22. "The Lonely Man of Faith" (Continuation) Part 5 - The Subversion of Religion

  • Rav Reuven Ziegler
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion


by Rav Ronnie Ziegler

LECTURE #19: "The Lonely Man of Faith" (Continuation)

Part 5 - The Subversion of Religion



Chapter 9 of "The Lonely Man of Faith" is the climax towards which the entire book has been building. In this chapter, Rav Soloveitchik returns to address the questions he posed at the beginning of the essay, revealing to us the full force of the crisis facing the man of faith today.


Recall that in chapter 1, the Rav stated that the goal of this work is to examine the loneliness of the man of faith, which is experienced on two planes - the ontological and the historical. These differ both in their cause and in their effect:

"While the ontological loneliness of the man of faith is due to a God-made and willed situation and is, as part of his destiny, a wholesome and integrating experience, the special kind of loneliness of contemporary man of faith referred to at the beginning of this essay is of a social nature due to a man-made historical situation and is, hence, an unwholesome and frustrating experience." (p.91)


Ontological loneliness, as we explained in lecture #18, is the lot of all people of faith. While difficult and demanding, it is nevertheless a source of religious growth and creativity, since these can come about only as the result of struggle. However, "contemporary man of faith lives through a particularly difficult and agonizing crisis" (p.6) due to his historical loneliness, and therefore the Rav's "prime concern" in the essay is to examine the cause and nature of this latter experience. In order to accomplish this, the Rav first had to establish the framework of his discussion, the Adam I/Adam II dichotomy (chapters 1-7); then he examined the ideal relationship obtaining between these two components of the human personality (chapter 8); and now he can finally discuss the contemporary crisis situation where these two components are no longer in balance. Chapter 9 diagnoses the distortion of faith in the modern world, offering a devastating critique of contemporary forms of organized religion and exposing the lonely and precarious position of the man of faith in all its tragic dimensions.




The historical loneliness of the contemporary man of faith stems from the fact that his faith commitment, as spelled out in the covenantal-redemptive terms of Adam II, is incomprehensible to modern man. Modern man, due to his great success in the realm of majesty-dignity, has been enticed into believing that the Adam I side of existence is all there is to life. He refuses to acknowledge the inherent duality of man.

"By rejecting Adam the second, contemporary man, eo ipso, dismisses the covenantal faith community as something superfluous and obsolete." (pp.91-92)


Since he embodies only Adam I, modern man thinks in limited, relativistic, human terms and is guided solely by criteria of utility and verifiability (i.e. what is useful and comprehensible to him). Adam II, by contrast, thinks in absolute terms which transcend human finitude, and is guided by a commitment which is "meta-logical and non-hedonic" (i.e. exceeding the human intellect and not necessarily designed to bring about pleasure). Therefore, when the few remaining genuine men of faith (who espouse the Adam II worldview) speak of the basic human need for redemption and issue a call for self-sacrifice and for total commitment to God, they are met by blank incomprehension, if not derision, on the part of modern man. Hence, the loneliness of the contemporary man of faith turns into social isolation, and is therefore a frustrating and unhealthy experience.




Rav Soloveitchik is diagnosing not merely the isolation of the religious community within an increasingly secular world. He is addressing a far more tragic and dangerous situation - the secularization of religion itself. The great chiddush of the Rav's essay, its most striking and original point, is that even modern "religious" man rejects Adam II! Contemporary forms of organized religion espouse not the faith commitment of covenantal man but rather the "religious culture" of majestic man; they practice the religion of Adam I. (I would add, as we shall see in lecture #21, that the Rav means to include in his critique not only movements which he regards as heterodox, but also, and perhaps primarily, his own "Modern Orthodox" community.)

"[When I speak of modern man's rejection of Adam II], I am referring [not to atheists but] rather 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... Somehow, man of majesty considers the dialectical awareness too great a burden, interfering with his pursuit of happiness and success, and is, therefore, ready to cast it off." (p.92)


Successful Adam I has extended his drive for conquest even to the sphere of religion. He has infiltrated the religious realm and taken it over - and in the process, he has undermined and distorted its very meaning. His is a religion of convenience, not commitment; it is geared to suit his own needs, not to serve God's will. He does not comprehend the meaning of total devotion and does not sense the need for redemption, which are the essence of faith. Therefore, the words of the man of faith fall on deaf ears even among "religious" individuals, and the man of faith finds himself isolated even within the "religious" community. This is his true tragedy, and this presents the gravest peril to the future of faith.


In order to assess this situation accurately, we must first examine two issues. The remainder of this lecture will explore Adam I's attitude to religion, and the following lecture will be devoted mainly to the issue of the autonomy of faith (Adam II). Having addressed these two topics, we will then be able to examine the options open to the man of faith when confronted by majestic man's usurpation of religion.




