Philosophy professor William Lane Craig maintains a web site, Reasonable Faith, where he has apologetics articles and answers people’s questions. He answered someone’s question about the recent gay marriage supreme court ruling, and I’ve reproduced much of it here. See Craig’s site for the full response.
I’m going to use your question, R.C., [as] an excuse for addressing the Supreme Court’s tragic and misguided decision to re-define marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges.
We need to understand clearly that that is exactly what the Supreme Court has done. By ruling that same-sex unions can count as marriage the Court has implicitly redefined what marriage is. Marriage is no longer taken to be essentially heterosexual, as traditionally conceived, but has been implicitly redefined so that men can be married to men and women to women.
The Court’s majority opinion, written by Anthony Kennedy, shows a clear consciousness of what the Court is doing. Referring to the traditional view, Kennedy writes, “Marriage, in their view, is by its nature a gender-differentiated union of man and woman. This view long has been held—and continues to be held—in good faith by reasonable and sincere people here and throughout the world” (my emphasis). It is this view which Court’s majority declares is now obsolete.
God According to God, by Gerald Schroeder (HarperOne 2009)
If the discoveries in physics over the past century are correct, then that physically condensed energy of the big-bang creation is totally the expression of metaphysical wisdom (cited in Gen. 1:1) or information (J.A. Wheeler) or idea (W. Heisenberg) or mind (G. Wald). Physics not only has begun to sound like theology. It is theology (p 156).
God According to God, written by a MIT trained physicist and applied (Jewish) theology professor Gerald L. Schroeder, is a fascinating read (even if the subtitle, A Scientist Discovers We’ve Been Wrong About God All Along, seems a bit of a stretch). It’s an important read, too, if one takes the accolades on the cover seriously. For example, “A remarkable book. The science as well as the meaning of this universe and of life are discussed with insight, rigor, and depth,” says Nobel Prize (physics) awarded Charles H. Townes.
What’s really amazing about this book is that it combines modern science with theology in such a human way. It’s written for the layman, yes, but it is written to show that not only is belief in God not inimical to science, but that modern science is actually proving God (or at least the metaphysical), and that taking God and the Bible seriously (and not simplistically or superficially) reflects reality and how we are to live in it. The God of the Bible is simply not the god the critics so energetically and often vehemently criticize.
“The world gets its share of free reign and when a mess arises, the God of the Bible may enter to aid in the repair. Nipping the potential evil before allowing it to flourish would be a compassionate world-management system, but that fails to match the blueprint brought by the Bible. The logic lies in the need for an unhampered free will. God hides the Divine presence sufficiently to allow each of us to make our own choices, for better or worse, freely within the confines of our physical and social landscape . . .“ (p 205).
After the introductories, Schroeder presents issues regarding the origin of life, and how much “science” popularly held is not accurate or true. For instance, there is no logical reason why RNA would have developed on its own in our prebiotic world; everything is against it happening. He refutes Stephen Hawking’s (and Scientific American’s) embarrassingly optimistic view of life happening on its own, providing data on how it would be impossible for random mutations to create the variety of proteins used in earthly life.
Earth itself is unique and improbable. The elements in our universe that make life possible are surprising and improbable too, with carbon being the most unlikely. While carbon is common, it is not at all easily made. The astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, who was an agnostic before the means by which carbon could be abundantly formed was discovered, later said: “Some supercalculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly miniscule” (p 62).
For the Christian who has read other layman-oriented resources regarding origin of life and evolution issues, and facts about the specialness of earth, I recommend reading this book as well. In combination it is about the most informative and wonderfully written as you’ll find. Also for the Christian, Schroeder offers some eye-opening insights into Genesis and the possibility of nature as rebel (his other biblical interpretations from the Jewish perspective are also very much worth chewing on). He ties in the possibility of nature rebelling with what we are learning of nature at the quantum level. We now know that atoms are not the smallest units of matter, but the particles that make up atoms do not behave like matter. They may even be waves, and they seem to behave in way that indicates “mind.”
