Faith in the Future (A Templeton Conversation)

The Promise and Perils of Religion in the 21st Century

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks delivered the Templeton Prize lecture at the Annual Meetings of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature in San Antonio, Texas on Sunday, 20th November 2016.

Heather Templeton Dill:

Good evening. I am Heather Templeton Dill, the President of the John Templeton Foundation, and it is a joy to represent the foundation in welcoming all of you to the annual AAR and SBL Templeton Prize Lecture. Our 2016 Templeton Prize Laureate undoubtedly needs little introduction for most of you. Please welcome author, lecturer, scholar, public communicator, and from 1991 to 2013 the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

Before we hear from Rabbi Lord Sacks I would like to say a few words about the Templeton Prize, and about why the nine prize judges chose Rabbi Lord Sacks as the 46th prize laureate this year. The Templeton Prize is given annually to a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, through insight, through discovery, or through practical works. It is a prize that honours a lifetime of work. What does it mean however to affirm life’s spiritual dimension? The Templeton Prize has been given to prominent religious leaders such as Rabbi Sacks, the Dalai Lama, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

But the prize has also been awarded to scientists who make statements such as, “If science and religion are properly understood, they cannot be in contradiction because science and religion concern different matters, and each is essential to human understanding.” Or, another prize winner wrote, “The nature of true morality is letting go of one's interest on behalf of others.” Remember, this is a scientist speaking, that this principle of letting go of one's interest on behalf of others is deeply embedded in the universe. Another prize winner who is also a prominent physicist wrote, “The contrived nature of physical existence is just too fantastic to take on board as simply given. It points forcefully to a deeper underlying meaning to human existence.”

In addition to scientists, the Templeton Prize has also recognised extraordinary humanitarians such as Jean Vanier who founded communities around the world where people with and without disabilities live in community together. All of these laureates - the religious leaders, the humanitarians, and the scientists affirm that human interactions, scientific investigations, and religious traditions are all ways of exploring the spiritual nature of the world in which we live.

The Nobel Prize as you well know honours discoveries in science and literature and peace-making. The Templeton Prize recognises those who have advanced our understanding of spiritual realities, something Sir John Templeton, who established the prize in 1972 felt Alfred Nobel had overlooked. Rabbi Sacks was awarded the prize because, with his scholarship, his writing, and his leadership, he reaches across the religious divide to unite religious leaders from many faith traditions, and to promulgate a message about how the very differences between religious traditions are the source of spiritual insight, for promoting dignity, peace, and prosperity in our fractured world.

But do you know, despite all that Rabbi Sacks accomplished, he may well have led a very different life. Rabbi Sacks tells a story about his first visit to the United States in 1968 (in his book Lessons in Leadership). “It was one year after the Six-Day War of 1967 and it seemed as if Israel,” he writes, “was facing a massive onslaught by its neighbours. We, the generation born after the Holocaust, felt as if we were about to witness a second Holocaust.”

He was a student of secular philosophy at Cambridge, at a time when being a philosopher, in Britain at least, almost certainly meant that you were an atheist, or at the very least agnostic. He wanted to know how Jewish thinkers in America were responding to these challenges, and so he came to America to meet as many rabbis and Jewish thinkers as possible, to understand where they were spiritually and intellectually. One of those he hoped to meet was Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, a pioneer in Jewish outreach in the US who had turned his Hasidic group outwards to campuses and communities that had never previously encountered such a type of Orthodoxy. After being told repeatedly that meeting the Rebbe would be impossible, one Sunday evening the phone rang. The young student Jonathan Sacks would be meeting the Rebbe on the following Thursday.

On that Thursday afternoon the Rebbe patiently answered Jonathan Sacks’ questions, but then suddenly reversed roles and began to ask questions of his own. “How many Jewish students were there at Cambridge?” “How many engaged with Jewish life?” “How many attended synagogue?” “Only about 10% of Jewish students are engaged with Jewish life,” Sacks responded. “So what are you doing about this?” the Rebbe asked. This was unexpected. Rabbi Sacks began to respond, “In this situation in which I find myself,” but the Rebbe let the sentence go no further. “You do not find yourself in a situation,” he said. “You put yourself in one. And if you put yourself in one situation, you can put yourself in another.”

Rabbi Sacks goes on to explain how it soon became quite clear what the Rebbe was doing. He was challenging the young Jonathan Sacks to act. Something was evidently wrong with Jewish life at Cambridge and the Rebbe was encouraging him to get involved, to do something, to change the situation.

Thus, over the next five decades Rabbi Sacks, simply put, has changed the situation. During his time as Chief Rabbi he revitalised Britain's Jewish community and he encouraged the community to share the ethics of their faith with a broader cultural audience. In doing so Rabbi Sacks articulates a vision of human flourishing in which people of different faith traditions appreciate and respect those who practise a different faith. We at the foundation are delighted that the prize judges acknowledged Rabbi Sacks’ commitment to diversity and difference, his ability to communicate these ideals effectively and the ways in which he put his ideas to work by creating new organisations, befriending religious leaders from many faith traditions, and encouraging the Jewish community to deepen its faith, its tradition, and its outreach.

