Sunday, November 8, 2009

The moral equivalent of climate change

Speaking to Theos, a UK public theology think tank, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has given (as we might expect) an outstanding lecture, 'Religion in Twenty-First Century Britain', excerpts of which are reproduced below. A report from Theos is here, and towards the bottom of that report you can click on a link which takes you to a Word document transcript of the lecture. Sacks touches on various themes dear to my thinking, including the paradox that Western civilization has a death wish which it is fulfilling by failing to reproduce sufficient children to carry its values forward:

"God is back and Europe as a whole still doesn’t get it.

"It is our biggest single collective cultural and intellectual blind spot. In fact - and here is an extreme example but it is an extraordinary one - some people today who are most convinced that religion is irrational and altogether outmoded, are nonetheless queuing up to get their children into faith schools. And they still don’t fully understand the contradiction.

"The survival of religion in the twenty-first century cuts across some of our most basic intellectual assumptions. After all, how can anyone still need religion if: to explain the universe we have science; to control the universe we have technology; to negotiate power we have politics; to achieve prosperity we have economics. If you’re ill you go to a doctor, not a priest. If you feel guilty, you go to a psycho-therapist, not to confession. If you are depressed you take Prozac and not the book of Psalms. And if you seek salvation you go to our new cathedrals, namely shopping centres, where you can buy happiness at extremely competitive prices.

"So why has religion survived? The answer is – to cut through several volumes of potential literature - that homo-sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal."

The Chief Rabbi offers a lovely note about philosophy, science and faith:

"As we know, there are some people who believe still in the twenty-first century that God is an old man, with a long white beard and his name is Charles Darwin. Now, people think that Darwin refuted religion. As a matter of fact, Darwin did nothing of the kind. What Darwin refuted was Aristotelian science, on which a great deal of Christian theology, what is called Natural Theology, was based. Aristotle believed that there were purposes in nature, and by studying nature you could discover the purpose in things. That never was a Jewish belief – it happens to be a belief of a certain kind of synthesis between Hellenism and Christianity. So, actually, the new science is more of a challenge to a certain kind of philosophy than it is to religious belief. And I don’t know anyone who has said that."

Jonathan Sacks then argues, in the main body of the lecture, that four features of the 21st century do not yield answers to the search for meaning, and concludes:

"So, if we search for meaning, we will not in the twenty-first century find it in the market, in the state, in science or in philosophy. It is that principled abdication of the search for meaning by the four great institutions of modernity that has created the space which religion has returned to fill, and which indeed it always did fill."

Sacks notices a remarkable parallel with the ancient world of Greece,

"Europe, at least the indigenous population of Europe, is dying, exactly as Polybius said about ancient Greece in the third pre-Christian century. The century that is intellectually the closest to our own – the century of the sceptics and the epicureans and the cynics. Polybius wrote this:

"The fact is, that the people of Hellas had entered upon the false path of ostentation, avarice and laziness, and were therefore becoming unwilling to marry, or if they did marry, to bring up the children born to them; the majority were only willing to bring up at most one or two.

"That is why Greece died. That is where Europe is today."

Along the way Sacks offers this brilliant observation about the current era of change in Western civilization:

"We are undergoing the moral equivalent of climate change and no one is talking about it. Albert Camus once said that the only serious philosophical question is “Why should I not commit suicide?” I think he was wrong. The only serious philosophical question is “Why should I have a child?” And our culture is not giving a very easy answer to that question." (Italics mine).

Towards the end, Sacks observes,

"At the moment, the fastest growing religions in the world are those who take an adversarial stance towards society, religions that challenge liberal democratic freedoms, and that is bad news.

"Worse than that, sadly, is that in various parts of the world, political conflicts - conflicts that were once clearly political - have now become religionized. And once that happens they become insoluble because compromise in politics is a virtue and in religion it is a vice. All peace depends on compromise and that is why peace comes to seem to some religious groups to be a form of betrayal which is why peacemakers get assassinated. And therefore I believe we have no choice but to articulate an intellectually open and humble and tolerant religiosity as the only strong enough defence for some of the religiosity that is coming our way with the force of a hurricane."

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