The 7th Annual Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs

The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilisations

July 3, 2002
Point of difference

Rabbi Professor Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, delivered the 2002 Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs Volume 10, Number 3 July 2002 at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia, PA. The topic of the lecture, named after his book of the same title, was "The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilisations."

Rabbi Sacks was introduced by FPRI President Harvey Sicherman. Prior to his talk, Mjenzi Traylor, First Deputy Director of the City of Philadelphia Department of Commerce, welcomed Rabbi Sacks on behalf of Mayor John F. Street and the City of Philadelphia and presented him with a replica of the Liberty Bell.

Mjenzi, ladies and gentlemen, may I thank you for this wonderful bell which I will cherish. It comes with that memorable inscription from Leviticus 25:10, “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.”

I cannot tell you how moved Elaine and I feel, to be present in this city, the home of liberty in the modern world. That you made it by seceding from the English is something I wouldn’t dream of mentioning — but to be in the place where Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin sat in the summer of 1776 to draft one of the great documents in the history of liberty, the American Declaration of Independence, is a huge honour, and I say thanks — and to Harvey, please ring it loudly if I run exceed my time limit!

May I say also what a privilege it is to be speaking at the FPRI, and to pay tribute to Dr. Sicherman, Alan and Jan Luxenberg, and to all the members of this Institute, so distinguished a contributor to thought on matters that must concern us all.

Finally but especially, let me add what an honour it is to deliver a lecture in the name of the Templeton family. To Dr. John Templeton and Dr. Josephine Templeton, may I say that no institution has done more to promote progress in religion than the Foundation that bears your family name, and we need it now. Religion is a fateful force in the contemporary world and it is crucial that it be a force for good — for conflict resolution, not just conflict creation. If religion in the 21st century is not part of the solution, then it will surely be part of the problem.


Tonight I am going to put forward a simple but radical idea – and to do so I begin with a story. An English philosophy professor was once asked to deliver a lecture at the Academy in Beijing. Not able to speak Mandarin, he is provided with a Chinese translator. After the first sentence of his lecture, he pauses for the interpreter to translate, but the Chinese waves him on, saying “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you when to stop.” After fifteen minutes, the interpreter signals to him to pause, says four words in Chinese to the audience, and waves him on. After another fifteen minutes he gestures for him to stop and says another four words. The same thing happens after 45 minutes, and as the lecture ends, he says another three words.

As the academicians file out, the professor goes over to the Chinese interpreter and says “I am astonished at your ability to compress so complex a lecture on epistemology into so few words! How did you do it?” The Chinese interpreter says, “Simple. After fifteen minutes I said ‘So far he hasn’t said anything new.’ After half an hour I said ‘He still hasn’t said anything new.’ After 45 minutes I said ‘I don’t think he’s going to say anything new’ and after an hour I said ‘I was right, he didn’t’.”

It is difficult to say something new about the world’s great faiths, thousands of years old, but that is what I want to do — to offer a new reading, more precisely a new listening, to some ancient texts. The reason I do so is because our situation in the 21st century, especially post-September 11, is new, in three ways:

(1) Religion has returned against all expectation in many parts of the world, as a powerful force.

(2) Its presence has been particularly evident in conflict zones throughout the world — in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Kashmir, other parts of India and Pakistan, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia.

(3) Religion is rarely in and of itself the cause of conflict (as someone once said about the conflict in the Balkans between Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslims, that all three speak the same language and share the same race: the only thing that divides them is religion, which none of them believe.) It is however the fault-line along which the sides divide. The reason is simple. Whereas, broadly speaking, the 20th century was dominated by the politics of ideology, the 21st century is and will be dominated by the politics of identity — by the questions “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” Now the three great institutions of modernity which have dominated the West since the 17th century — science, economics and politics — are more procedural than substantive. They answer the questions of “What?” and “How?”. They do not answer the questions “Who?” and “Why?” Therefore when politics turns from ideology to identity, people turn to religion, the great set of answers to the questions, “Who am I?” and “Of what narrative am I a part?”

