The Great Partnership | Notes & Review

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning. Schocken, 2011. (369 pages)

the great partnership

Reviews: Ian Marcus Corbin, Wall Street Journal; Richard Holloway, The Guardian; Ziauddin Sardar, Independent; Wallace Greene, Jewish Book Council;


 Debates about religion and science…usually testify to some major crisis in society. (1)

[via: I opine that is because “belief” (even atheistic), is “intuitional” or “discerned.” In other words, “something is happening to the global ethos of humanity.]

Today the danger is of a radical religiosity combined with an apocalyptic political agenda, able through terror and asymmetric warfare to destabilise whole nations and regions. … This is one fight believers and non-believers should be fighting together. (2)

When a society loses its soul, it is about to lose its future. (2)

Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. (2)

When you treat things as if they were people, the result is myth: light is from the sun god, rain from the sky god, natural disasters from the clash of deities, and so on. Science was born when people stopped telling stories about nature and instead observed it; when, in short, they relinquished myth. | When you treat people as if they were things, the result is dehumanization: people categorized by colour, class or creed and treated differently as a result. The religion of Abraham was born when people stopped seeing people as objects and began to see each individual as unique, sacrosanct, the image of God. (3)

Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind. – Albert Einstein

Science is about explanation. Religion is about meaning. Science analyses, religion integrates. Science breaks things down to their component parts. Religion binds people together in relationships of trust. Science tells us what is. Religion tells us what ought to be. Science describes. Religion beckons, summons, calls. Science sees objects. Religion speaks to us as subjects. Science practises detachment. Religion is the art of attachment, self to self, soul to soul. Science sees the underlying order of the physical world. Religion hears the music beneath the noise. Science is the conquest of ignorance. Religion is the redemption of solitude. (7)

Monotheism is something else entirely. The meaning of a system lies outside the system. Therefore the meaning of the universe lies outside the universe. Monotheism, by discovering the transcendental God, the God who stands outside the universe and creates it, made it possible for the first time to believe that life has a meaning, not just a mythic or scientific explanation. (9)

Monotheism is the principled defeat of tragedy in the name of hope. (9)

Throughout the book, it may sometimes sound as if I am setting up an either/or contrast. In actuality I embrace both sides of the dichotomies I mention: science and religion, philosophy and prophecy, Athens and Jerusalem, left brain and right brain. (10)

Literary critics, tone deaf to the music of the Bible, explain this as the joining of two separate documents. They fail to understand that the Bible does not operate on the principles of Aristotelian logic with its either/or, true-or-false dichotomies. It sees the capacity to grasp multiple perspectives as essential to understanding the human condition. (10)

I am not religious, but I place a high value on the religious experience of believers…I think that those who do not understand what it is to be religious, do not understand what human beings live by. That is why dry atheists seem to me blind and deaf to some forms of profound human experience, perhaps the inner life: It is like being aesthetically blind. – Ramin Jahanbegloo, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin

Love, trust, family, community, giving as integral to living, study as a sacred task, argument as a sacred duty, forgiveness, atonement, gratitude, prayer: these things work whether you believe in them or not. The Jewish way is first to live God, then to ask questions about him. | Faith begins with the search for meaning, because it is the discovery of meaning that creates human freedom and dignity. Finding God’s freedom, we discover our own. (15)

PART ONE | God and the Search for Meaning

 1. The Meaning-Seeking Animal

To know an answer to the question, ‘What is the meaning of human life?’ means to be religious. – Albert Einstein

The idea of life having a purpose stands and falls with the religious system. – Signed Freud

To believe in God means to understand the question about the meaning of life. To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning. – Ludwig Wittgenstein

When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore. – Tom Stoppard

The existence of the universe from the perspective of God, and the existence of God from the perspective of human beings, is the redemption of solitude. We exist because we are not alone. Religion is the cosmic drama of relationship. (24)

Curiosity leads to science, but it also leads to questions unanswerable by science. (25)

The search for God is the search for meaning. The discovery of God is the discovery of meaning. (25)

[via: Is the discovery of meaning, therefore, the discovery of God?]

There is absolutely nothing in science — not in cosmology or evolutionary biology or neuroscience — to suggest that the universe is bereft of meaning, nor could there be, since the search for meaning has nothing to do with science and everything to do with religion. (27)

The Meaning of a System

Meaning, when it comes to artefacts or institutions, has little to do with the physical properties of things and everything to do with the way they symbolise and ritualise aspect of the human condition. Meaning is a phenomenon not of nature but of culture. (28)

There is an internal logic of the system — the laws of banking, the rules of football — but the meaning of the system lies elsewhere, and it can only be understood through some sense of the wider human context in which it is set. To do this you have to step outside the system and see why it was brought into being. (29)

The meaning of the system lies outside the system. Therefore, the meaning of the universe lies outside the universe. That was the revolution of Abrahamic monotheism. (29)

Monotheism was not a mere mathematical reduction of many gods to one God. That might have economised on temple building, but it would not have transformed the human condition. What did transform it was the discovery of a God beyond the universe. (29)

Almost none of the truths by which we live are provable, and the desire to prove them is based on a monumental confusion between explanation and interpretation. (32)

Beliefs that lie too deep to be proved are best understood as framing beliefs. … Framing beliefs — that there is an external world, and other minds, and free will — lie beyond the scope of proof. Nonetheless, they are what give meaning to the chaos of experience. (33)

The responsible life is one that responds. In the theological sense it means that God is the question to which our lives are an answer. (37)

So, to summarize: Science is the search for explanation. Religion is the search for meaning. Meaning is not accidental to the human condition because we are the meaning-seeking animal. To believe on the basis of science that the universe has no meaning is to confuse two disciplines of thought: explanation and interpretation. The search for meaning, though it begins with science, must go beyond it. Science does not yield meanings, nor does it prove the absence of meanings. | The meaning of a system lies outside the system. Therefore the meaning of the universe lies outside the universe. The belief in a God who transcends the universe was the discovery of Abrahamic monotheism, which transformed the human condition, endowing it with meaning and thereby rescuing it from tragedy in the name of hope. For if God created the physical universe, then God is free, and if God made us in his image, we are free. If we are free, then history is not a matter of eternal recurrences. But because we can change ourselves, we can change the world. That is the religious basis of hope. | There are cultures that do not share these beliefs. They are, ultimately, tragic cultures, for whatever shape they give the powers they name, those powers are fundamentally indifferent to human fate. They may be natural forces. They may be human institutions: the empire, the state, the political system, or the economy. They may be human collectivities: the tribe, the nation, the race. But all end in tragedy because none attaches ultimate significance to the individual as individual. All end by sacrificing the individual, which is why, in the end, such cultures die. There is only one thing capable of defeating tragedy, which is the belief in God who in love sets his image on the human person, thus endowing each of us with non-negotiable, unconditional dignity. (37-38)

2. In Two Minds

For this reason a higher culture must give to a man a double-brain, as it were two brain-ventricles, one for the perceptions of science, the other for those of non-science: lying beside one another, not confused together, separable, capable of being shut off: this is a demand of health. – Nietzsche