Adam I adheres to some form of religion only to the extent that it is useful to him in his pursuit of dignity; he is not committed to religion in an ultimate sense, nor is he willing to sacrifice any of his majestic goals for its sake. In fact, religion for him is merely another manifestation of his search for majesty. Like everything else he does, it is an anthropocentric enterprise, designed to enhance his self-image and to increase his comfort. Sometimes this may express itself in a commendable sense of philanthropy and social activism (think of the UJA, JNF, Israel Bonds, etc.). Adam I, after all, is not simply a crass and materialistic being; recall Adam I's conception that "humanity = dignity = RESPONSIBILITY = majesty" (p.20). But when Adam I adopts some of the outer trappings of religion - ceremony, ritual, etc. - he empties them of their transcendental content, since he is not in search of the redemptive encounter with God. We see, therefore, that belonging to a religious establishment does not make one into a man of faith. The Rav puts it this way:


"[Western man who is affiliated with a religious establishment] belongs not to a covenantal faith community but to a religious community. The two communities are as far apart as the two Adams. While the covenantal faith community is governed, as I emphasized, by a desire for a redeemed existence, the religious community is dedicated to the attainment of dignity and success and is - along with the whole gamut of communities such as the political, the scientific, the artistic - a creation of Adam the first, all conforming to the same sociological structural patterns. The religious community is, therefore, also a work community consisting of two grammatical personae [i.e. I and Thou, two humans], not including the Third Person [i.e. God]. The prime purpose is the successful furtherance of the interests, not the deepeningand enhancing of thecommitments, of man who values religion in terms of its usefulness to him and considers the religious act a medium through which he may increase his happiness. This assumption on the part of majestic man about the role of religion is not completely wrong, if only, as I shall explain, he would recognize also the non-pragmatic aspects of religion." (p.93)


This quote deserves careful analysis. I would like to highlight several points.



As mentioned above, Adam I is trapped within the natural order, interpreting his existence in cognitive and functional categories. Adam II, on the other hand, deals also with that which transcends him and his natural existence. Thus, they possess fundamentally different perspectives. The Rav terms Adam I's domain the realm of "culture," culture being a purely human creation. But as such, its horizons are restricted to that which is humanly perceptible - and this, of necessity, lends the entire cultural enterprise only a limited and relative value (since man is a finite being). Adam I alone cannot find values which transcend himself; only Adam II, who has an intimate relation with God, can speak in terms of absolutes.


Adam I therefore faces a problem. He is not satisfied with material success, but also "evaluates his creative accomplishments, making an effort to place them in some philosophical and axiological perspective" (p.95). More importantly, he seeks to lend "fixity, permanence, and worth" (p.96) to his endeavors. But these can be attained only with reference to the conceptual world of Adam II. Thus, in order to "strengthen his cultural edifice" (p.97), Adam I must turn to Adam II for support. By borrowing conceptual categories from Adam II, majestic man can raise his aesthetic experience to the level of the sublime; he can find higher sanction for his ethical norm; he can have access to the therapeutic powers of belief in times of distress; etc. (see pp.94-98). In short: he can introduce into his frame of reference an element of the transcendent, which is not bound by time, place, or human finitude.


The metaphor of translation is very pertinent here. Let us regard the cultural-majestic and religious-covenantal realms as speaking two different languages. Rav Soloveitchik makes two important points: 1) the language of the covenantal realm is partially translatable into the language of the cultural realm, but 2) it is not wholly translatable. This act of translation, or of Adam I borrowing from the language of Adam II, is both necessary and legitimate. It is necessary, as we just saw, in order to lend higher value to Adam I's endeavors. It is legitimate because God Himself has willed Adam I's existence. It is possible because

    "God would not have implanted the necessity in majestic man for such spiritual perceptions and ideas if He had not at the same time endowed the man of faith with the skill of converting some of his apocalyptic experiences - which are meta-logical and non-hedonic - into a system of values and verities comprehensible to majestic man..." (p.98)

(However, it is important to note that, once translated, these concepts bear little similarity to their original form - for example, see the footnote on p.97.)


The problem is that contemporary Adam I thinks that the language of Adam II is totally translatable into his terms. If this were so, then there would be nothing unique and autonomous about the covenantal realm. Adam I thereby makes religion completely subsidiary to culture - he evaluates religion purely in cultural-majestic terms and does not recognize anything beyond that.



It is legitimate for Adam I not just to borrow concepts such as the sublime and the eternal from Adam II, but it is even legitimate to regard the religious act itself pragmatically.

"The idea that certain aspects of faith are translatable into pragmatic terms is not new. The Bible has already pointed out that the observance of the Divine Law and obedience to God leads man to worldly happiness, to a respectable, pleasant and meaningful life. Religious pragmatism has a place within the perspective of the man of faith." (pp.98-99)

In a somewhat different but related sense, the Rav emphasizes elsewhere the legitimacy of religiosity which is based on simple fear of punishment and anticipation of reward (see "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham," pp.159-161, and Reference #1 below).


However, it is crucial that man not relate to faith SOLELY in pragmatic terms. He must be committed to God even if this does not appear to bring him happiness and fulfillment, and even if the commitment is not always comprehensible to him.

