Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Saturday reprise -- Two Adams

The Jewish rabbi and teacher Joseph Soloveitchik addressed the tension between reason and faith in his wonderful little book The Lonely Man of Faith.

Soloveitchik's man of faith is fraught with conflicts and incongruities, caught between ecstasy in God's companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by God. He is lonely because faith is inevitably a courageous and private act that springs from an individual's solitary apprehension of the mystery in the world.

Soloveitchik is aware that his faith has no possibility of empirical verification, and no utilitarian value; it is, in that sense, out of step with the times. He fully accepts the scientific story of the world, but reaches beyond to touch what he perceives to be a deeper, more abiding presence.

The first two chapters of the Judeo-Christian scriptures give us somewhat different characterizations of the chief protagonist, Adam. These do not represent different sources or traditions, says Soloveitchik, but rather two representations of the human soul, which he calls Adam I and Adam II, corresponding to the Adam of the first and second chapters of Genesis respectively.

Adam I is driven by curiosity. He wants to know how the cosmos works; he is less interested in the why. His practical destiny is to "fill the Earth and subdue it," which he pursues boldly and aggressively. He is creative and abstract, imitating in his mathematical theories the creative act of God Himself. His representative in the modern world is the scientist, mathematician, technologist, and secular philosopher.

Adam II is also intrigued by the cosmos, says Soloveitchik, but "looks for the image of God . . . in every beam of light, in every bud and blossom, in the morning breeze and the stillness of a starlit evening." He wants to know why there is something rather than nothing, and what is the purpose of things and events. His contemporary representative is the mystic, the poet, the ascetic, the person of faith.

Adam I is only interested in questions that can be answered empirically; Adam II is more introspective, more spiritual, trusting his intuition of the divine. Adam I seeks mastery over nature; Adam II wishes to be overpowered by nature.

Adam I asks, "How?" Adam II asks, "Who is He who trails me steadily, uninvited and unwanted, like an everlasting shadow, and vanishes into the recesses of transcendence the very instant I turn around to confront this numinous, awesome, and mysterious 'He'? "

Although Soloveitchik identifies himself with Adam II, he asserts that Adam I also follows God's command and achieves dignity through his work. The completion of creation requires the energies of both Adams, he says.

If we are to collectively reconcile science and faith, each of us must individually confront this tension in our lonely solitude. The person of faith can acknowledge the dignity and rational primacy of science, and the skeptical empiricist can open himself or herself to the abiding presence of the unanswered "Why?", who is simultaneously the deus revelatus (the god who is revealed) and deus absconditus (the god who hides).

(This post originally appeared in August 2006.)