Rabbi sees rift

Re­li­gion strug­gles with mod­ern times

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - RELIGION - TERRY MATTINGLY

As long as there have been chase scenes — think the “Key­stone Kops” or “In­di­ana Jones” — movie he­roes have been caught strad­dling dan­ger while try­ing to get from one ve­hi­cle to an­other.

In­evitably, the road splits and the hero has to make a de­ci­sion.

Re­li­gious be­liev­ers now face a sim­i­lar chal­lenge af­ter decades of bit­ter con­flict in the post­mod­ern world, said Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in a re­cent lec­ture at the Chau­tauqua In­sti­tu­tion in south­west­ern New York.

For a long time, “We were able to have our feet in so­ci­ety and our head in re­li­gion, or the other way around. … But to­day, the two cars are di­verg­ing, and they can’t be held to­gether any longer,” said Sacks, who was knighted by Queen El­iz­a­beth in 2005 and made a life peer in the House of Lords.

It’s an ag­o­niz­ing dilemma that re­minded the rabbi of a clas­sic Woody Allen quote: “More than any other time in his­tory, mankind faces a cross­roads. One path leads to de­spair and ut­ter hope­less­ness; the other, to to­tal ex­tinc­tion. Let us pray we have the wis­dom to choose cor­rectly.”

Truth is, there’s no way to es­cape the in­ter­net, which Sacks called the great­est eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and so­cial revo­lu­tion since the in­ven­tion of the print­ing press.

“I sum it up in a sin­gle phrase — cul­tural cli­mate change,” said Sacks, who from 1991 to 2013 led the United He­brew Con­gre­ga­tions of the Com­mon­wealth. “It’s not so much a mat­ter of more re­li­gion or less re­li­gion — be­cause the truth is that both are hap­pen­ing at once. … The re­sult is a se­ries of storms in the West and even more else­where in the Mid­dle East, in Asia and Africa.”

For four cen­turies, Euro­pean and Amer­i­can elites wrongly as­sumed the world would get more and more sec­u­lar. They as­sumed the rest of the world would em­brace West­ern ideas about cul­ture, eco­nom­ics, moral­ity and truth. But lead­ers in China, In­dia, Rus­sia and the Is­lamic world now be­lieve that “to­mor­row be­longs to them, not the West,” Sacks said.

Why? In Europe and Amer­ica, birthrates are fall­ing and mil­lions of adults, young and old, are shun­ning mar­riage and fam­ily al­to­gether. Mean­while, tra­di­tional forms of re­li­gion — those with chil­dren and con­verts — con­tinue to grow.

“What we are see­ing, and what we haven’t seen for four cen­turies, is not re­li­gion as ac­com­mo­da­tion, but re­li­gion as re­sis­tance. It’s not re­li­gion mak­ing its peace with the world, but re­li­gion op­pos­ing the world, chal­leng­ing the world or sim­ply with­draw­ing from the world,” Sacks said.

The rabbi stated his the­sis again: “Half of the world is get­ting less re­li­gious, and half of the world is get­ting more re­li­gious, and the ten­sion be­tween them is grow­ing day by day.”

This cri­sis can be seen, he said, in re­newed de­bates about moral philoso­pher Alas­dair MacIn­tyre’s 1981 book Af­ter Virtue, and new works linked to it — such as The Bene­dict Op­tion by jour­nal­ist Rod Dre­her and Strangers in a Strange Land, by Catholic Arch­bishop Charles Cha­put of Philadel­phia.

Sacks, who won the 2016 Tem­ple­ton Prize, is con­vinced re­li­gious lead­ers face three op­tions in an age in which mere rea­son and ma­te­ri­al­ism have failed to in­spire cit­i­zens to make sac­ri­fices on be­half of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

First, he said, re­li­gious be­liev­ers could try to con­quer so­ci­ety, a path that — as demon­strated by rad­i­cal­ized forms of Is­lam — leads “straight to the Dark Ages.” Then

again, be­liev­ers could with­draw, which will al­low them to sur­vive, while deep­en­ing the West’s cur­rent cul­tural cri­sis. Fi­nally, re­li­gious groups could at­tempt to rein­spire so­ci­ety by mak­ing a case for faith re­main­ing a pos­i­tive, nec­es­sary force in the fu­ture.

At some point, Sacks said, peo­ple might tire of “bowl­ing alone” — a nod to scholar Robert Put­nam’s clas­sic book — and re­al­ize that one of the best places to find “so­cial cap­i­tal” and fel­low­ship is in faith com­mu­ni­ties.

What the mod­ern world needs, he con­cluded, is faith that pro­vides “a con­se­cra­tion of the bonds that con­nect us. … Re­li­gion as covenant and com­mit­ment. Re­li­gion that con­se­crates mar­riage, that sus­tains com­mu­nity and helps reweave the torn fab­ric of so­ci­ety.

“That kind of re­li­gion is con­tent to be a mi­nor­ity. … Re­li­gion can be a mi­nor­ity, but it can be a huge in­flu­ence. It doesn’t seek power, it seeks in­flu­ence.”

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