The Great Partnership, God, Science and The Search For Meaning by Jonathan Sacks


When Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, made his Maiden Speech in the House of Lords he recounted that at the burning bush an overwhelmed Moses told God he could not speak because he was “not a man of words”.

“Mind you”, continued Lord Sacks, “that did not stop him speaking a great deal thereafter. In fact, on one occasion, when pleading with God to forgive the people for making the golden calf, he spoke for 40 days and 40 nights.”

Although it doesn’t require 40 days to read his new book, “The Great Partnership, God, Science and the Search for Meaning” (Hodder and Stoughton), once again establishes Jonathan Sacks’ reputation as a formidable apologist and wordsmith.

With admirable precision and clarity, whether it is in his public utterances, his broadcasts, his contributions to the Credo column of The Times, or through his impressive publishing output, recorded now in eighteen books, he is widely regarded as the authentic voice of faith and reason.

The Great Partnership” intelligently builds upon his previous exegesis.

Here he counters what he calls “the unusually aggressive assault on religion” by “the new atheists”, sharing with Albert Einstein the belief that “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”  At all costs we must avoid a clash of fundamentalisms – what Matthew Arnold, in “Dover Beach” described as a place “where ignorant armies clash by night”

Nothing in science – whether it be cosmology, evolutionary biology or neuroscience – can lead to the conclusion that the universe is bereft of meaning or without the hand of an intelligent designer.

This is a formidable broadside against the vitriol of Richard Dawkins who argues that religious faith is “comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.”   It also eschews what Chesterton called the “survival of the fiercest”, the Darwinism which has led to the infamy of eugenics.

Einstein asserted that such misuse of science could only be countered “by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion…I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith.”

Science operating in an ethical void carries huge risks for any society.

Who better to poignantly remind us than the country’s leading Jewish figure that more than half of the participants at the 1942 Wannsee Conference, which planned “the final solution to the Jewish question” – the murder of Europe’s Jews – were either medical practitioners or in receipt of other academic doctorates.  Nazi collaborators included a cast of scientists, doctors, judges, lawyers, philosophers and academics.

Tackling head on the argument that it is impossible to believe in a God who permitted the concentration camps, Sacks says: “I have known people who lost their faith in God during the Holocaust, and others who kept it. But that anyone can have faith in humanity after Auschwitz to me defies belief.”

We don’t need leg irons but we do need constraints; scientific exploration must guard against intellectual conceit.

For Sacks, science cannot be depended upon to safeguard human dignity.  Why? Because human dignity is based on human freedom.  Free will is a concept which lies outside the scope of science but rooted in the Abrahamic faiths. The blame game – of blaming others for our misfortunes – began in the Garden of Eden, with Adam blaming Eve, and Eve blaming the serpent. They failed to take the right decision because they failed to remember the principles on which their idyll had been created. Each was responsible for their own actions, their own choices, and for the consequences. The Garden’s lesson is that in discarding virtue we destroy a society from within.

Unlike the planets which have no freedom in their movements we are not constrained in our orbits: “chemical elements do not choose which way to combine, genes do not make decisions.”  We are free agents – which is why science needs the scaffold of religious ethics on which to build its discoveries.

In our own times Sacks warns that the dangers which flow from “the scientisation of the human person have not disappeared.” He says that “life becomes disposable, in the form of abortion and euthanasia. That is often the first warning signal”. He points to the dangers of human cloning, the use of psychotropic drugs and the medicalisation of human behaviour.

Jonathan Sacks tells us that “science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”

He introduces a fascinating insight into science as an activity of the left hemisphere of the brain; religion as an activity of the right; contrasting Greek and Hebrew belief and culture – one concrete, the other abstract; Aristotle versus Abraham; tragedy versus hope. There are also beautifully crafted insights into the great stories and figures of the Hebrew Bible – especially the portrait of Abraham; the lessons of the Fall; the murder of Abel; the struggles of Job

When religious faith disappears five things happen: a loss of human dignity and the sanctity of human life; the loss of the politics of covenant and the common good; the loss of half remembered concepts such as duty, honour integrity, loyalty and trust; the deconsecrating of relationships; and the loss of a vocational life of “being called.”    

Sacks commends Alasdair MacIntyre’s seminal work, After Virtue (1981), and  the work of two other Catholic philosophers, Philippa Foot and Elizabeth Anscombe, who build on Tolstoy’s contention that when Christian faith is lost Christian ethics are not far behind.

MacIntyre insists that the Enlightenment’s belief in rationality – devoid of religion and stripped of tradition – simply failed. It failed because of the cacophony of competing voices offering different takes on philosophy, economics, and the structure of society.   Politics becomes our church and we become our own gods.

It is not that there aren’t exemplary atheists; manifestly there are; and manifestly some horrendous things have been done by religious people. Pascal astutely observed that “Men never do evil so cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction”.  But, that isn’t the point.

In a world where charlatans strip away a nation’s assets or looters pillage a high street’s shops, we have had a glimpse of the practical consequences of a society robbed of virtue and values.   George Washington presciently observed that “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Sacks concludes that “God and good are connected after all.” 

All of this points to the Abrahamic vision – where the monotheistic religions meet God; where we encounter the men and women made in God’s image; where we meet those we love;  where we strive for the common good.  The truly great partnership is when God and man meet and embrace.