In his nomination of Rabbi Sacks for the prize, Lord George Carey wrote that “Rabbi Sacks has been a voice of reason and toleration, forgiveness and reconciliation, moral inspiration and intellectual courage.” The Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, has echoed that same point. Speaking at the House of Lords in 2011, he said, “Rabbi Lord Sacks has done more than almost anybody to provide us with a vocabulary, a grammar that commends and communicates the dignity of difference.”

Earlier this year at the press conference when he was announced as the 2016 prize laureate, Rabbi Sacks had more to say about that grammar. “Religion, or more precisely religions,” he said, “should have a voice in the public conversation within the societies of the West, as to how to live, how to construct a social order, how to enhance human dignity, honour human life, and indeed protect life as a whole.” And when he addressed the Templeton Prize ceremony in London on May 26, Rabbi Sacks went even further. “You can't delegate moral responsibility away,” he said. “When you do, you raise expectations that cannot be met. And when inevitably they are not met, society becomes freighted with disappointment, anger, fear, resentment, and blame.”

A columnist in The Economist later reflected on Rabbi Sacks’ comments that evening. He wrote, “Rabbi Sacks played with the idea that outsourcing had gone too far. Moral questions had been outsourced to the market or to the state, historical memory had been outsourced to computers, risk had been outsourced to financial instruments, and so on.” “The antidote,” he suggested, “was the rediscovery of a sense of common good, rooted in a deep internalised knowledge of the past, and a feeling of obligation to future generations.” My friends, this is an important insight.

The Templeton Prize honours leaders such as Rabbi Sacks because his message is needed in our day and because Sir John Templeton, and we at the Templeton Foundation, want to promote a healthy appreciation for religion, an open-minded inquiry about the spiritual underpinnings of human existence. Tonight we will hear more about why religion must speak to the best in us if we are to create a more peaceful and prosperous world, as Rabbi Lord Sacks speaks on Faith in the Future, the Promise and Perils of Religion in the 21st Century. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

Rabbi Sacks:

Thank you Heather. Heather, beloved friends and colleagues, it's an enormous privilege to be in your company. Actually a completely terrifying one, to be in the presence of so many outstanding minds, whose work has so inspired me in the past. I do hope the accent is okay. I don't know if we offer simultaneous translation, but as Heather said, even as a young man I felt I had to come to America to learn about religion. Therefore, it is a huge privilege to be in the company of three institutions that I admire almost more than any in the world: The American Academy of Religion, The Society of Biblical Literature, and The Templeton Foundation.

For me, the life of learning and the study of texts is central to what it is to be a Jew, and for 22 years as a Chief Rabbi whenever I felt overwhelmed by communal politics, which was approximately every other day, I would try and escape to teach at university, which I did throughout those years, mainly at King's College London where I have so many beloved colleagues, some of whom are with us here today, and more recently now at New York University and Yeshiva University, universities that have contributed so much to the knowledge and understanding of religion, and to which I owe so much.

So, what I want to do this evening, very simply, is not just pay tribute to your work in the past, but to explain why I believe that never before has your work been more vital. I think that we stand at a critical juncture in the future of the free societies of the West, and I want to explain why. Obviously, given the time constraints, I can only do so in the broadest brush strokes, and therefore please forgive the lack of detail, but what I want to do is set out my personal understanding of exactly where we are, where we came from, and where we may be going to.

Let me begin with a simple suggestion which is that secularisation began in the West in the 17th century, not because people stopped believing in God. They didn't. But, because after a century of religious wars following the Reformation, people stopped believing in the ability of people of God to live peaceably together. That is when they began a search for structures and institutions that would not be built on doctrinal foundations. It seems to me we are coming to the end of four distinct phases in the secularisation of the West and they are spread over four centuries.

The first, in the 17th century, was the secularisation of knowledge in the form of Cartesian philosophy and Newtonian science, knowledge that could be based not on creed but on the twin foundations of reason and observation. That was stage one, the 17th century. In the 18th century stage two, the secularisation of power in the form of the American Revolution in 1776, when you did your own Brexit I have to say, and… Forgive me, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And the French Revolution in 1789, the separation of Church and State in America, the secular nation state in France, the secularisation of power.

The third stage, 19th century, the secularisation of culture, when museums and art galleries and concert halls were seen as alternatives to houses of worship, as places to meet the sublime and the beautiful. Hegel said that reading the daily newspaper has taken over the role of morning prayer. Actually when I read morning newspapers I want to pray quite hard indeed... So that was the 19th century, the secularisation of culture. Then came the 20th century, the secularisation of morality. The progressive abandonment starting in the 1960s of what we've come to call the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Throughout these four centuries, the standard assumption was that this process of secularisation was linear and irreversible. There were from time to time doubting voices, but they were few and far between. My favourite of them, because he was so wise, was the Frenchman who visited America in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville. Early on in democracy in America he writes, “18th century philosophers had a very simple explanation for the gradual weakening of beliefs. Religious zeal, they said, was bound to die down as enlightenment and freedom spread... It is tiresome,” writes Tocqueville, “that the facts do not fit this theory at all.”

