Simone Weil: Pensées

by Kim on March 6, 2008

Simone Weil (1909-43) was one of the most original, brilliant, intense, and enigmatic thinkers of the 20th century. Politically, Weil was left wing and and active in the trade union movement and the education of workers in France. Her fierce moral earnestness and certitude earned her the nickname “the Categorical Imperative in skirts”. She was a pacifist until the rise of fascism in Spain, when she briefy served with the Republican forces before her physical frailty and ineptitude made her such a liability that she reluctantly returned to France. After the outbreak of the Second World War and the Nazi occupation of France, Weil sought ways to be involved in the Resistance, but at risk because of her Jewish ancestry, in 1942, after a short detour in the US, she finally settled in London. Determined to share in the privations of the people she had left behind, and further weakened by overwork, and overcome by self-doubt and depression, Weil died in August 1943. She was just thirty-four.

It is, however, as a religous thinker and mystic - and saint? - that Weil left her most indelible legacy. Her relationship to Christianity was vexed and complex. She finally came to regard herself as a Christian, but she was never baptised, not least because of an ambivalent relationship to the (Roman Catholic) Church. George Herbert’s poem “Love bade me welcome”, introduced to her by a young English priest in the late 1930s, struck and moved her deeply. She learned it by heart, and would often recite it to herself during periods of what she called “affliction”. For Weil the essence of faith was not credal belief but prayer in the form of attente, a “waiting” on God. God’s wholly and holy otherness, God’s kenosis in creation and in Christ, God’s vulnerable love and compassion - and passionate and relentless intellectual honesty - were at the heart of her “theology”, which has suggested comparisons with Bonhoeffer.

But let Weil speak for herself, in some of her more gnomic and profound pensées.

“God alone is worthy of interest.”

“God can only be present in the form of an absence.” And: “The very reason why God has decided to hide himself is that we might have an idea of what he is like.”

“There are two atheisms, one of which is the purification of the nature of God.”

“The false god changes suffering into violence; the true God changes violence into suffering.”

“When the mysteries of faith are separated from all reason, they are no longer mysteries but absurdities.”

“The need for truth is more sacred than any other need.”

“Christ likes us to prefer truth to himself, because before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go towards the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

“Religion as a source of consolation is an obstacle to true faith.”

“It is not my business to think about myself. My business is to think about God. It is for God to think about me.”

“To say ‘I’ is to lie.”

And to help prepare us for Holy Week:

“Denial of St. Peter. To say to Christ: ‘I will never deny you’ was to deny him already, for it was to suppose the source of faithfulness to be in himself and not in grace.” That is: “Peter did not deny Christ when he broke his promise, but when he made it.”

“The cross of Christ is the only gateway to knowledge.” Indeed: “If the gospel of Christ omitted all mention of the resurrection, faith would be easier for me.”

Kim Fabricius

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1

Will 03.06.08 at 11:58 am

Thanks, Kim. I haven’t read Weil since seminary and I wish I could spend more time with her. Thanks for the quotes.

2

James 03.06.08 at 12:11 pm

Interesting. I don’t really rate Bonhoeffer as a Theologian. What he did in the war was good but I don’t think his theology deserves the praise it gets.

3

Kim 03.06.08 at 12:31 pm

Hi James,

I don’t want us to get away from Weil, but Bonhoeffer himself would never have said that what he did in the war was “good” - possibly “right”, but not “good” - and do-able only under the rubric “forgiveness of sins”.
As for Bonhoeffer’s theology, once you dismiss the egregious misunderstandings and misuse of it by the “Honest to God” lot, and by the death-of-God brigade (”the shitheads” who “got him”, in Stanley Hauerwas’ modest assessment), I know of very little modern theology that can surpass its profundity, breadth, rigour, honesty, and practicality. Scholars and ordinary Christians are only just beginning to sound its depths, get its measure, and appropriate its relevance for the 21st century. That Bonhoefer gets on the nerves of both liberals and evangelicals I take to be a sign that he is undoubtedly there or there-abouts - and a lot closer to “it” that you or I will ever be. It would be a pity if you don’t give him another look. Of course that’s just my tuppence.