Science investigates, religion interprets … Religion and science are two hemispheres of human thought. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Pray God us keep
From Single vision & Newton’s sleep! – William Blake

We read these languages from left to right, moving our head to the right, thus engaging the left brain. Languages without vowels make demands on the context-understanding, integrative functions of the right brain, so we read them from right to left, moving our head leftwards and engaging the right brain. (41)

The Birth of the Alphabet

The birth of writing was the birth of civilisation, because it enabled the growth of knowledge to become cumulative. (41)

The invention of the alphabet was the birth of the possibility of universal literacy and the beginning of the end of hierarchical societies. (42)

boustrophedon, ‘as an ox ploughs’ (43)

The same period saw the birth of philosophy — the search for the true, the good and the beautiful — which saw its supreme flowering, in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, in the great triumvirate of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. With Plato in particular a thought from that day to this: a preference for the universal over the particular, the timeless over the time-bound, the abstract over the concrete particular, and the impersonal as opposed to the person. (44)

We owe virtually all our abstract concepts to the Greeks. The Hebrew Bible knows nothing of such ideas. (44)

When the Hebrew Bible wants to explain something, it does not articulate a theory. It tells a story. (44)

Could it be that this difference between the two cultures has something to do with the way their respective alphabets are written? (44) … the conceptualization and abstraction, the analysis of matter into its atomic parts, the Platonic devaluation of the personal and particular: all this comes with the unmistakable signature of the left hemisphere. The fact that this was happening at the same time, in the same place, as the emergence of the world’s first fully vowed, left-right alphabet cannot be merely coincidental. (45)

Writing restructures consciousness. – Walter J. Ong

The Greeks worshipped human reason, the Jews, divine revelation. The Greeks gave the West its philosophy and science. The Jews, obliquely, gave it its prophets and religious faith. (46)

The fact that left/right brain asymmetry is a feature of human biology, as it is of some other animal species, suggests that it confers a vital adaptive advantage. (46)

So think of ‘right’ and ‘left’ not a precise neuroscientific descriptions, but merely as metaphors for different mods of engagement with the world. (47)

East and West

Nouns are about classification. Verbs are about relationships. (48)

The Chinese prefer mediation by a middleman whose goal is not fairness but animosity reduction. A famous American reading primer begins, ‘See Dick run. See Dick play. See Dick run and play.’ The corresponding Chinese primer reads, ‘Big brother takes care of little brother. Big brother loves little brother. Little brother loves big brother.’ Westerners tend to think in terms of either/or, Chinese in terms of both/and: yin and yang, feminine and masculine, passive and active, interpenetrating forces that complete one another. (48-49)

As with Athens and Jerusalem, so with the West and East: there is more than one cognitive style, more than one way of seeing the world through the prism of the mind. (49)

A Different Voice

Just as between East and West, so between women and men, there are substantive differences in thought styles and academic specialisation between those happier taking things apart, analysing them into their components and constructing theoretical systems, and those who think in terms of human relationships, attachments, empathy and emotional literacy. (51)

Simon Baron-Cohen on Autism

Baron-Cohen’s theory is that autism is a condition of hyper-maleness. (51)

Jerome Bruner on Narrative

There is a fundamental difference between behaviour and action. Behaviour is a physical movement, like raising a hand. An action is a movement with a purpose and an intention. …action, to be understood, needs empathy, identification, a sense of how the agent sees herself and the world. (53)

…the name we give to collective systems of meaning is culture. (54)

Systems explain nature. Stories help us understand human nature. (54)


There are truths we can express in systems, but others we can only tell through story. There is the kind of knowledge for which we need detachment, but another kind of knowledge we can only achieve through attachment — through empathy and identification with an other. (54)

3. Diverging Paths

Be indulgent in cases where, despite our diligent labour in translating, we may seem to have rendered some phrases imperfectly. For what was originally expressed in Hebrew does not have exactly the same sense when translated into another language. Not only this book, but even the Law itself, the Prophecies, and the rest of the books differ not a little when read in the original. – Prologue to Ecclesiasticus

Translating from one language to another…is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side. – Cervantes

In entering the Greek world, Plato’s turf, the early Christians mixed biblical ideas into a Greek framework that often distorted their original meaning. – Harvey Cox

The West owes its development to two cultures, ancient Greece and ancient Israel, Hellenism and Hebraism, the heritages respectively of Athens and Jerusalem. … They were the first two cultures to make the break with myth, but they did so in different ways, the Greeks by philosophy and reason, the Jews by monotheism and revelation. (58)

We have here, in other words, a unique phenomenon in the history of religion: a religion whose sacred texts are written in what to its founder would have been a foreign and largely unintelligible language. (61)

But first-century Greek and Hebrew were not just different languages. They represented antithetical civilisations… (61)

Western civilisation was born in the synthesis between Athens and Jerusalem brought about by Pauline Christianity an the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312… Christendom drew its philosophy, science and art from Greece, its religion from Israel. But from the outset it contained a hairline fracture that would not become a structural weakness until the seventeenth century. It consisted in this, that though Christians encountered philosophy, science and art in the original Greek, they experienced the religion of their founder in translation. (61)

The Christianity that eventually emerged from the tradition of Paul, Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas had strong Judaic elements. … But it also contained strands that were undeniably Greek and in striking contrast with the way Jews read the Hebrew Bible. The following are some of them.

  • The first and most obvious is universality. (62) For Plato truth is universal and eternal or it is not truth at all. In that sense, Paul and Plato are soulmates. (63)
  • The second is dualism. (63)
  • Third is the Pauline reinterpretation, one of the most radical in the history of religion, of the story of Adam and Eve and ‘the Fall,’ and the consequent tragic view of the human condition. (63)
  • Fourth is the potential for the separation, unknown in Judaism, between ‘faith’ and ‘works’. (64) The Greek view emphasises far more the role of fate and the futility of fighting against it. Under its influence Christianity became more a religion of acceptance than protest–the characteristic stance of the Hebrew prophets. (64)
  • The fifth and most profound difference lies in the way the two traditions understood the key phrase in which God identifies himself to Moses at the burning bush. (64) The early and medieval Christian theologians all understood the phrase to be speaking about ontology, the metaphysical nature of God’s existence. (64) The essential element of the phrase is the dimension omitted by all the early Christian translations, namely the future tense. (65)

So remote is the God of pure being–the legacy of Plato and Aristotle–that the distance is bridged in Christianity by a figure that has no counterpart in Judaism, the Son of God, a person who is both human and divine. In Judaism we are all both human and divine, dust of the Earth yet breathing God’s breath and bearing God’s image. These are profoundly different theologies. | The unique synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem that became Christianity led to the discipline of theology and thus to the intellectual edifice of Western civilisation between the fourth and seventeenth centuries. It was a wondrous achievement, a cathedral of the mind. It brought together the Judaic love of God and the Hellenistic love of nature and human reason. It led to philosophical proofs of the existence of God. There was the cosmological argument: the universe must have a cause that is not itself caused. Or the contingency of being must be rooted in the necessary being. Or the moving stars must have an unmoved mover. There was the ontological argument: the most perfect being must necessarily exist since otherwise it would be imperfect. There was the argument from design. (66)

