as having an intrinsic necessity to expand, turning everything, all things and relationships, into mere commodities in the service of private profit [2].  James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer conclude that “globalization grew out of the barrel of a gun—a gun wielded, pointed and fired by the imperial state”[3].

The facts have long been known, for example, concerning the negative effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on jobs, democracy, and the environment, and the immense benefit for the tiny elite who run multinational corporations involved. In its April 2015 bulletin, Public Citizen summarizes these effects and the clauses in the agreement that underlies them [4]. The coming Trans-Pacific Partnership only intensifies the conditions that privilege the controlling investors in multinational corporations and limit the ability of environmental, labor, or democratic institutions within those nations party to the agreement from having any significant impact on the profit margins of the corporations.

Ideologues of globalization declare that new levels of “governance” are emerging for the world beyond those of sovereign nation-states. Indeed, as with NAFTA, the TPP will have secret courts whose job it is to protect the profit margins of multinational corporations from interference by laws or any possible democratic processes of those nations subject to the treaty.

In a February 25 Washington Post article, Senator Elizabeth Warren describes this situation: “One strong hint is buried in the fine print of the closely guarded draft. The provision, an increasingly common feature of trade agreements, is called “Investor-State Dispute Settlement,” or ISDS. The name may sound mild, but don’t be fooled. Agreeing to ISDS in this enormous new treaty would tilt the playing field in the United States further in favor of big multinational corporations. Worse, it would undermine U.S. sovereignty.”

This concept of “U.S. sovereignty,” however, is very deceptive. Are the people sovereign, as Jeffersonian social contract theory has it, or is government power sovereign—a power that represents, and has always represented, the capitalist ruling class? Marx had long ago pointed out that “political democracy” was only a façade without economic democracy. And the perpetual struggles of ordinary people for some modicum of rights (labor rights, pension rights, health-care rights, women’s rights, environmental rights, etc.) has been revealed to be a mockery since at least the time of the Ronald Reagan administration in which the immense wealth of capital began the counter-assault to rollback whatever had been achieved under President Roosevelt’s New Deal. It is in the nature of big capital to roll back every institutional protection that limits its capacity to maximize profits. This imperative is intrinsic to the capitalist system itself.

This is also true worldwide, since global capital is transnational, in effect penetrating every corner of the Earth. As Michel Chossudovsky puts it: “Under these conditions, the practice of democracy in the developed countries has also become a ritual. No policy alternative is offered to the electorate. As in a one-party state, the results of the ballot have virtually no impact on the actual conduct of state economic and social policy. In turn, the state under the neoliberal policy agenda has become increasingly repressive in curbing the democratic rights of its citizens” [5].

However, Chossudovsky is mistaken to claim that democracy has “become” a ritual. As Marx pointed out so well, under class society, democracy cannot be anything but a ritual, a way of placating the population and maintaining their loyalty through cultivating false hope that something might seriously change for the better, while government in reality

continues to serve ruling class interests behind the scenes. For this to happen successfully, nation-states need a professional class of propagandists and liars (politicians and corporate media) who let the people believe they are being represented while at the same time they serve the interests of big capital. President Obama, charming promoter of the TPP and ruling class interests, is the ultimate con man.

Real struggle certainly exists, and partial victories for ordinary people are possible, but a true victory is ultimately impossible in the absence of substantial economic democracy. As Immanuel Wallerstein expresses this: “All known historical systems have also had to hold in line large masses of the population who are materially and socially ill-rewarded. The usual way to do the latter has been a combination of force and faith—faith in the sanctity of rulers combined with belief in the inevitability of hierarchy” [6].

What Elizabeth Warren (and many so-called “progressive” writers) misses when she states that the TPP will erode national sovereignty is that the system of sovereign nation-states is integral to the advance of big capital in dominating the world in the service of private wealth extraction for the 1%. As social-scientist Christopher Chase-Dunn concludes: “The state and the interstate system are not separate from capitalism, but are rather the main institutional supports of capitalist production relations. The system of unequally powerful and competing nation states is part of the competitive struggle of capitalism, and thus wars and geopolitics are a systematic part of capitalist dynamics, not exogenous forces”[7].

The endless wars of the imperial nations of North America and Europe are not accidents of random historical forces. They are integral to fostering the interests of global capital, competitively diminishing the ability of competing nation-states (such as Russia or China) to promote their ruling class interests, and securing markets and client states complicit in the exploitation of resources and cheap labor worldwide. As Petras and Veltmeyer conclude: “It is impossible to conceive of the expansion and deepening involvement of multinational banks and corporations without the prior political, military and economic intervention of the nation-state” [8].