But back to the impresive Ms. Weil, please, readers …

4

DH 03.06.08 at 3:37 pm

Some of these statements are really encouraging and others really just go against Scripture. Not many of them do but the ones that do cloud the ones that aren’t. ““Christ likes us to prefer truth to himself, because before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go towards the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

To me this is off because Christ DOES prefer Truth AND Himself. These are not mutually exclusive like she mentions here. She doesn’t take into account Scripture which says “If you deny Me I will deny you before My Father in heaven.”

I think maybe her Gnosticism/mysticism gets in the way of “Truth” that she so desires to seek. If she turned away from these things I believe she would have found Truth and a much more closer relationship to Christ and even stronger Faith that doesn’t have the need to question God, question ones Faith, etc. If one is solid and definitive in ones Faith in the one true God then one will not even have a need to question it. Here is a passage of Scripture that kind of confirms what I’m saying: Romans 8. When one reads Romans 4 about Abraham it states that Abraham went through some difficult things but he never wavered in his Faith:

“20Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. 22This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” 23The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—FOR US WHO BELIEVE IN HIM who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.”

5

Kim 03.06.08 at 4:00 pm

Hi DH,

Good observation: I think that you are right that there is a kind of gnosticism in Weil that she could never quite shake - Platonic eggshells, if you like. The “self” in her work always seems to be disembodied, and lacking a location in time and space. It is not surprising that she was austere and ascetic, some would now say anorexic (indeed some say that she starved herself to death).

To understand her statement about Christ and truth, however - because, of course, Christian believe that Christ is the truth - one must read beyond its surface grammar. Perhaps Coleridge’s famous statement may help: “He who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth will proceed by loving his own Sect or Church better than Christianity, and end by loving himself better than all.” Any good to you?

6

DH 03.06.08 at 4:30 pm

Kim, thanks for the encouragement. I do love your Coleridge’s statement. I really do agree with that statement. So I will say “yes, it is good to me” :)

Question: What did you think of the passage in Romans I quoted regarding “questioning ones Faith”? It seems to me there is a growing trend among people to say it is okay to “question ones Faith”, “question God”, etc. or whatever close to that as opposed to having an attitude “Even though I’m going through difficulties, yet I will still praise Him”. I would be interested in what you think. I know I might not have phrased the terms right on “questioning God” or “questioning Faith” but maybe you can come up with something that you might think I meant. At least you know me long enough that I can trust you to be able to do that. :)

7

DH 03.06.08 at 4:32 pm

Kim, I will say that not all Truth is Jesus. There is truth and there is Truth. So if we can get beyond that I agree 110%. (I know there is no such thing as 110% but at least for emphesis I can say 110%). :)

8

James 03.06.08 at 5:46 pm

“Christ likes us to prefer truth to himself, because before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go towards the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

I think this is interesting. What about people like Michael Goulder who saught the truth but truth shattered their faith.

9

DH 03.06.08 at 6:41 pm

James, I too find it interesting that is why in a previous reply that Truth and Christ Himself must be sought after together not seperately. If people search after Jesus they will find Him and thereby find Truth. I don’t believe they are mutually exclusive like the original post phrased. With regard to Goulder, I believe he allowed himself or gave into having his faith shattered to the point he rejected the real Truth that there is NO synoptic problem in the Gospels and that every author of the books of the Bible were God ordained and spoke as God gave them utterance like Scripture says. They were creative but only in such a way as to not contradict with Scripture itself. So it appears he searched for truth within his own confines as opposed to giving his mind, will and emotions to Christ which does lead us to Truth in Christ alone.

Kim, I was thinking about the phrase “before being Christ”. Kim, doesn’t Scripture say that Christ has always been in existence?

10

Kim 03.06.08 at 7:04 pm

Hi James,

It would be patronsing to speak for Goulder. Perhaps his atheism is the purifying kind of which Weil speaks; that is, perhaps he lost his faith in an idol, even if he named it Christ. If so, one prays that he will finally move on and fall into those arms which await him. There is a saying about losing one’s life to find it. So too with faith.