It was, to repeat, a wondrous creation–but it was as much Greek as Judaic. The philosophical proofs for the existence of God derived ultimately from Plato and Aristotle. Natural law came from the Stoics. The idea that purposes are inherent in creation–that nature is teleological–was Aristotelian. It combined left-brain rationality with right-brain spirituality in a single, glorious, overarching structure. We may never see its like again. (66)

Genesis 1 is the beginning of the end of the mythic imagination. | It made science possible. No longer was the universe seen as unpredictable. It was the work of a single, rational creative will. Nor was it–as were the gods of myth–at best indifferent, at worst actively hostile to human beings. (68)

Science was about things, religion about people and their freely chosen acts. (68)

Why then is Genesis 1 there? The most obvious reason is that it is not a myth but a polemic against myth. (68)

Rejecting myth, the Bible discovers freedom. (69)

Wisdom tells us how the world is. Torah tells us how the world ought to be. Wisdom is about nature. Torah is about will. It is about human freedom and choice and the way we are called on to behave. Wisdom is about the world God makes. Torah is about the world God calls on us to make, honouring others as bearers of God’s image, exercising our freedom in such a way as not to rob others of theirs. | The difference between the two is freedom. (70-71)

If the movements of the planets fail to obey Aristotle’s law of circular motion, that is not because they are disobedient but because Aristotle’s law is wrong. But if human beings fail to obey the laws against murder, robbery or theft, that is not because there is something wrong with the laws but because there is something wrong with us. (71)

We still do not know what it was about the seventeenth century that led to the rise of experimental science. …Stephen Toulmin has argued, convincingly in my view, that it was the impact of the wars of religion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that led figures like Descartes and Newton to seek certainty on the basis of a structure of knowledge that did not rest on dogmatic foundations. (71)

The heavens proclaim the glory of God; they do not prove the existence of God. All that breathes praises its Creator; it does not furnish philosophical verification of a Creator. (72)

So the shaking of the foundations that took place between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries was, in reality, the undermining and eclipse of the Greek rationalist tradition, not of the Judaic basis of faith itself, which, while respecting and honouring science as a form of divine wisdom, never allied itself to one particular scientific tradition and specifically distanced itself from certain aspects of Greek culture. (72-73)

God is to be found in relationship, and in the meanings we construct when, out of our experience of the presence of God in our lives, we create bonds of loyalty and mutual responsibility known as covenants. People have sought in the religious life the kind of certainty that belongs to philosophy and science. But it is not to be found. Between God and man there is moral loyalty, not scientific certainty. (73)

Faith is not a form of ‘knowing’ in the sense in which that word is used in science and philosophy. It is, in the Bible, a mode of listening. (74)

4. Finding God

God lives where we let Him in. – Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk

It was as though a more complex interlocutor had spoken. – Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim’

But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’ – Genesis 3:9

We should not need supernatural intervention to see children as the gift of God. (81)

Judaism is a religion that celebrates law: the natural law that governs the physical universe, and the moral law that governs the human universe. God is found in order, not in the miraculous suspension of that order. … Faith is about seeing the miraculous in the everyday, not about waiting every day for the miraculous. (81)

If God created the world, then his existence must be compatible with the world. If he created human intelligence, his existence must not be an insult to the intelligence. If the greatest gift he gave humanity was freedom, then religion could not establish itself by coercion. If he created law-governed order, then he could not have asked us to depend on events incompatible with that order. (81-82)

What led me to examine my faith in depth was not the success of philosophy in refuting proofs for the existence of God. It was its failure to say anything positive of consequence about the big questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? To what story do I belong? How then shall I live? (83)

But meaning is expressed in particularity. There is no universal meaning. (84)

Science may be universal, but meaning is not. The great error of the Enlightenment was to confuse the two. (85)

I have known people who lost their faith in God during the Holocaust, and others who kept it. But that anyone can have faith in humanity after Auschwitz to me defies belief. (86)

All men are born, and remain, free and equal in rights. – French National Assembly

Languages and cultures are always particular. … To universalise, to apply modes of thought that work for science to human beings, is to dehumanise human beings. (88)

That is how I have sought God, not through philosophical proofs, scientific demonstrations or theological arguments; not through miracles or mysteries or inner voices or sudden epiphanies; not by ceasing to question or challenge or doubt; not by blind faith or existential leap; certainly not by an abandonment of reason and an embrace of the irrational. These things have brought many people to God. But they have also brought many people to worship things that are not God, like power, or ideology, or race. Instead I have sought God in people – people who in themselves seemed to point to something or someone beyond themselves. (89)

People within the Abrahamic monotheisms have always known that for most of us, most of the time, God, more infinite than the universe, older and younger than time, cannot be known directly. He is known mainly through his effects, and of these the most important is his effect on human lives. (92)

…you have to be very narrow indeed not to see beauty and wisdom in faiths other than your own. (93)

There is no reason to expect everyone to believe in God or the soul or the music of the universe as it sings the improbability of its existence. | God is the distant voice we hear and seek to amplify in our systems of meaning, each particular to a culture, a civilisation, a faith. God is the One within the many; the unity at the core of our diversity; the call that leads us to journey beyond the self and its strivings, to enter into otherness and be enlarged by it, to seek to be a vehicle through which blessing flows outward to the world, to give thanks for the miracle of being and the radiance that shines wherever two lives touch in affirmation, forgiveness and love. (94)

Faith is not certainty. It is the courage to live with uncertainty. (97)

God is calling each of us to a task–asking each of us as he asked the first humans, ‘Where are you?’–but to hear the call we have to learn to listen. We can never be sure that we heard correctly. We can never know that it really was the voice of God, which is why humility not arrogance, and risk not certainty, are the deepest marks of faith. (97)

There is no faith humans can have in God equal to the faith God must have had in humankind to place us here as guardians of the vastness and splendour of the universe. We exist because of God’s faith in us. … God lives wherever we open our eyes to his radiance, our hearts to his transforming love. (98)

PART TWO | Why It Matters

 5. What We Stand to Lose

The absence of God, when consistently upheld and thoroughly examined, spells the ruin of man in the sense that it demolishes or robs of meaning everything we have been used to think of as the essence of being human: the quest for truth, the distinction of good and evil, the claim to dignity, the claim to creating something that withstands the indifferent destructiveness of time. – Leszek Kolakowski

When we lose God, what else do we lose? … The loss is not immediately obvious, but our human worth is subtly undermined. (101)

First there is a loss of belief in human dignity and the sanctity of life. (102)

The second sign is the loss of the politics of covenant, the idea that society is a place where we undertake collective responsibility for the common good. (102-103)

The politics of covenant has deep religious roots, although they are almost never visible on the surface. When those roots are lost, in its place comes the politics of contract, in which the state becomes a supplier of services in return for taxes, and political parties vie on the basis of offering either a better service or a lower cost. People become cynical about politicians and increasingly care less about politics and more about private life. Society dissolves into a series of pressure groups and no longer deeply enters our identity (103)

The third sign is a loss of morality. (103)

I do not believe that you need to be religious to be moral: I take that as a slander against humanity. What happens, though, is that words that once meant a great deal begin to lose their force–words like duty, obligation, honour, integrity, loyalty and trust. (103)