The European conception of “evolution” includes the metaphysical, and apparently many leading scientists are leaning toward the view that nature has “mind.” Neurosurgeon Frank Vertosick, Jr., talks of the “microbial mind,” Freeman Dyson (physicist, Institute for the Advanced Study, Princeton) and others show that “Atoms are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities . . . . It appears that mind . . . is to some extent inherent in every atom” (p 95). Mathematician and physicist Sir James Jeans wrote (pp 90-91):
“There is a wide measure of agreement which, on the physical side of science approaches almost unanimity, that the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine. Mind no longer appears as an accidental intruder into the realm of matter. We are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail mind as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.”
We cannot see or understand this “mind” in nature, and we cannot even understand our own brain-mind connection. We may know that chemical reactions take place in our brain that are related to specific activities, but we still do not understand how we remember, think, or imagine. Just as there is something else to nature than predictable natural laws, there is more to us than the physical. “The dogmatic myth of materialism has been proven to be wanting, more fantasy than fact. . . . in the words of Nobel laureate and biologist George Wald, ‘The stuff of which physical reality is composed is mind-stuff. It is mind that has composed a physical universe’” (p 151).
Schroeder’s thesis can be summed up thusly:
“Within the subatomic world, there is a probabilistic pattern established by the laws of nature. Individual quanta, however, may ‘choose’ not to follow the given path. So too is the history of humanity. Torturous though the trend may be, God has a plan for humanity. The microengineering of that plan is largely up to us. There is a flow from pagan barbarity toward the elusive goal of peace on earth, goodwill to all. Each of us, as individuals, chooses whether to enhance or impede the flow toward the Divine goal” (p 215).
Dyson, Freeman. “Progress in Religion” (acceptance speech, Templeton Prize), March 2000.
Heisenberg, Werner. Physics and Beyond (New York: Harper & Row, 1971).
Vertosick, Jr., Frank. The Genius Within (New York: Harcourt, 2002).
Wald, George. “Life and Mind in the Universe,” Quantum Biology Symposium, International Journal of Quantum Chemistry 11 (1984): 1-15.
Who is, or was, Simone Weil? If increasing attention in the way of books and a newer documentary mean anything, particularly considering her death was some 70+ years ago, then she’s obviously “somebody.” At least two meanings of the word “prodigy” apply to Simone: (1) she was known to be a genius from a very young age and is a recognized philosopher, and (2) by her short, painful, yet beautiful and selfless life. Being a Christian mystic and having been “adopted” by Catholics (Simone never became a member of any church), had perhaps contributed to a certain level of obscurity until more recent years.
All books that bear Simone’s name were published after her death (1943), with one of the most well-know being Waiting for God (WfG; 1951), a collection of spiritual letters and essays. Much has been made of her spiritual life – and rightly so – but for a biography that focuses on her philosophy, see Palle Yourgrau’s Simone Weil (Reaktion Books 2011). A 2010 documentary made the film festival rounds and is now on DVD: An Encounter with Simone Weil. The odd film focuses on life, death, suffering generally, and on these words of Simone’s specifically: “Attention is the rarest form of generosity.” (I wrote a fairly in-depth review of the documentary here: Secular Girl Activist meets Christian Girl Activist . . .)
Simone was born in France in 1909 to agnostic Jewish parents. At the age of six she could quote classic poetry, and despite interruptions in her education (and the onset of migraines), she received her baccalaureate at the age of 15. Simone had a deep desire to know “truth,” so she attended graduate school and became a teacher of philosophy.
Do not think that she lived comfortably from the “ivory tower.” As early as age five she refused to eat sugar because the French soldiers could not have it, and she maintained this practice of food-denial all of her life. She chose not to turn the heat on in her rented rooms since the unemployed could not afford it themselves, and gave much of her salary to the poor and to workers’ causes. She was very politically active, striving to secure better conditions for factory workers, and was involved with the defense of her country during World War II.
Simone seemed to apply her whole self towards realizing her convictions. Even though frail, she was always working, thinking, writing—incessantly doing. She even went so far as to travel to war-torn Spain, in 1936, to fight against the Fascists. She was a pacifist but felt so strongly about the cause that she volunteered for the most dangerous assignments. Because of a severe cooking-related accident, however, Simone did not stay there for very long. And her witness of an execution of a 15-year-old boy by the people she supported, among other things, caused her to not return.