That was 185 years ago and still people are making the same mistake again. And at least, and because indeed religion did not disappear and didn't die at all. And at least one reason which has become very, I think, quite salient today is that all of modernity’s master institutions, science, technology, the market economy and the liberal democratic state, all of them together cannot answer the three questions that any reflective person will ask him or herself sometime in the course of a lifetime. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? Who am I: the question of identity. Why am I here: the question of meaning. And how then shall I live: the question of morality.

None of them can be answered by any of society's modern institutions. Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot tell us how to use that power. The market gives us choices but does not presume to tell us which choices to make. The liberal democratic state gives us the maximum of freedom with the minimum of guidance. That is what makes them great institutions. They are procedural rather than substantive. But because we continue to ask these questions, we continue to search in territory that probably, almost eventually inevitably, ends up with religion.

What is reasonably clear is that the 21st century is going to be far more religious than the 20th century, for a whole series of reasons, the simplest being demography. The more religious you are, the more children you have on average. That applies throughout the world. Given that the Darwinian imperative is handing on your genes to the next generation, the people who don't believe in Darwin turn out to be better Darwinians than the ones who do.

Secondly, there is a very profound sense throughout the Middle East, and maybe beyond, of disappointment and betrayal on the part of secular nationalism that after the Second World War seemed to promise so much.

Thirdly, there is the phenomenon that we have come to call globalisation. As it happens, I actually think that is precisely the wrong word for it. The truth is, globalisation is not new. It has long been a feature of trade. It's what drove the great voyages of discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the Middle Ages, scholarship was fairly international because of the universal language, at least in the West, of Latin. Anyone familiar with the correspondence of Maimonides in the 12th century will know that he carried out a global correspondence with writing letters to Jews in Baghdad, in Yemen, in Provence, in Marseille. Indeed, since the 1st century, Jews have been scattered around the world, but they were seen by others and saw themselves as a single nation, a global nation.

So what is new today is not so much globalisation, but rather the loss of the local. That I think is new. What do I mean? I mean I daily communicate across the globe, but in three years I haven't communicated with the people who live on either side of us. Do we communicate with our next-door neighbour? Secondly, there has been a real sense, certainly in Britain and I think in many other European countries, of a loss of national identity, and that sense of loss is sadly leading to some quite dangerous nationalist tendencies in Europe. Thirdly, what has really been devastating has been the loss of collective moral codes in the West. Durkheim in 1899 called this anomie in his great book Suicide and many immigrant groups are profoundly disturbed by this free-for-all in morality and they feel unhoused and alienated in the highly individualistic cultures of the West.

What is more, it should be clear to everyone today that there is a huge mismatch between the problems we face as humanity and the institutions we have through which to address them. The problems today are all global; the economy is global, the financial institutions are all global, the problem of climate change is global. But we have no fully functioning effective global institutions. The only ones we have that are effective are national, they are not global, which means systemically our institutions are unable seriously to address the problems we all know we face. All of these things contribute to a sense among many throughout the world that the world is changing almost too fast to bear, with no clear sense of direction, or purpose, or meaning, and all of these things are helping to turn many populations, many groups not evenly spread throughout the world or evenly spread throughout society, but nonetheless turning many many people toward religion as the only way of making sense of the world, and maybe the only way of addressing some of the problems of the world.

What we begin to see is that, number one, the world's great faiths really are global. They are actually our most powerful extant global organisations, much more so than any nation state. Secondly, the great faiths provide what contemporary Western societies do not provide, which is a sense of personal worth regardless of wealth. Today, a highly consumerist society, a highly competitive society will maximise competition but minimise consolation. Thirdly, the world's great religions are the most powerful creators and sustainers of identity the world has ever known, and returning in Britain, until very recently, if people were immigrants to Britain, they would describe themselves in terms of their ethnic origin. I come from Pakistan, I come from India, I come from Bangladesh. Today, in Britain, if they want to identify themselves, they do so by religion, not ethnicity. I am Hindu, I am Sikh, I am Muslim, because religion just is a stronger and more continuous form of identity than ethnicity.

Fourthly, religion continues to create and sustain strong communities which is exactly what the individualistic West doesn't do. Fifthly, it allows young people to feel a sense of altruism and of sacrifice, which again our highly economised society doesn't do. But finally, religion is left, at the end of the day, as the single most compelling answer to those three eternal questions; Who am I? Why am I here?, How then shall I live? We are, in short, moving towards what the sociologist Peter Berger described some 20 years ago as an age of de-secularisation, and what last year political philosopher from Princeton, Michael Walzer has called a series of religious counter-revolutions. To repeat, the 21st century is going to be more religious than the 20th. However, this has already had and will continue to have difficult and disturbing consequences, not only in tragic conflict zones like Aleppo and Mosul, but even as we have seen in the politics of liberal democracies in the West, where things have suddenly become very abrasive and very fraught.

