A Woman of Faith, Pondering the Nature of Man

In The Road to Character, David Brooks wrote about people who demonstrated “eulogy virtues” as opposed to “resume virtues,” drawing on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s essay about the dual nature of man. I was intrigued by the rabbi’s take on human nature so I decided to read the essay myself. The rabbi wrote The Lonely Man of Faith as a confession of the inner conflicts experienced by a person of faith, particularly his feeling of estrangement and separation from the secular world. He offered no solutions to these conflicts but hoped to grow in self-knowledge by sharing his experiences. The Lonely Man of Faith was published more than fifty years ago but as a “lonely” woman of faith, I find it still relevant today.

One Man Engaged in Self-Confrontation

The rabbi noted that there are two different versions of man’s creation in the book of Genesis. The differences have led some to question whether they were written by the same person. The rabbi believed the accounts were different because the author was describing different aspects of human nature, one part that is focused on achievement (doing) and one part that is focused on spiritual growth (being).

Genesis 1 says that God created mankind in his own image, both male and female, to rule over all creatures on earth – animals and fish and birds. The second chapter of Genesis says that God formed a man from the dust and breathed life into him so that he became a living being. God put the man in the garden of Eden to take care of it and cultivate it. Later, God decided that the man needed a helper so he put him to sleep and created a woman from his rib.

The second account of man’s creation does not say that man was created in God’s image; it says he was created from the dust of the ground, a much more humble description. The first account speaks of male and female as if they were created concurrently; the second account says that Adam was created first. In the first account, man was given dominion over all creation; in the second account he was put in charge of tending the garden of Eden.

The rabbi called the two conflicting versions of man Adam the first and Adam the second. Created in God’s image, Adam the first is himself creative and intelligent. He dominates creation and lives to achieve. He wants to know how things work. He expresses himself outwardly, with actions and words. He doesn’t just create things. He also creates laws and rules to govern creation because there is dignity in being orderly. Adam I is motivated by a desire for dignity and respect. He gets his sense of human identity from being noticed by others for his talents. He is very conscious of his status relative to others and wants to impress people with his importance.

The rabbi described Adam the second as a seeking, inquisitive man. He wants to know why the world exists. He wants to know what it all means. What is the purpose of our existence? What gives life meaning and purpose? Who is the mysterious One who follows me like a shadow yet disappears when I try to confront him? Who is the revealed and hidden God? Adam II sees God in nature – “in every beam of light, in every bud and blossom, in the morning breeze and the stillness of a starlit evening.”

Rather than calling them Adam I and Adam II, I prefer to think of the conflicting versions of Adam as the Striving Self and the Seeking Self. Both parts of the self embrace being human but to be human means something different to each. The Striving Self seeks dominion over his environment. His goal is to glorify himself and demonstrate his worth to others. The Seeking Self believes there is “another mode of existence through which man can find his own self.” He seeks a path of redemption. He is humble enough to see that he is not always good. He admits failure and defeat. He opens himself up to being confronted by God and being overpowered by him.

I agree with the rabbi that the creation story is symbolic. We weren’t literally created in God’s image but have divine attributes. We weren’t literally created from dirt but we certainly act like it sometimes. But I think that in describing the dual nature of man based on the book of Genesis, the rabbi left out a significant part of the creation story – the part that explains why man struggles so much.

  • Why is there a void that nothing else can fill? Not money, not fame, not status?
  • Why does the Seeking Self feel the need for redemption?
  • Where did we get our sense of right and wrong, the knowledge of good and evil?
  • Why does God feel so far off?
  • Why does it feel like our very existence is cursed?

The answers are in Genesis 3, the story of “the fall.” When God created the first man, he told him that he could eat from any tree in the garden, but not from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eve was tempted by the serpent to disobey God’s command and she talked Adam into it as well. They ate the forbidden fruit and their eyes were opened. They became aware of their nakedness. For the first time, they knew shame and fear. Before this act of disobedience, man had a personal relationship with God. But because they disobeyed, God banished them from the garden and cursed the ground from which they came. For “dust you are and to dust you will return.”

The personalities described by the rabbi are one person engaged in self-confrontation. The rabbi noted that the process of redemption does not have to be acted on externally, rather, it is process that happens inside the self. By exercising self-discipline and self-control, a person develops feelings of self-worth. In contrast, the Christian faith teaches that redemption comes through repentance and faith in the redeemer, Jesus Christ. Being virtuous can certainly make you feel good about yourself. But knowing that you have worth in the Creator’s eyes, even as a sinner, is even better.

