Wednesday, August 27, 2008
The Dignity of Difference
I've been reading "The Dignity of Difference: How to avoid the Clash of Civilizations" by Jonathan Sachs, Chief Rabbi of the UK.
I was wowed by him at Lambeth when he talked about the nature of covenant. You can read his address here. I swear, if he had said, "Drop your nets and follow me," 3/4 of the auditorium would have left with him. Swear. In fact, double pinky swear.
He is writing, post 9/11, from a context of a concern for globalization. He writes about religion and politics. He argues that we must do more than search for common human values. The global future, he says, will call for something stronger than earlier doctrines of toleration or pluralism. It needs a new understanding that the unity of the Creator is expressed in the diversity of creation.
I devoured this book at the beach today in one sitting. Yeah, it's all that.
I'm still digesting it, but I wanted to share one piece - one Really Great Idea - with you that I think speaks to us on so many levels it makes my head spin.
This is from the chapter, "Exorcising Plato's Ghost," in which he talks about the "mistaken and deeply dangerous" idea that, as we search for truth or ultimate reality we progress from the particular to the universal.
"Particularities are imperfections, the source of error, parochialism and prejudice. Truth, by contrast, is abstract, timeless, universal and the same everywhere for everyone."
He continues, " . . . Western religion has been haunted by Plato's ghost. The result is inevitable and tragic. If all truth - religious as well as scientific - is the same for everyone at all times, then if I am right, you are wrong. If I care about truth, I must convert you to my point of view, and if you refuse to be converted, beware. From this flowed some of the great crimes of history and much human blood."
"It is time," he says, "we exorcised Plato's ghost, clearly and unequivocally. Universalism must be balanced with a new respect for the local, the particular, the unique."
He argues, " . . . that the proposition at the heart of monotheism is not what it has traditionally taken to be: one God, therefore one faith, one truth one way. To the contrary, it is that unity creates diversity."
He uses this "most haunting of the saying of the Jewish sages - a story they told about the creation of [hu}mankind.":
Rabbi Shimon said: When God was about to create Adam, the ministering angels split into contending groups. Some said, 'Let him be created.' Others said, 'Let him not be created.' That is why it is written: 'Mercy and truth collided, righteousness and peace clashed' (Psalm 85:11).
Mercy said, 'Let him be created, because he will do merciful deeds.'
Truth said, 'Let him not be created, for he will be full of falsehood.'
Righteousness said, 'Let him be created, for he will do righteous deeds.'
Peace said, 'Let him not be created, for he will never cease quarreling.'
What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He took truth and threw it to the ground.
The angels said, 'Sovereign of the universe, why do You do thus to Your own seal, truth? Let truth arise from the ground.'
Thus it is written, 'Let truth spring from the earth' (Psalm 85.12).
Sachs continues: "This is an audacious theological interpretation. God, it suggests, was in two minds before creating humankind. Yes, humanity is capable of great acts of altruism and self-sacrifice, but it is also constantly at war. Human beings tell lies and are full of strife. God takes truth and throws it to the ground, meaning: for life to be livable, truth on earth cannot be what it is in heaven."
". . .Truth on the ground is multiple, partial. Fragments of it lie everywhere. Each person, culture and language has part of it; none has it all."
"Truth on earth is not, nor can it aspire to be, the whole truth. It is limited, not comprehensive; particular, not universal. When two propositions conflict it is not necessarily because one is true the other false. It may be, and often is, that each represents a different perspective on reality, an alternative way of structuring order, no more and no less commensurable than a Shakespeare sonnet, a Michelangelo painting or a Schubert sonata."
"In heaven there is truth; on earth there are truths. Therefore, each culture has something to contribute. Each person knows something no one else does. The sages said: 'Who is wise? One who learns from all men.' The wisest is not one who knows himself wiser than others: he is one who knows all men have some share of the truth, and is willing to learn from them, for none of us knows all the truth and each of us knows some of it."
See what I mean?
There's lots more (this is just Chapter 3), but I think this is enough for tonight.
I'm still digesting.