Do you know Merold Westphal’s Suspicion and Faith: The Religious Uses of Modern Atheism (1998)? The book’s “central thesis is that from a religious point of view the atheism of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche should be taken seriously as a stimulus to self-examination rather than refuted as an error. This is because their critique of religion seems to be (1) all too true too much of the time and (2) a modern echo of an ancient assault on the devotion of the devout, the one developed by Jesus and the prophets of Israel.” And echoing Weil: “There is an atheism which is closer to the truth than a certain kind of religion.”

Or think (indulge me for a moment!) of Bonhoeffer’s reflections on the deus ex machina. Many people believe in this god, a god on whom they can count to keep them from misfortune, resolve a crisis, secure a happy ending, etc. Then comes great suffering and - Wham! - there goes their faith. But their faith in what? Certainly not in the God whom Jesus reveals, the “God who lets himself be pushed out of the world and on to the cross…. Man’s religiosity makes him look in distress to the power of God in ther world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.”

It is reflections like these that, personally, awakened me from my dogmatic slumbers and brought me from a childish (childish - not childlike) faith, through no faith, to what I trust and pray is a true if tiny faith (the size of a mustard seed is good enough for me), forged in struggle and new every morning Of course Bonhoeffer’s prison musings are neither entirely original nor idiosyncratic but part of a traditon that goes back at least to Luther’s theologia crucis and is subsequently developed by Moltmann and Jüngel (and a must-read on the subject is Alan E. Lewis’ Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday [2001], an especially poignant book because Lewis developed cancer while writing it and died in 1994; Tom Torrance called it “the most remarkable and moving book I have ever read”). But my point is that unless our faith is in this God, it is well lost. Indeed it is part of a minister’s work, as I see it, to kill this God and help people find faith in the real one

11

Kim 03.06.08 at 7:09 pm

Pardon me, in the penultimate line I should have said not “kill this God” but “kill false gods”.

12

DH 03.06.08 at 7:33 pm

God’s powerlessness? The fact remains God is all powerful but He is also humble and Holy. One can’t claim all powerfulness without being Holy. To be Holy one must be humble. So to say that God is not all powerful because He let Himself be on the cross is just plain fallacious without the knowledge that all of this can’t be claimed without Holiness and Humility.
Are you saying my Faith is lost based on what I said earlier? God is all powerful and suffered on the cross. These things are not mutually exclusive even with the understanding that all powerfulness is only be claimed by being Holy and Holiness can’t be claimed without being humble.

Kind of reminds me of the discussion of Christ being “Lion of Judah” AND “Lamb of God”. :)

Also, Feud, Marx and Nietzsche ARE in error.

13

Beth 03.06.08 at 7:55 pm

DH, just a quick response to your query of the phrase “before being Christ” - I think a proper understanding of this is to see that Weil isn’t talking about time, but about importance. So, it’s like me saying “before being a teacher, I am a human being” to my students - meaning, “you may see me as just your teacher and treat me as though that’s my role, but remember that I am first and foremost a normal human being so I will sometimes be wrong.” Do you see what I mean? Weil, I think, is saying that Christ’s essence is Truth, and that being “Christ” (the anointed, a specific Biblical figure) is a role that comes out of the fact that he is Truth.

14

DH 03.06.08 at 8:19 pm

I kind of see what you are talking about but I definitely wouldn’t phrase it in those ways even with your teachers comments. If in your shoes I would say “I may be a teacher but more importantly I’m a human being” as opposed to the way you phrased it.

I still have a problem with the phrase “before being Christ”. Because to me while Christ is Truth Christ is also God. Christ is also part and the same with the Trinity. So it would be more important that the Trinity is Truth. Whatever God said being Father, Son or Holy Spirit is Truth. I don’t want to promote an over seperation of the Trinity than is otherwise there. For me all Scripture (God’s Word) is consistent with itself and I see the Trinity wherever and whenever I read Scripture. I also can feel the God’s presence and can hear Him speek to me at times and know that those things, if from God and not my own mind, will be consistent with His Word as well.

Christ is more than a specific, annointed biblical figure. Christ is GOD and has at all times been God.

I still think the phrase in the post goes against the very truth of Christ’s nature as being fully God. Hense my gnostic concern that was addressed between Kim and I.

