“One of Us” – Simone Weil, A Christianity for the Spectrum
I’m a doctor, but not that kind. I am a theologian, not a medical professional. I can’t diagnose diseases or disorders. But having been immersed for sixteen years in a fellowship that was uniquely comprised of people who lived with a range of disabilities, I can’t help but notice correlations between Simone Weil and our friends on the autistic spectrum.* Her savant-level genius, her supernatural capacity for attention (hyper-focus), and her socio-relational awkwardness are obvious features of her journals, her letters, and biographical descriptions about her. There’s an appropriate reluctance among Weil scholars to make retroactive medical diagnoses. But what I can say for sure is that within the autistic community itself, there’s agreement and recognition that she is “one of us.”
It is inconsequential to me whether or not Weil experts come to the same conclusion. Many still have trouble admitting she suffered from an obvious, lifelong eating disorder. Fine.
But of supreme importance is how Simone Weil makes Christianity accessible to autistic people. I learned this today from someone on the spectrum whose life and faith have depended on this gift. So often, the way Christianity is communicated is alienating to people with autism, and this fellow (Jonathan) was able to tell me why.
He described the language, proclamation, and expectations of neurotypical Christianity as bathed in abstract, feelings-based, social-relation concepts. For us to expect autistic people to feel and relate to an abstract God or an invisible Jesus as someone who loves them is totally alien. They simply cannot love a conceptual Saviour. Autistic people are de facto excluded by our version of spiritualized divine relationality. Such a Christianity cannot be for them.
But along comes Simone Weil. She doesn’t talk that way. She transposes our vacuous and often syrupy romantic notions of divine love into something profoundly tangible and incarnate. For her, Christianity includes real, embodied encounters where love means attention and attention is prayer. But as with many in the autistic community, Weil seems unable to meaningfully relate this love to another person on the register of [mere] feelings. Rather, love-as-attention relates to her own intense, internal sense of justice—right and wrong, what is fair and what is not. Hence her strong sense of binaries and genius for contraries.
In addition to attention, love for Weil (and autistic people) means compassion. But again, not in the sense of ‘feeling sympathy.’ Even the word empathy is too elusive, so long as we define empathy as “the capacity to feel what another feels.” That notion is still far too fleeting and vacuous, according to Jonathan. Rather, he defined compassion for me specifically as understanding that someone is suffering and choosing to do something about it—maybe even needing to do something about it. And such an understanding might transform my own sense of empathy into actual choices, where I am compelled to stand in active solidarity with those who suffer. So it was for Weil, even to a fault.
Thus, ‘love’ is enacted as attention and compassion on a concrete experiential plane, unfiltered by particular social paradigms but experienced through affliction. Compassion, in Weil’s writings, is never sentimental. It is a real response of attention to affliction and injustice, which is what it means to “take up your cross and follow.” In that case, Weil and our autistic friends don’t just see the world differently through some disadvantaged syndrome. Rather, they are prophets, issuing a call to repent from every saccharine spirituality that evades the fleshy expectations of Christ in Matthew 25 and his parable of the judgment of sheep and goats. Simone Weil, patron saint of the autistic community, and Christ himself strip away neurotypical constructs to unveil the essence of Christian faith.
Christians who are able to confess their faith as an abstraction—or cite the creeds as a dogmatic distraction—while being fully willing to turn off compassion, turn away from attention, or participate in worldly death-dealing, expose that form of Christianity as incoherent. Such Christianity doesn’t interact with the world in any meaningful way. Weil saw this and said so. So did Tolstoy (also assumed by some to be autistic).
I asked my new friend what Jesus’ phrase “take up your cross and follow me” meant to him, certain that he was incapable of holding that essential Christian calling in an abstract way. He said, “No, it’s not abstract at all. To take up the cross and follow Jesus means for me (1) a personal prohibition on wealth (I can’t make enough to exploit others or little enough to be a burden on others), (2) explicit devotion of time and attention to other people, (3) and willingness to take on pain and suffering for the other.” Only in that way does Christianity make sense to him and his autistic network. I thought, maybe it’s only in that way that Christianity makes sense, period. YES, said that way, he really sounds exactly like Simone Weil. And more, Weil sounds a whole LOT more like Jesus. And I thought to myself, “Sign me up. This is a faith worth living.”
*Note: Not all people on the autistic spectrum would identify themselves as suffering from a disability or disorder. Many, including Simone Weil, might better describe their autism as “an adaptive common variant pathway of human functional brain development.”