Krista Tippet of “On Being” interviewed the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Lord Jonathan Sacks in 2010. He’s one of the world’s great thinkers on the promise and perils of religion.
The following is an excerpt:
Lord Sacks: … the thing that really changed my life, was standing at Ground Zero, you know, a couple of months afterwards. In January — well, it was January 2002 — together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and religious leaders throughout the world. And we were looking at this wreckage, this sheer harm that hate can do and yet, at the same time, here we all were in friendship, fellowship, and shared prayer. And I just saw how clearly that those are the terms of the equation. Do we go that way, or do we go this.”
Ms. Tippett: And I wonder if when you became Chief Rabbi in 1991 if it would have surprised you that, at this point, 10 years into the 21st century, even just a few years into the 21st century, religion had risen so utterly to the surface of global life.
Lord Sacks: No, actually. In 1990, the BBC asked me to give the Reith Lectures. They’re given once a year. There are six lectures on radio, first given by Bertrand Russell in 1948. I was only the second religious leader to give them, and I called them The Persistence of Faith. It was probably the first response to Francis Fukuyama’s vision of the end of the history. You know, the Berlin Wall had fallen, Soviet Union had collapsed, end of Cold War. Everyone was seeing what he foresaw as the, you know, seamless spread of liberal democracy over the world.
And I said no, actually. I think you’re going to see faith return and return in a way that will cause some problems because the most powerful faith in the modern world will be the faith most powerfully opposed to the modern world. So that was in 1990, the year before I became Chief Rabbi. Nothing that’s happened since has surprised me, though it has saddened me. Religion is a great power and anything that powerful can be a force for good or, God forbid, for evil. But it’s certainly fraught and dangerous and needs great wisdom and, you know, great — if I can use this word — gentleness.
Ms. Tippett: So I’d like to talk about the ideas that you brought forward in The Dignity of Difference and I think have continued to develop ever since. You know, I remember a very intelligent, excellent American journalist commentator after September 11, 2001; he made a statement that what those events demonstrated was that, in order for the three monotheistic religions in particular to survive and be constructive members of society in the 21st century, they would have to relinquish their exclusive truth claims. I think that sounded like it made a lot of sense to many people.
The case you make in The Dignity of Difference is also aimed towards the traditions being constructive parts of the 21st century, but you take that in a different direction. So let’s talk about how it is possible in your imagination to retain the essence, the truth claims, of Judaism and also, as you say, honor the dignity of difference, understand one’s self to be enlarged rather than threatened by religious others.
Lord Sacks: Thanks to Crick and Watson’s discovery of DNA and the decoding of the human and other genomes, we know that all life, everything, you know, all the 3 million species of life and plant life — all have the same source. We all come from a single source. Everything that lives has its genetic code written in the same alphabet. Unity creates diversity. So don’t think of one God, one truth, one way. Think of one God creating this extraordinary number of ways, the 6,800 languages that are actually spoken. Don’t think there’s only one language within which we can speak to God.
I believe we are all brothers and sisters, totally interdependent. What hurts one, hurts us all. And how we handle and resolve of difficulties and trials is totally dependent upon whether we become a population of peace or a population of hate.