Magazine article The Spectator

Arguments with God

Magazine article The Spectator

Arguments with God

Article excerpt

Jonathan Sacks has an impressive track record for predicting the age we are in. In his 1990 Reith Lectures, 'The Persistence of Faith', the then chief rabbi pushed back against the dominant idea that religion was going to disappear. In the early 2000s, he predicted a century of conflict within Islam. And he was one of the first religious leaders and thinkers not only to critique multi-culturalism ('the spanner in the works for tolerance') but to try to think of a path beyond it.

We recently talked over some of this at his house in London, where he lives during gaps in a busy teaching schedule that also takes him to New York. 'I realised religion is going to come back and it is not going to come back as a post-enlightenment,-thinly-sliced-cucumber-sandwiches vicarage tea party.' What was the giveaway? 'De-secularisation.' It was a phenomenon he noticed first as a rabbi.

People were returning to synagogue or church because they wanted their children to attend a faith school. Not because they believed, but because 'faith schools have a very strong ethos and they think that that strong ethos will give the kids the kind of virtues they need.'

This, in Sacks's view, points to a flaw at the heart of the atheist worldview. Faced with the question 'How do we raise our children?' -- perhaps the most serious question we must ask -- non-believers began to flunk the answer. And Sacks reckons that this failure indicates a wider relativistic vacuum in our society.

'Clearly people are searching for something,' he says. 'There is definitely a search for spirituality. Yet spirituality per se is not going to get us where we need to be because spirituality is what happens when religion goes bowling alone. It is very self-focused.' In lieu of traditional morality, he sees today's morality as being centred on issues which would once have been seen as political, rather than moral.

'The real issue is community. That is what market-economic, liberal democratic societies don't always understand -- the community, which is one way of saying the need for identity.' Secular attempts to found such communities and identities are, he is adamant, doomed to failure. 'There is now empirical research on that -- on communes set up in the United States. Religious ones lasted four to five times as long as non-religious ones.'

None of which, however lucidly and learnedly expressed, demonstrates that God exists. Does it? 'I think it is a peculiarly Christian predilection to say, "First get me over the hurdle of belief." In Judaism our biggest heroes tended to have arguments with God. That's what Abraham does, it's what Moses does, it's what Jeremiah does and it's what Job does. You get 37 chapters of Job asking questions of God and his comfort is he gets to see God, who asks him four chapters of questions of his own.'

Sacks, too, is very good at answering questions with questions. But it is through community and identity that he speaks of 'belief'.

'There is a huge attempt right now to find out if we can ground a morality in something other than religious faith. I think the question is on what can we ground a shared substantive ethic strong enough to inspire young people? No society that has no shared ideals on morality will survive for long. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.