Perhaps the personal experience of war caused a crack in Simone’s idealism that became an entryway for God. In 1937, Simone wrote of an encounter while at Assisi: “something stronger than I was compelled me for the first time in my life to go down on my knees” (WfG pp 67-68). Then in 1938, while having severe migraines during Holy Week services, Simone had the experience of separating herself from the pain to enjoy the beauty of the service and to receive understanding of the passion of Christ. That same year, while reciting a Christian poem about accepting Christ—which she claims she hadn’t understood as such—Christ indeed “came down and took possession of me” (WfG p 69).
Though she accepted Christ, Simone’s writings are controversial. Some do not believe Simone was really a Christian; she had consideration and respect for other religions, and some fairly unorthodox theological views. In her “religious” writings, she often wrote of wrestling with God over truth. Though she wrote about spiritual truths found in other religions, or even myths (CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien held similar views), in the final analysis only Christ is truth: “Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms” (WfG p 69). A useful work in this regard is Simone Weil’s Apologetic Use of Literature (Marie Cabaud Meaney 2008).
Her friends in faith were Catholic, but she refused to enter the church because of its history and its exclusionary practices. Despite being an “outside Christian,” she wrote conventional ideas like: “It is not my business to think about myself. My business is to think about God. It is for God to think about me” (WfG pp 50-51), and “. . . I think that God himself has taken it [her soul] in hand from the start and still looks after it” (WfG p 73). Going deeper into her thought we find: “Only obedience is invulnerable for all time” (WfG p 63), and “. . . I always believed that the instant of death is the center and object of life” (WfG p 63). Significantly, and counter to some who attempt to claim that Simone was not a Christian, she told a friend a few months before she died: “I believe in God, in the Trinity, in the Incarnation, in the Redemption, in the teachings of the Gospel” (from Simone Weil, by Stephen Plant, p 33).
“This straw-targeting of Christianity is now drearily commonplace among academics and intellectuals—that is to say, among those who would not allow a first-year student to get away with the vulgar caricatures in which they themselves indulge with such insouciance” (p 52).
Terry Eagleton’s invective against anti-theist’s claims about religion, and Christianity in particular, is one of wit, humor, and sauce. One hopes that those that are curious about the popular anti-God rhetoric, but who are basically outsiders—neither informed and faithful Christians or card-carrying anti-theists—will be the prime readers and beneficiaries of this “lecture series” book. Not that there isn’t a good deal that those in the other groups can get out of it. Indeed, as the Booklist review asserted, “serious Christians may be [Eagleton’s] most appreciative readers.” But on the opposite side Eagleton himself opined that there was not a “hope in hell” that Ditchkins, that is Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, would read his work or be moved by it.
Eagleton, who is a professor both of English literature and culture theory, and who also writes philosophically (in fact, this book has been rated as important in philosophy), presents how the various arguments against religion that Dawkins and Hitchens vehemently espouse are very seriously misinformed and flawed. “. . . the relations between these domains [poetry and other language types] and historical fact in Scripture are exceedingly complex, and that on this score as on many another, Hitchens is hair-raisingly ignorant of generations of modern biblical scholarship” (p 54). He shows how Dawkins’ views, which reflect Victorian era progressivism, are simply unreasonable and unrealistic.
“We have it, then, from the mouth of Mr. Public Science himself that aside from a few local hiccups like ecological disaster, ethnic wars, and potential nuclear catastrophe, History is perpetually on the up. Not even beaming, tambourine-banging Evangelicals are quite so pathologically bullish. What is this but an example of blind faith? What rational soul would sign up to such a secular myth?” (pp 87-88).
Regarding Ditchkins and science, Eagleton discusses how “Dawkins falsely considers that Christianity offers a rival view of the universe to science” (p 6), and that “His God-hating is by no means the view of a dispassionate scientist commendably cleansed of prejudice. There is no such animal in any case” (pp 65-66). “[Scientists] are peddlers of a noxious ideology known as objectivity, a notion which simply tarts up their ideological prejudices in acceptably disinterested guise” (p 132), and Dawkins, for example, “castigates the Inquisition . . . but not Hiroshima” (p 133). While anyone is welcome to criticize superstition, the current culture has sunk into scientism, which refuses to take anything seriously that “cannot be poked and prodded in the laboratory” (p 72). “Ditchkins does not exactly fall over himself to point out how many major scientific hypotheses confidently cobbled together by our ancestors have crumbled to dust, and how probable it is that the same fate will befall many of the most cherished scientific doctrines of the present” (p 125).
