Weil’s hypothesis

In a poignant passage of her last letter to Father Perrin, Simone Weil expresses “an absurd hypothesis”: that if she were to die without serious sin but find herself fallen into hell, she would not or could not blame God, who had always extended his infinite mercy to her in her earthly life.

Weil had already proposed that obedience must reconcile one to infinite acceptance. She makes a human analogy: a mother’s loves for her child is infinite and that joy is everything, and all else is “superfluous.” Yet that mother cannot infinitely safeguard her child from accident, circumstance, danger, or destruction. Thus, in the hypothesis, God’s love and mercy is everything, is infinite. Yet God does not intervene. The only relevant fact is God’s love. “The rest is the affair of God alone and does not concern us.”

There are complex themes to Weil’s simple hypothesis, but these were the sorts of statements to her correspondent Father Perrin that reinforced her simultaneous attraction and repulsion to Catholicism. Here God’s capacity to express mercy is thwarted, and God’s ability to intervene in the universe is unmasked.

But the “absurd” hypothesis is not incompatible with theological speculation; it is, however, completely at odds with the fragile premises of the churchmen about what God is. Infinite is the condemnation of one in hell, and irreducible is the universal order that condemns the given soul to hell. Weil only takes that premise to its logical or “absurd” conclusion, that God can condemn one to hell for no apparent reason (like Kafka’s antihero in “The Trial”) and one will have to accept that it is for something one did but does not remember or cannot deny not matter how absurd. Another possibility (which is perhaps emblematic of Weil’s whole life) is that the condemned stands in the place of others — not as Christ does in saving humanity and himself, but as the poor and ignorant condemned one who lives and dies in vain in the unconscious quest to save others if not himself.

What sort of love and mercy is this, let alone the proposition that it constitutes “infinite” love and mercy? Weil gives the churchmen the backdoor psychological (but not theological) solution: that obedience overrides logic, reasonableness, or discernment. Obedience is an infinitely compelling necessity in theology. Obedience overrides mystery — the usual kindness given to absurd or illogical or unreasonable behavior on the part of God. And obedience overrides love, or rather reciprocated love, like that of the child toward its parent. How many children really do not love their parent, given the complex of instincts and urges and identity frustrations that plague childhood? Obey but not necessarily love.

Obedience, together with poverty and chastity, became the third virtue of the cenobite, but must necessarily be transformed by the solitary or religious hermit because obedience is clearly presented by the church as a way of frustrating will, reason, and logic, even love.

Weil has exposed this flaw at the heart of Christian theology. And yet she resolves nothing theological, for the dilemma remains even for non-believers. Rather than God, we may say that the universe nurtures us with infinite love and mercy (like the mother’s love for a child). Over the course of millions of years, the universe labors to create us, specifically us. And in the end, the universe casts us into old age, infirmity, suffering, and death — our earthly hell. And we have no choice but to obey. The non-believer cannot even pray to hope to enter heaven instead of hell, cannot pray for mercy or solicit God’s love, for these have all been exhausted in creating the conscious creature that is a human being. And like the existential coreligionist, the non-believer joins his side in sighing, “Why?”

So Simone Weil, infinitely conscious of her solitude, strikes the reverberating chord that shatters the hope and acquiescence of belief. We have no choice but to obey, meaning that we have no choice but to accept our fate, however “absurd.”

What a gadfly was Simone Weil, even to the last moments of her young life, rabidly ethical and ascetic, rivaling any believers’ piety, outdoing many a comfortable saint.

I feel that it is necessary and ordained that I should be alone, a stranger and an exile in relation to every human circle without exception.