restricted access “Existence in Christ”: Erik Peterson and the Postwar Crisis of Humanism
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“Existence in Christ”:
Erik Peterson and the Postwar Crisis of Humanism

A Convert’s Life on the Margins

Some of the most significant and creative contributions to the intellectual and theological vitality of the Catholic Church in the modern period have come from converts.1 John Henry Newman, recently beatified, may be the outstanding example. Newman’s utterly original writings have exerted a major influence on modern Catholic thinking in a host of areas, so much so that he has been called an invisible presence at the Second Vatican Council. Jacques Maritain, who became a Catholic as a young man along with his French Jewish wife Raïssa, is another. Maritain’s interest in philosophy, science, and politics led to his role in the revival of Thomism, whereas Newman’s interests moved in channels that were more literary, historical, and [End Page 147] experiential. Edith Stein, canonized in 1987 as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, is yet another. Though she is best known, perhaps, for the various public roles or identities she assumed during her extraordinary life—as a philosopher, as a woman academic and teacher, as a contemplative nun, and, finally, as a Jewish victim of the Nazis—her writings are another medium for transmitting her achievements to future generations.2 Dietrich von Hildebrand, born to non-practicing Protestant parents and a convert to Catholicism in 1914, had an influential career as a social and moral philosopher, and helped shape Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage. Finally, I point to John Connelly’s important new book on the decisive role played by converts—both Protestant and Jewish—in the Catholic Church’s momentous change in church teaching on Judaism and the Jews in Vatican II’s Declaration Nostra aetate.3

Celebrated though these converts and their contributions now are, it was not always thus. Newman’s travails are well known, and one wonders whether, had he lived longer, he might not have encountered further difficulty when the storm broke over modernism, in the course of which words like “development” became dangerous indeed. John Oesterreicher, an Austrian Jew, and Karl Thieme, a German Protestant, are the central figures in Connelly’s reconstruction of the origins of Nostra aetate. After becoming Catholics, both men frequently met incomprehension and resistance in their efforts to change Catholic attitudes toward Jews and Judaism (though Connelly shows that their biggest challenge was the internal struggle to break free from their own inherited assumptions).

Erik Peterson (1890–1960), a Lutheran theologian and church historian who resigned his university professorship to become a Catholic in 1930, also met a less than wholehearted acceptance following his conversion.4 Peterson was one of a host of German converts from Protestantism, Judaism, and secular unbelief whose reaction to the catastrophe of the First World War led them into the Catholic Church. They included men of letters like Theodor Haecker, who would translate Newman into German and also the writings of the [End Page 148] Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, which he tirelessly promoted in Germany; the Russian Jewish émigré Waldemar Gurian, journalist, essayist, and political analyst; the poet and aesthete Hugo Ball, a cradle Catholic who left the Church for anarchist philosophy and modernist poetry (he created the “Dada Manifesto” and is sometimes credited with having invented the term) but who returned to Catholicism not long after the war; Lutheran theologian Karl Thieme, already mentioned; the agnostic Jewish philosopher Max Scheler (for whom Peterson would write a moving obituary), along with other adherents, several also Jewish, of the phenomenological philosophical movement gathered around Edmund Husserl, among whom were Edith Stein and Adolph and Anna Reinach (both of whom first became Lutheran; after Adolph Reinach was killed in the war, Anna became a Catholic, and also a lifelong good friend of Erik Peterson).

Peterson’s conversion took longer than did those of the other members of this brilliant company, all of whom he knew. He was by nature cautious and deliberate, and possessed of an exacting and remorseless conscience. He was also fierce and censorious in his judgments, a temperament that, seen from one side, might be thought classically Protestant, but that has often enough found...