In chapter 1, Eagleton presents basic Christian beliefs not only to show that Ditchkins does not have an understanding of them, but to also promote them as quite respectable. Of course, throughout his book Eagleton gives little quarter to “fundamentalists;” he praises Jesus and his radicalness, and those who actually follow His teachings to help the poor and seek justice. He also contrasts this Christian mandate to love socially to the liberal humanist (of which Ditchkins is an example) legacy of love being kept private. Yet another significant difference between Christianity (and for persons like Eagleton who hold a more socialist view) and the liberal humanism of Ditchkins is the matter of sin and redemption. To Ditchkins, there is nothing to redeem. Humanity is steadily progressing, even if catastrophes like World War II have happened.
“In my view,” Eagleton writes, “[scriptural and orthodox Christianity] is a lot more realistic about humanity than the likes of Dawkins. It takes the full measure of human depravity and perversity, in contrast to . . . the extraordinarily Pollyannaish view of human progress of [Dawkins’] The God Delusion” (p. 47). Christianity believes that there are “flaws and contradictions built into the structure of the human species itself,” and so violence in history is not just due to historical influences; and Christianity is hopeful. It is “outrageously more hopeful than liberal rationalism, with its apparently unhinged belief that not only is the salvation of the human species possible but that, contrary to all we read in the newspapers, it has in principle already taken place. Not even the most rose-tinted Trotskyist believes that” (pp 48-49).
There are all kinds of fun passages like those already quoted in Eagleton’s book. It can be very useful to Christians who want to be able to cite a seemingly non-Christian critique to the anti-theist crowd. Conservatives be warned, however, that Eagleton presents and is supportive of Liberation Theology (he is a Marxist who aligns himself with “tragic humanism”), and is very critical of modern capitalism and western foreign policy. He has good, though general, arguments for the atheism of capitalism and the disconnect between the West’s religious rhetoric and its actual practices (which, interestingly, he often places on liberal humanism). Indeed, Christianity’s lack of following its leader has brought much criticism upon itself, “Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive” (p 55).
Eagleton points out the good that historic Christianity has done, which Ditchkins refuses to acknowledge, while pointing out hypocrisies of some liberals. Some examples:
“The values of the Enlightenment, many of them Judeo-Christian in origin, should be defended against the pretentious follies of post-modernism, and protected, by all legitimate force if necessary, from those high-minded zealots who seek to blow the heads off small children in the name of Allah. Some on the political left, scandalously, have muted their criticism of such atrocities in their eagerness to point the finger of blame at their own rulers, and should be brought to book for this hypocrisy” (p 68).
“Such is Richard Dawkins’s unruffled impartiality that in a book of almost four hundred pages, he can scarcely bring himself to concede that a single human benefit has ever flowed from religious faith, a view which is as a priori improbable as it is empirically false . . . . and this by a self-appointed crusader against bigotry” (p 97).
Speaking of empiricism and truth, I found chapter 3 more interesting the second time I read it. It’s really a pleasant read and borders on the mystical in places. Eagleton writes lucidly on how we understand truth and what is reasonable and rational. A set of examples about what is reasonable and rational, relative to what is true, is (1) that of humans previously thinking that the sun circled the earth – since it certainly looked that way it was rational to think – and (2) what we know of certain nuclear particles in our present time. These particles are said to go through two different spaces at one time. This is not rational or reasonable, yet we think that it is true. He continues with a discussion that promotes the concept of “love” being a precondition of understanding, concluding that “The rationalist tends to mistake the tenacity of faith (other people’s faith, anyway) for irrational stubbornness rather than for the sign of a certain interior depth, one which encompasses reason but also transcends it” (p 139).
“Yet the Apocalypse, if it ever happens, is far more likely to be the upshot of technology than the work of the Almighty. . . . This, surely, should be a source of pride to cheerleaders for the human species like Ditchkins. Who needs an angry God to burn up the planet when as mature, self-sufficient human beings we are perfectly capable of doing the job ourselves?” (p 134).
