The Lonely Man of Faith

In THE LONELY MAN OF FAITH, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explores the problem of sustaining faith in a predominately secular world. Soloveitchik centers his analysis on the apparently disparate treatments of Adam (and Eve) in Genesis 1 and 2. Created in God’s own image, Adam the first is commanded to dominate the earth. Adam the second, on the other hand, is placed in the Garden of Eden, where his close relation to God is emphasized. Adam the first is a technologically sophisticated, secular figure while Adam the second is essentially spiritual in nature. Soloveitchik interprets this disparity as a purposeful paradox essential to human nature. We are perennially torn between powerful secular concerns and the need, no less real, for spiritual fulfillment. True faith, therefore, is not easy, nor was it ever meant to be.

Soloveitchik singles out no particular creed in his depiction of true (or “covenantal”) faith. Indeed, organized religion is largely irrelevant. Secular humanity has practical needs which are met by different social institutions, including organized religion. True faith refers, rather, to a state of complete submissiveness to God. This entails existential despair (since we never fully know God) as well as incomparable joy (to the extent that we can know God). Faith is lonely because it cannot be effectively communicated to secular humanity. Thus, humanity needs faith but is unable to believe. This paradox is perennial. Contemporary hostility to faith, however, has reached a dimension, according to Soloveitchik, which threatens to obliterate our spiritual side if we cannot help it to recover.

Soloveitchik does not say whether this current crisis is part of the divine plan. In fact, given the book’s brevity, it is not surprising that it raises unanswered questions. The book does, nevertheless, poignantly describe the, perhaps shrinking, place of religious faith in human affairs.