Our conceptual problem is that we lack a truly global perspective on the world system as organized in the service of economic and political domination. And we lack a corresponding insight into its possibilities for transformation in the service of human liberation. As Chase-Dunn puts this, we lack “a ‘utopian’ goal against which to organize criticism and more importantly, to direct progress.” This has led “erstwhile progressives and leftish intellectuals into nihilism and endless relativism” [9].

Such a goal, which is both practical and “utopian,” is provided by the Constitution for the Federation of Earth [10]. It alone recognizes the people of Earth as sovereign. Human rights and dignity, after all, are universal and not predicated on arbitrary territorial boundaries. As Emery Reves pointed out in 1946, this is the only legitimate sovereignty. False territorial sovereignty pretends that the people of some particular nation are sovereign to the exclusion of the rest of humanity, their rights and dignity [11]. It is human beings who are sovereign and who have the right to flourish in equality, dignity, and security, not the people of this or that territorial segment.

It is, of course, correct to fight against passage of the TPP, but it is foolish to think that defending the sovereignty of one’s nation will ultimately win the battle against the capitalist system, or that it can end war, or protect our planetary environment. This is a battle that cannot be won through the sovereign nation-state system since that very system is at the heart of capitalism, war, and environmental degradation.

The only route to democracy and freedom for humankind is for the people of Earth to use their legitimate authority through an Earth Constitution and a World Parliament that legislates a decent system of property rights laws and ensures genuine public banking on behalf of every citizen of the Earth. These features are built into the Earth Constitution from the very beginning. It posits a system of reasonable economic equality, global environmental protection, disarmament, and fundamental democratic freedoms for everyone. This document can and should serve as the “utopian goal” for progressives: making possible both a standard of criticism of the current system and a vision of how things could genuinely be different.


[1] Boswell, Terry and Chase-Dunn, Christopher, The Spiral of Capitalism and Socialism: Toward Global Democracy. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000, p. 33.

[2] Capital, Vol. I, Part I, sect. 4.

[3] Empire with Imperialism: The Globalizing Dynamics of Neo-liberal Capitalism. Zed Books, 2005, p. 14.


[5] The Globalization of Poverty: Impacts of IMF and World Bank Reforms. Zed Books, 1999, p. 25.

[6] Historical Capitalism. Verso, 1983, pp. 147-48.

[7] Global Formation: Structures of World-Economy. Roman & Littlefield, 1998, p. 61.

[8] Globalization Unmasked: Imperialism in the 21st Century. Zen Books, 2001, p. 54.

[9] Boswell and Chase-Dunn, op. cit. p. 9.


[11] The Anatomy of Peace. Harper & Brothers, 1946.

Dr Martin is speaking at a “Build the New World” conference May 28-31st at Radford University.  For more information click on this link:

“God” is the energy of LIFE (II)

This is a follow-up on the April 23rd  post called “ ‘God’ is the energy of LIFE.”  I believe aspects of that post can be relevant to the difficulties that some people have with the rational option to see the universe as “benevolent.”  The term “matter’s energy,” after all, is not very poetic.  But it is the source of the existence of the conatus, which is the wellspring of our sense of the sacred.  “Material energy” is a prosaic label for what drives our spectacular universe as well as our own sense of awe.  It deserves to be recast by our religious poets in terms more evocative of its indestructability, its vast and lavish abundance, its selfless availability, its inexhaustible vitality and its evolutionary creativity that has always been self-transcending; material energy displays divine characteristics.

The April 23 post contends that in the first century of the common era, Philo’s “God” was still an immanent nature-“God” and had not yet been essentially changed by the addition of the Platonic characterization as “Spirit” in a universe divided into spirit-matter.  Later, “Pure Spirit” came to dominate the scene so completely that it created a new paradigm which replaced Philo’s “God” with a Platonic “God” that provided a philosophical explanation for Genesis’ transcendent “Creator.” Plato’s absolute transcendence of “spirit” over “matter” set up granite divisions in a cosmos that up until then had been physically / metaphysically continuous with the “nature-God:” “God” was integral with nature as its logos or guiding energy.

This immanentist tradition continued on in the East, but in the West it became a “minority report” — sometimes tolerated by the hierarchy, sometimes not.  Ninth century Eriúgena’s Periphyseon divided “nature” (physis) between “nature that creates and is not created” and “nature that is created and does not create.” In the fouteenth century Meister Eckhart found Aquinas’ esse itself at the existential core of the human person.  Nicolas of Cusa in the fifteenth century said “God” was “non aliud,” not other (than nature).   Similarly seventeenth century Baruch Spinoza used the terms natura naturans for “God” and natura naturata for creation.  In all cases “God” was part of nature — the originating, guiding, enlivening part.

