Reason and Faith: Athiests, the Pope and Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi

Now I turn to a spiritual leader I greatly admire: Lord Sacks, the Commonwealth Chief Rabbi, whose most recent publication is one of the most stimulating books I read in 2011.

“The Great Partnership – God, Science and the Search for Meaning” is an erudite, but brilliantly readable, answer to the campaigning atheists of our time, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. It is a defence of faith, but also, an embrace of science. “Science takes things apart to see how they work,” writes Jonathan Sacks. “Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”

Science is about knowing. But faith is about meaning. We need both, he says, and in support of his thesis he brings some formidable voices into the witness box: Einstein saying “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind”. Even thinkers who turned their back on faith – Nietzsche, who coined the phrase “God is Dead”, Freud, Marx, Voltaire, Camus, Wittgenstein – came to understand that religion was central to making sense of life.

Without faith, men despair and turn to suicide, which could be a description of trends we see in our societies today.

Chief Rabbi Sacks, a soft-spoken man, aged 63, with a double-first from Cambridge, explains that the division between religion and science is rooted in our diverse heritage as between the Greeks and the Jews.

The Greeks gave us reason and abstract ideas. But the Jewish Bible gave us stories, narrative, characters. Modern neuroscience has further illuminated these separate spheres, with the division between the left-brain and the right-brain. “The left side of the brain is linear, analytical, atomistic and mechanical. The right brain tends to be integrative and holistic…strong on empathy and emotion. It reads situations, atmosphere and moods. It is the locus of our social intelligence.”

Thus, the “left” brain is scientific and mathematical: the “right” brain is poetical and religious (left and right brain corresponding to opposite sides of the body).

Lord Sacks (he has a seat in the House of Lords) recently debated Richard Dawkins on a BBC programme: Dawkins was remarkably respectful of the Chief Rabbi – even if he didn’t accept the religious concepts, he deferred to Sacks’ learning. In addressing Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Sacks employed a true Biblical approach: “a soft answer turneth away wrath”. Anyway, in the Jewish tradition, he would rather explore stories and narrative even with an adversary than get enmeshed in a hostile argument.

Rabbi Sacks was the eldest of four sons of an immigrant family in London’s East End. His father, Louis, was “a not very successful businessman” – he sold schmatters – cloth remnants to local tailors. But days would pass and there would be no customers in Louis’s little shop. No matter: the Sacks parents were deeply religious and raised their sons in their faith tradition, especially emphasising the role of family and community in everyday life.

The Orthodox Jewish Sabbeth is, literally, sacred to the family and Friday nights meant the family gathered around the dinner-table, with prayers, candles and many Biblical stories.

Louis Sacks, who had left school at 14, and his wife Louisa, sent four sons to university: all achieved Firsts. Brains? Jonathan Sacks attributes this academic achievement to the ambience of the family environment, and the traditions of faith. (He and his wife Elaine have three children and five grandchildren, all much involved in Jewish religious life.)

When I met Lord Sacks recently at his north London home, he was preparing to go to Rome to visit Pope Benedict, which he did last Monday [12th December]. He was invited by the Pope to speak in Vatican City, and he was working on the theme that “man was not made for the market – the market was made for man”. We should not be slaves to money markets.

The Chief Rabbi was meeting the Pope in the spirit of “respected friends” and even brothers. “Judaism and Christianity are both religions of love and forgiveness and there has been a profound coming together of Catholics and Jews and that healing is one of the great signs of hope of our time.”

Nietzsche, whom modern atheists quote with admiration, poured scorn on both Judaism and Christianity, considering them philosophies for “weaklings”. Jonathan Sacks turns around the Nietschean argument by saying, yes, “we took the side of the weak against the strong, we took the side of the poor against the rich, we took the side of the marginalised against the established power – that whole Judeo-Christian ethic which says civilisation must care for the vulnerable.”

He believes that Europe as a whole should honour and reclaim its Judeo-Christian culture – and certainly, respect its Greek heritage too. But without the anchor of faith, no society holds together for long.

And the message of most faiths is remarkably similar, as he interprets the core of the spiritual message: “Love your neighbour. Love the stranger. Feed the hungry. Heal the sick. Stretch out your hand to the poor. Do not hate. Do not harbour a grudge. Do not take revenge. Do not stand idly by in the face of injustice. Forgive. I, the Lord, do these things. Go thou and do likewise.” An uplifting message and a significant covenant which binds us in our diverse, and yet unifying, traditions. ENDS. December 2011.. I.I. Mag

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