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Book Reviews

The Great Partnership by Jonathan Sacks

2nd February 2012

The subtitle of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ latest book is “God, Science and the Search for Meaning”. As subtitles go, it doesn’t really clarify, let alone narrow, the focus of the book. The Great Partnership is about, well, everything really.

In the hands of a less erudite, thoughtful or lucid an author, this would be a hazardous venture, risking three hundred pages of the more disappointing kind of thought for the day, exhorting the reader to spiritual kindness. Although Sacks occasionally drifts off to Planet Platitude, the book as a whole is profound and engaging.

What gives The Great Partnership its edge is that from the very first words the author has the New Atheists in his sights. Sacks is a measured and generous writer but the tone and crassness of much contemporary atheist rhetoric clearly irks him. The book is, in effect, his contribution to the growing anti-anti-God literature, although his publishers wisely have refrained from formally labelling it as such.

The book has three parts. The first argues that science and religion cannot be at war because they are fundamentally different disciplines. They ask different questions, use different methods and use different parts of the brain (the left-brain vs. right-brain point is raised early but Sacks is clearly conscious that it is, at best, a massive oversimplification and it appears sparingly in the rest of the book).

This is hardly a new message but Sacks brings an innovative angle to it by raising the question of whether how we read has influenced how we think. Unlike Greek, Hebrew has no vowels and is written from right to left. This means that if you wish to understand what is written in Hebrew, you need to grasp the big picture – the phrase, the sentence, the context – whereas if you want to understand Greek you need simply to analyse the constituent elements of each word. It was this, if not only this, that led to the Greek philosophical revolution, which Sacks uses as a cipher for a scientific way of thinking about the world, on the one hand, and the religion of Abraham on the other. (His explicit focus throughout is on Abrahamic monotheism although the vast majority of his ideas are drawn from the Old Testament and Rabbinic Judaism).

This animates the key idea running throughout the book that whereas science takes things apart to see how they work, religion puts things together to see what they mean. These parallel objectives are both necessary to human flourishing, and part two of the book explores what we lose if we jettison the religious side of our selves and our culture. While repeatedly affirming that non-believers can be moral and humane, Sacks is equally clear that the foundations of Western culture are firmly Judeo-Christian (not a phrase he uses). “If we lose faith”, he writes, we lose “the dignity and sanctity of life, the politics of covenant and hope, the morality of personal responsibility, marriage as a second bond, and… the meaningfulness of life.” It is the kind of list that is liable to send atheists into frothing paroxysms of indignation but Sacks does as good as job as you will see in 100 pages to make it sound credible rather than intolerably arrogant.

The final part of the book looks at the challenges to religious faith, and reads like a conventional apologetics texts, covering evolution, the problem of evil, the dangers of religious extremism. It is all good stuff, although unlikely to be revelatory to any Third Way reader.

What should be revelatory are Sacks’ forays into biblical exegesis. The book offers a number of highly subtle, informative and surprising readings of Genesis, especially chapters 1-3, Ecclesiastes and Job. It even tackles some of the Old Testament ‘terror texts’ in which God commands genocide, but these are less satisfactory expositions, which argue (persuasively) why such texts are no longer normative, as opposed to why God was so thirsty for human blood in the first place.
The Great Partnership is a good book by a cogent and articulate religious thinker. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it, however, is that it was written at all. The New Atheist spasm seems to have abated, at least for now (perhaps something to do with the transition from Bush to Obama?), and the Chief Rabbi might easily have circumvented that particular, acrimonious debate. The fact he has not is, at least in part, because this determinedly polite and charitable figure is now genuinely alarmed not only by the tone of some atheist rhetoric but the creeping incursion on freedom of religion and of conscience, a point he made to a House of Commons Select Committee recently. The Great Partnership carefully avoids any apocalyptic imagery or language but one can’t help wondering whether its author is watching the skies with fear and trembling.

The Great Partnership by Jonathan Sacks is published by Hodder & Stoughton (2011)

This review first appeared in Third Way Magazine.