All of this becomes far more serious because of certain features of Western societies. Number one, Western politicians by and large don't really know what to do with religion. They're embarrassed by it. They don't quite know what to do with it. Secondly, in many cases politicians and especially the media today in the West don't know much about religion. Thirdly, in the world of internet and social media and information overload, it is obvious often the angriest religious voices, the most extreme religious voices that do the most important thing in an age of information overload, which is to command attention. That means that the presence of religion in people's lives is very often very radical and very extreme.

What is more, this new digital technology is the opposite of what we have understood by media in the past which is broad casting, that is distributing a message of highly varied kind to a highly varied audience. Today what happens is narrow casting which means that I tend to be exposed only to views with which I agree. We know from the work of Cass Sunstein, the lawyer and sociologist who is documented in books like “Going to Extremes” that if you only relate to people with the same views as your own, you will automatically become more extreme.

In addition, the internet has what they call a disinhibition effect which means that you can be ruder electronically than you can be face-to-face. That's one respect in which nothing has changed as far as Jews are concerned; we manage to be quite rude face-to-face anyway. But suddenly the whole world has become Jewish, if you know what I mean. There is less civility than there once was. And civility is that on which civilisation depends. Finally, the mere fact of our shortened attention spans means that very often individuals who have become religious don't know very much and don't learn very much about religion and they can have very superficial understandings.

Why is this so dangerous? Because every one of us in this whole knows that every religion has hard texts, texts which if taken literally and applied directly lead to hatred and violence and terror and war. Hard texts lead to demonisation of opponents and, at their most dangerous, lead to a dualism that sees the world in apocalyptic terms in the form of a confrontation between the children of light and the children of darkness. The interpretation of religious texts has suddenly become incredibly important in the 21st century.

The question I ask myself is, “Why was it not so important the last time we had wars of religion, namely in the 17th century?” The answer is as I've already argued that the solution that prevailed in the 17th century and indeed from then until today was not so much to reinterpret texts, but rather to deprive them of power by a progressive secularisation of society. In other words, people could still have dangerous ideas, but because they couldn't do very much with those ideas we were kept safe. The single major exception that I can think of, of systemic reinterpretation of texts, was in the case of the New Testament after the Holocaust in the process that we know of as Vatican II Nostra Aetate. But that to me is a marked exception.

The solution that worked in the West from the 17th to the 20th centuries, namely secularisation, is not going to work in the 21st century because ours is an age of de-secularisation. We're far from being deprived of power. There are many parts of the world in which religion is seizing and regaining political and military power. Therefore I believe the only response adequate to the challenge of violent religious extremism in the 21st century is to begin a long process of rereading those hard texts in the context of the 21st century. That is to say attempting to hear within the Word of God for all time the Word of God for this time. That is the kind of work that much of my own writing has been directed to.

Now if that is the case then I believe your own work in the American Academy of Religion and The Society of Biblical Literature becomes a vital consequence, and I want to explain why in three quite different dimensions. The first one is that we need to recover our religious literacy, our knowledge of texts. We then need to recover our sense of religious complexity. That is to say through the history of the interpretation of those texts. Then we need to understand the other, that is to say how is it that other people seeing the world through a different textual tradition see reality in ways different from ours. Then comes the further task, maybe a theological one, of thinking through what it means to live in the conscious presence of difference, of people whose narratives and texts are so different and yet have to learn to co-exist. And then perhaps, to recover a historical sense of how religion has acted in the past to resolve or mitigate conflict.

For me the role model yet again was what happened in the 17th century when a series of individuals, some religious but some not at all religious sat down and examined the Hebrew Bible. I’m thinking here of Hobbes, of John Milton, of Hobbes, of Locke, and of Spinoza, all of whom were in critical dialogue with the Bible, and out of that critical dialogue developed the ideas of the moral limits of power, of covenant and social contract, the doctrine of toleration, liberty of conscience, and human rights, all of which were based on religious texts, were indeed religious ideas, and emerged out of an attempt to resolve those conflicts between Protestants and Catholics that so scarred the face of Europe.

We sometimes have even forgotten that they ever were religious ideas. Therefore it's worth reminding that as late as 1961 in his inaugural on January the 20th, John F Kennedy spoke about in the first paragraph of his inaugural reminded everyone about this, in his words, “The same revolutionary beliefs for which our forefathers fought are at issue today throughout the world, that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.” That was where engagement with religious texts allowed the whole of the West to emerge from wars of religion to the free society.

The first task of the academy is to reacquaint a highly secular public with religious texts, religious literacy, and the history of the meaning of those texts. The second task is quite different, which is, as far as religion itself is concerned, because I am absolutely convinced that we have to see religion as part of the solution, not just as part of the problem, and that includes the market economic liberal democratic states of the West. I think this is what we've been lacking for a generation, and that is why politics have become so abrasive.