The fourth sign is the loss of marriage. (103)

The fifth is the possibility of a meaningful life. (104)

Nietzsche thought that the British completely failed to understand the gravity of what was happening. (105)

[A] certain tension between religion and society marks the higher stages of every civilization. Religion begins by offering magical aid to harassed and bewildered men; it culminates by giving to a people that unity of morals and belief which seems so favorable to statesmanship and art; it ends by fighting suicidally in the lost cause of the past. For as knowledge grows or alters continually, it clashes with mythology and theology, which change with geological leisureliness. Priestly control of arts and letters is then felt as a galling shackle or hateful barrier, and intellectual history takes on the character of a ‘conflict between science and religion.’ Institutions which were at first in the hands of the clergy, like law and punishment, education and morals, marriage and divorce, tend to escape from ecclesiastical control, and become secular, perhaps profane. The intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and–after some hesitation–the moral code allied with it; literature and philosophy become anticlerical. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason, and falls to a paralyzing disillusionment with every dogma and every idea. Conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and to weary wealth. In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death. Meanwhile among the oppressed another myth arises, gives new form to human hope, new courage to human effort, and after centuries of chaos builds another civilization. – Will Durant

I fear for the future of the West if it loses its faith. You cannot defend Western freedom on the basis of moral relativism, the only morality left when we lose our mooring in a sacred ontology or a divine-human covenant. (109)

The Judeo-Christian ethic is not the only way of structuring a society and ordering a life. But it is the only way that has succeeded in the long run in the West, the only way that has given rise autonomously to the scientific and industrial revolutions, parliamentary democracy and liberty of conscience, the only system that has combined strong individualism with a social conscience and a highly active civil society. (109-110)

6. Human Dignity

What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him? Yet You have made him little lower than the angels, and have crowned him with glory and honour. – Psalm 8

This laboriously won self-contempt of man. – Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

Man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end. – Michel Foucault

Our freedom and creativity are what connect us to the divine. (113)

How is it that the higher human achievements become, the lower the human self-image sinks? (117)

Knowing what happened in Russia under Stalin, in China under Mao and in Germany under Hitler is essential to moral literacy in the twenty-first century. (122)

My point is not to argue that secular schemes of salvation are worse than religious ones. Such arguments are unworthy of serious minds. Religions, including the Abrahamic monotheisms, have done harm, while science and technology have, on the whole, done immense good. The point of this chapter is simply to note how fragile is the concept of human dignity, and how easily it can be lost in the course of scientific thinking. (122)

Demoralisation and Dangerous Ideas. First, there is something intrinsically dehumanising in the left-brain mentality. The scientific mind lives in detachment, analysis, the breaking down of wholes to their component parts. (123)

…when science is worshipped and religion dethroned, then a certain decision ha been made to set aside human feelings for the sake of something higher, nobler, larger. From there it is a short distance to hell. (123)

Second, as Nietzsche rightly asked: ‘Why morality at all, when life, nature, history are “non-moral”?’ There is no morality in nature. No good, right, duty or obligation are written into the fabric of things. There is no way of inferring from how things are to how things ought to be. (123)

When nothing is sacred, then nothing is sacrilegious. (123)

There is a third point no less significant. Science cannot, in and of itself, give an account of human dignity, because dignity is based on human freedom. (124)

Denial of freedom goes all the way back to the first couple in the Garden of Eden. (124)

It is not that there is something inherently wrong in the use of drugs to treat conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but there should be general concern at the risk of viewing ever larger areas of the emotional life as conditions to be treated rather than responses to be cultivated as part of moral and ethical self-control. | To the extent that we medicalise human behaviour, to that extent we deny freedom and responsibility. (125)

The non-existence of God and the non-existence of human freedom go hand in hand. (126)

If we deny freedom in theory, eventually we will lose it in practice. (127)

7. The Politics of Freedom

God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? – Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII, p. 237

Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, cannot long retain it. – Abraham Lincoln, Letter to Henry Pierce, 6 April 1859

The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God. – John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, 20 January 1961

The Hebrew Bible inverts this entire way of seeing the world. God is against the established powers… Nothing amuses and angers God more in the Bible than people setting themselves up as demigods, as many ancient rulers did and as tyrants have continued to do ever since, among them, in the twentieth century, Stalin, Mao and President Kim Il-Sung of North Korea. (129)

The story of the Exodus, with its plagues and the division of the Red Sea, is not just about freedom. If it had been, the story could have been told without any of the miracles. It is about God taking a stand against Pharaoh, and by implication all absolute rulers who claim to be god, child of the gods or chief intercessor with the gods. One of the key biblical projects is to demythologise and secularise power. (130)

The point of the plagues is not to hasten the freedom of the Israelites but to show Pharaoh that God’s power extends even over Egypt. The story of the Israelites in Egypt is above all a religious critique of political power. Nothing could have been more counterintuitive to the ancient world than the idea that the supreme power intervenes in defence of the powerless.

| Many centuries later, when Judea was captured and Jerusalem destroyed by the Babylonians, the prophet Jeremiah interpreted this not as the defeat of a people and its God, but as the defeat of a people by its God, using the Babylonians as his instrument. This is the great paradigm-shifting moment. God endorses not might, but right. For the first time, religion becomes not a justification, but a critique of power. (130)

Abrahamic monotheism is based on the idea that the free God desires the free worship of free human beings. The historical drama of the Bible turns on the question of how to translate individual freedom into collective freedom. (132)

A free political order is possible only when the fundamental political act is a mutual promise between governor and governed. But no human being can be trusted to keep his or her word when he or she has access to power–a power not available to opponents. (133)

Covenant is the most radical attempt ever undertaken to create a politics of freedom by taking all sovereignty out of human hands altogether. (133)

A covenant always has a narrative. (134)

The politics of covenant is about faith and hope, the faith that together we can build a gracious future and the hope that history can be redeemed from tragedy. (134)

That is the irony as well as the strength of Abrahamic politics, that though its vision is religious, its conception of power is secular. Judaism expressed this by its principled distinction between kingship (government) and priesthood (religion). Priests must never hold political power. (135)

When politics is the highest value, it becomes a way in which the people worship the collective embodiment of themselves, and they can sacrifice many essential liberties to it, including the liberty of the minority. (136)

Philosophy is about truth as system. The Bible is about truth as story. (140)

When politics becomes the pursuit of abstract perfection by means of legislation, freedom is in danger. (142)

Abrahamic politics never forgets that there are things more important than politics, and that is what makes it the best defence of liberty. (143)

8. Morality

There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion. – Will and Ariel Durant

Every ethos has its origin in a revelation, whether or not it is still aware of and obedient to it. – Martin Buber

When people begin to lose their religious convictions, often the first thing they stop doing is observing religious rituals. The last thing they lose is their moral beliefs. (147)

Conscience has been outsourced … in place of an inner code, we have regulatory authorities. (149)

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere and the less of it there is within, the more there is without. – Edmund Burke

The trouble with humanity, Richard Weaver remarked, is that it forgets to read the minutes of the last meeting. (151)

