Still walks on the lonely person of faith
In 1981, I had an intense if brief face to face friendship with Rav James Ponet, long-time rabbi of the Hillel community at Yale. Among the gifts Jim bestowed upon me in the short months of overlap after he came and before I left Yale and moved to Chicago were works by Joseph Soloveitchik, known everywhere as “The Rabbi.” Soloveitchik’s scholarship was legendary and Christians discovered him through friends at that time, many more since then through an underground network of Christian Soloveitchik readers. Jews need no reminding of his importance as one of royal rabbinic lineage. Perhaps the finest gift of all was a photocopy of the Rav’s study, The Lonely Man of Faith, prior to its publication as a book.
Soloveitchik moved me with his words at a deep level, and still does. The lonely man of faith, he contended, is strung between two poles, neither of which he (or she) can relinquish without loss of integrity, but both of which create a tension that makes us lonely. Not lonely in the sense that we are friendless or bereft of solace in this world, but lonely precisely because we hold to a paradoxical faithfulness.
The Rav locates the tension of faith in the accounts of creation in Genesis One and Genesis Two. In Genesis One, mankind is a force to be reckoned with, called to dominate the earth, name the creatures (which is a way of asserting power), and act in ways that will alter the environment significantly. In Genesis Two, Adam is cast as subject to God, dependent upon God for sustenance, including a partner who is taken as “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” Simply put, in Genesis One man is dominant; in Genesis Two, God is dominant. In Genesis One man seems more or less self-sufficient, called to create, and exercises stewardship over the earth. In Genesis Two, man is subservient, vulnerable, unable to answer all the desires and needs of his life, ever reaching out toward a fulfillment he is unable to provide.
As I read and pondered this extraordinary essay by Soloveitchik, I knew instinctively that he had named my own feelings. On one hand, I want to be faithful, to believe, to reach out to the fulfillment that I cannot provide myself. On the other hand, I want to be, in the words of the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley, “the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.” Faith lives at the intersection of these two opposite sensibilities. Furthermore, genuine faith cannot exist without both of them enduring simultaneously through a person’s life. We cannot cut the tension and have faith survive. We cannot sacrifice our creativity, our reason, or our intelligence to a simplistic affirmation of God. But we cannot sacrifice our dependence, our need, or our emptiness to a simplistic negation of God. We are stuck on the horns of the dilemma and the tension never goes away. Small wonder that Soloveitchik calls as witness in his book the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who spoke of the lonely knight of faith.
In the very midst of our belonging to a community of faith, in Soloveitchik’s words, as individuals we inhabit “the abode of loneliness.” Yet this is the abode of the Psalmist and the Preacher, the abode of the prophets, of Elijah and Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the abode of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the abode of all who have striven through the centuries to be true to both themselves and to God. We are in good company, so take heart and walk on.