"This assumption on the part of majestic man about the role of religion is not completely wrong, if only, as I shall explain, he would recognize also the non-pragmatic aspects of religion." (p.93)

If he fails to "recognize also the non-pragmatic aspects of religion," then he will miss out on all that is unique about religion, and his faith gesture "will forfeit its redemptive and therapeutic qualities" (p.106).



Since modern man integrates religion into his overall quest for majesty, not recognizing that faith makes independent and absolute demands upon him, he creates a religious community which is structurally identical to all other communities formed by Adam I. It is a community of interests, not a community of commitment; its members are bound together not by a mutual devotion to God and to the attainment of redemption, but rather by the shared pursuit of dignity and comfort. (See Reference #2.)

What does this mean in concrete terms? If man views religion merely as another method for him to attain happiness - not as an autonomous, transcendent, and elemental force which makes demands upon him - then he approaches religion with the question, "What's in it for me?" Religion is forced to justify and sell itself to the public; it becomes part of our larger consumer society.


Let me bring one example from my childhood. I recall that during the Sunday morning cartoons, a particular commercial was broadcast frequently. The commercial showed a clean-cut, fresh-faced, all-American family dressed in its Sunday best on the way to church. When they return home, they sit down to a lavish meal, all smiling beatifically and showering each other with love. This heartwarming scene would fade out and be replaced with the legend:




What message is this conveying? That religion must be marketed just like detergent or toothpaste. That you should be religious because it is good for you. Are you afraid of divorce? Go to church. Do you want happy, smiling children? Go to church. Try it - you'll be pleased with the results.


Now, I certainly don't mean to downplay the value of family harmony. It happens to be a value which Adam II as well can appreciate. What is problematic is the "What's in it for me?" attitude, whereby religion must prove its usefulness to the "religious consumer." Man puts up a demand that religion adapt itself to HIS needs, not vice versa. In a situation like this, religion loses its authenticity and its power. It waters itself down in order to attract followers; in fact, it often changes its message entirely. In the supermarket of ideas, religion must market itself on the basis of values which people ALREADY HOLD, even though these ideas are not necessarily derived from religious sources. It tries to appeal to the public instead of teaching them; it reinforces their (majestic) values rather than dictating new ones.


People don't usually want to hear about sacrifice, humility and loneliness. They want religion to be less demanding and to provide instant gratification. It should make them feel good about themselves instead of trying to change them. When people who lack an unwavering faith commitment don't like the message they are hearing, they will either simply and complacently ignore it, or they will pick themselves up and move to a more congenial environment. Under these circumstances, who risesto positions of leadership in the religious community? Oftenit is not the most learned, sincere or pious individual, but rather the best salesman.


In the next lecture we will examine the other side of this dilemma - Adam II's stubborn refusal to identify himself wholly with Adam I's goals and ideas. After further exploring the clash of conceptions between the religion of Adam I and the faith of Adam II, we will turn to the question - what now?




1. ULTERIOR MOTIVES IN RELIGION: Rav Soloveitchik explicitly grapples with Kant's philosophy throughout his writings (especially, as we shall see, in Halakhic Man). In "The Lonely Man of Faith," the Rav cites Kantian ethics as an attempt to lend absolute validity to a human cultural creation (p.97). In a sense, therefore, we can say that the ethical realm for Kant is parallel to the religious realm for Rav Soloveitchik, since both demand an unconditional commitment. But if so, I would like to point out a striking and ironic contrast between them (without going into detail regarding Kantian philosophy). Kant is perhaps most famous for denying the validity of ulterior motives in following the "categorical imperative," the heart of his ethical system. Yet Rav Soloveitchik, who bases himself on super-human revelation and not only on finite human reason, admits that it is legitimate to regard the faith commitment in pragmatic terms!

Of course, as we saw above, Rav Soloveitchik demands that one's faith commitment not be based only on pragmatic considerations; but nevertheless a measure of pragmatism is warranted. Furthermore, although a religious quest due to pragmatic considerations ("she-lo lishmah") appears as a seemingly necessary component of man's religious development in "U-vikkashtem Mi-sham," it is important to note that this is only the first of three stages delineated there. As one's religious consciousness deepens, his pragmatic considerations diminish. Yet even those at the peak of religious development never completely lose sight of the elemental, physical fear and security which follow upon divine punishment and reward. These are the "background to religious life, without which no matter of religiosity can exist" ("U-vikkashtem Mi-sham," p.161). It seems to me that Rav Soloveitchik's "revelational" doctrine is more in touch with human reality than Kant's idealistic philosophical doctrine.

 2. SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION: The assertion that Adam I's religious community structurally parallels other Adam I communities constitutes a foundation of modern sociology of religion. This discipline examines religion as a social phenomenon and finds it similar to other social groupings. See, for example, the pioneering work of Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy (NY, 1967), especially chapters 6 and 7, as well as Berger's subsequent works on this subject (such as The Heretical Imperative). Note that the publication of "The Lonely Man of Faith" preceded that of The Sacred Canopy by two years!


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