Thursday, September 15, 2016

Book Review: The Great Partnership, by Jonathan Sacks

In The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks attempts to stake out a middle ground in the conflict between militant atheists who wish to eradicate religion and religious fundamentalists who see no need for science to inform their spiritual beliefs.


To Sacks, science and religion are to human life what the left and right hemispheres are to the brain. The “creative tension” between science and religion “keeps us … grounded in physical reality without losing our spiritual sensibility.” The capacity to grasp both of these perspectives, scientific and religious, is essential to understanding the human condition.




Without a proper respect for science, religion is apt to become “magic or misplaced supernaturalism.” “[F]aith must be compatible with the facts as we know them.” Religious faith “does not involve suspension of our critical faculties,” and it “should not seek to inhibit the free pursuit of science.” “Bad things happen when religion ceases to hold itself answerable to empirical reality.”


At the same time, Sacks also believes that “bad things happen when science declares itself the last word on the human condition.” Making an impassioned case for the importance of religious faith, Sacks argues that “the presence or absence of God makes an immense difference to our lives … A world without religious faith is a world without sustainable grounds for hope.”


To be clear, Sacks is decidedly not saying that a person must believe in God in order to live a good life. In fact, he explicitly rejects this idea, calling it “profoundly self-serving and self-deceiving” for believers to think such a thing. At the same time, however, Sacks sees the widespread loss of religious faith as harmful to society. If the vast majority of humanity were to accept the corollaries of atheism — for example, that our existence is an accident, that the universe is indifferent to us, that humans have no souls, that human free will is an illusion — then on what grounds could human dignity and the sanctity of human life reasonably be asserted? Would there be any basis for a shared moral code?


There are (at least) two objections to these kinds of arguments. A first objection is that the desirability of God’s existence is irrelevant; the salient question is whether there is any good evidence to support such an idea. A second objection is to simply point to all of the harm that has been (and continues to be) done in the name of religion.


As for the first objection, Sacks doesn’t try to prove the existence of God, and in fact, he thinks that the attempt to do so is misguided. “People have sought in the religious life the kind of certainty that belongs to philosophy and science. But it is not to be found. … Faith is not certainty.” Although Sacks believes there are “intimations” that point toward the existence of a higher power, he also recognizes that it is “perfectly possible and coherent to believe that there is no creative intelligence at work in the universe.” Still, Sacks “would rather have lived believing the best about humanity and the universe than believing the worst.”


This approach to faith is consistent with my own. As I have previously written, I no longer equate faith with certainty. Instead, I have come to see faith as what a person does in the absence of certainty. I like Sacks’s definition of faith as the “courage to begin a journey not knowing where it will lead but confident that it will lead somewhere.”


As for the second objection, Sacks candidly acknowledges that religion has done harm, and that troubles him deeply. But he argues that the cure for bad religion is good religion, not the abandonment of religion. “Religion is like fire: it warms, but it also burns. And we are the guardians of the flame.” Sacks identifies several destructive tendencies to which religion has been prone, which prompted some healthy self-reflection about the extent to which these tendencies are present in my own religion.


Sacks addresses several other challenges to religious faith, including the problem of evil. Sacks is critical of attempts at theodicy (the defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil and suffering), because they are essentially “philosophies of acceptance” that provide “a comfort bought too cheaply.” Instead of justifying the existence of evil and suffering — by saying, for example, that others suffer so that we can practice charity or kindness — Sacks believes that the religion of Abraham should be a “religion of protest” against evil and suffering.


Ultimately, Sacks’s approach to the problem of evil is pragmatic: “If I did not believe in God,” he asks, “what would persuade me to fight against an injustice that, according to Nietzsche, is written into the basic biological structure of life itself?” Again, this is not to say that one must believe in order to fight against injustice; there are many altruistic atheists who clearly prove otherwise. But for Sacks — and for many other believers, including myself — religious faith can be a powerful motivator for good, enough to justify setting aside legitimate questions about the problem of evil for the time being.


Sacks also addresses evolution. Consistent with his general stance that religion should be open to science, Sacks accepts that all the lifeforms on earth share a common ancestor as a result of variation and selection over billions of years. However, he does not concede that this disproves the existence of God. While acknowledging that these facts can be “shocking, unsettling, [and] paradigm-shifting” to believers, Sacks interprets them to mean that “we have to think about creation, design and the emergence of order in new ways, not that they no longer exist.” Divine design is not obvious, and perceiving it requires “the right-brain capacity to step back and see the picture as a whole.”

The Great Partnership probably won’t convert many non-believers, but that wasn’t Sacks’s intent. (“As a Jew I do not believe we are called on to convert anyone,” he says.) For believers like me, however, this is a valuable and important book. Sacks articulates the relationship between science and religion in a way that speaks to the mind and the heart, while eloquently describing why religious faith is important in the first place. I am going to be reading more from Rabbi Sacks in the future.  

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