Thursday, June 30, 2016

Footnote 4

The following is a large excerpt the famous "Footnote 4" from Halakhic Man, by the Rav (a.k.a. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik). It stands out in my mind as one of the most impactful footnotes I've read. The language and references are obscure, but there is still what to be gained, even if not all of it is comprehensible upon the first reading (or two, or ten). 

This excerpt deals with the nature of the religious experience and the religious journey. I present it here without further commentary, for you to take it in on its own terms.

Footnote 4

[T]he antinomic structure of religious experience, which was revised and refined by Rudolf Otto in his book, The Idea of the Holy, give[s] the lie to the position that is prevalent nowadays in religious circles, whether in Protestant groups or in American Reform and Conservative Judaism, that the religious experience is of a very simple nature – that is, devoid of the spiritual tortuousness present in the secular cultural consciousness, of psychic upheavals, and of the pangs and torments that are inextricably connected with the development and refinement of man’s spiritual personality. This popular ideology contends that the religious experience is tranquil and neatly ordered, tender and delicate; it is an enchanted stream for embittered souls and still waters for troubled spirits. The person “who comes in from the field, weary” (Gen. 25:29), from the battlefield and campaigns of life, from the secular domain which is filled with doubts and fears, contradictions and refutations, clings to religion as does a baby to its mother and finds in her lap “a shelter for his head, the nest of his forsaken prayers” [H.N. Bialik, “Hakhnisini tahat kenafekh”] and there is comforted for his disappointments and tribulations. This ideology is partially embedded in the most ancient strata of Christianity, partially rooted in modern pragmatic philosophy; but mainly it stems from practical-utilitarian considerations. The advocates of religion wish to exploit the rebellious impulse against knowledge which surges from time to time in the soul of the man of culture, the yearning to be freed from the bonds of culture, that daughter of knowledge, which weighs heavy on man with its questions, doubts, and problems, and the desire to escape from the turbulence of life to a magical, still, and quiet island and there to devote oneself to the ideal of naturalness and vitality. This Rousseauean ideology left its stamp on the entire Romantic movement from the beginning of its growth until its final (tragic!) manifestations in the consciousness of contemporary man. Therefore, the representatives of religious communities are inclined to portray religion, in a wealth of colors that dazzle the eye, as a poetic Arcadia, a realm of simplicity, wholeness, and tranquility. Most of the sermons of revivalists are divided in equal measure between depicting the terrors of hellfire and describing the utopian tranquility that religion can bestow upon man. And that which appears in the sermons of these preachers in a primitive, garbled form, at times interwoven with a childish naïveté and superficial belief, is refined and purified in the furnace of popular “philosophy” and “theology” and becomes transformed into a universal religious ideology which proclaims: If you wish to acquire tranquility without paying the price of spiritual agonies, turn unto religion! If you wish to achieve a fine psychic equilibrium without having to first undergo a slow, gradual personal development, turn unto religion. And if you wish to achieve an instant spiritual wholeness and simplicity that need not be forged out of the struggles and torments of consciousness, turn unto religion! “Get thee out of thy country,” which is filled with anxiety, anguish, and tension, “and from thy birthplace,” which is so frenzied, raging, and stormy, “to the land” that is enveloped by the stillness of peace and tranquility, to the Arcadia wherein religion reigns supreme. The leap from the secular world to the religious world could not be simpler and easier. There is no need for a process of transition with all its torments and upheavals. A person can acquire spiritual tranquility in a single moment. Typical of this attitude is the Christian Science movement.

