Archive for November, 2019

I’ve seen Simone Weil referenced by numerous writers over the years, but I’ve never read any of her work myself. I just got a hold of a short anthology and cracked it open. At first glance it seems that Weil is what Thomas Merton would have become if he had been a woman and become a professor instead of a monk. The similarities are many. Both were born in France only a few years apart form each other. Both had a dramatic conversion to Christianity in their twenties. Both died far too early. Their writing style appears to be similar as well.

This is just a preface to say that I was arrested by some of her commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. This passage in particular is just dynamite! I’m going to just leave it here without further comment.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.”

At the moment of saying these words we must have already remitted everything that is owing to us. This not only includes reparation for any wrongs we think we have suffered, but also gratitude for the good we think we have done, and it applies in a quite general way to all we expect from people and things, to all we consider as our due and without which we should feel ourselves to have been frustrated. All these are the rights that we think the past has given us over the future.

First there is the right to a certain permanence. When we have enjoyed something for a long time, we think that it is ours and that we are entitled to expect fate to let us go on enjoying it. Then there is the right to a compensation for every effort whatever its nature, be it work, suffering, or desire. Every time that we put forth some effort and the equivalent of this effort does not come back to us in the form of some visible fruit, we have a sense of false balance and emptiness which makes us think that we have been cheated. The effort of suffering from some offense causes us to expect the punishment or apologies of the offender, the effort of doing good makes us expect the gratitude of the person we have helped, but these are only particular cases of a universal law of the soul.

Every time we give anything out we have an absolute need that at least the equivalents should come into us, and because we. need this we think we have a right to it. Our debtors comprise all beings and all things; they are the entire universe. We think we have claims everywhere. In every claim we think we possess there is always the idea of an imaginary claim of the past on the future. That is the claim we have to renounce.

To have forgiven our debtors is to have renounced the whole of the past in a lump. It is to accept that the future should still be virgin and intact, strictly united to the past by bonds of which we are ignorant, but quite free from the bonds our imagination thought to impose upon it. It means that we accept the possibility that. this will happen, and that it may happen to us in particular; it means that we are prepared for the future to render all our past life sterile and vain.

In renouncing at one stroke all the fruits of the past without exception, we can ask of God that our past sins may not bear their miserable fruits of evil and error. So long as we cling to the past, God himself cannot stop this horrible fruiting. We cannot hold on to the past without retaining our crimes, for we are unaware of what is most essentially bad in us.

The principal claim we think we have on the universe is that our personality should continue. This claim implies all the others. The instinct of self-preservation makes us feel this continuation to be a necessity, and we believe that a necessity is a right. We are like the beggar who said to Talleyrand: “Sir, I must live,” and to whom Talleyrand replied, “I do not see the necessity for that.”

Our personality is entirely dependent on external circumstances which have unlimited power to crush it. But we would rather die than admit this. From our point of view the equilibrium of the world is a combination of circumstances so ordered that our personality remains intact and seems to belong to us. All the circumstances of the past that have wounded our personality appear to us to be disturbances of balance which should infallibly be made up for one day or another by phenomena having a contrary effect. We live on the expectation of these compensations. The near approach of death is horrible chiefly because it forces the knowledge upon us that these compensations will never come.

To remit debts is to renounce our own personality. It means renouncing everything that goes to make up our ego, without any exception. It means knowing that in the ego there is nothing whatever, no psychological element, that external circumstances could not do away with. It means accepting that truth. It means being happy that things should be so.

The words “Thy will be done” imply this acceptance, if we say them with all our soul, That is why we can say a few moments later: “We forgive our debtors.”

The forgiveness of debts is spiritual poverty, spiritual nakedness, death. If we accept death completely, we can ask God to make us live again, purified from the evil in us. For to ask him to forgive us our debts is to ask him to wipe out the evil in us. Pardon is purification. God himself has not the power to forgive the evil in us while it remains there. God will have forgiven our debts when he has brought us to the state of perfection.

Until then God forgives our debts partially in the same measure as we forgive our debtors.

Nietzsche famously said, “God is dead. And we have killed him”.

