Weil on Tragedy

Simone Weil offered one of the most thorough-going Christian defenses of tragedy, though that defense comes at considerable cost to her orthodoxy. As Katherine Brueck points out in her study of Weil’s theory ( The Redemption of Tragedy ), Weil recognized that what was at stake in a discussion of tragedy was not simply the question of God’s justice but the doctrine of creation. The issue was how to reconcile a world that is manifestly unjust in its distribution of rewards and punishments, which is self-evidently indifferent to moral considerations, with a belief in a benevolent and powerful Creator. Can tragedy survive the Christian doctrine of a good creation by a good Creator?

Weil believed that it could. To make her case, she distinguished between exoteric and esoteric versions of Christianity. The “exoteric” direction of Christianity is “legalistic” and “egocentric”; in this version, the Christian seeks God hoping for the reward of eternal life. In the mystical esoteric tradition, however, the Christian seeks God without concern for reward and without hope of establishing his merit before God. He seeks God for God’s own self. In the exoteric tradition, it is important to believe that rewards and punishments will be distributed equitably; in the esoteric tradition, there is no need for discernable justice in rewards and punishments. The exoteric tradition equates God’s justice with a rationally defensible distribution of rewards; the esoteric tradition says that God’s justice and goodness transcends all human standards of justice. For the esoteric tradition, there is no hope for external victories, which are partial and impermanent in any case; rather, we hope for “interior victory in outer defeat,” an interior victory that opens us to love for the world through the experience of suffering.

Creation is set up to encourage people to seek God without hope of reward. Creation is read through the cross, and like the cross it is an act of kenosis, self-emptying. When He created the world, God “surrenders himself to necessity, a force indifferent to the good and therefore foreign to his own nature.” More provocatively still, Weil suggests that the doctrine of creation ex nihilo means that God opens “a void” within Himself “in a voluntary act of self-emptying or withdrawal.” Subjected to the blind forces of a fate that has no concern with our moral character, and recognizing that the world does not reward the good, we are forced to be good for reasons other than reward. We are forced to seek God for his own sake. His self-emptying withdrawal forces us to take the same kenotic pathway as we return to Him. What is required of us is a participation in the cross that involves “a horrific voiding of the personality in all its natural dimensions.” God’s goodness, in short, does not exclude but “necessitates a world where unmerited misfortune is a continual and serious possibility for every human being.” The cross, an event of suffering innocence, is the key to understanding Christianity in its essence and purity. The world manifests God’s goodness and justice in that it “facilitates self-sacrificial love between man and God.” If the world was set up differently, we should be ever distant from God, and would not participate in the Son’s kenotic love.

Weil thus sees total coincidence between the tragic vision and a cruciform-shaped theology of creation. As Brueck summarizes, Weil believes that two conditions must be met to establish the tragic vision and to support human love for God: “(1) The human race, by virtue of its very existence, is subject to blind forces indifferent to the good. These forces take the shape of suffering and evil. (2) Defeat by the exterior world provides the occasion for the human being’s greatest victory. This is an inner victory which shines triumphantly in outer darkness.”

Weil’s account is valuable not because it is good or true. In most respects, it is utterly bad. It is valuable, though, for displaying the inner connections between tragic vision and beliefs about creation, for highlighting the eschatological issues inherent in tragic vision, and perhaps for showing that heterodox beliefs about the Trinity underly any conception of Christian tragedy (ie, if the Father creates by opening a void and withdrawing, what happens in the eternal relation of the Father to the Son ?Eis that also kenotic on both sides?). Weil demonstrates that making a case for Christian tragedy (necessarily?) requires steps, large steps, in the direction of gnosticism.

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