The search for identity inevitably divides, because every “us” is defined in contradistinction to a “them.” Whether between Catholics and Protestants in Northern

Ireland, Jews and Muslims in the Middle East, or Muslims and Hindus in India, identity divides.

In the past, this was a less acute problem than now. For most of history, most people lived in fairly constant proximity to people with whom they shared an identity, a faith, a way of life. You lived among people like you. Today, through travel, television, the Internet, and the sheer diversity of our multi-ethnic and multi- faith societies, we live in the conscious presence of difference. The question is, how do you cope with that fact? The answer is that societies that have lived with it for a long time have learned to cope with it, but to those for whom this is a new phenomenon, it can be very threatening.

This would not necessarily be problematic. After Europe’s Wars of Religion in the 17th century, nations slowly learned to cope with difference by containing diverse populations under a single overarching government with the power to contain conflict. Two somewhat different approaches emerged in Britain and America: John Locke’s doctrine of toleration, and Thomas Jefferson’s separation of church and state. Each was effective in enabling different religious groups to live together in civil peace.

What has changed today is the sheer capacity of small, subnational groups — through global communications, porous national borders, and weapons of mass destruction — to create havoc and disruption on a large scale. In the 21st century, we will need physical defences against terror, but we will also need a new religious paradigm equal to the challenge of living in the conscious presence of difference. What might that be?


The first human response to difference, at the dawn of civilisation, was tribalism: my tribe against yours, my nation against yours, my god against yours. In the pre-monotheistic world, the gods were local, they belonged to a particular place, and watched over the destinies of particular people. So the Mesopotamians had Marduk and the Moabites Chamosh, the Egyptians had their pantheon and the ancient Greeks theirs. A tribal, polytheistic world is an arena of conflict and war. Its literature speaks of military virtues: epic heroes, great battles of mighty men of valour; poems, songs and inscriptions of victories and conquests.

In some respects that world lasted in Europe until 1914. The modern name for tribalism was nationalism, and in 1914 young men throughout Europe — Rupert Brooke and other First World War poets — were eager to go to war until they actually saw carnage on a massive scale. It took two world wars and 100 million deaths to cure Europe of that temptation.

However, for almost two and a half thousand years, there has been in Western culture an alternative to tribalism. We owe it to one of the greatest philosophers of all time, Plato. I call this alternative universalism, and the radical thesis I am going to argue is that this too is inadequate to the human condition.

What Plato argued, in a famous passage in The Republic, is that the world of the senses — of things we can see and hear and feel, the world of particulars — is not a source of knowledge or truth or reality. How can we understand what a tree is, If trees change from day to day and there are so many different kinds of them? How can I define a table if tables come in all shapes and sizes? Plato’s famous answer is that all these particulars are shadows on a wall. What is real is the world of forms, concepts, ideas: the idea of a table, the form of a tree. These alone are eternal, immutable, universal. We find truth by moving from particularity to universality. Truth is the same for everyone, everywhere, at all times. All that is local, particular, and unique is insubstantial. Reality and truth are universal. I call this “Plato’s Ghost,” and it has haunted the Western imagination ever since (Alfred North Whitehead famously described Western philosophy as a “series of footnotes to Plato”).

I believe that this is a dangerous idea, because it suggests is that all differences, if taken seriously, lead to tribalism and war, and the best alternative is to eliminate differences and impose on the world a single, universal truth. However, this too is a solution that leads to tragedy, because if the ultimate truths of the human condition are universal, then if you and I disagree, and I am right, then you are wrong. If I care about truth, I must convert you. If I can’t convert you, I must conquer you. If even then I can’t persuade you, I may have to kill you in the name of truth. From this flowed the crusades, jihads and inquisitions, the blood of human sacrifice through the ages.