We need to recover, number one, the idea of covenant, so central to the political discourse of the United States, that covenant that binds rich and poor, powerful and powerless in a bond of mutual responsibility and care. Second, we know that religion today, Robert Putnam has given a wonderful account of this in his book “American Grace”. Religion today is the great source of social capital that is to be found in families and communities. Number three, I think we need to revisit the concept of a global covenant set out in Genesis 9, the covenant that God makes with Noah that binds all humanity in a bond of mutual solidarity - a bond which I think is as relevant in the 21st century as at any other time, the idea of the other in God's image. Every human being is in God's image, even though he is not in my image, even though his colour, culture, class, and creed are different from mine. This is a vitally important idea today.

We need to remind ourselves of the sanctity of life, of the sacred value, of the pursuit of peace, of the stewardship of the earth and of our responsibility to conserve creation. Jonathan Haidt, the social scientist, political scientist has reminded us in his book “The Righteous Mind” that we're losing certain key senses that bound society together. He calls them loyalty, reverence, and respect. All of these things, when they are lost from a society, make society very abrasive and sometimes very angry. Therefore I think at a second level, not just the study of texts, but the actual advocacy of religion, is part of the solution for many of our ills as well as part of the problem.

Finally, the third has to do with the role of the academy itself, with what Cardinal Newman called the idea of the university. Friends, I think universities in any tense age are the central institutions of society, they’re the place where we can show that conflict is not a zero-sum game, they are places where we can show that argument and disagreement can be hard harnessed to the collaborative pursuit of truth. I believe we shouldn't give up on the collaborative pursuit of truth. One of the scariest things I read in the newspapers in the last few days, I'm sure you saw this, Oxford English Dictionary's 'Word of the Year' for 2016 “post-truth.” Heaven help us if we have entered a world of “post-truth.”

Secondly, I am deeply concerned at the erosion of academic freedom which I, an erosion I see throughout the countries I visit. Academic freedom means giving a respectful hearing to views different from our own. Today many of those views are simply being exiled, outlawed from the university because they are not currently politically correct. In 1927, a French intellectual called Julien Benda wrote a book whose title became very famous, La Trahison des Clercs, The Treason of the Intellectuals. I say the title became famous because I can't actually believe anyone read the book, it's an extremely difficult book to read. I always write books, and I only assume people will read the title, but in this case, there was a very remarkable phrase he used. In 1927 he said universities have ceased to be places where we pursued the great ideals, and they have become, in his phrase, “places for the intellectual organisation of political hatreds.” The second we allow the academy to be subverted for political ends, academic freedom begins to die and here is nothing worse than that. If we lose academic freedom, we will lose every other kind of freedom as well.

Friends, those are the three dimensions to preserve the integrity of the academy, to advocate the importance of religion in the 21st century to the liberal democracies of the West, and to help us recover our literacy and understand what it is that we talk about when we talk about religion, and what others mean when they talk about their religion. Friends, I speak to you as a Jew, as a member of a people, a culture and a faith whose heroes are teachers, whose citadels are houses of study, and whose passion is education and the life of the mind.

It is profoundly humbling therefore to stand in the presence of so many great scholars who live by and embody those values. We collectively as scholars of religion are guardians of some of the greatest heritages of wisdom the world has ever known, and that is what the world needs right now. We are not short of information, we are not even short of knowledge. My six-year-old grandson, who has learned astronomy by watching videos on YouTube, has taken to giving me lessons on the subject, which he always prefaces by saying, “I'll make this one easy for you Grandpa.”

We're not short of information, we're not short of knowledge, but we are desperately short of wisdom, the wisdom that guided our ancestors and still has the power to guide us through the wilderness of time. There is simply too much noise out there - help us to hear the music. There is too much darkness out there - help us to see a little fragment of the light. May you continue to widen our horizons, deepen our understanding, enlarge the range of our sympathies, and may God bless all you do. Thank you.

Heather Templeton Dill:

Thank you. Thank you Rabbi Sacks for your inspiring message that is directed to the audience out here. And if I may steal a line from the Lubavitcher Rebbe who posed to Rabbi Sacks the question of what situation are you going to put yourself into, that I see that as part of the call to all of you from Rabbi Sacks this evening. You have intellectual capacities, you have positions of influence, and you have the opportunity to put yourself in a situation where you can use that influence to address some of the ills that our world is facing.

With that in mind we have an opportunity for you to ask questions. We have two microphones stationed in both aisles. If you would like to ask a question, we ask that you come to a microphone and please state your name and your affiliation. I also ask that you would limit your question to one or two sentences so that we can answer as many questions as possible. We’ll take the first question from whoever would like to come up.

Rabbi Sacks:

Everyone wants to ask the second question.

Heather Templeton Dill:

That’s right. Oh, here we go.

Rabbi Sacks:

So let's begin with the second question.

Brian Butcher:

Brian Butcher, Saint Paul University Ottawa, Canada. Todah Rabbah [Thank you]

Rabbi Sacks:

Thank you.

