Exactly halfway through my conversation with the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, I had an attack of conscience, a small one, but there it was. Sacks had explained the thesis of his book, The Great Partnership — that religion and science don’t have to fight but can co-exist, as separate strands of inquiry. We’d discussed our respective religions (I’m Christian) and agreed that man will always wonder: what am I doing here? And that science has no answer to this.
Then Sacks began to speak about the need for the three great Abrahamic, monotheistic faiths to stand together. ‘The problem,’ he said, in his slow, reasonable voice (which even the lady who transcribed this interview remarked was ‘lovely and soothing’) ‘is that when we do have constructive talks it goes unreported. For instance, myself, Rowan Williams and a Catholic bishop recently agreed to do a discussion chaired by Melvyn Bragg at the London Library. But was the media interested? No! The BBC wouldn’t carry it — not on TV, not on radio. Because we were together, not attacking each other, see? Division is news, unity is boring. And Melvyn said privately to me,’ Sacks lowered his voice, ‘Melvyn said, if the only images of religion people get are of conflict, it’s very bad. And he’s right.’
We both shook our heads sorrowfully at the morally crippled press pack and as I shook I glanced down at the list of questions I had yet to ask.
1) Was Rowan Williams right to tick off the Prime Minister in print? (‘With any luck he’ll attack the Archbishop!’ I had thought)
2) Are Jews against abortion? (could I maybe stir up trouble between Jews and Catholics?)
3) Did he really pray with Brown? (Is Cameron, by contrast, a spiritual lightweight?)
That’s when my conscience coughed. But no, I didn’t duck my journalistic duty. I swallowed the cough and started with 1, to which the answer was: ‘No, I don’t think religious leaders — and this is my private conviction — should get involved in divisive party political issues.’ Then, hastily, ‘But the Archbishop of Canterbury is in a different relationship to the government than I am.’ On abortion: ‘We’re a little more liberal than Catholics. We permit abortion in extreme cases to save the life of the mother.’ On Brown: ‘We had a profound friendship’.
But the wider point lurked in the background: as much as we jaw on about uncovering the truth, we, the media, want discord.
After that, I avoided his eye for a while, looked at the fleets of family photos on every table top; his grand little swagged curtains; the impressive shelf of his own books: Tradition in an Untraditional Age (1990), Morals and Markets (1998), To Heal a Fractured World (2005), Future Tense (2009). He may be media-friendly, (a regular on Thought for the Day and BBC television) but Lord Sacks doesn’t shy away from life’s serious issues.
When I looked up again, Sacks was making a plea for a return to civilised debate, especially between the God squad and the neo-Darwinists. ‘We’re in an age of the breakdown of shared discourse, and when that happens, the loudest voice wins. So everyone learns to speak in a very loud voice — Richard Dawkins is just one product of it,’ he said. ‘But you find it is also angry religious extremists. No one listens properly to the other side any more. But justice is — what’s that phrase? Audi alteram partem. Listening to the other side. You don’t get justice without listening to the other side.’
Perhaps because he has to steer a course between the Orthodox Jewish communities and the Liberal and Reform Jews, Sacks is a great believer in civilised debate. And the very model of a civilised debater, to his mind, was his doctoral supervisor, the great moral philosopher Bernard Williams. ‘He could not have been more distant from my position, he was an atheist, but he was always respectful and helpful. He wanted to tease out if I could make a coherent case.’
This, he said, is in direct contrast to today’s Jerry Springer-style debates: ‘I was looking at a video yesterday of students at a university in Britain shouting someone down,’ said Sacks. ‘This man had come to give a lecture and they just yelled at him, so after ten minutes he realised he couldn’t give the lecture and just walked. I thought, “wow”. In 1927 Julien Benda in his Trahison des Clercs said that universities used to be places where there was a collaborative pursuit of truth, but had become places of “the intellectual organisation of political hatreds”. I see that happening again.’