When humanity loses faith in faith, as it did with Epicurus and Lucretius then and the scientific materialists now, the human ceiling suddenly seems lower and the horizons of possibility more foreshortened. (152)

Why, if Darwin is correct and survival over time is the test of fitness or success, does religion survive so much better than atheism? (153)

Natural selection operates at the level of the individual. … But civilisation works at the level of the group. (154)

So, for its own survival, every group has to devise ways of detecting and discouraging free riders, people who exploit the system. (155)

‘high trust’ … Any group in which all the members can trust one another is at a massive advantage to others. (155)

Nature is the will to power. Faith, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, is care for the powerless. Religion is the prime example of how, for Homo sapiens, culture overrides nature. | … Biological evolution favours individuals, but cultural evolution favours groups. So, as Judaism and Christianity both knew, there is a war within each of us as to which will prevail: self-regard or concern for others, egoism or altruism. Selfishness benefits individuals, but it is disastrous to groups, and it is only as members of a group that individuals can survive at all. (155)

There are three ways of getting individuals to act in a way that is beneficial to the group. One is power: we force them to. The second is wealth: we pay them to. … The third alternative is to educate them to see that the welfare of others matters as much as their own. No system has done this more effectively than religion, for an obvious reason. Religion teaches us that we are part of the whole, a thread in the fabric of God’s creation, a note in the symphony of life. Faith is the ability to see ourselves as joined to others by God’s love. (156)

In Homo sapiens a miracle of nature meets a miracle of culture: religion, which turns selfish genes into selfless people. (156)

Social cohesion is precisely what religion sustains and much else undermines. (161)

People lose a sense of shame. Rudeness is taken as a sign of sophistication. People pursue the pleasure of the moment. They lose their respect for leaders. The young no longer defer to the old, and the old behave as if they were young. The difference between the sexes is blurred. People get irritated by the least touch of authority and they dislike any rules that inhibit their freedom to do as they like. – Plato

The Abrahamic monotheisms are the most powerful countercultural forces the world has ever known because they speak to something indelible in the human spirit: the dignity of humanity as the image of God. (161)

The moral sense is not a blazing fire but a flickering flame, and it seems to have been the fate of faith to have kept it burning even when the winds of individualism are strong. | God and good are connected after all. (162)

9. Relationships

A Roman lady asked Rabbi Yose bar Halafta, ‘What has God been doing since the six days of creation?’ The rabbi replied, ‘He has been sitting and arranging marriages.’ – Midrash

Said Rabbi Akiva, ‘If a man and a woman are worthy, the Divine presence rests between them.’ – Talmud

As long as family feeling is kept alive, the opponent of oppression is never alone. – Alexis de Tocqueville

Genesis, the book of ‘first things’, is about matters that have not just chronological but also axiological priority. (163)

Ultimately, that is what the faith of Abraham is about: love as the supreme creative force within the universe. (164)

The faith of Abraham makes two monumental claims: first, that the relationship between God and humanity is a matter of love, not power; second, that you can build a society on the basis of love, love of neighbour and stranger, that leads us to care for their welfare as if it were our own. (164)

But this I know beyond doubt: that it was the strength of its families and its consecration of the love between husband and wife, parent and child, that made Judaism what it is and gave it the passion and resilience it has always had. (165)

Marriage is to society what a unified field theory is to physics: a way of threading diverse phenomena together so that they radiate with a single light. (167)

God, in the Bible, has a monopoly of power in order to take power out of the equation. … Faith is about relationship sustained without the use of power. … So the first revolution of monotheism is to demythologise and thus secularise power. (169)

The Hebrew Bible achieved something no other literature, sacred or secular, has ever done: made love a moral adventure and invested marriage with metaphysical grandeur. Comparing the fidelity of husband and wife to the ideal of faithfulness between humanity and God, it turned marriage into a sacred covenant. (171)

The story of Adam and Eve has been read, outside Judaism, as a story about original sin, by which we are all tainted. There are good grounds for not reading it this way. First, the concept of original sin is not mentioned anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. Second, it offends against justice. As Jeremiah and Ezekiel both say, guilt attaches only to the sinner, not to his or her descendants. Third, God explicitly forgives humanity after the Flood: ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood‘ (Genesis 8:21). Fourth, there is a partial return to Eden through the covenant of Sinai. … The sanctuary in space, the Sabbath in time, symbolise paradise regained, Eden re-entered. (173)

In Hebrew the word chavah, Eve, (חוה) also has the meaning of ‘hidden’. (176)

When we relate to other people as persons, we relate to God as a person. Or, to put it differently, God as Hashem is the transcendental reality of interpersonal relations. We love God through loving other people. That is the only way. (176)

The biblical word da’at, ‘knowledge’, (דעת) …means interpersonal knowledge, intimacy, empathy. …To know that I am known makes me want to hide: that is the couple’s first response after eating the fruit. The turning point comes when the man gives Eve a proper name. Love is born when we recognise the integrity of otherness. That is the meaning of love between people. It is the meaning of love between us and God. Only when we make space for the human other do we make space for the divine Other. | God created the world to make space for the otherness that is us. (177)

Something very strange is being intimated here. Children and a land are the most natural of all endowments. Almost everyone has them. What makes the patriarchs and matriarchs different? Only this: that what everyone else has naturally, they only have as the gift of God. (178)

The trial of the binding of Isaac is ultimately about whether Abraham is willing to renounce ownership in his child by handing him back to God. That is what the angel means when he tells Abraham to stop, saying, ‘Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.’ (179)

The Bible is saying to the people of the covenant: Just as you do not own your land, you do not own your children. Thus is born the biblical idea of parent-as-educator as opposed to parent-as-owner. (179)

If all faith did was show us how to sustain a marriage and a family in love and loyalty, making space for one another, I would count it as God’s great and sufficient gift. Religion sacralises relationship, which is why those who care about relationship will seek ways of investing it with holiness. | Faith, for the prophets, was a kind of marriage. Marriage is an act of faith. (181)

10. A Meaningful Life

It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savior. – Wallace Stevens

The sad sight of human life untouched by transcendence. – Rebecca Goldstein

It takes a certain freedom and spaciousness, a reflective calm, to ask whether life has meaning. Ironically, life has to be quite good for people to think it is quite bad. (185)

If a man lives, then he must believe in something. … Without faith it is impossible to live. – Leo Tolstoy

The meaning of life is the realisation that you are held in the arms of a vast presence; that you are not abandoned; that you are here because you were meant to be. It is the sense that life is something you have been given, so that you live with a feeling of gratitude and you seek to give back, to ‘pay it forward’, to be a blessing to others. This presence in which you live knows you better than you know yourself, so it is no use pretending to be what you are not, or denying your short-comings, or justifying your mistakes, or engaging in self-pity, or blaming others. It is a loving, forgiving but challenging presence, demanding much but never more than you can do. It asks you to give your best, not for the sake of reward, but because that is what you are here on Earth to do. (188)

Ecclesiastes is a sustained meditation on the vulnerability of life. (189)

The ‘dream of reason’ can all too readily turn into a nightmare when under stress, people elbow reason aside in pursuit of their more destructive passions. (194)

Covenant is about the meanings we make together, as opposed to the meanings people found written in the stars in an age of fate, or the meanings we individually invent in an age of fiction. (195)

Edmund Burke thought society was: ‘a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’. It is not meaning discovered or meaning invented, but meaning collectively made and renewed in the conscious presence of God–that is to say, an authority beyond ourselves and our merely human devices and desires. (196)

So meaning is made, not just discovered…

  • By the stories we tell…
  • By the rituals we perform…
  • By the prayers we say…
  • But meaning-as covenant never was seen; it is heard as the voice of God. It is not found, but made.

