God Does More Than Make Us Tick

Review of The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning by Jonathan Sacks

John Cottingham

In January 2009, London buses carried an advertisement paid for by the British Humanist Association: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” It was that slogan, Jonathan Sacks tells us, that finally persuaded him to write this book. But the provocative slogan, with its bizarre non-sequitur (why should believers be more anxious than non-believers, or rejoice less in life’s wonders?), has led Britain’s Chief Rabbi to produce not a provocative or polemical response, but a profoundly thoughtful, courteous and humane reflection on the supposed conflict between scientific knowledge and religious faith.

The chief message of the book is that there is no conflict. For in the first place science operates within the domain of explanations, not within the domain of meanings, and hence “science does not yield meanings, nor does it prove the absence of meanings. “Science takes things apart to see how they work, while religion [aims to] see what they mean.” And in the second place, the ways in which religion and science confront the world are wholly different: science, responsible for some of our greatest human achievements, is par excellence a “left-brain” activity, detached and critical, classifying, atomising, analysing, hypothesising, while religion, as understood by Sacks, is primarily about our inner lives, and uses the “right-brain” functions of empathy and imagination, working through narrative, tradition and ritual in order to express deep truths about our human aspirations and fears.

The universe as revealed by Darwin is, to be sure, at odds with the fundamentalist picture of a six-day creation; but it is by no means at odds, Sacks argues, with an authentic religious picture of our origins. Here Sacks draws on a long-standing exegetical tradition in Judaism that (alongside many strands in Christianity, including mainstream Catholicism) firmly rejects a literalist interpretation of Genesis. Modern science has uncovered an astonishingly beautiful world of biological diversity arising from underlying unity, a wondrous unfolding nexus of dynamic change and creativity. It is not at all like a watch — the dead, rigidly designed mechanism to which Archdeacon Paley famously likened the world — but all this shows is that the watchmaker analogy for God is hopelessly inept.

Religion, for Sacks, is the quest to understand our lives, as Abraham sought to, setting out into the unknown, driven not by “scientific certainty” but by “moral loyalty”, on an extraordinary journey of faith — one that culminated, long after his death, in his becoming “the most influential person who ever lived, the spiritual grandfather of more than half of the six billion people on the face of the planet”. But while he underlines the remarkable resilience and survival power of the great three Abrahamic faiths, enduring over the centuries while secular empires have risen and fallen, Sacks’s voice is never triumphalist. True religion, he insists, is never about political power, any more than it is about scientific hypotheses. We should look for the divine presence “in compassion, generosity, kindness, understanding, forgiveness, the opening of soul to soul…in relationships etched with the charisma of grace, not subject and object, command and control, dominance and submission.”

Enriched with countless anecdotes and stories drawn from the storehouse of Jewish spiritualty, Sacks’s book glows from start to finish with luminous moral insights whose power the sceptical atheist will be hard pressed not to acknowledge. Nevertheless, many will ask why we need religious belief in order to support and validate these moral insights. Can we not rely on a purely secular moral system, uncontaminated with the problematic baggage of theism? In addressing this issue, Sacks is at his most nuanced and subtle. He makes it absolutely clear that he does not for a moment believe you have to be religious in order to be moral: “There is something profoundly self-serving and self-deceiving in thinking that ‘we’, us and our fellow believers, have a monopoly of virtue…and faith should give us the humility to see that it is not so.” But for all that, he insists that there is indeed a vital connection between religion and morality.

It is not that without religion morality would suddenly collapse. Dostoevsky was wrong to suggest people will suddenly conclude that without God all is permitted. What is to be expected instead, if religion dies, is a much more gradual erosion of the moral culture of a community; for religion provides, above all, an enduring tradition where “the virtues live, are rehearsed and are valued”. Sacks reports that his doctoral supervisor, the eminent philosopher Sir Bernard Williams, once challenged this tradition-grounded conception of faith by asking, “Don’t you believe there is an obligation to live within one’s time?” — meaning that the traditional religious sources of meaning and value are simply no longer available to us today. In a way, Sacks’s whole book is an answer to this fascinating question.

His answer is that for my life to have meaning, I must have a moral identity; and the great fallacy of contemporary thought is to suppose that I can construct that identity from scratch, by affirming my own autonomous “projects”, grounded (as Williams once put it in his highly influential Shame and Necessity) in “the individual nature of the agent”. The view that Sacks eloquently articulates is diametrically opposed to this: my moral identity is something I acquire by being born into a specific community with a distinctive history, “when I recognise a duty of loyalty to a past and responsibility for a future by living faith and handing it on to those who come after me”.

None of this is to ignore the terrible wrongs committed in the name of religion, or the ever-present danger that religion will descend “into fantasy, paranoia and violence”. Nor is it to shirk the classic puzzle of how a surpassingly loving and compassionate God can allow the amount and degree of suffering that we find in the world. Rightly, in my view, Sacks rejects the standard theological “solutions” to the problem of evil: theodicy, he argues, is a “comfort bought too cheaply”. Instead, we must start from the world as it is, the world revealed by observation and scientific inquiry, not the world as we imagine it should have been if God had arranged things better. The hope that religion brings is not a glib optimism — it comes at a heavy price. But it allows us to find the meaning by which we can live.

In several passages Sacks quotes the ancient Talmudic blessing on the sages of the nations of the world, which he reinterprets for our own time as a blessing on scientists. His moving and powerfully argued book goes a very long way to establishing that there is no logical reason why science and religion should not join hands, and allow us to live better, with compassion and hope, in the world that has been entrusted to our safekeeping. It is a message that urgently needs to be heard.

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