Scribbles, &c.

The Lonely Man of Faith

I started and finished Joseph Soloveitchik’s The Lonely Man of Faith over the weekend. I was at a retreat and this little book was a nice break from the topics at hand. Are you supposed to take a break during a retreat? Isn’t a retreat supposed to be break of its own? A meta-break, then. It’s a short book - just over 100 pages - though portions of it are dense with philosophical terms that I had to lookup when I got back into cellphone signal range.

Starting with the two creation stories in Genesis, the essay’s main thesis is that man is created with two sides in constant tension: Adam the first, who is commanded to “subdue the earth” through his own powers in a sort of utilitarian imperative, and Adam the second, who is commanded to tend and cultivate the garden. Adam the first experiences community immediately; Adam the second experiences a profound loneliness that is remedied by his defeat. God puts him to sleep and, after an act of sacrifice, Eve joins him in garden.

The modern world, in Soloveitchik’s estimation (and this essay was originally published in the mid 60s') is full of the astonishing achievements of Adam the first. So much so that there’s not a whole lot of space left for Adam the second. Lacking any immediate utility, transcendent questions are left unasked, or worst, asked and answered with more technology.

Let me diagnose the situation in a few terse sentences. Contemporary Adam the first, extremely successful in his cosmic-majestic enterprise, refuses to pay earnest heed to the duality in man and tries the deny the undeniable, that another Adam exists beside, or rather, in him. By rejecting Adam the second, contemporary man, eo ipso, dismisses the covenantal faith community as something superfluous and obsolete. To clear up any misunderstanding on the part of my audience, I wish to note that I am not concerned in this essay with the vulgar and illiterate atheism professed and propagated in the most ugly fashion by a natural-political community which denies the unique transcendental worth of the human personality. I am referring to Western man who is affiliated with organized religion and is a generous supporter of its institutions. He stands today in danger of losing his dialectical awareness and abandoning completely the metaphysical polarity implanted in man as a member of both the majestic [Adam the first] and covenantal [Adam the second] community.

Membership in both communities is willed by God, says Soloveitchik, and the proper response is to oscillate between both as appropriate, but not to advance one at the expense of the other, and this goes for the man of faith as well. There is good food for thought here. I came across a reference to this book in Essays on Ethics; shortly thereafter, my wife came across another in a TED talk by David Brooks. There are one or two places where I had to part ways with the author - the Incarnation changes our understanding of God’s immanence in ways otherwise accessible to Judaism - but they were brief detours and did not affect his point. The introduction points out that the footnotes mostly references to various Jewish sages and writing, but the essay is written in universals. Anyone could read this without the benefit of the footnotes and come out fine.