The Return of the Repressed

Is reality truly just a void? John Caruana discusses in his review of Simone Weil and Theology.

April 28, 2014

    THIS IS AN ODD TIME in history to be reading and discussing theology. On the one hand, Richard Dawkins — a rock star, if atheists ever had one — avers with the utmost confidence that no sane, educated person could possibly take theology seriously. Thinking about God, for him — and a significant segment of the educated classes — is akin to mulling over the existence of unicorns. The only measure of truth is empirical observation: if we can’t observe it, it ain’t real.

    On the other hand, some of the most brilliant secular minds of our time have stumbled on theology and discovered it to be an indispensable tool. These late-comers to theology see in it an important antidote to the ethical and political cul-de-sac brought about by the past century’s fashionable intellectual bandwagons. Ironically, just as organized religion has effectively collapsed in Western Europe, some of the most important European thinkers have been insisting that theology offers invaluable critical resources for thinking about the most vexing problems we face today.

    For many of these philosophers, the turn to theology is not motivated by a newfound faith (most are self-declared atheists), but rather a recognition that theological questioning allows us access to ways of thinking that conventional philosophy might otherwise foreclose. Thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy, Simon Critchley, and Slavoj Žižek have defended, sometimes vociferously, the necessity to engage with theology. Even Jürgen Habermas — a great fan of the Enlightenment — has been dialoguing in recent years with theologians, most notably with Benedict XVI. No one could have anticipated such a development 20 years ago.

    There are two important points worth highlighting here. First, much of our secular thinking is steeped in religious assumptions. Because of the growing ignorance and knee-jerk dismissal of anything religious, we fail to appreciate to what extent our secular moral and political commitments have deep roots in our religious heritage. Second, the theological greats provide us with fresh eyes to look at some of our worn-out assumptions. Anyone familiar with the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, for example, knows that theology can provide an antidote against intellectual sclerosis. Theologians like Dionysius detect the ways in which we construct concepts that merely reflect our narcissistic attachments rather than calling them into question. At its best, theology gives us access to centuries of wrestling with the all-too-human tendency to turn words into self-validating mirrors. Because of our self-assured belief that our secular enlightened discourses are wholly transparent and reflect reality, we are perhaps more susceptible than ever to conceptual idolatry.


    THIS IS PRECISELY why we stand to learn a good deal from Simone Weil. She is a daunting figure. Reflecting on the thought that the Bible is not meant for immature minds, Emmanuel Levinas once said that you would be prudent not to serve steaks to very young children. Weil’s writing belongs to this category of intellectual food. She is the sort of writer for whom we need a guide. Someone has to make us aware of the multiplicity of voices at play in her texts and of the traps and dead-ends that certain readings could generate. A surface reading of Weil’s texts will almost certainly entangle the reader in a web of misunderstandings. That’s why we should be grateful to A. Rebecca Rozelle-Stone and Lucian Stone for their fine introduction.

    In addition to the idiosyncrasies inherent to Weil’s thought, another significant stumbling block concerns some of her more controversial ideas, the most contentious of which are probably her views on Judaism. The Stones devote an entire chapter to the issue, outlining in detail the criticisms that have been leveled at this most unorthodox of modern mystics. They acknowledge the gist of these criticisms. Despite her own Jewish heritage, Weil frequently betrays an ignorance of the nuances of the rabbinical teachings. Indeed, her ignorance of the Hebrew language means that she relies on translations that are not always reliable. While the Stones are sympathetic to the frustration of Weil’s critics at her frequent blanket denunciations of Judaism — as well as Islam — they are also keen to point out that the larger picture is more nuanced and complicated than we might at first assume. We should not forget, the authors insist, the fact that Christianity itself is not spared Weil’s barbs. Indeed, Christianity, no less than the other two major monotheisms, has fallen prey to the “Great Beast” — Weil’s preferred locution to describe the institutionalized perversion of spiritual truths.

    This might explain why despite her obvious proclivities for Christ, Weil consciously eschewed membership in any of the franchises that claim to be his legitimate heir, including the Catholic Church (which otherwise appealed to her). Nevertheless, while the introduction bravely confronts Weil’s harsh words toward Judaism, the attempt to blunt that criticism will probably leave most readers dissatisfied. It points to Hannah Arendt and Judith Butler as two instances of Jewish thinkers who live up to the long prophetic tradition of making no concessions to identity politics. Following this logic, not only does Judaism become a legitimate object of critique, but also Jews are purposely held up to a higher critical standard. Yet, even if we were to take that point into consideration, Weil’s diatribe against Judaism — especially in the context of the horrors suffered by the Jews in the 1930s and ’40s — cannot but come across as excessively severe and insensitive. 

