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  • Alasdair MacIntyre and Edith Stein:Apophatic Theologians?
  • Adam A. J. DeVille (bio)

When, beginning in 1923, Winston Churchill published his six-volume history of the First World War, one of his detractors rather archly said of it that "Winston has written an enormous book about himself and called it The World Crisis." Arthur Balfour, prime minister of Britain from 1902 to 1905 and a sometime nemesis of Churchill, said that he was reading Churchill's "autobiography disguised as a history of the universe."1

Although neither large nor a history of the universe, Alasdair MacIntyre's new book, Edith Stein: A Philosophical Prologue 1913–1922,2 is about a certain, more narrowly focused crisis—in Western philosophy generally, and in the particular life of Edith Stein—and does have certain, though recondite, autobiographical undertones.3 This slender volume sharply focuses on Stein's early philosophical formation in Germany under Edmund Husserl and then her conversion to Catholic Christianity in January 1922. But the reader cannot shake the distinct, if uneasily demonstrated, impression that MacIntyre was also trying to sort out aspects of his own philosophical formation and religious faith and thereby attempting to understand something of his conversion to Catholic Christianity in the 1980s.4 [End Page 77]

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Figure 1.

Edith Stein © Julie Lonneman. Courtesy of Trinity Stores (

[End Page 78]

MacIntyre, of course, is a moral philosopher and in many respects a historian of philosophy whose work over the last forty years has indisputably marked him as one of the most influential and important thinkers of the postwar period.5 He is also a Catholic, having taken up the faith later in life after a sojourn among Marxism and other failed ideologies. And yet these two aspects of his life have long seemed to have been kept too far apart, leading more than one commentator to suggest that, for its own coherence, MacIntyre owes us an accounting of his life as a Catholic if we are to take seriously precisely some of his philosophical claims. In other words, we need to see how he embodies some of his claims about the centrality of tradition and local communities.6

MacIntyre, however, has resisted such accounts. There are perhaps two reasons (at least) for doing so. First, in an interview in 1994, he argued that "autobiography is a treacherous form" one should not attempt unless one is, like St. Augustine, a "genius" at it. Otherwise most autobiography becomes "tiresome" due to its "tedious self-preoccupation."7

In addition to his discomfort with autobiography, MacIntyre has also had great disdain for most modern theology. In an article published in 1979, several years before he entered the Church, MacIntyre, reviewing the "medical ethics" of several putative theologians, opens with the memorable line, "If I were God, I do not think that I would want to be studied by most contemporary theologians."8 That is "because the general intellectual level of theological argument is perhaps lower than at any time since the tenth century." MacIntyre's disdain is ecumenically splenetic: liberal Protestantism has made Christianity "banal, uninteresting, and vacuous" while "modern Roman Catholic theologians have been to an alarming degree narcissistic," giving the "impression of being only mildly interested in either God or the world; what they are passionately interested in are other Roman Catholic theologians."9

MacIntyre's gravamen, of course, was that theological ethics was not distinctively theological and Christian enough to merit consideration [End Page 79] alongside medical ethics done by secularists.10 This has been MacIntyre's main contention for decades before he became a Catholic. With his sometimes withering scorn and sarcasm, he eviscerated the fatuous pretensions of hierarchs, theologians, and philosophers who wanted to evacuate Christianity of its dogmatic claims and yet somehow maintain it as a system for doing good or as a form of spiritual uplift.11 Unusually, MacIntyre's scorn, unlike that of many philosophers, did not extend to Christianity and its truth-claims as a whole. For example, in his 1959 book, Difficulties in Christian Belief, he very respectfully tried to sort out and respond to certain philosophical difficulties with Christianity—especially on the...


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