Diogenes Allen teaches philosophy at Princeton Theological Seminary. This article is excerpted from his contribution to The Truth about Jesus, edited by Donald Armstrong III and published this month (March, 1998) by Eerdmans.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 22-29, 1990 pp. 770-772, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Reviewing a recent biography of Simone Weil, Professor Allen reflects on the power of her life and thought and her curiously marginal status among theologians.
Though Simone Weil (1909-43) is read by many people from a wide variety of backgrounds and with a wide variety of interests, she remains a marginal figure in the world of theology. This is especially strange considering the large amount of attention theology gives these days to social and political issues and Weil’s own passionate, often heroic involvement in social and political action. She was a spokesperson on behalf of striking workers, a volunteer teacher in night schools for railroad workers, and an active trade unionist. By working in factories and on farms she sought to understand how the oppression of work could be alleviated and the social hierarchy dismantled. She once gave shelter to Trotsky (and is said to have argued him into the ground over the nature of social oppression) , was a soldier at the front in the Spanish Civil War, sought dangerous service in World War II and served with the Free French in London. If personal heroism is a recommendation, as it is in the case of Bonhoeffer, Weil’s credentials are impeccable.
In addition, her intellectual powers and education were of the highest order. She attracted the attention and admiration of André Gide, Albert Camus and T. S. Eliot, who not only wrote an arresting introduction to Weil’s Need for Roots but contributed to the cost of a headstone for her previously unmarked grave. In our own day such writers as Robert Coles and Iris Murdoch have been profoundly influenced by Weil. Her works are substantial in quantity — about ten volumes — and beautifully written. Many of her works have had good publishers and translators. Why then is she still at best only on the edges of academic theology?
Possibly because she was a woman and was French. Some women, however, are read by theologians, but Weil is not a force even among feminist theologians. Paul Ricoeur is French, as are many deconstructionists, and they are taken very seriously. Perhaps Weil is neglected because she was not professionally trained in theology or personally acquainted with academic theologians. When she was in New York City for several months waiting transport to England, she spent much of her time in Harlem, because she liked to be with those who suffered, rather than at Union Seminary. In addition, the very first public notice of her was as a mystic, a label that has stuck to her, and academic theologians are not well disposed to mystics. But probably the biggest reason for her marginal status is that she is a truly radical and original thinker whose thought does not immediately factor with academic theology or indeed with any field of study. It requires sustained effort to master her thought sufficiently to connect it fruitfully to the issues theologians, philosophers and social and political scientists discuss.
Unfortunately, Gabriella Fiori’s book, though valuable, does not make Weil’s thought more accessible to academic interests. For this, one must turn to several other recent books. Peter Winch in Simone Weil: The Just Balance (Cambridge University Press, 1989) brilliantly connects Weil’s underlying philosophy to the linguistic philosophical tradition that clusters around Wittgenstein. This not only makes her accessible to philosophers who are interested in such topics as human perception and action, but also adds to our understanding of Weil’s religious vision, and indeed points up the artificiality of drawing a hard and fast line between philosophical and religious concerns. Rolf Kuehn in Deuten als Entwerden connects Weil to the mainstream of philosophical hermeneutics in France and Germany, an area of major theological interest today. Lawrence Blum and Victor J. Seidler in A Truer Liberty: Simone Weil and Marxism (Routledge, 1989) provide the first thorough treatment in English of Weil’s analysis of social oppression, which emphasises the limitations of both Marxist and capitalist theories. Like Fiori, they attempt to connect Weil’s thought to feminist concerns, but with less success. In short, by recasting Weil’s thought into a form that better connects with the way academic theology is pursued, these three books should greatly assist the entrance of Weil’s thought into the theological mainstream.
Fiori’s book is only partially successful as an intellectual biography. It fails to treat several important works, such as the essays "Science and Perception in Descartes" and "Iliad, a Poem of Force," which wrestle with the theme of dominance and subordination. Together they indicate the great integrative power of Weil’s mind, as she links such apparently disparate matters as sense perception and war. Fiori does place various writings in the context of Weil’s life and concerns, devotes a great deal of space to her social and political thought and to her preoccupation with religion during the last seven or eight years of her life, and tries to make connections between the pursuits. Frequently she does little more than paraphrase Weil, though there are instances of critical insight, as in this penetrating summary of a long, complex line of reasoning: "As far as the language of men is distant from divine beauty, as far as their senses and their intellect are distant from the truth, just so far are the necessities of social life distant from justice. It follows that political life has, like an art or science, an equal need for laborious creative invention." In general, however, her treatment compares poorly with Blum and Seidler’s comprehensive and critical treatment of Weil’s social and political philosophy.
Viewed strictly as a biography, Fiori’s book is more successful. She succeeds in bringing "back to life a way of thinking and living" that was Simone Weil. This considerable achievement was made possible by Fior’s conversations with many people who knew Weil, as well as extensive reading, and reliance on the earlier, excellent biography by Simone Pétrement.
Weil is difficult to understand. To begin with, her style is aphoristic, in the tradition of Montaigne and Pascal. Three volumes of Weils works consist of notebooks, not intended for publication, and a fourth work, Gravity and Grace, is a selection from her notebooks. Even the widely read Waiting for God is a miscellaneous document, assembled by an editor. Thus it is not easy to gain a comprehensive view of Weil’s thought. In the extensive secondary literature on Weil, her religious ideas are frequently treated with little understanding of their philosophical, theological, moral and social-political bearing. Fiori is less successful here than Pétrement. who had the advantage of having known Weil very well as a fellow student at the Henri IV lycée and at the École Normale Superieur. Pétrement was also a fully trained philosopher and an accomplished intellectual historian. Fiori, prior to her retirement, was a member of the Italian department of Queen’s University in Belfast.