I’ve been reading Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind lately though and early on I think she more or less describes what is really going on:

…it may be wise to reflect upon what we really mean when we observe that theology, philosophy, metaphysics have reached and end – certainly not that God has died, something about which we can know as little as about God’s existence (so little, in fact, that even the world “existence” is misplace), but that the way God had been thought of for thousands of years is no longer convincing; if anything is dead, it can only be the traditional THOUGHT of God. And something similar is true of the end of philosophy and metaphysics: not that the old questions which are coeval with the appearance of men on earth have become “meaningless,” but that the way they were framed and answered has lost plausibility.
-Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, p.10

So it’s not that God died, but rather that we no longer know how to talk about God – how to “frame” questions about meaning and metaphysics. Is this a loss or a gain? The priests of secular atheism today simple declare it was obviously a gain and quickly dismiss any remaining whiff of them in the air. But is LOSING the words and thoughts to even imagine a subject a gain? No matter what is being talked about, it sounds like a loss to me.

Imagine a high-concept science fiction novel where generations of humans are raised by increasingly intelligent robots. Along the way, all knowledge about how the robots were first built, or how the basics of electronic wiring even works at all were lost. One day, the robots all suddenly shut down due to some Y2k-esque software bug. The humans are thrown into disarray as nobody even has the words or thoughts to even contemplate beginning to repair the robots. Man is resilient though and learns to go on living without them, regressing to some kind of early bronze-age society. The robots are dead. Oh well. A few generations later the stories about them seem to be little more than myths. Is this gain or a loss that nobody can productively talk or even think about the caretaker robots anymore? Sounds like a loss to me.

It’s been 11 years since I first read Rene Girard’s ‘Things Hidden’. I just finished rereading it for the first time yesterday. I certainly understood at least a little more of it this time than I did on the first pass. At the same time, there were huge chunks of the conversation that were hard to follow, mostly because I’m still not well acquainted with the thinkers he is constantly referencing and grappling with. In the past 11 years, despite reading several hundred books, I have still yet to read a single word of Freud, Levi-Straus, Nietzsche, Frazer, Dostoevsky, Proust, and a host of others. On the other hand, I have read a lot of secondary material, including the majority of Girard’s other major works in English, some of his colleague Oughourlian, and work by other people in Girard’s orbit like James Allison and Gil Bailie. So I’ve had the gaping holes somewhat filled in a bit, albeit from the downstream direction.

Probably the largest question I have currently is how to reconcile Girard’s “non-sacrificial reading” of scripture, which, at first glance seems obviously incompatible with orthodoxy. In fact, I’ve seen more than a few people dismiss Girard’s work out of hand as relying on Marcionite garbage. I think that even if it IS, there is still a lot of value to be found nonetheless. I am also somewhat more optimistic now that a better and more holistic reading of the OT can be articulated that still makes room for it traditional Christian thought. Sounds like a lot of work though. Oh well, for now.

Time to change the subject.

Upon rereading all this a few days ago, one passage struck me almost poetically:

JMO: They persist in believing that the concept of divinity is a ‘natural’ one; the sacred king is held to be a kind of reversal of divinity for the sake of political power which is supposedly independent of ritual.

RG: Everyone repeats that the king is a kind of ‘living god’ but no one says that the divinity is a kind of dead king, or at any rate an ‘absent’ king, which would be just as accurate. In the end, there is a persistent preference for viewing the sacrifice and sacredness of the king as a secondary and supplementary idea, for we must beware of rocking our little conceptual boat. Yet what guides our interpretation is only a conceptual system dominated by the idea of divinity, a theology. Skepticism about religion does not abolish this theological perspective. We are forced to reinterpret all religious schemata in terms of divinity because we are unaware of the surrogate victim. If one examines psychoanalysis and Marxism closely it becomes evident that this theology is indispensable for them.

We Christians earnestly looking forward to the second advent of Christ, we are in fact literally saying that “God is an absent king”. He really is the king. And everything good that was ever thought or imagined about an earthly king, that is what he is and more. And he really is absent. He’s not dead. He’s not imaginary. He’s just not here right now. He’s in heaven (wherever that is exactly) at the moment. But he’s only temporarily absent. There is a sense in which all men, and even all creation, are earnestly awaiting the king to come back. Our long deep-seated sociological and psychological urge to sacralize earthly kings (which Girard articulates particularly well) is rich evidence of this longing.

Atheists and secularists say that we try to project god onto our political rulers to give them more power, but in fact the opposite is true. We project earthly kingship onto God because it’s a valid and (more or less) true analogy. Those who despair then say that “the king is dead”, but we the faithful say “the king is absent”, and then add, more specifically, “come Lord Jesus!” (with the exclamation mark!).

The image is of Christ Enthroned, a icon commissioned by Ethiopian Emperor Iyasu I Yohannes, in the 17th century, for a church in Gondar.