At the time of John’s letter, one of the effects of assimilating Jesus’ life and message to “God” was to specify exactly what Philo’s nature-“God” was like.  As the amalgam of the pantheon, “God” would naturally have been expected to enliven the dark and cruel aspects of nature (once represented by Hades, Ares, etc.) as well as the creative and benevolent.  John clarified that once and for all: Jesus’ life showed us that “God” was light, and there was no darkness in him.  It would be hardly necessary to say that, unless there were some ambigüity.  No such confusion would have attended Plato’s “One.”

Jesus’ life made things clear.  Nature’s immanent “God” was benevolent; and Jesus’ moral goodness — Paul identified it as a self-emptying  generosity — was the mirror-image of the creative LIFE-force itself.  While we usually read John as using “God” to help us understand what Jesus was, I contend that John’s point was that Jesus life helps us understand what “God” is.  His approach is “inductive.” John learns from his direct, personal experience of the man Jesus, what “God” is like.

Fast forward to today: the discreditation of traditional religious sources leaves religion as we knew it scientifically high and dry.  This is the heart of the problem for “religion” in a material universe.  We are forced to find our reasons for the “benevolence option” not in some authoritarian other-worldly source, like scripture or the magisterium which have been discredited as sources of knowledge about the cosmos, but from what we know of our material reality using the tools we now trust.  And I claim that following the example of the the dynamic inductive perspective on “God” assumed by John, there is nothing to prevent an analogous correlation of our human moral and relational energy to the energy of the matter of which we are made.  Reading John’s letter in this way means John stops being an “authority” with infused know­ledge from another world which he “reveals” to us in “scripture,” and instead becomes one of us — a earth-bound seeker who has “seen, heard and touched” what he was convinced mirrored the heart of nature itself, and is passionate to share his discovery.

John’s theological method is inductive not deductive, and it works on the assumption of immanence.  He starts with what he experienced.  Jesus’ personal kenosis reveals “God” not because Jesus was a “God entity” and spoke to us of “truths” from another world but because all human moral and relational energy is an expression of the LIFE-force and Jesus’ life was so extraordinary that it had to be the mirror-image of the LIFE-force itself.  It’s a conclusion evoked by what he saw and heard … but like all the conclusions of inductive reasoning it remains hypothetical until the successes of experimental practice move it toward certitude.  But John insists that he has confirned it and it is certain: “By this we may be sure we are in him … that we walk the way he walked.” (2:5)  Notice it’s the walking that conjures the presence of the LIFE-force and provides certainty.  “You can be sure that everyone who does right is born of ‘God’.” (2:29)  “No one born of God commits sin because God’s nature abides in him and he cannot sin because he is born of God.” (3:9)  These extraordinary statements confirm both John’s method and his worldview.  “Doing right” makes the divine energy present and visible … and confirms the authenticity of Jesus’ witness.

Analogously, in our times, our spontaneous, unsolicited recognition of the authenticity of human justice, generosity and compassion allows us to project that it is reflective of the material energy of which our organisms are made, for our organisms are nothing else.  Like John, we start with what we experience: our instincts for right behavior

There is nothing new about starting there.  Daniel C. Maguire bases his Ethics on a sense of justice — right and wrong — and makes no (explicit) appeal to any deeper justification.  He’s able to begin his ethics there because no one argues with him about it.  Noam Chomsky calls for international justice on no other grounds than people’s sense of fairness and right and wrong.  Even though he has acknowledged — and it may be fairly said to be the leitmotiv of his contribution as a linguist — his belief that all human behavior is an expression of innate organic structures, he clearly feels he does not need to have recourse to such structures (or even claim that they exist) when it comes to justice.  Apparently, his many readers agree.  David Brooks recently wrote a book appealing for a return to what he calls personal virtues (the virtues of moral character) as opposed to marketable virtues (the virtues for knowing and making and selling) without any further justification, because everyone knows what he’s talking about and no one disagrees with him.  This is what was meant by syndéresis: our human instincts for right and wrong … and it is where we start.  You have to start there … everyone starts there … and I claim it is where John started.