It would appear to me that there is no need to explain the self-evident falsity of this ideology. First, the entire Romantic aspiration to escape from the domain of knowledge, the rebellion against the authority of objective, scientific cognition which has found its expression in the biologistic philosophies of Bergson, Nietzsche, Spengler, Klages, and their followers and in the phenomenological, existential, and antiscientific school of Heidegger and his coterie, and from the midst of which there arose in various forms the sanctification of vitality and intuition, the veneration of instinct, the desire for power, the glorification of the emotional-affective life and the flowing, surging stream of subjectivity, the lavishing of extravagant praise on the faustian type and the Dionysian personality, etc., etc., have brought complete chaos and human depravity to the world. And let the events of the present era be proof! The individual who frees himself from the rational principle and who casts off the yoke of objective thought will in the end turn destructive and lay waste the entire created order. Therefore, it is preferable that religion should ally itself with the forces of clear, logical cognition, as uniquely exemplified in the scientific method, even though at times the two might clash with one another, rather than pledge its troth to beclouded, mysterious ideologies that grope in the dark corners of existence, unaided by the shining light of objective knowledge, and believe that they have penetrated to the secret core of the world.

And, second, this ideology is intrinsically false and deceptive. That religious consciousness in man’s experience which is most profound and most elevated, which penetrates to the very depths and ascends to the very heights, is not that simple and comfortable. On the contrary, it is exceptionally complex, rigorous, and tortuous. Where you find its complexity, there you find its greatness. The religious experience, from beginning to end, is antinomic and antithetic. The consciousness of homo religiosis flings bitter accusations against itself and immediately is filled with regret, judges its desires and yearnings with excessive severity, and at the same time steeps itself in them, casts derogatory aspersions on its own attributes, flails away at them, but also subjugates itself to them. It is in a condition of spiritual crisis, of psychic ascent and descent, of contradiction arising from affirmation and negation, self-abnegation and self-appreciation. The ideas of temporality and eternity, knowledge and choice (necessity and freedom), love and fear (the yearning for God and the flight from His glorious splendor), incredible, overbold daring, and an extreme sense of humility, transcendence and God’s closeness, the profane and the holy, etc., etc., struggle within his religious consciousness, wrestle and grapple with each other. This one ascends and this one descends, this falls and this rises.

Religion is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and desperate, an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging clamorous torrent of man’s consciousness with all its crises, pangs, and torments. Yes, it is true that during the third Sabbath meal at dusk, as the day of rest declines and man’s soul yearns for its Creator and is afraid to depart from that realm of holiness whose name is Sabbath, into the dark and frightening, secular workaday week, we sing the psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters” (Ps. 23), etc., etc., and we believe with our entire hearts in the ultimate destination of homo religiosis, not the path leading to that destination. For the path that eventually will lead to the “green pastures” and to the “still waters” is not the royal road, but a narrow, twisting footway that threads its course along the steep mountain slope, as the terrible abyss yawns at the traveler’s feet. Many see “the Lord passing by; and a great and strong wind rending mountains and shattering rocks . . . and after the wind an earthquake . . . and after the earthquake a fire” but only a few prove worthy of hearing “the still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12). Out of the straits of inner oppositions and incongruities, spiritual doubts and uncertainties, out of the depths of a psyche rent with antinomies and contradictions, out of the bottomless pit of a soul that struggles with its own torments I have called, I have called unto Thee, O Lord.

And when the Torah testified that Israel, in the end, would repent out of anguish and agony [cf. Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 7:5], “In your distress when all these things are come upon you . . . and you will return unto the Lord your God” (Deut. 4:30), it had in mind not only physical pain but also spiritual suffering. The pangs of searching and groping, the tortures of spiritual crises and exhausting treks of the soul purify and sanctify man, cleanse his thoughts, and purge them of the husks of superficiality and the dross of vulgarity. Out of these torments there emerges a new understanding of the world, a powerful spiritual enthusiasm that shakes the very foundations of man’s existence. He arises from the agonies, purged and refined, possessed of a pure heart and new spirit. “It is a time of agony unto Jacob, but out of it he shall be saved” (Jer. 30:7) – i.e., from out of the very midst of the agony itself he will attain eternal salvation and redemption. The spiritual stature and countenance of the man of God are chiseled and formed by the pangs of redemption themselves.

1 comment:

  1. I first read this footnote at a stage in my life where I was sympathetic to the argument that religion was an "opiate to the masses", a psychological crutch that people used selfishly to make their lives easier. This footnote convinced me that the opposite could be the case. It allowed me to really see religion as "giving" rather than "taking". As such, it formed a significant part in my religious identity as it developed from then on.