For a well-organized and concise presentation of 50 philosophical ideas, 30-Second Philosophies: The 50 most Though-provoking philosophies, each explained in half a minute is worth reading and having around for a quick review and a handy reference (for Christians too). The title is more of a catchy, rather than an accurate, description of the book. The “30-second explanations” can take more than that time to read, of course–if you’re thinking about what you read–and there are side notes to expand on the explanations. In addition, for each section in the book there is both a glossary and a profile of the chosen exemplary philosopher. There is some introductory material and a resources section in the back as well.
It is very nice indeed that the book is divided into subject sections, instead of the philosophies being presented in either a chronological or alphabetical list. The sections are: “Language & Logic,” “Science & Epistemology,” “Mind & Metaphysics,” “Ethics & Political Philosophy,” “Religion,” “Grand Moments,” and “Continental philosophy.”
Seeing as this blog is to view things from a Christian perspective, I will opine on the “Religion” section. “30-Second Philosophies” may be a good book for a Christian to have as a basic learning tool and reference, but it is not friendly to Christian beliefs. This is no surprise, since most philosophers today are materialistic* in their beliefs and thinking (Hasker 2006). In this section Thomas Aquinas is profiled and the following philosophies are presented: “Aquinas’ five ways,” “Anselm’s ontological argument,” “Epicurus’ riddle,” “Paley’s watchmaker,” “Pascal’s wager,” and “Hume against miracles.”
As might be assumed, ending the religion section with an (old) argument against a major theology isn’t a good sign toward a positive view of Christian philosophy and thought. Each of the sections negatively criticizes Christian philosophers and theological ideas; for example, the author(s) makes a flat-out claim that the ontological argument is false, and elsewhere implies that God is false or silly since He didn’t make us all simply virtuous. The “obvious solution” of making us only virtuous would have meant no problem of evil would have sprung up. Here the author ignores the concept of actual free-willed beings, since in materialism there can be no true free will.
Regarding the Ontological Argument, please see the Sennett/Plantinga source below, which contains a chapter on the argument. In that chapter (which is basically reproduced here), Plantinga goes through the history of the argument and provides a final and valid restatement of it (Plantinga is a professor of philosophy emeritus at The University of Notre Dame). Secondly, regarding the problem of evil, the reader might like to view the William Lane Craig article provided in the Sources and Recommendations section. There is no shortage of Christian writings on this subject, since, as Craig wrote,
I did not write of all the criticisms the authors had for Christian philosophy in “30-Second Philosophies,” but you are encouraged to check them out and seek the answers. If you can imagine someone picking up this book and only reading the summary explanations and criticisms, then you will get an idea of what the average person or student thinks. You can find this level of knowledge and thinking all over the internet (and no doubt in our more physical interactions), and it would behoove us to know more and have legitimate and current counter arguments and answers.
* This link will lead you to a subscriber view only article. To see the whole article without being a subscriber, do a browser search and click on the link for “What is Materialism?” by Michael Philips.
Sources and Recommendations
Beilby, James K., editor, For Faith and Clarity: Philosophical Contributions to Christian Theology (BakerAcademic 2006).
I need to “get out” more on the internet, as I hadn’t seen this until today. Nice little article. It’s funny how some defenders of humanism, in the comments, complain that he didn’t mention the guys on their side. Why should he, specifically? He did mention them in passing, as having weak arguments. It can be viewed as being more polite and academic to not attack everyone, but to primarily present one’s argument instead. And the high rhetoric of some of humanism’s defenders is very funny too – it’s exactly the point. Without a basis for claiming their moral authority, they end up looking like self-promoters of humanity, which often leads to despotism. And around the web, there are no shortage of little bully despots running around daily, blindly insulting anyone who doesn’t agree with him. What a wonderful, happy, and moral world the humanists are creating!
Here is an example from the academic realm of how humanists or naturalists (I can’t say for sure based on the info provided) equate belief in God with stupidity, and that somehow their views are superior. They can’t even see how their opinions show that they think their views are obviously superior, instead of letting people have faith, and, actually talking about their differing views as equals. They said that the man in question, Ben Carson, claimed that evolutionists could not have the same level of ethics as theists (basically). This is a philosophical argument, if it’s true what they said, and they need to address it seriously instead of whining about it.
Screw Calm and Get Angry is a little chunky hardcover published by Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC (Kansas City 2010). Little chunky books are just so hard not to look into, to savor, to roll in one’s hands like a lollipop in the mouth. So yeah, I enjoyed it.