But it’s not just on campus. We discussed, the rabbi and I, a frightening article in a recent paper by a disabled lady, in which she reported a growing hostility towards wheelchair users in London. Has he noticed any unease in anti-semitism? ‘Oh my goodness yes, it is on the rise,’ said Sacks. ‘I never experienced a single incidence of anti-semitism in my whole life, but when my daughter was studying at LSE, she went to an anti-globalisation rally which quickly turned into a tirade against Israel and America and then a tirade against Jews and she came back in tears and she said: “Dad, they hate us.” That sent a shiver down my spine, I just thought we were beyond that. That was nine years ago and it has got worse ever since.’
For Sacks, this new intolerance — so far removed from our idea of ourselves as dignified respecters of 21st-century human rights — is a direct product of the decline of religion. It’s not that man cannot be moral without faith — but that without the practice of religion, ethics are subject to entropy. In The Great Partnership, he puts it like this: ‘When the burden of law-abidingness falls on the state and its institutions, when people define right and wrong in terms of externalities — punishments and rewards — then society begins to erode. Like an orchestra without a conductor, they lose the habits that sustain the virtues that create the trust that preserves the institutions that shape and drive a moral order.’
‘Each year,’ said Sacks, ‘I do a television programme for the BBC and this time they challenged me, would I make the case for God in conversation with atheists? One of the atheists was a neuroscientist called Colin Blakemore who is a hard determinist, that is he doesn’t believe we have free will at all. And I said: Colin, if you believe what you say you do, why should any future society punish criminals? Why should it not just perform neurosurgery on them? If there’s no free will, there’s no moral responsibility. Goodbye freedom, goodbye human dignity, goodbye free society. I don’t think people, even very intelligent people, fully understand what else we lose, if we lose our belief in that which is bigger than us.’
Hum. Well. We might agree about that; we might even agree that the Abrahamic religions (despite their chequered pasts and compromised priests) safeguard morality. But won’t your VIPs simply respond that, useful or not, religion is simply untrue? Maybe we should pluck up the courage, as Dawkins and Nietzsche suggest, to face a Godless reality.
‘Oh, why is it always brave to despair?’ Sacks sighed. ‘I think it is braver to hope. It’s a risk, having faith, yes. You may say, I refuse to believe what I cannot test. So be it. But the big decisions in life are like that. You can never know in advance the facts that would make your decision the right one under the circumstances. That applies to the decision to marry, to have a child, to start a business, to write a symphony.’
And of course Sacks believes that if y ou take a leap of faith, you’ll land on firm ground. ‘At the end of the day [this is from his book again] there is a difference between discovering faith and inventing it. Discovering it means it exists independently of our will. It comes to us as a call from the heart of our being. Love your neighbour. Love the stranger. Feed the hungry. There is a power to these things that lifts the human spirit and mobilises moral energies, No human substitute has anything like that power.’
‘Which is why it’s most urgent for Muslims, Jews and Christians to stand together,’ said Sacks. ‘To get that message across. And it is possible. During the Pope’s visit for example, I was asked to welcome him on behalf of the non-Christian faiths. I spoke for about four minutes and then he shook my hand and said the conventional stuff, but just as he was leaving, after the whole thing was over, he stopped and took me aside. He told me how much he values the relationship with the Jewish people and that we must continue to deepen it. But,’ Sack’s voice softened, ‘the facts don’t communicate the whole story. Something happened as the Pope spoke ... a little epiphany. I don’t think I was wrong. Other people noticed it, Chris Patten noticed it. So I am going to take that relationship forward. It’s rare to find someone so importantly engaged in the spiritual future of Europe.’
It’s a generous description, from the Chief Rabbi, of a man and an office he must think fundamentally flawed. All the more moving for the odd little name-drop at the end. But it proves his point — that respect begets respect, that where there seems no rational basis for a meeting of minds, men can meet in faith.