15

DH 03.06.08 at 8:21 pm

Also, to add, I don’t want to get the impression that I over Spiritualize the Spirt of God because God is more than Spirit. God is physical and Spirit and therefore not a Gnsotic “spirit only” like they try to teach which is “false doctrine”. I wanted to clarify so as not to give the impression that my opinions are Gnostic when in fact the are not.

16

James 03.06.08 at 11:20 pm

Thanks for the replies,

I read something about Goulder thinking a theistic God is no longer relavent to our enlightened age. I think this does carry much wieght. I understand you (with the exception of DH) have replaced the image as God an autocratic dieist hurling thunderbolts from the sky (like the God of the OT), with a more personal ’suffering in solidarity with us’ type God. However, much of this overlooks alot of how God is portrayed in the Bible and I get the impression sometimes that some theologians are afraid to take on issues such as Gods wrath.

For a more specific example. In Romans 9 Paul talks about people who are made for the purpose of glorifing God. He then goes on to talk about how God makes people as vessels for destruction. CH Dodd says this that his point had already been made and his potter analogy is the weakest part of the epistle. However, if he had ignored the passages in Exodus where God says Pharoah was made for destruction, he would have been ignoring vast areas of the scripture. At least Paul tries to give an answer. I get the impression many modern theologians are too afraid to tackle these issues and the ones that do (like Goulder) ‘fall away’.

17

Drew 03.07.08 at 1:43 am

DH,

What you have to understand is that for Weil there is nothing that escapes the love of God in Christ as witnessed in the Cross. If you read her essay “The Love of God and Affliction” you will get a far better sense of just how Christocentric she is and your concern will be addressed. Any form of truth is something that is God’s and her understanding of the centrality of the cross makes this quite clear.

She is very Neo-Platonic indeed - especially in regard to her general understanding of theodicy. But lest we fault her for this, Augustine was also in the same tradition even at a very different time.

To emphasize this I would include in Kim’s list of sayings what I would argue is her most important:

“Superimposed readings: we should read necessity behind sensation, order behind necessity, and God behind the order.”

This frames the context of all her thought quite nicely, including the notion of affliction which is essential for understanding both her understanding of God’s love and the centrality of the cross, and the notion of attention in which we participate in the logos by receiving the good.

18

DH 03.07.08 at 2:41 pm

Well Drew, I still stand by what I said and the concerns therein. I believe the cross and Christ are central but Christ has always been and will always will be. Christ is fully God as a full person of the Trinity. I still believe that Weil doesn’t address my concerns but in fact disagrees with my concerns. At least I get that impression.

19

ee 03.07.08 at 2:53 pm

Can’t help feeling that Weil’s quotes are primarily devotional in purpose, and probably not meant to be built up into a theological system. To over-theologise them seems to me to miss their considerable inspirational force, though I acknowledge it’s important to test the truth of such statements.

Great post and discussion though.

20

Drew 03.07.08 at 3:11 pm

DH,

I think if you delve into her a bit more, the centrality of Christ is ever present and Christ is clearly a non-subordinate member of the Trinity.

Take this line for instance (from Love of God and Affliction):

“Because no other could do it, he himself went to the greatest possible distance, the infinite distance. This infinite distance between God and God, this supreme tearing apart, this incomparable agony, this marvel of love, is the crucifixion. Nothing can be further from God than that which has been made accursed.”

By saying that her mysticism gets in the way of a scriptural basis of Truth in Christ misses the point I think. For Weil between God and the lowest form of the cosmos, there is God. For her comments about truth it is important to understand her notion of attention and how that makes it possible to receive God and so, receive the good. Basically I think that your intuition is correct because that’s what it seems that she is saying, but your reading of Weil is off a bit because that is not at all what she is saying as the corpus of her writing clearly bears out.

Two similar concepts that help our understanding are Plato’s world spirit and Kierkegaard’s use of big and little infinity in terms of Christ as the intersection of the two. Hers is a concept that kind of gets at both of these notions at the same time if you will. It’s a rough analogy, but I think it works on a certain level.

