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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.


Dennis said...

I'm sold. Summer quarter is coming to an end and this sounds like a great book before the fall term begins. You deserve a kickback from!

Erika Baker said...

We have it on the bookshelves, but I have yet to read it. Thank you for kicking me!

Fran said...

I must get this book. And as Dennis says- school ahead, so must read now. It looks like I will yield to purchase as I already searched our library online database- not there.

A local B&N seems to have it. Off to get it today!

Thank you so much Elizabeth. As always.

The words that Sacks spoke at Lambeth are imprinted upon my heart thanks to you and now this.

I am also in need of this as I realize that this will be the first election season that I spend in this area. This very straight, white, RC (ok i am all of the above)and highly conservative area.


I want to spark conversation - not head-banging conversion... for me or others!

thailandchani said...

Thanks for the great review! That does sound like a very good book and the last two paragraphs you quoted say it all.

Western thought is very dualistic and the tendency to demonize "the other side" is a strong tradition. Real respect, I believe, comes from being able to find commonality in difference - that being that most people are inherently good and although their views might be different, they want the best thing also. When considered from that perspective, universality is at least possible.


Hiram said...

I have not read Rabbi Sachs’ book, so I can’t say for sure, but his argument seems to be a longer and more elegant version of “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” This old tale makes the important point that “our knowledge is in part;” no one knows everything, and we must be careful to compare our perspectives.

However, there is an unwarranted assumption in that tale – and that is that the speaker has somehow seen the entire elephant and so knows better than the blind gropers. But what human being has transcended human limitations to know that no one religion or philosophy has the truth, but all share in a part of it? It might be considered arrogant to claim, “Only my truth is true.” However, it is also arrogant to claim, “I know that no one knows the truth.” That is a claim to know that other religions or philosophies are wrong.

The claim of historic Christianity is that no one can know the truth about God unless God has revealed himself to us. (To be a bit more accurate – Romans 1 says that creation reveals the existence of a wise and powerful Creator – but nothing further can be known beyond this general revelation unless God speaks in special revelation.) The further claim of historic Christianity is that God has revealed himself through prophets and apostles (in the Scriptures) and supremely through his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus himself claimed that he was the Truth, and that he was the Way and the Life and the only path to God the Father.

Rabbi Sachs, being a Jew, will not recognize that claim. Nor will Muslims, Hindus, or the adherents of nearly every other religion. Seeking to have respect given to all, regardless of belief, Rabbi Sachs uses the argument that all of us know in part, and all of us are wrong in part. I have no idea where the old Jewish story he uses comes from, but it is not something that flows out of the assertions of Genesis and other Scriptural passages on creation.

Rabbi Sachs says, “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.

Historic Christianity has an answer to the peril of enforcing one’s truth claims at the point of a sword. That is the recognition on the part of the believer in Jesus that we do not deserve our acceptance before God. We come to God by his grace. Indeed, even knowing who Jesus is and what he has done for us in his incarnation, death, and resurrection, comes to us by God’s mercy. “I once was blind, but now I see” – because God’s mercy has opened my eyes, not because I figured out a cure myself. Those who know they were in desperate need and that they have received mercy and grace purely from God’s compassion can act in mercy towards others. Grace cannot be thrust upon another; it can only be demonstrated and shared.

It is true that in history many who professed to be Christians were inconsistent, and acted as though faith could be thrust upon others. This is a sad reality in history.

Competing truth claims can lead to oratorical or even physical struggle and efforts to dominate. But if a Christian is true to the teachings of Jesus (including the claim that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and the words Jesus spoke to Peter in last Sunday’s Gospel, “Blessed are you, Simon Son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”) will treat others with respect and gentleness, for grace extended to others may well result in grace received from God by those others.

Anonymous said...

Fran sent me. Sounds like just my kind of book! I'll see about getting it. I like the blog. I'll be returning!