“God is truth. All who seek truth seek God, whether this is clear to them or not.” This has become one of the most famous statements of the German Jewish philosopher and Catholic convert Edith Stein, who is now known as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Her words point toward the unity of faith and reason, as well as toward the experience of those who, like Teresa Benedicta, travel richly intellectual paths toward the Church. However, they also illuminate a principle of education: responding to truth is a personal matter. To affirm this principle is not to assert that what we call “truth” ultimately reduces to personal opinion. Rather, it is to recognize that learning is fundamentally oriented toward relationship with God.
One consequence of this principle is, of course, that religious education is vitally important. Teresa Benedicta writes that “the most urgent duty” of an educator is “to open the child’s path to God.” Theologians and catechists clearly exemplify this role, since their lessons are explicitly focused on God Himself and our relationship to Him. But her words illuminate a way in which all teachers and disciplines can potentially help to open the student’s path toward God insofar as they further the student’s pursuit of truth. Studying infinity and set theory in mathematics may set one student on a path toward God, while studying Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov may do more to cultivate another student’s faith. For Teresa Benedicta, education is a matter of the lifelong formation of the soul, and God Himself is the true educator. Teachers are instruments in His hands as He forms souls and calls them to Himself.
This principle also provides a helpful guide for avoiding two extreme pedagogical frameworks. The first of these extremes can be characterized as mechanistic: students are equipped with more or less efficient learning systems into which information can be fed and then transformed into productive output. This model glosses over the spiritual interior of the student and instead prioritizes the potential yield of educational investments. The other extreme can be characterized as hyper-subjective, or narcissistic: students are self-actualizing, totally unique beings who ought to freely-select the resources they need in order to fully become themselves. This model focuses on the student’s own self-perception and desires without contextualizing the individual in a broader reality.
As a teacher herself, as well as a lecturer on education, Teresa Benedicta was keenly aware of the dangers of such flawed pedagogical models. She wrote extensively about the philosophical anthropologies active in contemporary education and dedicated herself to correcting their errors, both in theory and in practice. Her writings critique materialist and utilitarian approaches to the person, instead affirming the uniqueness of each individual person while simultaneously emphasizing the universal call to holiness that requires assent to Truth Himself.
Saint Teresa Benedicta provides a powerful model for our times. Her writings on education are particularly relevant to those working to revive a rich Catholic approach to education in schools and universities today. And her relentless pursuit of truth, which is especially evident in her spiritual and philosophical writings, serves as inspiration for those who seek to deepen their faith through continual intellectual formation. Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, pray for us.