The point of departure is our humanity.  It’s all we really know.  We resonate with benevolence, and, as Sartre noted, the thought that the material universe (which includes us) is a meaningless mechanism makes us nauseous (and then, bitter and angry).  Why is that?  Some claim this is our inveterate Judaeo-Christianity speaking.  But in my estimation, our spontaneous predilection for benevolence cannot be explained as the result of a mere few thousand years of brain-washing.  A survey of world religions shows the same choice virtually everywhere and from the dawn of history.  It is more ancient in time and more universal geographically than Christianity.  It speaks to the existence of the innate “sense of the sacred” and the syndéresis (instinct for justice and truth) that is its corollary which I contend are reactions to our organic conatus’ instinct for self-preservation.  Then, unless you want to claim some hard wall of division between humankind and the rest of the natural world (including the component elements of our own organisms), there is every reason to concede that “benevolence” in the human idiom translates the superabundant life that we see teeming everywhere driven to survive by the lust for life … the insistence on existence … characteristic of organic matter in whatever form it has evolved.

Rationally speaking it’s not the same as in earlier times when benevolence was a logical “deduction” from infallible premises — the irrefutable conclusion of theological “science.”  But I believe it is sufficient to support the practical choices we have to make; for our own need to survive drives us toward justice and compassion … for ouselves and for our natural world.  This may be called the “argument from practical necessity.”  It’s ironic but true: we need to cherish and esteem other life forms and the earth that spawned us all if we want to survive.

But really … am I the only one who sees that the deck is stacked?  What other choice do we have? … say “bullshit” and die?  Kill anyone who is different from us?  Destroy our planet for our short-term enjoyment?  If we want to survive we have to cherish ouselves and our world.  We’re stuck.  But the criteria by which we evaluate and choose belong to us, not to “scripture.”  Some of the legacy of John, however, like the divine immanence he believed enlivened the natural world (and Jesus’ personal energies), in my opinion, is remarkably consonant with what modern science has observed about the evolution of the cosmos driven by matter’s energy to exist.

But I want to emphasize: this does not suddenly ground and justify the supernatural illusions proposed by authoritarian Christianity.  It rather evokes an entirely different religion, one  that is more like the kind that John was trying to construct at the beginning of the second century: a religion whose data all come from this world — the human sense of the sacred and its moral requirements — not from some other world.

This way of looking at things has certain other corollaries:

(1) no one is ever constrained to see life as benevolent … not even the most fortunate.  There is enough random destructiveness out there to support those who choose to accept the Steven Weinberg hypothesis: the universe is pointless.  But by exactly the same token, there is also more than enough to support the hypothesis of a creative power and self-emptying generosity so immense that, regardless of ideology, and eschewing absurd claims to providential micro-manage­ment, no one with a modicum of poetic sensitivity is inclined to reprove those who call it “divine.”

(2) the perception of benevolence is always, therefore, an intentional appropriation … a choice … without which even a religiously formed individual’s sense of benevolence will atrophy and disappear.  But a choice requires some a priori recognition … even if only in the form of desire.  There has to be some internal basis in the human organism.  The “command” to cherish and esteem does not come from another world; it arises from the matter of our bodies.  Our material organisms need to love, not only to reproduce, but to survive.

(3) those who cannot connect emotionally to “benevolence” for lack of parental inculcation (or, as with Weinberg, because of experiences like the Holocaust) may still connect indirectly through the mediation of others.  This is one of the roles of the religious “fellowship” (and other “therapeutic communities”).  Once the koinonía  is functioning it provides the “matter” for resonance: a loving community.  (“Look at these Christians [fellow addicts, fellow mourners, fellow workers, fellow activists, friends and family], how they love one another!”).  Then the “Weinbergs” of this world might find themselves drawn to what their formation (or experience) had failed to provide.

If you are a theologically traditional western Christian, at some point you still have to admit there is a bedrock place in the human organism that allows it to appropriate “benevolence” based on its own connatural recognition and need.  Will you reject even this as “semi-Pelagian”?  If you do, as many of the sixteenth century reformers did, you will have to fall back on the absurd predesti­narian position that the entire “salvation” business is a matter of divine permissions and miraculous interventions … from sin through conversion to perseverance … foreseen and managed by “God” for a display of his glory … all of which further depends on a discredited supernatural theism based on allegedly infallible “sources of revelation.”  Ultra-absurd! … and no one is buying it anymore.

(4) I am also realist enough to recognize that none of this will fly institutionally, because the institution continues to chug along on that same authoritarian track it inherited from Constantine and Augustine.  The reform I’m speaking of is not a mere “revision” of Catholicism, like the one that occurred in the sixteenth sentury.  So if by “reform” you mean something that will work “politically” you’ll have to kick the can down the road like they did at the Reformation … and maybe for as many centuries more.