    One of the most fascinating themes in Weil’s philosophy — and here the Stones’ commentary truly shines — centers on the emptiness or void of reality. This void is the indelible mark that is left behind in God’s own self-voiding, in the very unfolding of creation itself. In order to make room for a finite universe, God dispossesses himself of his infinite powers. For Weil, that process is most evident in Christ. Following Paul, she sees Christ as the eikon, or visible image of the invisible God. Weil takes seriously Paul’s claim that whatever we can know about God can be only gleaned from the figure of Christ. Paul deploys the term kenosis to flag what he takes to be fundamental to Jesus’s nature: he is God emptying himself out. In a gesture of love, God denies himself his transcendent status for the sake of some other. The created order thus bears the mark of this divine self-abnegation.

    For Weil, this is the only way to make sense of the Biblical passages that show a God suffering along with his creatures. In this way, Weil fuses divinity, love, and affliction. To love truly requires attentiveness and openness to the fissures of reality, and although our inclination is to take flight before these pockets of emptiness, this diminishes us. In our attempt to flee the void, we frequently give in to the temptation of deflecting our own suffering by hurting others.

    We also indulge in thought patterns that make us either cling to past memories or engage in reveries of a blissful future. In either case, we eschew the incompleteness of the present. The authors coin a poignant term, a-voidance, to describe how the imagination is harnessed to circumnavigate the gaps, fault lines, and shortcomings of our existence as we encounter it here and now. As seen from Weil’s scrupulous gaze, we are adept at, indeed aficionados of, a-voidance.

    Pascal noted it before Weil — that there is nothing that seems more accursed than being alone with our own emptiness. Rather than bear the suffering of our existential voids, we manufacture distractions to help us to steer clear from them. Ironically, our current age, with all of its high-tech wizardry, makes us perhaps more vulnerable to this danger than our less technologically savvy ancestors.

    “Decreation,” the act of eclipsing one’s own ego, becomes, for Weil, the means by which we allow ourselves to tarry in the hollows of our being. It is the proper antidote to our perpetual flights of fancy, our castle building in the sky, our refusal to inhabit the present moment. We are at our holiest when we imitate God’s own denial of power for the sake of something else: the very definition of love, for Weil. To “decreate” is to cultivate within ourselves the capacity to refuse self-expansion. The death of the self qua ego gives birth to a more attentive and compassionate way of being in the world.

    Weil’s concept of God is striking, even if it is not entirely original to her, in that she forces us to contend with the possibility that we have radically misunderstood the referent “God.” She challenges the view, popular among many believers, of God as a superhero. Ironically, many if not most atheists operate with a similar definition. Though Weil has no sympathy for Freud’s ultimate denial of God, she would nevertheless probably concur with him that the conventional view of God has its roots in infantile psychology, in the frightened ego’s need for security and comfort.

    Remaining faithful to the New Testament, Weil locates the genuine experience of the divine in our encounters with the homeless, the prisoner, the exploited — with any afflicted being. Yet Weil insists that divine love cannot be about this or that particular person. She goes to great lengths — as do the Stones in turn — to say that we must first be attentive to the anonymous and impersonal experience of affliction before we can truly love a particular flesh-and-blood person.

    Such a claim, at least prima facie, places Weil on a collision course with several prominent Jewish and Christian thinkers of her century. Despite their different faith commitments, religious philosophers such as Martin Buber, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Emmanuel Mounier are in agreement that a trace of the divine enters the world in our exposure to the irreducible person who stands before us. This unique Other serves as the gateway to the divine. Although perhaps, despite the difference between Weil and these thinkers, the end result is the same: a concern for the most vulnerable in our midst.

    Weil’s emphasis on the anonymity and impersonality of suffering is certain to rattle sensibilities. Regardless of how we navigate this thorny issue, no one can deny her extraordinary solidarity with the disenfranchised of the world. Even an atheist like Albert Camus, who deeply admired her, recognized the saintliness of this remarkable woman.

    The unmistakable sign of a successful introduction to the thought of a complex thinker is the ability to flag the points along the trail that might lead one astray. The authors of Simone Weil and Theology have a very good idea of where those points are. Their introduction provides a solid guide for anyone interested in exploring the rich landscape of Weil’s philosophy and spirituality.


    John Caruana is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Ryerson University.


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