Even though this book isn’t new, I just saw it for the first time last month. Here are some fun quotes from it, and don’t worry if you are offended by one, since you’ll find another you agree with (the quotes are from a whole range of political, religious, and philosophical views):
How fortunate for leaders that men do not think. Adolf Hitler
We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office. Aesop
The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on and do nothing. Albert Einstein
There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. Elie Wiesel
Start off every day with a smile and get it over with. W.C. Fields
The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy, that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness. J.K. Galbraith
Let us be grateful to the mirror for revealing to us our appearance only. Samuel Butler
Nobody really cares if you’re miserable, so you might as well be happy. Cynthia Nelms
In our civilization, and under our republican form of government, intelligence is so highly honored that it is rewarded by exemption from the cares of office. Ambrose Bierce.
You can’t say civilization don’t advance . . . for in every war they kill you in a new way. Will Rogers
I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that he didn’t trust me so much. Mother Teresa
If you wake up and you’re not in pain, you know you’re dead. Russian proverb
Life is not so bad if you have plenty of luck, a good physique, and not too much imagination. Christopher Isherwood
It is only by not paying one’s bills that one can hope to live in the memory of the commercial classes. Oscar Wilde
The modern banking system manufactures money out of nothing. Perhaps the most astounding piece of sleight-of-hand that was ever invented. Banking was conceived in inequity and born in sin . . . But if you want to continue to be slaves of the bankers and pay the cost of your own slavery, then let the bankers continue to create money and control credit. Josiah Charles Stamp
Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it. Stephen Leacock
Criminal: A person with predatory instincts who has not sufficient capital to form a corporation. Howard Scott
Money: There’s nothing in the world so demoralizing as money. Sophocles
It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. Mark Twain
That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach. Aldous Huxley
A life spent in constant labor is a life wasted, save a man be such a fool as to regard a fulsome obituary notice as ample reward. Georgy Jean Nathan
I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. Jerome K. Jerome
Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates. Gore Vidal
Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first. Ronald Reagan
Politics, N[oun]. Strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage. Ambrose Bierce.
Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former. Albert Einstein
This film is not yet out for general release. See this FB page or the website for more info.
Normally a review would recommend an audience for the book or movie or whatever it is that is being reviewed, but this film makes it difficult to say who exactly would prefer it or get the most out of it. I love the late Simone and seriously looked forward to “An Encounter with Simone Weil,” but I was in for a surprise with this pseudo-documentary. This film (the Director’s Cut), by Julia Haslett, is like a personal travel diary only instead of the destination being a place, it’s a person. And the road there is strewn with corpses.
Ok, so let’s make a stab at the audience, or in this offering, audiences. The filmmaker comes from the liberal anti-American, anti-Christian segment of America, as is made apparent in the film, so that same audience is probably the intended one (since a quote from Michael Moore is on the front dvd cover, this is not a risky guess); the secondary audience would be those who otherwise like Weil or want to know more about her, most likely having heard of her in Christian or philosophy circles.
Simone Weil (1909-1943) was one of those rare of the rarest of human beings, a person with extreme intellectual prowess fused with extreme empathy and charity. She was an intellectual who taught philosophy (and taught it all in the original languages), gave up her teaching job to labor with factory workers, had conversations with the likes of Trotsky . . . but scratch the record . . . she was also a Christian mystic. This film touches on her academic career, but focuses on Simone’s social activism (“political” activism in the film) and her unfortunate and apparently irrational taking up with God (film’s view, not the reviewer’s). It also has much interesting archival footage.
Haslett makes this film, does this research, due to her sadness and feeling of regret after her father’s suicide. Could I have done something to stop it?, she asks, and Can I do more to help others who suffer? She is inspired by something Weil wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Indeed, surprisingly true and knowledge worth acting upon. How did Simone give attention, how did she alleviate suffering (or at least how did she try), and how does Haslett emulate Simone in this regard?
Without going into too much detail (a short bio of Simone can be found here, there is an excellent biography at the beginning of the book, Waiting for God, and there are numerous other sources about Simone as well), Simone didn’t just research social problems and make suggestions to the government. She knew that the only way to understand someone’s suffering, at least to some degree, was to become them. Thus the factory work episode mentioned earlier. She also, from a very early age, paid attention to the sufferings of soldiers and workers and ate the small amounts they ate, or didn’t pay for heat if her fellow workers could not afford it. She gave up on pacifism when she saw that war was inevitable and that providing help to the better side was a good; she fought in Spain for a short time (in 1936) with those against the fascists, and she volunteered to be a front-line nurse early in the Second World War. She didn’t just talk, she walked the walk.
