October 30, 2002
JERUSALEM AND ATHENS (continued):
The Dignity of Difference: Avoiding the Clash of Civilizations: The 2002 Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs (Rabbi Professor Jonathan Sacks, May 21, 2002, FPRI Wire)
The Bible begins with two universal, fundamental statements. First, in Genesis 1, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness." In the ancient world it was not unknown for human beings to be in the image of God: that's what Mesopotamian kings and the Egyptian pharaoh were. The Bible was revolutionary for saying that every human being is in the image of God.
The second epic statement is in Genesis 9, the covenant with Noah, the first covenant with all mankind, the first statement that God asks all humanity to construct societies based on the rule of law, the sovereignty of justice and the non-negotiable dignity of human life.
It is surely those two passages that inspire the words "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. . . ." The irony is that these truths are anything but self-evident. Plato or Aristotle wouldn't know what the words meant. Plato believed profoundly that human beings are created unequal, and Aristotle believed that some people are born to be free, other to be slaves.
These words are self-evident only in a culture saturated in the universal vision of the Bible. However, that vision is only the foundation. From then on, starting with Babel and the confusion of languages and God's call to Abraham, the Bible moves from the universal to the particular, from all mankind to one family. The Hebrew Bible is the first document in civilization to proclaim monotheism, that God is not only the God of this people and that place but of all people and every place. Why then does the Bible deliver an anti-Platonic, particularistic message from Genesis 12 onwards? The paradox is that the God of Abraham is the God of all mankind, but the faith of Abraham is not the faith of all mankind. [...]
My reading is this: that after the collapse of Babel, the first global project, God calls on one person, Abraham, one woman, Sarah, and says "Be different." In fact, the word "holy" in the Hebrew Bible, kadosh, actually means "different, distinctive, set apart." Why did God tell Abraham and Sarah to be different? To teach all of us the dignity of difference. That God is to be found in someone who is different from us. As the great rabbis observed some 1,800 years ago, when a human being makes many coins in the same mint, they all come out the same. God makes every human being in the same mint, in the same image, his own, and yet we all come out differently. The religious challenge is to find God's image in someone who is not in our image, in someone whose color is different, whose culture is different, who speaks a different language, tells a different story, and worships God in a different way.
This is a paradigm shift in understanding monotheism.[...]
[B]y turning to the Bible we arrive at a new paradigm, one that is neither universalism nor tribalism, but a third option, which I call the dignity of difference. This option values our shared humanity as the image of God, and creates that shared humanity in terms like the American Declaration of Independence or the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But it also values our differences, just as loving parents love all their children not for what makes them the same but for what makes each of them unique. That is what the Bible means when it calls God a parent. [...]
Nothing has proved harder in civilization than seeing God or good or dignity in those unlike ourselves. There are surely many ways of arriving at that generosity of spirit, and each faith may need to find its own way. I propose that the truth at the heart of monotheism is that God is greater than religion, that he is only partially comprehended by any one faith. He is my God, but he is also your God. That is not to say that there are many gods: that is polytheism. And it is not to say that God endorses every act done in his name: a God of yours and mine must be a God of justice standing above both of us, teaching us to make space for one another, to hear one another's claims, and to resolve them equitably. Only such a God would be truly transcendent. Only such a God could teach mankind to make peace other than by conquest or conversion and as something nobler than practical necessity.
What would such a faith be like? It would be like being secure in my own home and yet moved by the beauty of a foreign place knowing that while it is not my home, it is still part of the glory of the world that is ours. It would be knowing that we are sentences in the story of our people but that there are other stories, each written by God out of the letters of lives bound together in community. Those who are confident of their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faiths of others. In the midst of our multiple insecurities, we need now the confidence to recognize the irreducible, glorious dignity of difference.
The power of Mr. Kraynak's critique is likewise evident when applied to this lecture, as Rabbi Sacks lets his own argument slip away from him and devolve into nonsense. Having noted that the Declaration is a function of Judeo-Christian universalism, he then makes the mistake of arguing that the principles of the latter are accessible to everyone without being saturated in the former. He is asking that every human being treat every other in the political sphere as though they were created in the image of God, without their first accepting the religious belief that leads to this point. This dilemma is what Mr. Kraynak means when he says that modern liberal democracy requires God. And if this correct, as I believe it to be, then conversion, conflict, or some kind of massive reformation of the non-Judeo-Christian religions is precisely what is required before Man can realize the kind of universalist political state that the Rabbi desires.
Posted by Orrin Judd at October 30, 2002 10:07 PM
All religions are evil, but the most evil are
universalizing, salvationist monotheisms,
because they cannot tolerate anyone outside.
We really have only two examples, Christianity
and what Orrin insists I have to call Islam.
The history of neither would support the idea
of their compatibility with equal treatment,
tolerance or the other
virtues in the Constitution.
The few minor examples, Atenism for example,
trend the same way.
Judaism is not universalizing, despite the
rabbi's very strange statement. Hinduism is
Obviously, the Judeo-Christian inheritance
had a lot to do with the evolution of modernity,
but the fact that the Roman Catholic church has
declared modernism a heresy and a mortal
sin suggests that modernity arose both from
and in opposition to its own religious inheritance.