There have been five universal civilisations in the history of the West: ancient Greece, ancient Rome, medieval Christianity, medieval Islam, and the European Enlightenment. We are living through the sixth: globalisation. September 11 happened when two universal civilisations — global capitalism and medieval Islam — met and clashed. And when universal civilisations meet and clash, the world shakes and lives are lost. Tonight, therefore, I pose a simple question: Is there an alternative, not only to tribalism, but also to universalism? in order to answer it I want to go back to the Bible, and hear in it a message, simple but profound, that I have not heard clearly articulated before. It is an important one for our time.


What is the Bible about? Its central theme is the story of Abraham and Sarah and their children, who become a tribe, then a collection of tribes, then a nation, a particular nation, a people of the covenant.

However, the Bible does not begin with that story. For its first eleven chapters, it tells a universal story of humanity as a whole: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, Babel and its builders. These are universal archetypes who share a global culture. As Genesis 11 puts it, “The whole world was of one language and shared speech.” Only in Genesis 12, with God’s call to Abraham, does the narrative move to the particular.

This sequence is of immense consequence because it inverts Plato’s idea of order. Plato begins with the particular, the world of differences, and moves to the universal. The Bible begins with the universal and then moves to the particular. The Bible is the great counter-Platonic narrative in Western civilisation.

It begins with two fundamental statements. The first, perhaps the most revolutionary in Western civilisation, is the declaration in Genesis 1, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.” In the ancient world it was not unknown for human beings to be in the image of God. That is what Mesopotamian kings and Egyptian pharaohs were. What is revolutionary about the Bible is its claim that this is true not only of rulers but of each of us.

The second, in Genesis 9, is God’s covenant with Noah, the first covenant with all mankind, through which God asks humanity to construct societies based on the rule of law, the sovereignty of justice and the non-negotiable dignity of human life.

It is surely these two passages that inspire the great words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. . . .” The irony about this sentence is that “these truths” are anything but self-evident. They would have been unintelligible to Plato, who believed that human beings are created unequal, and to Aristotle who thought that some are born to be free, others born to be slaves. “These truths” are self-evident only in a culture saturated in the language of the Bible.

However, for the Bible, this is not the end, only the beginning. From then on, starting with Genesis 11 (Babel and the confusion of languages), and Genesis 12 (God’s call to Abraham), it moves from the universal to the particular, from all mankind to one family. This counter-Platonic gesture is both significant and strange.

It is strange because the Hebrew Bible is the first document to proclaim the principle of monotheism, that God is not only the God of this people and that place, but of all people and every place. Why, then, having acknowledged the universal God, does it turn to particularism from Genesis 12 onwards? The paradox is this: the God of Abraham is the God of all mankind, but the faith of Abraham is not the faith of all mankind.

In the Bible you don’t have to be a member of the Abrahamic covenant to be a man or woman of God. Melchizedek, Abraham’s contemporary, is not a member of the covenantal family, but the Bible calls him “a priest of God Most High”; Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, is a Midianite High Priest, yet he gives Israel its first system of governance: heads of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens, what the Catholic Church calls “subsidiarity.” One of the most remarkable heroes of the exodus is an Egyptian, Pharoah’s daughter, who rescues Moses and gives him his name. Jewish tradition called her Bithiah, “the daughter of God.”

Melchizedek, Jethro and Pharaoh’s daughter are not members of Abraham’s family, yet God is with them and they are with God. To put it in modern terms, in Judaism you

don’t have to be Jewish to encounter God. As the rabbis put it eighteen centuries ago, “The righteous of every faith, every nation, have a share in the world to come.” This is surely a paradox. Why, if God is God of all humanity, is there not one faith, one truth, one way for all humanity?