For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. – Tony Judt

This is symptomatic of the force driving consumerism, namely envy, whose strange logic consists of letting someone else’s happiness spoil mine. Envy is the art of counting other people’s blessings. The fastest route to happiness is precisely the opposite: not thinking of what others have and we do not, but instead thanking God for what we do have, and sharing some of that with others. (202)

The door to happiness opens outward. – Viktor Frankl/Soren Kierkegaard

It was this insight that helped me solve the riddle of Ecclesiastes. The word “I” does not appear very often in the Hebrew Bible, but it dominates Ecclesiastes’ opening chapters. (203)

If I am not for myself, who will be? But if I am only for myself, what am I? – Hillel

I believe in a personal God, because religion in the Abrahamic tradition is the consecration of the personal. It lives in interpersonal relationships: in love and revelation and vulnerability and trust, all those things in which we put our faith when we commit ourselves to one another in a covenantal bond of loyalty and mutuality. Love is what redeems us from the prison cell of the sickness to which the narcissistic self is prone–from empty pride to deep depression to a sense of nihilism and the abyss.

| So in the silence of the soul I listen for the still small voice, which is God’s call to each of us to engage in the work of love and creativity, to bring new life into the world, and to care for it and nurture it during its years of vulnerability. And whenever I see people engaged in that work of love, I sense the divine presence brushing us with a touch so gentle you can miss it and yet know beyond all possibility of doubt that this is what we are called on to live for, to ease the pain of those who suffer and become an agent of hope in the world. (205)

PART THREE | Faith and Its Challenges

11. Darwin

To claim the world as creation is not to denounce evolution and debunk science. To the contrary, it is to join in covenant with science in acknowledging creation’s integrity, as well as its giftedness and worth. To see the world as creation is to re-commit ourselves to its care, not as the fittest, most powerful creatures on the animal planet but as a species held uniquely responsible for creation’s flourishing. – William P. Brown

We are intelligent beings: intelligent beings cannot have been formed by a crude, blind, insensible being…Newton’s intelligence, therefore, comes from another intelligence. – Voltaire

So far as we know, the tiny fragments of the universe embodied in man are the only centres of thought and responsibility in the visible world. If that be so, the appearance of the human mind has been so far the ultimate stage in the awakening of the world. – Michael Polanyi

Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve. – Max Planck

It is instead an argument for conversation, hopefully even integration. For if science is about the world that is, and religion about the world that ought to be, then religion needs science because we cannot apply God’s will to the world if we do not understand the world. (214)

It is precisely the space between the world that is and the world that ought to be that is, or should be, the arena of conversation between science and religion, and each should be open to the perceptions of the other. (215)

Darwinism has immense religious implications.

First, it tells us that God delights in diversity. (215)

One definition of fundamentalism, and an explanation of why it is religiously wrong, is that it is the attempt to impose a single truth on a diverse world. (215)

Second, and this is Darwin’s wondrous discovery: the Creator made creation creative. (216)

There is in our universe such an agency, spectacularly successful in reversing the dreary slide of entropy and making surprising things happen. We call it life. – Timothy Ferris

Third we now know that all life derives from a single source. (217)

Again, unity in heaven creates diversity on Earth. (218)

[via: This is reminiscent of Huston Smith’s idea, that “the singularity of the Infinite splays into multiplicity.” From The Soul of Christianity.]

Fourth, science and Genesis have now converged, in an utterly unexpected way, on the same metaphor. Life is linguistic. (218)

That life is both intelligent and linguistic breathes new fire into the idea that the Source of life is both intelligent and a user of language, and that nature, no less than the Bible, is not a machine to be disassembled but a book to be decoded. It took the discovery of artificial intelligence to give us an insight into divine intelligence. (218)

Fifth, the interconnectedness of all life–the fact that plants, animals and humans have a common origin–helps us understand in new depth the Bible’s phrasing, ‘Let the Earth bring forth…’ and its generic name for Homo sapiens, Adam (from adamah, meaning ‘the Earth’). (219)

The paradox is that this process, which benefits (almost) everyone, is driven throughout not by empathy and altruism but by the pursuit of personal gain. (224)

What was wrong with Paley’s argument was not the theology but the science. Good science refutes bad science. It tells us nothing at all about God. (227)

The complex interaction between God and humanity in the Bible is more in the spirit of Darwinian evolution than in that of the God of Plato or Aristotle, the unmoved mover contemplating the unchanging, abstract forms of things. God, like evolution, operates in and through time. (228)

What Darwinian science represents is not the refutation of the God of Abraham but the final overthrow of Aristotelian science, the idea that purposes are unequivocally discernible within nature. (228)

Faith says, all that breathes praises God. It does not say, all that breathes proves the existence of God. (229)

The Hebrew Bible is simply uninterested in Homo sapiens the biological species. It is even relatively uninterested in Homo faber, the tool-making, environment-changing life-form. … It is interested exclusively in Homo religiosus, the first humans to hear and respond to the Divine voice. (229)

Adam and Eve are typological representations of the first monotheists. Finding God singular and alone, they found the human person singular and alone. (230)

The comparisons are interesting, but what makes humans human is the way basic drives–eating, reproducing, hierarchies of dominance–are transformed by culture into elaborately choreographed minuets that are forms of enacted meaning. (231)

12. The Problem of Evil

The Bible is not the best book for putting us at ease with the world. – Herbert N. Schneidau

A too confident sense of justice always leads to injustice. – Reinhold Niebuhr

Job is the only person in the entire Hebrew Bible to be called sinless. There is therefore a massive irony throughout. Job’s comforters, who defend God’s justice, are in fact slandering Job, accusing him of a wrong he did not commit. (236)

What would we expect the world to be like if…there were an omnipotent, omniscient, all-good God? (236)

The religious mind begins not with the world there might hypothetically be, but with the world that is. (237)

Within this world, it seeks meaning. It does not seek explanation. (237)

In the Bible there is a whole literature of lament, grief, protest. Much of it is written in tears. There can be a darkness so dark that it extinguishes any attempt to light a light. The bible does not hide from this. It is an honest book. (237)

Three responses, the first religious and other-worldly, the second religious and this-worldly, and the third non- or anti-religious. What they have in common is that they are all, ultimately, philosophies of acceptance. Abrahamic monotheism is not a religion of acceptance. It is a religion of protest. It does not try to vindicate the suffering of the world. (240)

But faith does not operate by the logic of the left brain and the law of the excluded middle. It feels both sides of the contradiction. God exists and evil exists. The more powerfully I feel the existence of God, the more strongly I protest the existence of evil. (241)