21

DH 03.07.08 at 3:33 pm

I think you forgot one aspect of my disagreement with Weil and that is she looks at Christ and God as more of a “Spirit” as opposed to Him/them (at the same time) as being so much more than that. God is Spirit a flesh. Then when one looks at my disgreement on this it is the foundation for all of the other aspects of my disagreement with her.

EE, can’t something be inspirational and consistent with Scripture at the same time? Why does it always have to be presented in such seperated terms like Weil does? I don’t feel I’m “over-theologizing” her I’m just showing how one needs to take responsibility for what people say and write. If something is written that goes against Scripture then it is wrong. That also doesn’t mean that people can’t write inspirational things that are consistent with Scripture as well. These things are not mutually-exculsive that some people believe.

Again to me there is a difference between truth and Truth if you get my drift and Weil doesn’t address this making it seem somewhat of a “relativistic” or somewhat “univeralist” in mature.

22

DH 03.07.08 at 3:35 pm

Devotional and being consistent with Scripture are not mutually-exclusive things. I know many things that are devotional that are consistent with Scripture. Why does it have to be seperated or presented as such?

23

Drew 03.07.08 at 7:06 pm

“Christ and God as more of a “Spirit””

God yes - but she never refers to God anywhere with that term specifically as I recall. Even if she did I am not sure if it’s all that relevant to the point about Christ. Christ, no. Jesus as Incarnate word suffered affliction fully man. Weil is not a gnostic or a docetist and should not be confused with that. Again, this is clear from her writing.

24

Drew 03.07.08 at 7:08 pm

DH,

Also, if you are under the assumption that God is flesh then I think you have other theological issues to work out before coming to Weil. Jesus is God and flesh and this is not exhaustive of the being of God. The distinction must be made and she does so clearly in reference to Christ.

25

DH 03.07.08 at 8:56 pm

Drew, I don’t have any other theological issues to work out Jesus has always been as well as all of the Trinity. I’m not a “Jesus only” type person like you are trying to portray me.

To me Jesus suffered affliction as fully man but also as full God as well. Jesus was fully the Godman on earth with the Father in heaven but at the same time fully the Trinity.

I agree she makes the distinction in Christ but she needs to do the same with God and the Trinity which she doesn’t do.

See I’m concerned that she focuses more on Christ and not on the Trinity with these issues. This presumes the concerns I mentioned previously. These issues “beg the question” as to her level of Gnosticism or Docetism. I’m not saying she is a “Gnostic or Docetist” but the way she phrases the statements she made is what “begs the question” as to the concerns I have mentioned regarding these “false doctrines” therein.

26

Niko 03.17.08 at 4:12 am

Well, Weil sugest some interesting insights especially in reflecting on the existency of human being before God. Weil teaches us how to act-out our freedom toward the responsibility. Thanks to you that connet me to Weil.

27

Nick_A 03.31.08 at 12:46 am

Hello All

It is a pleasant surprise for me to see this interest in Simone Weil. Only a few such people come along in a generation IMO and we can learn so much from them if we are able to be open and not close off in defense of our preconceptions.

She is hard to understand since she is pure and lived her beliefs. This seems odd to us because we don’t. We rely on appearance. This is why she can be admired both by Leon Trotsky and Pope Paul V1. She is simply beyond classification.

She died in 1943 and seven people were at her funeral. Since then, only because of a certain dedication to quality from those like Albert Camus and T.S.Eliot, her essays and letters began to be published and caught on because of their purity and depth. Even though it is beyond us, we come to value it. When I first read her I couldn’t believe a woman in her early thirties could have such depth. Yet there it was. Clearly a very special person.

2/3/09 will be her 100th birthday. Hopefully you will all join me in a toast in honor of her life’s quest for the inner experience of truth at the expense of her bodily vanity and egotism which really is what it means to carry ones cross.

All the best

Nick

28

louise 11.10.08 at 8:09 am

Can anyone please help me with this quote by Simone Weil: “…god holding his hand and pressing rather hard”. I’ve been looking for the page number and I think it’s in Gravity and Grace. I have the Routledge 2002 edition but simply can’t find it, though I’m sure it’s there. Can anyone help? I really need that page number.

thanks!

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