This is all well-known material regarding Simone Weil. So what did Haslett do? She does what she can to suffer alongside her brother who is in and out of depression, and she is involved with causes that are meant to alleviate suffering and bring about justice. The problem with these causes is that they are very political and Haslett can’t seem to get herself to look at all the sides of the issues (she shows that there is voter fraud in Florida, on the side of the Republicans, but she ignores the voter fraud perpetuated by the Democrats). Simone was very good at (and purposefully so) looking at opposing information. Haslett’s inability to look at the other side, of humbling herself for that (or simply not villainizing the “other side”), shows up in another important way in this film.
Haslett is so enamored with Weil, and so mystified by some things about her, that she wants to meet her. Since she can’t actually bring her back from the dead, she hires an actress (obviously a sharp one) to read and absorb Simone’s writings, and work in a factory like Simone did (sort-of), in order to “become Simone” so that Haslett can ask her questions. [I’ll pause while you take that in.] My first thought was, Why doesn’t she just try and understand Simone herself? Haslett perhaps realized that she was incapable of doing so, but then, what use would there be in talking to and getting annoyed with an actress when you can basically do the same thing with a book? It does indeed come to the inevitable head when the actress (bless her) says that “I” -meaning Simone – did not kill myself and by being a slave of God’s I could get beyond my pain (Simone had very bad and long-lasting migraines) and try and do what I was called to do.
“Simone” insisted that she did not kill herself. This is in reaction to many people’s claim that she passively ended her own life by not eating enough (while trying to get over tuberculosis); something the doctor who filled out her death certificate claimed. Knowing Simone’s lifelong habit of only eating so much based on someone’s suffering–in this case, it was the amount allotted to her occupied countrymen in France–many question the doctor’s judgment. But Haslett seemed to be trying to make the case that Simone killed herself, and had earlier submitted to Christ, out of desperation–desperation over not being able to stop the suffering of so many, and knowing that suffering would never come to an end. It is presented that Simone had to have turned to religion only as a last resort – after all reason and rational thought were used up. Reading Simone’s writings, one would be very hard pressed to come up with a justification of this opinion of Haslett and others.
For one thing, Simone insisted that “she had not needed to be converted; she had always been implicitly, in ‘secret’ even from her lower self, a Christian” (Fiedler 1951, 23). Regarding suffering, she came to view her own, from the migraines, as a gift. Of course, suffering caused by man should be worked against. Regarding reason and rational thought, consider her claim: “Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms” (Weil 1951, 69). Very unlike Haslett, Simone knew that humans needed salvation. In all the history now known there has never been a period in which souls have been in such peril as they are today in every part of the globe. The bronze serpent must be lifted up again so that whoever raises his eyes to it may be saved” (Weil 1951, 76; see Numbers 21:5-8 and John 3:13-15 for biblical references).
All this is significant since Haslett is against it . . . yet she can’t seem to dismiss it. At the end of the film we find that the brother she includes in the film, who suffered depression after his father’s suicide, committed suicide himself. Haslett equates his suicide with Weil’s, though this seems very far from the mark (especially if you are of the opinion that Weil did not commit suicide). She says that, since the world is doomed, the only choice is whether to commit suicide or not. Wow. I do hope that if any suicidal persons see this film that they aren’t encouraged negatively by it. In any case, there actually seems to be hope in the end.
Amazingly, Haslett, for the first time, gives a nod to the supernatural; she says that to give attention is a “miracle.” As she kisses a wall, she ends the film with this Weil quote: “Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is what separates them but it is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God, every separation is a link.” Perhaps the best audience for this film are all those who desire Haslett (and others like her) to look toward God longer, until she desires Him instead of the vessel in which He worked so brightly (Simone).
Fiedler, Leslie A. “Introduction,” in Waiting for God. Simone Weil (New York: Harper Colophon 1973)
Weil, Simone. Waiting for God (New York: Harper Colophon 1973; reprint of G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1951)