I cannot explain, only marvel, how in a mere
200 years western society (or a significant
part of it) went from Bellarmine to a nation-state
inhabited almost entirely by Christians that
was in law and in fact tolerant. I do suggest
that the political/social evolution could not
have happened had there not arose a parallel
but separate intellectual tradition of science,
godless science at that, although its
practitioners (like Newton) did not appreciate
that until they were forced to by accumulation
The third ingredient, I believe, was Franklin.
The congregationalists tortured his mother.
It is always a bad idea to torture mothers;
their sons may grow up to be the most
effective publicists the world has ever known.
It is most unlikely that Islam can become
modern, not because it isn't Judeo-Christian
but because it is not compatible with
scientific inquiry. As long as nobody asks
questions, ordinary people are unlikely to be
troubled about the ontological basis of their
lives. If, as you say, Aristotle couldn't make
the connection, why would a goat-walloper?
Your admission that it is only in the Judeo-Christian West that the type of society you desire arose amply refuites your own initial points. Without Judeo-Christianity there is no liberal democracy.
There is an exception, or at least a corrallary, to your point, Orrin, that goes directly to Harry's: our culture is so steeped in the Judeo-Christian ethos that American non-believers are, in effect, Christians (if you can find a scientist's house without a Christmas tree, you've found a practicing Jew or Muslim).
As far as science is concerned, certainly assimilated Muslims living in the US are fully capable of practicing science. Indeed, just go visit your local hospital or chem lab for proof that even a couple of hundred years as a British colony suffices to produce world class scientists. I've heard that in sharia countries, God's omnipotence is recognized by teaching science as what will happen if Allah wills it. That is, take water and raise its temperature to 100 degress C and it will turn to steam, if Allah wills it. This could, of course, be the death knell for Islamic science, but it could also be the Islamic version of the "Linean formula" that allows science to coexist with theocracy. Only time will tell.
Liberalism and tolerance hinge on universal acceptance of certain core principles: a universal right to life, liberty, and property which gives people the means to pursue their own happiness. These principles are implied by the Judeo-Christian commandments, which make no distinction between rulers and ruled or aristocrats and proletariat, and which make the prohibitions of murder, theft, and fraud universal laws, valid at every place and time. Once these principles are accepted, liberalism follows.
David Cohen's makes a great point: non-believers in America still believe in the universal right to life & liberty that Judeo-Christian ethics teach, probably as a result of our Judeo-Christian heritage, while non-believers elsewhere generally don't. The prestige of people like Peter Singer, who consistently follows a utilititarian ethic that contracts Judeo-Christian principles, suggests, however, that Cohen's generalization may be starting to lose its validity.
I sure don't see any universal equality in
the OT. If you had had the misfortune to be
a Canaanite, God was not on your side.
The NT is a bit more complicated, and Roman
Catholicism is, to take one example, in most
cases color blind. But it has not been doctrine
blind, and it has not accorded all men and women
equal status. It still has a whole organization,
the Holy Office, devoted to enforcing
(Irrelevant, but you'll find a Christmas tree
at my house though I have far too much
self-respect to worship the Bible gods. But,
like Walt Kelly, I like the spirit of Christmas
Tom, I cannot now remember which of the
Franklin biographies tells the story (it isn't
in the Autobiography), but the Congregationalists
believed that babies were born on the day
of the week they were conceived on, sex was
forbidden on Sunday, and Mrs. Franklin lived
within earshot of Old South, so when she
went into labor with Ben on a Sunday, she
had to do it in silence.
Try it sometime.
The philosopher Richard Rorty http://www.juddtech.com/index.cfm/fuseaction/reviews.authlist/author_id/759
) has a great phrase for the phenomenon y'all are discussing, he calls it "freeloding atheism". That is, folks like Harry want all the rights and privileges and the kind of society that Judeo-Christianity created but they don't want to accept the role of religion in creating and preserving them. But we need only look at post-Christian Europe to see how fleeting will be our liberties once we remove religiosity from the equation.
Harry: The business about Sunday births being reprehensible seems a real stretch, in more ways than one. First of all, that would put 1/7th of all births under indictment. Second, the vast majority of the populace at that time were farmers who would have no illusions about such myths which could be fairly easily disputed based on every day experience, both concerning dates of conception as well as concerning when the mother's labors actually produced the child. As any parent or farmer knows, babies and livestock infants don't just pop out on some schedule, and I'm sure they didn't in the 1700's either. Finally, Franklin was in a society which knew that reproduction was a social good that needed to be encouraged. What the Congregationalists may have been concerned with was social appearances during conception, but reviling the laborer producing a positive gift from God is something that is hard to perceive as a realistic situation even from nearly 3 centuries in the future.
BTW, most Toms, Dicks, and Harrys will never conceive, let alone labor to produce a child. Your last comment was unclear in its presumptions.
You must not ever have read Congregationalist
sermons. Start with Cotton Mather. Their ability to
insist on the obviously impossible was impressive.
I'm currently reading Edmund S. Morgan's outstanding bio of Franklin--there's a PBS special on him next week too--and it not only fails to mention the "torture" of Franklin's mother but makes it clear that Franklin remained a Christian precisely because he couldn't imagine a world without morality.
He remained a Christian? News to me. I
thought he was a Deist.
Nope--he quite specifically invoked Judeo-Christian morality.