Brian Butcher:

I would like to know if you could say a little bit more about academic freedom. I was intrigued by your definition that is giving a respectful hearing to views which may disagree. It seems to me that part of the problem is that people can't agree on what a respectful hearing consists of, and hence the chance for the exchange is short-circuited or is precluded. How do we go about arriving at some kind of consensus as to the parameters of a respectful, of what constitutes a respectful hearing?

Rabbi Sacks:


Brian Butcher:

Thank you.

Rabbi Sacks:

First of all, let me say where I learned this from. I wasn't trained in religious studies. In fact, I never really intended to be a Rabbi. I trained as a secular philosopher. I became religious during my undergraduate years and after graduating I went to a seminary, a Jewish rabbinical seminary in Israel and I came back very religious indeed. My doctoral supervisor, the moral philosopher, the late Sir Bernard Williams, was a lapsed Catholic and a passionate atheist. Here was a passionate atheist and a deeply religious Jew, and he never ever ridiculed or challenged my beliefs. He simply wanted to make sure that I was lucid, that I was cogent, that I could hear, that I could defend my case. So I felt the respectful hearing was so powerful that it actually made me love all atheists very dearly. It just taught me to respect atheists and I gained so much.

Now I was Chief Rabbi for twenty-two years and towards the end of those years we had an Israeli ambassador in London, a young man called Daniel Taub educated at Oxford and Harvard, one of the most brilliant scholars, incidentally a Bible scholar, a legal scholar. He was invited up to talk about the politics of Israel and the Palestinians to the University of Edinburgh. When he got there he was shouted down for an hour. He was not allowed to say a single word. He was just drowned out. I thought to myself, “This is Edinburgh University.” This was the home of the Scottish enlightenment. I know that this is, David Hume walked those corridors or Adam Smith did, Ferguson, all of these people, and I thought, “What has happened to the home of enlightenment in Britain?” because the Scots were much more enlightened than the English were. I thought, “You know, this is exactly what is not happening. They are refusing to let this man be heard.”

Now I don't believe that any subject should be excluded from academic debate. The essence of the academy is it is a place where it is safe to express a view that is radically contrary to the consensus. Unless that freedom to dissent from the politically correct is guaranteed, then academic freedom is merely the freedom to conform. Frankly, that is not academic freedom at all. Okay.

Richard Burridge:

Richard Burridge, Dean of King's College London. Thank you Lord Sacks for that challenge to religion scholars and scriptural scholars to go back and do something that you or yourself have been modelling.

In your passionate defence of universities I was wondering about the way in which the marketisation and commercialisation of higher education drives us increasingly to go deeper and deeper into our research and so on, and there is more difficult time in doing what you've always been able to do, which is to learn how to get the depth but also the communication of it, because we have to get into our universities, into our research, but in the YouTube generation that your grandson is learning things from, we have to be able to communicate it. You've given us a great example. Can you give us some tips?

Rabbi Sacks:

Yeah, Richard, it's lovely to see you. Friends, Richard is a beloved colleague, Dean of King's College, London, and somebody to whom I’m enormously indebted for a wonderful academic fellowship which has been deeply rewarding to me. Richard, I realised on the second occasion that I went to see this great Rabbi, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson because I started talking like in academic. He leaned over to me and said, “I think you should speak using less complicated words.”

So I'm going to tell you Richard, but this is strictly off-the-record, okay. I don't necessarily recommend it to all of you, but for five days a week I was head of our rabbinical training seminary which was part of London University in those days, and I was very academic. I thought, “How am I going to communicate some of these complicated ideas in very simple terms?”

I decided to become, on Saturdays only, the Rabbi of a central London synagogue where the congregation, at least the male section of it, was a rather marked collection of - may I call them "alpha males"? They also had a custom, Richard, which may scandalise you, of - in the middle of a very long three-hour service - disappearing at a certain point to sample some single-malt whiskies. By the time they came back into the synagogue they were willing to challenge me on anything. In fact, some of them used to heckle me during my prayer for the Queen and the Royal Family. I would give sermons and if they could not work out what I was saying, that was the end of it. They would come up to me and say polite things like, “Rabbi, next time talk about something you know something about.”

I could not get away, Richard, without being as simple and direct to these. But now, listen, I don't recommend this. ,this is sink or swim tactics, but I do recommend for any academic the challenge which for instance the TED conferences have thrown at us. Can you take an idea and make it dramatic, and can you present it within a limited and finite space of time? I actually think that short attention spans are fine, because they’re challenging, they're really saying make this dramatic. I think the quality of our teaching will actually improve if we are absolutely clear in being coherent and lucid so that people understand what we're saying.

Richard, you've been a fine role model in those respects, but I thought I'd tell you the particular torment that I put myself through which taught me to strive to be understood.

Shirley Roels:

I'm Shirley Roels and I work for the Council of Independent Colleges in the United States. We work on a lot of projects that help people talk about how do students understand these three central questions that you posed. The question I would have is about faculty. Often faculty have two concerns.