Philosophy, said Wittgenstein, leaves the world unchanged. But faith does not leave the world unchanged. You cannot solve a cry by thinking. Moses, weeping for his people, is not consoled by Leibniz’s admittedly brilliant proof that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

| Theodicy, the attempt to vindicate God’s justice in a world of evil, is compelling evidence that in the translation of Abrahamic spirituality into the language of Plato and Aristotle, something is lost. What is lost is the cry. (241)

Hope is not costless in the way that optimism is. It carries with it a considerable price. Those who hope refuse to be comforted while the hoped-for outcome is not yet reached. Given their history of suffering, Jews were rarely optimists. But they never gave up hope. That is why, when the prophets saw evil in the world, they refused to be comforted. For that is what theodicy is: a comfort bought too cheaply. (242)

Abraham challenges God because God invites him to challenge God. | Do not accept injustice even if you hear it in my name. That is what God is telling Abraham. (243)

God is not the solution of a contradiction, but a call to become his partners in the work of redemption. (247)

13. When Religion Goes Wrong

Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white. – William Blake

Then I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven. – John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

Religion is like fire: it warms, but it also burns. And we are the guardians of the flame. (249)

…five of the hazards to which specifically the Judeo-Christian tradition has been prone. They are: hard texts, dualism, messianic politics, the pursuit of power and the inability to see that there is more than one perspective on reality. (251)

Hard Texts. The classic form of fundamentalism is belief in the literal meaning of texts, specifically that we can move from text to application without interpretation. … Exegetes and commentators are to religion what judges are to law. They are essential to the system, and they can make all the difference between justice and injustice, right and wrong. (252)

That is what makes fundamentalism–text without interpretation–an act of violence against tradition. (254)

Dualism. It arises out of a specific crisis of faith, namely the existence of evil. How can a just God allow unjust suffering to exist? (255)

Dualism is a faith of sharp distinctions: between body and soul, this world and the next, material and spiritual, substance and form. God is in heaven; on Earth, all too often, evil reigns. Dualism is thus able to preserve the goodness of God while attributing the sufferings of the faithful to a malevolent force, protean in form and universal in reach. (255-256)

There is a straight line from dualism to demonisation to dehumanisation to genocide. | Dualism is the single most effective doctrine in persuading good people to do evil things. (256)

Messianic Politics. Messianic politics leads inevitably to disaster. It cannot do otherwise. For it is the attempt to bring the end of time within time, redemption to the as-yet-unredeemed human situation, to create utopia in real space and time. (259)

The Lure of Power. The secularisation of Europe happened not because people lost faith in God…but because people lost faith in the ability of religious believers to live peaceably together. (262)

The similarity of these two processes, so far apart in time, suggests the following hypothesis. First, no religion relinquishes power voluntarily. Second, the combination of religion and power leads to internal factionalism, the splitting of the faith into multiple strands, movements, denominations and sects. Third, at some point the adherents of a faith find themselves murdering their own fellow believers. Fourth, it is only this that leads the wise to realise that this cannot be the will of God. (262)

…truth and power have nothing to do with one another. Truth cannot be proved by power. You cannot force people to be saved. Coerced agreement is not consent… (262)

Power is to be used not to impose truth, but to preserve peace. (262)

Single Vision.

Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals or groups (or tribes or states or nations or churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth…and that those who differ from them are not merely mistaken, but wicked or mad: & need restraining or suppressing. – Isaiah Berlin

The belief that ‘there is one and only one true answer to the central questions which have agonised mankind’–which he attributes to Robespierre, Hitler and Stalin as well as the Crusaders–has been responsible for ‘oceans of blood’. There is, says Berlin, only one antidote: ‘Compromising with people with whom you don’t sympathise or altogether understand is indispensable to any decent society. (263)

We need a strong, vigorous, challenging dialogue between religion and science on the massive problems confronting humanity in the unprecedentedly dangerous twenty-first century. Each needs the other if it is to avoid hubris and intellectual imperialism. Bad things happen when religion ceases to hold itself answerable to empirical reality, when it creates devastation and cruelty on Earth for the sake of salvation in heaven. And bad things happen when science declares itself the last word on the human condition and engages in social or bio-engineering, treating humans as objects rather than as subjects, and substituting cause and effect for reflection, will and choice. (265)

Religions work best when they are open and accountable to the world. When they develop into closed, totalising systems and sectarian modes of community, when they place great weight on the afterlife or divine intervention into history, expecting the end of time in the midst of time, then they can become profoundly dangerous, for there is then nothing to check their descent into fantasy, paranoia and violence. (266)

14. Why God?

Among all my patients in the second half of life…there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life…and none of them had really been healed who did not regain his religious outlook. – Carl Jung

If people lose their religion, nothing remains to keep them living in a society. They have no shield for their defence, no basis for their decisions, no foundation for their stability, and no form by which they exist in the world. – Giambattista Vico

Moments of vital fusion between a living religion and a living culture are the creative events in history, in comparison with which all the external achievements in the political and economic orders are transitory and insignificant. – Christopher Dawson

The Argument from Life. In Homo sapiens, for the first time the universe became self-aware. (271)

Maimonides said that science, by disclosing the vastness of the universe and the smallness of humankind, leads to the love and awe of God. He did not say it leads to belief in God.

Contemplation of the natural universe is an intimation, no more and no less, of the presence of a vast intelligence at work in the universe, an intelligence capable of constantly surprising us, showing us that the more we know, the more we know we do not know, yet still beckoning us onwards to a point beyond the visible horizon. (273)

The Argument from History.

The Argument from Entropy. …all civilisations were subject to a law of rise and decline. They are born in austerity. They rise to affluence and power. Then they become decadent and eventually decline. ‘People first sense what is necessary, then consider what is useful, next attend to comfort, later delight in pleasures, soon grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad squandering their estates.’ The only antidote to this, he argued, was religion, which motivates people to virtue and concern for the common good. Providence ‘renews the piety, faith and truth which are both the natural foundations of justice, and the grace and beauty of God’s eternal order.’ (276)

If democracy is not only to survive but to expand successfully…it must rediscover and renew its own transcendental origins. It must renew its respect for the non-material order that is not only above us but also in us and among us.

Among modern societies, only those that are able to introduce into the secular domain the essential contents of their religious traditions which point beyond the merely human role will also be able to rescue the substance of the human. – Vaclav Havel

Religions survive. Superpowers do not. Spiritual systems have the capacity to defeat the law of entropy that governs the life of nations. (277)

The Argument from Happiness. The most significant determinants of happiness are strong and rewarding personal relationships, a sense of belonging to a community, being valued by others and living a meaningful life. These are precisely the things in which religion specialises: sanctifying marriage, etching family life with the charisma of holiness, creating and sustaining strong communities in which people are valued for what they are, not for what they earn or own, and providing a framework within which our lives take on meaning, purpose, and even blessedness. (280)

‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’ is one of the less profound propositions to have been produced by the collective intelligence of people who pride themselves on their intelligence. … Nothing worth striving for is easy, and nothing not worth striving for brings happiness. Pleasure, maybe; fun, perhaps; but happiness in any meaningful sense, no. If I wanted to stop worrying, I would not choose a world blind to my existence, indifferent to my fate, with no solace in this life or any other. Nor would I put my trust in those who ridiculed my deepest commitments. (281)

The Greatest Improbability of All. …religion does what none of the great institutions of contemporary society does: not politics, not economics, not science and not technology. It answers the three great questions that any reflective human being will ask: Who am I? (the question of identity), Why am I here? (the question of purpose), and, How then shall I live? (the question of ethics and meaning).