My reading is this: that after Babel and the collapse of the global project, God calls on one people, Abraham, Sarah and their children, and says “Be different.” The word kadosh, “holy,” in the Hebrew Bible, means just this: “different, distinctive, set apart.” Why did God ask one people to be different? Not for their sake alone, for God is the God of all humanity. God told Abraham and Sarah to be different to teach all humanity, whatever our faith, race or nation, the dignity of difference, that God can be found in someone different from you. As the rabbis put it beautifully in the Mishnah eighteen hundred years ago, “When a human being makes many coins in the same mint, they all come out the same. God makes every human being in the same mint, in His image, yet we all come out differently.” In other words, the great religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in my image, in one whose colour is different from mine, whose culture is different, who speaks a different language, tells a different story, worships God in a different way.

This is a paradigm shift in our understanding of monotheism. We are in a position to hear this message in a way that previous generations may not have been, because we have acquired an understanding of the world significantly different from our ancestors’. Let me give two instances of this — one from science, the other from social science, economics.

First, natural science: There was a time, during the European Enlightenment from Francis Bacon and Descartes onward, when scientists thought of nature as a giant machine, with many interlocking parts, harmonised in the service of mankind. We now know that ecological systems are not quite like this. The miracle of nature is its biodiversity. It is not a machine in the service of mankind. Nature is a complex ecology in which every species has its own part to play and the whole has an independent integrity. Thanks to the discovery of DNA, we know more than this. As the science writer Matt Ridley, puts it: “The three letter words of the genetic code are the same in every creature. CGA means arginine, GCG means alanine in bats, in beetles, in bacteria. They even mean the same in the misleadingly named archibacteria living in boiling temperatures in sulfurous springs thousands of feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean or in those microscopic capsules of deviousness called viruses. Wherever you go in the world, whatever animal, plant, bug, or blob you look at, if it is alive, it will use the same dictionary and know the same code. All life is one. The genetic code, bar a few tiny local aberrations mostly for unexplained reasons in the ciliate protozoa, is the same in every creature. We all use exactly the same language.” This means — he adds in parenthesis that “religious people might find this a useful argument” — that “there was only one creation. One single event when life was born.”

This is what the Bible is hinting at: that the real miracle of creation is not the Platonic form of the leaf, but the 250,000 different kinds of leaf there are; not the idea of a bird, but the 9,000 species that exist; not the universal language, but the 6,000 languages actually spoken. The miracle of creation is that Unity in heaven creates diversity on earth.

The second example, economics: The fact that we are all different means that each of us has certain skills and lacks others, so that what I lack, you have, and what you lack, I have. If we were the same, we would never need one another. Precisely because we are different, we specialise and trade, and therefore gain. Most fascinating is the discovery of Italian Jewish economist David Ricardo, who in the early nineteenth century formulated the Law of Comparative Advantage, which states that if you are better at making axe heads than fishing and I am better at fishing than making axe heads, we gain by trade even if you are better than me at both fishing and making axe heads. You can be better than me at everything, yet we still benefit if you specialise at what you are best at and I specialise at what I am best at. In other words, each of us, because we are different from everyone else, has something unique to contribute, and by contributing we benefit not only ourselves but others as well.

What we should never forget about the market economy, especially in a global age, is that throughout history, differences between nations have led to one of two possible consequences: either war, or trade. In war, at least one side loses (in the long run, both sides lose). In trade, both sides gain. When we value difference as market exchange values difference, we create a non-zero sum scenario of human interaction. We turn a narrative of tragedy – of war — into a script of hope.

So, whether we look at biology or at economics, we see that difference is the precondition of a complex ecology. I have tried to show how, by a new act of listening to the Bible, we arrive at the same paradigm — not universalism, which minimises differences; not tribalism, which sees differences as a source of war, but a third alternative, the dignity of difference. This values our shared humanity as the image of God and (from Noah onward) in a universal covenant with God –the basis for such universal codes as the American Declaration of Independence and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Rights — but which also values our differences, just as a loving parent loves each of his or her children not for what makes them the same, but for what makes each unique. This is what the Bible means when it speaks of God as a parent.