One of those concerns is when you talk about, Who am I?, Why am I here?, and How shall I live?, they worry about the imposition of their answers on students. How do I proceed with students without imposing my answer on them?

The second thing the faculty worry about is, I'm not trained to ask those questions, I'm a chemist, I’m a musician. I'm not trained to ask those questions. How would you respond to their sources of concern and uncertainty?

Rabbi Sacks:

The first question, ‘how do I avoid imposing my views on my students,’ I've never found a problem, to be honest with you, because to me the essence of teaching is to empower and encourage your students to challenge you as vigorously as possible. I was mentioning to Heather, just before we came on, a wonderful Talmudic story which I'll share with you, which is the ethic that I think we all could profit from.

The Talmud tells the story of two Rabbis. Rabbi Yochanan who was a leading Rabbi in Israel in the third century and a disciple of his, who had once been not religious but who he persuaded to become religious, called Reish Lakish. They argued every day.

On one occasion Reish Lakish grew sick and died and Rabbi Yochanan had nobody to argue with. The Talmud tells us that the other Rabbis were very concerned that Rabbi Yochanan was going to go into a depression with nobody to argue with, and therefore they thought, “let’s provide him with an interlocutor who will really know as much as he does,” and they sent him a Rabbi, Rabbi Elazer ben Pedat who knew everything. He knew all the literature so that whatever you mention he’d know all the sources.

The Talmud says whenever Rabbi Yochanan said anything Rabbi Elazer would say, “There is a source that supports you.” After three days Rabbi Yochanan gave up in despair and cried, “Reish Lakish, please come back. They’ve sent me a man who whenever I say anything says, “You’re right.” Do you think I need him to tell me I’m right? I know I’m right. But when you were here, you gave me 24 reasons why I was wrong. So I had to think of 24 reasons why you were wrong to think I was wrong, and the result is we both grew.”

From that I see the principle of education as the dignity of dissent, and the good teacher is one who really empowers students to challenge. To me that’s the very essential element.

The truth is, do I want my students to agree with me? No, I want us to engage on an intellectual journey together where we will challenge one another and the end result is they won’t be the same as they were when they began, and I won’t be the same as I was when I began. I tell you very simply, to give you an example from the last question. I wrote a book called Not in God’s Name. It was a strong – I hope a strong – book. But before I did the final draft I wrote it many times, and I sent the penultimate draft to Richard [Burridge], bless him, and to one or two other Christian theologians, and they told me 24 reasons why I was wrong.

You were my Reish Lakish, Richard. Out of that, a book emerged that was a whole lot better than it would have been, because I was challenged, and told I’d not interpreted the Pauline texts that I quoted there correctly.

The end result was, to be a good teacher is not to impose your views on students, but to empower them to challenge you every inch of the way.

As to answering the questions, Who am I?, Why am I here?, How then shall I live?, it seems to me that any teacher of religion without attempting to answer those questions is presenting to his or her students some of the world's richest literature of answers to those questions. We sit humbly in the presence of these texts, these voices from the past, the text and the interpretation of those texts, and we give our students that living connection with the texts of our past, some of the greatest wisdom we have had, and we thereby help them answer those questions for themselves, and above all, protect them from the worst danger that exists nowadays.

You know T. S. Eliot once wrote, “There is such a thing as provinciality in time as well as place,” and I think students today suffer from provinciality in time. They're living so much in a present that they are almost tone deaf to the wisdom of the past. I think when that happens whole civilisations not just individuals can go astray. Therefore we are the custodians of that wisdom of the past and we are just inviting our students to make themselves at home in it, and through that literature, find their road map, their GoogleMaps to their destination.

Shirley Roels:

Thank you.

Rabbi Sacks:

Thank you.

Sandra Ham:

Hi, I'm Sandra Ham from the University of Chicago. Thinking about what you said in relation to the general public, you talked about increasing religious literacy and getting people to think more than they currently do and also to let go of deeply held beliefs. All of these are demands that you suggest we put on the general public.

What are your thoughts about things that we can give to the general public to make their lives easier in exchange for these extra demands?

Rabbi Sacks:

I don't think I'm in the business of making people's lives easier. I mean, do you know something? There was a book published in America. It became a bit of a bestseller a few years ago. It was never published in England sadly. It was written by two teenagers, two Christian teenagers and it was entitled, Do Hard Things and it was subtitled, A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations. That was a beautiful book title and I would say the university is our collective rebellion against low expectations.

All the interesting things in life are hard, and to undertake that difficult journey of learning and scholarship and reason, to undertake that difficult journey in the company of fellow students and wise teachers is one of the most beautiful things imaginable. Not everything worth doing is easy. In fact, almost nothing worth doing is easy.

Sandra Ham:

Thank you. I agree with you. However, I think we have President Trump because people have been dealing with too many demands without things that simplify their lives in exchange for them.