The Defeat of Probability by the Power of Possibility. All the great human achievements, in art and science as well as the life of the spirit, came through people who ignored the probable and had faith in the possible. (283)

At their best, science and religion are both instances of the human passion to decode mysteries, constantly travelling in search of a destination that continues to elude us, that is always over the furthermost horizon. It is that willingness to search, ask, question, that makes us what we are. (285)

Faith Is the Courage to Take a Risk. Somewhere just beyond the edge of the universe, at the far side of the knowable, there either is or is not the Presence who brought it, and life, and you, into being. You have to make a choice and it will affect the whole of your life. (285)

What impresses me about the Bible is that it suggests that, even for God, creating humanity was a risk, and one that at least once he regretted having taken. (286)

Those who are unprepared to take a risk are unprepared to life fully. | Faith is the courage to take a risk. (286)

To believe that religion holds a monopoly of virtue is as narrow-minded as to believe that science holds a monopoly of truth. (287)

I Believe. This, then is my credo. I believe that the idea that the universe was created in love by the God of love who asks us to create in love is the noblest hypothesis ever to have lifted the human mind. | We are the meaning-seeking animal, the only known life form in the universe ever to have asked the question, ‘Why?’ There is no single, demonstrable, irrefutable, self-evident, compelling and universal answer to this question. Yet the principled refusal to answer it, to insist that the universe simply happened and there is nothing more to say, is a failure of the very inquisitiveness, the restless search for that which lies beyond the visible horizon, that led to science in the first place. (289)

Science as humility in search of truth is one thing. Science as sole reality is another. It can then become the most pitiless and ruthless of gods. (289)

The God of Abraham is the God of surprises, the supreme power who intervened in history to liberate the powerless and set them on the long journey to freedom. He taught us the paradoxical truth that nations survive not by wealth but by the help they give to the poor, not by power but by the care they extend to the weak. Civilisations become invulnerable only when they care for the vulnerable. (290)

Religion and science, the heritages respective of Jerusalem and Athens, products of the twin hemispheres of the human brain, must now join together to protect the world that has been entrusted to our safekeeping, honouring our covenant with nature and nature’s God–the God who is the music beneath the noise; the Being at the heart of being, whose still small voice we can still hear if we learn to create a silence in the soul; the God who, whether or not we have faith in him, never loses faith in us. (291)

Epilogue: Letter to a Scientific Atheist

I have tried simply to show you that religious faith is not absurd, that it does not involve suspension of our critical faculties, that it does not and should not seek to inhibit the free pursuit of science, that it does not rest on contradiction and paradox, that it does not force us to accept suffering as God’s will for the world, and that it does not ask us to believe six impossible things before breakfast. (293)

I would not wish to live in a world in which people did not disagree. Disagreement is how knowledge grows. Living with disagreement is how we grow. (293)

We need moderates, that is, people who understand that there can be a clash of right and right, not just right and wrong. We need people capable of understanding cognitive pluralism, that is, that there is more than one way of looking at the world. We need people who can listen to views not their own without feeling threatened. We need people with humility. (296)

The God of Abraham, the voice of the world-that-is-not-yet-but-ought-to-be, the God whose name (‘I will be what I will be’) means the unknowability of the future in a world constituted by freedom, is what scientists call a singularity, a one-off, a unique and world-changing event. And we, whether we are religious or not, are in some sense his heirs. (298)

…three things about what it is to be an heir of Abraham.

  • First, it means that we are the guardians of our children’s future.
  • Second, education–directing our children and our household after us–is a sacred task.
  • Third, how do you keep the way of the Lord? By doing what is right and just. (299)

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An astonishing read.

A few contentions I offer for further discussion and conversation:

1. Both science and religion claim to be globally encompassing disciplines, both are claimants to this universe’s existence. As such, one must be assumed under the other, that science, in its framework must “explain” religion, and vice versa. With Sack’s dismissal of Gould’s NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magesteria, a dismissal that I believe needs revisiting) how can these two different explanations co-exist?

As an example:

Outside religion there is no secure alternative base for the unconditional source of worth that in the West has come from the idea that we are each in God’s image. (102)

Yet, science is searching for the “natural” roots of meaning and worth. And, religion is attempting to also “explain” how the universe works. While I am affectionate towards Sacks’s philosophy elucidated here, these tensions still exist that posit a still extant tension between science and faith.

2. The audacious claim that it was Abrahamic monotheism that brought into human consciousness the idea of meaning that is outside the universe feels a bit grandiose to me. I have no evidence to necessarily support this, but I get a feeling this explanation is more interpretive of the Genesis story, not necessarily a philosophical explanation.

3. On p. 29, Sacks suggests the gods of polytheism “were within the universe.” Yet, the gods of Hellenism were grounded in the Hellenistic dualism, were they not?

4. I find Sacks’s argument on morality to be the weakest.

The fear of God makes people think twice before defrauding or deceiving others. Conscience, the voice of God within the human heart, would, without religious faith, be more and more easily ignored. People would take advantage of one another whenever they thought they could avoid detection, and there would be a slow but inevitable breakdown of trust. (146)

Is this really true? First, Sacks himself suggests that religion is not necessary for people to be moral, which is in someway a minor contradiction. In addition, this morality argument is brutalized by public intellectuals like Harris and Hitchens, arguing that if conscience causes right and wrong to be taken seriously, it can also cause fear and psychosis, as can be deduced from this excerpt,

The religious answer is that if God exists, the evil we do, even in secret, is nonetheless evil and is known. … It means that we have a compelling psychological reason to take right and wrong seriously, even if those around us do not. (150)

Regarding altruism, if it exists outside of the human species, even outside of religion, then his argument begins to unravel. Some have argued an evolutionary and biological purpose for altruism (here, and here, and here, and here, and here.)

5. Sacks writes,

The most powerful antidote to dualism is monotheism, best defined in a verse in Isaiah (45:7): ‘I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster [ra, literally ‘evil’]; I, the Lord, do all these things.’ By refusing to split light and dark, good and evil, into separate forces or entities, monotheism forces us to wrestle with the ambiguities of our own character, the necessity for moral choice and the inescapability of personal responsibility.” (257)

But weren’t the zealots and Essenes also monotheists?

6. Last, there may be a flaw in the longevity of this philosophical construct, especially given the observance of the evolutionary endeavor. Just because this is what we have observed in history does not mean this predicting of the future; the future is not an extrapolation of the past. The foundations of meaning, miracles, and morality by religion, so Sacks argues, could essentially “work itself out of job,” should the trajectory continue, leaving religion behind? This is what Lawrence Krauss has argued, and what may be currently happening in our popular conversation as more people attain the ideals of religion while leaving the supernatural or metaphysical elements behind (e.g., the Jefferson Bible, perhaps?)

About VIA


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