We can now map this religious paradigm onto the political map of the 21st century. Following the collapse of Soviet communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, there were two famous scenarios of the future: Francis Fukuyama’s End of History (1989) and Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisation and the Remaking of World Order(1996).

Fukuyama envisaged an eventual spread of global capitalism, and then liberal democracy. The result would be a new universalism, a single culture that embraced the world. Samuel Huntington envisaged a different outcome. He argued that modernisation did not mean Westernisation. Global capitalism would lead to a counter-movement: the resurgence of older and deeper loyalties, hence a “clash of civilisations.” In short, Huntington predicted a new tribalism.

To a considerable degree, both have turned out to be true. On the one hand, the global economy is binding us ever more closely together into the universal culture that Benjamin Barber calls “McWorld”3. On the other hand, civilisational and religious differences are forcing us ever more angrily and dangerously apart. That is the outcome when the only two available scenarios are tribalism and universalism.

A responsibility rests with us all, particularly with religious leaders, to envision a different and more gracious future. I said before that, faced with intense religious conflict and persecution, John Locke and Thomas Jefferson developed their distinctive ideas of how different religious groups might live together peaceably. These were two leaps of the imagination which built, each in its own way, a bridge across the abyss of confrontation across which future generations of citizens could walk to a better world.

I have tried tonight to go rather further than Locke’s doctrine of toleration and the American doctrine of separation of church and state, because I doubt whether these are strong enough for a situation of global conflict without global governance. Instead, I have made the strongest statement I can make, not just on secular grounds (though I have done this as well, arguing from biodiversity and economic exchange) but in religious terms also. The reason is that the language generally used today for the coexistence of difference — pluralism, liberalism – is a secular terminology that will not persuade a deeply, even fanatically passionate religious believer to subscribe to it. That is why I have set out a religious idea, based on the very book of Genesis and the story of Abraham, from which all three great monotheisms — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — trace their descent. I have argued that the message of the dignity of difference can be found there, and it is a profoundly healing one. The real miracle at the heart of monotheism is not that there is one God, therefore one truth, one faith, one way, so that we must wage holy war against those who choose another way. The miracle is that unity creates diversity.

Nothing has proved harder in the history of civilisation than to see God or good or dignity in those whose language is not mine, whose skin is a different colour, whose faith is not my faith, and whose truth is not mine. There are surely many ways of arriving at this generosity of spirit, and perhaps each faith needs to find its own way. The way I have articulated tonight, having listened to the Bible in the context of the tragedies of the 20th century and the insecurities of the 21st, is that the radical truth at the heart of monotheism — the real meaning of divine transcendence — is that God is greater than religion. He is only partially comprehended by any one faith. He is my God, but he is also your God. He is on my side, but also on your side. He exists in my faith, but also in yours.

That is not to say that there are many gods: that is polytheism. Nor is it to say either that God endorses every act done in His name: to the contrary, a God of your side as well as mine must be a God of justice who stands above both of us, teaching us to make space for one another, to hear one another’s claims, and to resolve them equitably. Only such a God would be truly transcendent, greater not only than the natural universe, but also than the spiritual universe comprehended in any one language, any one faith. Only such a God could teach mankind to make peace other than by conquest or conversion, and as something nobler than practical necessity.

What would such a faith be like? It would be like being secure in my own home and yet moved by the beauty of foreign places — of a city like Philadelphia — knowing that it is your home, not mine, but still part of the glory of the world that is ours. It would be like being fluent in English and yet thrilled by the rhythms and resonances of an Italian sonnet I only partially understand. It would be to know that I am a sentence in the story of my people but that there are other stories, each written by God out of the letters of lives bound together in community, each bearing the unmistakable trace of His handwriting. Those who are confident of their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others. In the midst of our multiple insecurities, that is what we need now: the confidence and generosity to recognise the irreducible, glorious dignity of difference.