The rabbi described the person of faith as a wanderer, oscillating between two worlds – the utilitarian, external world of Adam I and the redemptive, inner world of Adam II. In seeking a transcendental experience – a relationship with a higher power – the person of faith feels like a stranger in the modern world. Modern man often seems self-centered and even narcissistic.  The person of faith seeks meaning in something outside the self – in a higher being.

I think that we are all spiritual beings whether or not we practice introspection, regardless of whether we open up ourselves to being confronted by a higher moral power. Many people do not want to examine themselves closely. It’s not comfortable. Sometimes it is even painful. We resist criticism and judgment. We are too proud to admit failure and too independent to submit themselves to the authority of a higher being.

The rabbi noted that one of the struggles a person of faith faces is the fact that he cannot prove his beliefs are true. He can’t prove that God created the world. He can’t prove that the invisible God is here. But his beliefs are central to his identity as a human being. For the person of faith, to be human is to believe in something more powerful, intelligent and glorious than the human mind can imagine. The inability to communicate this experience to people without faith leads to feelings of estrangement. It enhances the feeling of uniqueness and separateness. For the rabbi, this feeling of rejection and disconnection is a form of loneliness. It is an awareness of your inability to connect on a deep, intimate level.

Today, I think it is even more difficult for a person of faith to feel like she belongs in the secular world. The world is even more driven by technology than it was in 1965, when Soloveitchik’s essay was published. Social media encourages self-centeredness and narcissism. It connects people in ways that are largely superficial and keeps people from engaging in a deep and meaningful way with people who are physically present. This is a “look at me” kind of world where people believe that their worth is somehow determined by the number of “likes” they get.

Over the past few decades, people of faith have become troubled by the decline in morality, a perfectly understandable concern. However, in the quest to gain moral control of a world that at least figuratively seems to be going to hell, many religious people abandoned the true purpose of evangelism – spreading the good news of salvation. The religious right became like Adam I, striving for power and dominion, and lost sight of the ways we should be relating to others – with love, forgiveness and mercy. They also forgot that humans were not created to have dominion over other human beings.

The Meaningless World of the Striving Self

The rabbi was certainly not the first person to feel estranged from the world. King Solomon wrote the book of Ecclesiastes as a reflection on his experience as an Adam I type of personality, striving and toiling “under the sun.” He was a wealthy man. He accomplished a lot. He built houses and planted vineyards and gardens. He acquired livestock and flocks, gold and silver. He denied himself nothing. But he was conflicted about the meaning and purpose of life.

When he looked back at what he had achieved in his lifetime, he found it all meaningless. What good does it do to acquire wealth if you have to leave it behind to someone who did not labor for it? Solomon understood that much of our striving and ambition stem from envy of our neighbor. We want what other people have and we want to impress people with what we have. It is like “chasing the wind.”

Solomon also realized just how temporal life is. People come and people go. Those who are yet to come will not remember those living now. Who knows what will happen when a man is gone? Solomon said that God “set eternity in the hearts of men” yet we cannot understand what God has done. Even as a very wise man, Solomon could not comprehend exactly what we humans are doing here on this earth. Time and chance happen to all of us. Death is a certainty for humans just as it is for animals. Ultimately, even as Solomon saw purpose in enjoying what you do on this earth, he concluded that the duty of man is to fear God and keep his commandments.

Lonely but not alone…

I can understand why Rabbi Soloveitchik described the faith experience as a lonely one. I have experienced rejection and ridicule for believing in what I cannot see. I have learned to expect this. But I can honestly say that I have never felt more estranged from the larger faith community than I do today. I see evidence of hearts that have become hardened. I am reminded of what Jesus said when asked why he spoke in parables (Matthew 13: 13-15):

This is why I speak to them in parables:

Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
'You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

One final thought on Adam II, the seeking self. A person of faith has no choice but to live in the world of Adam I. But we’re not supposed to conform to the patterns of the self-glorifying world of Adam I. We’re supposed to be transformed by God. When we are truly transformed, we understand with our hearts.

Jesus came into the world to show us how to live, to show us how to tend the garden. He said, “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener.” “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”