Documentary on Simone Weil

August 21, 2011

I just noticed, via the American Weil Society, that there’s a documentary film on the life and thought of Simone Weil: An Encounter with Simone Weil. Here’s the trailer:

I hope they deal adequately with her theology and not merely her political views, since both are of a piece. For those who have no idea who Simone Weil is — shame on you — you should start with Waiting for God.

By the way, if you are a Protestant, or a good Thomist in the Roman camp, you will rightly sense a too Platonic otherworldliness in Weil’s spirituality, and you’ll probably think that she should occasionally just settle down and enjoy a beer for God’s sake! And you would be right.

Brunner on prayer

August 19, 2011

The prayer of the Christian is made possible by Jesus Christ. Apart from Christ — or the covenant, more generally speaking — prayer can only be a speculation (a hope without certitude) that something or someone will care for us. In Christ, prayer is a knowledge and certainty that Someone has cared for us and will care for us.

As I’ve said in the past, the best theologians have the best things to say on prayer: Forsyth, Baillie, Barth, and von Balthasar. Here is a nice short presentation from Emil Brunner, with his characteristic focus on the prior necessity of a particular revelation (the God who saved/saves) in order to even pray:

The world often seems like a monstrously sinister machine, blind, insensible, destroying everything that man builds, fosters, loves, hopes. Why should the world concern itself about your wishes, little stupid man? What does your sigh mean in the midst of a universe where suns grow and age in billions of years? Such a thought makes prayer die upon the lips. Is there any sense in praying the roaring avalanche to spare the babe yonder in the path of its downward rush? O fate, blind, awful, senseless fate!

When we look beyond ourselves out into the world, prayer fades away. Man’s tragic lot robs one of the courage to pray. Everything appears to be senseless, disorder, chance, confusion. Who then has a mind to pray? The world can at most permit us dimly to perceive a mysterious Power; but to make us trust ourselves to this Power, calling upon it as children do their father: “Help us!” the world is unable. How then can we pray? What gives us the courage, the confidence, the assurance?

As children lost in a woods, are fearful of the sinister darkness — and then, suddenly, hearing a sound from the sombre blackness, a familiar voice, a loving, seeking, helping voice, their mother’s voice — so prayer is our reply to the voice from the Word of God in Jesus Christ which suddenly cries out to us in the mysterious, dark universe. It is the Father calling us out of the world’s darkness. He calls us, seeks us, wants to bring us to Himself. “Where are you, my child?” Our prayers mean “Here I am, Father. I was afraid until you called. Since you have spoken, I am afraid no longer. Come, I am waiting for you, take me, lead me by the hand through the dark terrifying world.”

Because they do not know this God and this revelation so many men of our time no longer pray. True prayer is possible only as an answer to God’s real revelation. True prayer, that is, prayer in which a man really believes he will be heard, is possible only when one believes in the living God. What is meant by the “living God”? The God to Whom you can pray trustfully, because He has previously revealed to you His trustworthiness. That is the living God.

(Emil Brunner, Our Faith, trans. John W. Rilling, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954 [1936], pp. 110-113.)

I recently finished reading Barth’s lectures on the Reformed confessions, delivered at Göttingen in the summer of 1923. The previous summer he had given his lectures on Calvin, followed that winter by his lectures on Zwingli. All of which, of course, is immediately following his revised edition of Der Römerbrief in 1922. These lectures on Reformed confessional theology have been immensely helpful for my own interpretation of Barth during this early period. Of particular interest to me was his persistent discontent at any trace of “psychologism” within the development of Reformed thinking after Calvin. Barth is especially not happy with the Westminster divines, whom he characterizes as obsessed with the doctrine of assurance, as this makes the religious subject the object of attention. I think Barth is exaggerating this concern with assurance given by the Westminster Assembly, but I’m nonetheless challenged by his contention that this involves a turn toward the psychological state of the subject, which then involves a short step toward Schleiermacher and Feuerbach.

