I am lonely.” Like Joseph B. Soloveitchik in The Lonely Man of Faith, I am lonely. Not because “I am alone,” for I “enjoy the love and friendship of many . . . and yet, companionship and friendship do not alleviate the passional experience of loneliness which trails me constantly.”
“I am lonely because . . . I am a man of faith for whom to be means to believe, and who substituted ‘credo’ for ‘cogito’ in the time-honored Cartesian maxim.” Although the man of faith is perhaps always solitary, his loneliness is peculiarly modern, for “he looks upon himself as a stranger in modern society which is technically minded, self-centered, and self-loving, almost in a sickly narcissistic fashion, scoring honor upon honor, piling up victory upon victory, reaching for the distant galaxies . . . . What can a man of faith like myself . . . say to a functional utilitarian society?”
I am lonely because I believe—credo—even though, as Pope Francis reminds me, “We can respond in the singular—‘I believe'—only because we are part of a greater fellowship, only because we also say ‘We believe.’” Yes, I believe because of communion, but still I am lonely, for what can a man of faith like myself say to a society for which “practical reasons of the mind have long ago supplanted the sensitive reasons of the heart” (Soloveitchik), and which “renounced the search for a great light” (Francis)?
In science, my faith is judged obscurantist; in ethics, mere animus; in practicality, irrelevant; in love, archaic. In the square, I am silenced; at school, mocked; in business, fined; at entertainment, derided; in the home, patronized; at work, muffled. My leaders are disrespected; my founder blasphemed by the new culture, new religion, and new philosophy which, to paraphrase Benedict XVI’s “Regensburg Address,” suffers from an aversion to the fullness of questions, insisting that questions are meaningful only when limited to a scope much narrower than my catholic range of wonder.
I am lonely.
Some of my fellows succumb to resentment—I, too, am tempted, for loneliness is alienating, but faith institutes a work of reconciliation to which I am responsible, and since faith saves by love, I am to “become radically open to a love” which opens my “heart by faith” (Francis). If my heart closes, I have not love, and if I have not love, then I abide in death, turning away from the duty of my faith.
But it is an ugly time, and I do not love its signs.
Other companions give in to despair, some to indifference, huddled together in an enclosure of virtue, self-referential and self-satisfied—and I’m tempted, for I find comfort in agreement, even though my faith obligates me towards an “accompanying presence” (Francis).
But the common paths are frightening, and I would rather bar my door.
Yet others placate, appease, conciliate, finding wisdom in new beginnings—this also attracts me, for faith is ever new, always youthful, but faith “lets itself be guided” by the commandments which appear always as “the path of gratitude, the response of love” (Francis).
But the commandments are crosses, and I would live and let live.
Faith sanctions neither resentment nor indifference nor capitulation, calling instead for presence, for an abiding invitation to communion—“faith does not draw us away,” Francis says, but near, alongside. Faith opens horizons, it does not close them off.
Faith is irenic. Not conciliatory or appeasing or obsequious, but calm and hopeful and courageous. Not mollifying, but pacific: a virtue for which one struggles and labors, fights and toils. It is not dumb or stoic, but rather vigorous and cheerful. It is large-witted and big-hearted and sharp-minded, not sullen or withdrawn or fawning, and never sentimental.
If Socrates is irenic in his maieutic art, confident that the labor of friendship and reason gives birth to truth, how much more the man of faith to whom hope is given. Because I am a man of faith, I have hope; because I hope, there is no place for fear; because I am unafraid, I can love, for love has already cast out my fears.
What is it that Socrates wishes except to understand? Faith seeks understanding too— fides quarens intellectum. The irenic know that understanding and judging are not the same act, and, moreover, know that true judgment is provided by faith. As a man of faith, I receive and inherit judgments which I accept as true. My work is to understand faith’s judgment.
The man of faith resides in the surety of the judgments of God. There is no fear, no appeasement, no indifference, because he knows these as God’s judgments, and they cannot err. There is no resentment or alienation, because he knows these judgments as gifts from God, as gratuitous rather than possessed or earned, and so he recognizes in the modern naysayer a person like himself, one who does not yet understand. The man of faith accompanies the skeptic in the search for understanding, even though knowing the origin and end of that search.
As urgent as it is to defend our judgments, so too is the irenic desire to understand necessary. There is more than one way to be unafraid, even as we refute error we acknowledge that truth is not yet understood fully. In the second fearlessness I accompany those who do not understand but who also deny; I, like them, do not understand. I, like them, want to understand. And from my loneliness, I offer to accompany them, who are not lonely as I am, although they are, in a way that I am not, alone. And their aloneness is a terrible thing, I think, much worse than my loneliness, and understanding rather than judgment is what they need.
I can be without fear, I can be pacific, irenic, for faith gives to me the surety that the hungry are filled with good things and the humble exalted, and so I need not be resentful, or self-enclosed, or placatory, but rather I strive to understand, as my fellows do, whether they are men of faith or not.
And yet, what can a man of faith like myself say, and how can my accompaniment be welcomed? Loneliness trails the faithful constantly, says Soloveitchik, and irenicism does not, ought not, quell loneliness. To be a man of faith, however irenic, is to be lonely, especially in ugly times, but this was known by the one praying while his friends slept, and by his mother. Have I the character to welcome loneliness even as I offer myself? Have I the stamina for cheerfulness if my faith is the very cause of being lonely?
“The Beginning of Wisdom,” Shalom Carmy
“The Rav: The World of Joseph B. Soloveitchik,” Shalom Carmy
“Love and Terror in the God Encounter: The Theological Legacy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik,” Eliyahu E. Stern
R. J. Snell is an associate professor of philosophy and director of the philosophy program at Eastern University. His latest book (with Steven Cone) is Authentic Cosmopolitanism: Love, Sin, and Grace in the Christian University.
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