Fiori’s work has a further serious flaw. Her portrayal of Weil’s religious conversion — which marked a major division in her life — is highly idiosyncratic. It appears in a ten-page chapter titled "The Encounter," the last two pages of which consist of a long quotation from one of Weil’s notebooks. The entry, unconnected with the themes around it, bears the heading "Prologue," suggesting it was meant to serve as a prologue to a book that was never written. It appears to describe an actual religious experience, but it bears no resemblance to the account of a religious experience Weil identifies as her own in a letter to Father Perrin, published in Waiting for God under the title "Spiritual Autobiography." At the core of that religious experience is a visitation (as it is technically called) by Jesus Christ
Often, at the culminating point of a violent headache, I make myself say [George Herbert’s poem "Love"] over, concentrating all my attention upon it and clinging with all my soul to the tenderness it enshrines. I used to think I was merely reciting it as a beautiful poem, but without my knowing it the recitation had the virtue of a prayer. It was during one of these recitations that, as I told you, Christ himself came down and took possession of me.
In my arguments about the insolubility the problem of God I had never foreseen the possibility of that, of a real contact, person to person, here below, between a human being and God.
Fiori does not treat this core religious experience in "The Encounter," and only in a later chapter does she refer to Weil’s account of Christ’s visitation. She does not tell us why Weil had previously thought that the problem of God was insoluble, nor discuss the fact that Weil said that this experience only "half convinced her intellect" of the truth of Christianity.
Weil’s relation to the Roman Catholic Church has been a vexing issue. In her "Spiritual Autobiography" and elsewhere she explains why she believed she had a divine vocation not to be baptized and thereby to remain outside the Catholic Church, even though she believed in the Trinity, the incarnation, and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and longed to receive the host. She claimed that the Roman Catholic Church was not truly catholic or universal because it did not adequately recognize that divine and vital truth had been and still was available outside the Christian revelation. On several occasions she described this and other views to priests with a view to baptism, but either she was dissatisfied with their responses or baptism was refused. Because she was not baptized, she has been dubbed "a secular saint" by those who admire her life and are drawn to her thought, but who are not interested in organized religion.
Nonetheless, there is serious reason to believe that Weil was baptized. At the time Fiori’s biography was written there was only a rumor of this, reported by Wladmir Rabi in "Du nouveau sur Simone Weil" (Les Nouveaux Cahiers, Autumn 1971) After many years of silence, to spare the sensibilities of Weil’s family, Simone Dietz, who was very friendly with Weil in New York and later in London, where they worked for the Free French, told a meeting of the American Weil Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in May 1988 that at Weil’s request she herself baptized Weil (as a lay Catholic may do in extreme situations) a few months before Weil’s death. (A videotape of Dietz’s address is in the society’s archives.) Prior to that address Dietz told the president of the American Weil Society, Eric Springsted of Illinois College, that she had baptized Weil. With Dietz’s permission Springsted reported her story to the society in a paper delivered at its May 1984 meeting at the University of Notre Dame. (His paper is in the society’s archives.)
Dietz’s revelation complicates our evaluation of Weil’s relation to institutional Christianity. The fact that she took the question of her baptism so seriously is a strong indication that she did not consider all religions on a par. If she was baptized, it would at the very least undermine some of the extravagant speculation about Weil’s being a secular saint.
One way to situate Weil’s thought today is to describe her as postmodern. The term should not be understood to refer exclusively to deconstructionism, nor to the relativism that is frequently associated with the term, as. for example in the writings of the American philosopher Richard Rorty. Rather, it indicates a rejection of the narrowness of the Enlightenment tradition which until recently propelled Western society intellectually, socially and politically and whose unrivaled dominance is thought by many, from widely different points of views, to have been broken. Weil would not be in the camp of confessional theologians, such as George Lindbeck, nor of those theologians who follow Heidegger, nor of process theologians. Weil had immense respect for the human intellect and the vital importance of the kind of truth that is accessible only to the intellect. She shared with our time a profound awareness of the effect of society — the production of goods and services — on the intellect and personality. Much of her writing is focused on liberating the mind and moral sensibility from illusion-producing forces, including the force of "the fat relentless ego" (as Iris Murdoch once put it) At the same time she was a penetrating critic of that so-called master of suspicion, Karl Marx, whose analysis of oppression and liberty she found superficial. She once said it is not religion that is the opiate of the people, but revolution. To believe that those who are weak should attain power, while still weak, is to believe in miracles without believing in the supernatural. She argued that the idea of revolution has blocked sober, hardheaded study of the nature and causes of social oppression, prevented the realization that some social oppression is probably inevitable, and tended to hide the fact that our subjection to the natural world can be mitigated but never wholly overcome.
Weil’s life and thought are also permeated by an awareness of the reality of supernatural grace. This combined with her respect for the human mind as an essential ingredient of a genuinely human life gives her an affinity with Augustine or, better yet, Gregory of Nyssa. The reality of divine grace confirmed and sustained her conviction about the preciousness of human beings and provided her with a standard to judge the way social and political institutions enhance or retard human dignity. What makes Weil unusual is the quality of her insights into how we may live in accord with divine-given human dignity, and the persistence of her effort to live out those insights.