Interestingly, Barth is not particularly concerned with predestination. He passingly notes some areas of mild discontent, some tweaks to be made, and points the reader to his treatment of the topic in Der Römerbrief. But, really, he’s not too upset by the doctrine of election as it is confessed by the Reformed. After all, it’s a properly theological topic, given a properly theological treatment, which makes Barth happy. As he sees it, they’re wrong (partly), but at least they’re being theologians, not humanists. Once again, pietism is the real culprit for Barth. So, the reader should not be surprised by his mostly positive interpretation of the Canons of Dort, the last lecture in the book. He locates Dort within the crisis of the Reformation against the backdrop of medieval syncretism (Semi-Pelagianism) and the emerging modern theology in the foreground (pietism, liberalism). Here is a snippet from the lecture, where Barth contrasts the Remonstrants (Arminians) with the fathers at Dort:

I need not say much by way of explanation of the differences on this point. There are two different worlds that collide with each other here…on the one hand, the human person is the measure of all things, and on the other, God is. On the one hand, faith as a human act is in the center, and on the other, the divine ‘good pleasure’ [beneplacitum] out of which come faith and all other good things. On the one hand, a humanly righteous and rational relationship with God, and on the other, God to whom alone all righteousness and reason are ascribed. On the one hand, the human standing in a mild equality with God; on the other, God’s mercy as the only thing with which the human stands or falls. Whether one calls what emerges here medieval Semi-Pelagianism or a modern Christianity of feeling and reason, it ends up as the same thing, and it stands in decisive contrast with the Reformation itself. There is no way to deny that what is expressed in the Canons of Dort is the authentic concern of the Reformation. Their case against the Remonstrants is entirely justified and consistent from the perspective of Luther and Calvin. The consequences from the opposed doctrine drawn in the ‘rejection of errors’ [Rejectio errorum] are also correct. Dort’s own doctrine is, as a whole, nothing other than the comprehensive, level-headed, judicious, thorough expression of what had to be said about the majesty of God, if one were not willing to haggle. With this dogma the Reformed church had raised the banner against the old church some eight or nine decades earlier. With the same dogma it was now setting out the boundaries over against the emerging new church. It is difficult to see what right one might have to call oneself Reformed today if one is not able to engage in the essentials of this thinking. [pp.214-215]

To be Reformed is to “engage in the essentials of this thinking.” Very true, and not something that a lot of people would expect to hear from Barth — those who still think of Barth as anti-scholastic, modernist, et cetera.

Honestly, I have never heard of “pregnancy reduction.” Maybe I’m just too naive. Apparently it’s on the upswing in the consumer infant market. You really must read this article from the New York Times:

As Jenny lay on the obstetrician’s examination table, she was grateful that the ultrasound tech had turned off the overhead screen. She didn’t want to see the two shadows floating inside her. Since making her decision, she had tried hard not to think about them, though she could often think of little else. She was 45 and pregnant after six years of fertility bills, ovulation injections, donor eggs and disappointment — and yet here she was, 14 weeks into her pregnancy, choosing to extinguish one of two healthy fetuses, almost as if having half an abortion. As the doctor inserted the needle into Jenny’s abdomen, aiming at one of the fetuses, Jenny tried not to flinch, caught between intense relief and intense guilt.

“Things would have been different if we were 15 years younger or if we hadn’t had children already or if we were more financially secure,” she said later. “If I had conceived these twins naturally, I wouldn’t have reduced this pregnancy, because you feel like if there’s a natural order, then you don’t want to disturb it. But we created this child in such an artificial manner — in a test tube, choosing an egg donor, having the embryo placed in me — and somehow, making a decision about how many to carry seemed to be just another choice. The pregnancy was all so consumerish to begin with, and this became yet another thing we could control.”

Read the rest. I was horrified. The author was not. The mother understood quite well what was going on (“consumerish”), but the ethic of personal well-being prevails.