Rabbi Sacks:

I believe that we are in a culture that expects every question to have one answer. I think that we have lost our capacity for complexity and I think we have to challenge that, we really do, because if you have really difficult structural problems, of the kind that affect many parts of American, they affect many parts of Britain, if we have really complicated things and we persuade people that the solution here is as simple as the way you cast your vote, then we are inviting a culture of momentous disappointment, because things are not that simple. Therefore, I think that one of the responsibilities of the Academy is to get people to understand complexity. I really feel that that’s what we have to do.

I try to use very simple language whenever I communicate. I do quite a lot of broadcasting and a certain amount of writing in the national press, and when I do, I try to offer people a compelling narrative of hope. I don't give them easy solutions. I say to them, “The journey may be hard and it may be long, but it ends in a place called hope.” And I don't mean Hope, Arkansas. But I think, to give people the stamina for complexity is the protest we have to make against a culture of superficiality and simplification.

Sandra Ham:

Thank you.

Paul Anderson:

Thank you so much. Paul Anderson, George Fox University. I appreciate your work, on [Not in God's Name]. In my local community in Oregon I organised a public discourse with an Islamic scholar, Harris Zafar, and we both presented Not in the name of my Religion, and as a Muslim and as a Christian we challenged the yoking of religion to causes, especially violent causes.

My hope is that we can look at the best of our religions and put that forward. The fact is anything that has values will be usurped by others, even if they are not religious. So challenging also the misrepresentation of religious authority by people who use it for commercial reasons or our political reasons or warring reasons, I think that's a part of our challenge as well, to lift up the heart of our religions really as a service to humanity.

Rabbi Sacks:

I thank you for that. I really do believe that we ought to be able in the 21st century to find resources for conveying the simple and profound fact that we are enlarged by difference and not threatened by it. Because I think that it may be the single most important thing we have to learn, and out of it will become a new friendship and a new listening to one another, of Jew, Christian, and Muslim throughout the world, at least that is my prayer.

Heather Templeton Dill:

We have time for maybe one more question. Is there another…? Well, maybe then I will ask you Rabbi Sacks, what gives you hope as you look ahead into the 21st century? Religion will increase. You've made that point. What gives you hope?

Rabbi Sacks:

One of the most extraordinary things is that we've been here before. Religions are guardians of memory. The historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi wrote a lovely book called Zachor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. Religions are guardians of memories so we know we've been here before and we came through it. That I think is something that that depth of historical memory is enough to tell us that we can come through, we can survive, and we can turn every crisis into an opportunity.

However, if I may end with a little story, I share this with you. Today of course these things are commonplace, but ten years ago for the first time we acquired a car, an automobile, whatever you call it guys, with a satellite navigation system. Do you have these things now? You actually have them on your smartphone nowadays. But in those days they were very special, and I was thrilled by this satellite navigation system. It was a lady's voice, and she became my mentor in hope.

Let me explain: This was obviously put together, this satellite navigation system, was put together by somebody who had never met a Jewish driver. See, what you did was you keyed in a destination and this lovely lady's voice said, “Turn, you go straight for 300 yards and then turn right.” Now when you say this to a Jewish driver, the response is, “What does she know? I've lived here for fifty years. I know at 300 yards you go left.” So immediately a Jewish driver ignores the instructions of the satellite navigation system.

I was watching this computer thing to know what would happen when this machine had just done exactly what you asked it to do and immediately you ignored it. I was thrilled by the fact, number one, it never lost its cool. It put up a little sign saying, “Recalculating the route” and then a few seconds later it would show you the way to get to your destination from the ridiculous place you've got yourself lost to by not listening to it in the first place. From this I learned that if you know where you are trying to get, then however lost you are, there's a road from here to there. If that is not a signal of hope, I don't know what is.

Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much. Heather, thank you so much. Thank you. Thanks.

Heather Templeton Dill:

Have a seat for just a moment. Thank you for the standing ovation. Well, I can tell from the standing ovation that you've seen an example of the kind of exemplary person that the Templeton Prize recognises. In our humble opinion there are no other prizes in the world similar to the Templeton Prize because we honour those, we aim to honour those who contribute to a deeper understanding of spiritual realities through insights like the words that we heard tonight. Over the past years Rabbi Sacks has had the opportunity to speak at St. Andrews University and at New York University on these messages. Again, through the Templeton Prize we hope to elevate those who have something to contribute to our spiritual understanding, who bring the lessons and the truths of religion to the forefront.

In January Rabbi Sacks will extend the conversation we've heard tonight with another symposium sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation’s humble approach initiative. The theme is drawn from Rabbi Sacks’ book, Not in God's Name. The title of that symposium, Redeeming the Past and Building the Future, Confronting Religious Violence With a Counter Narrative. The participants who have accepted our invitation include eleven scholars and scientists, as well as a poet and a journalist. Their backgrounds are Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, and the key idea will be to explore how a re-reading of the hallowed text of the three Abrahamic faiths might mitigate the militancy whereby group identity can lead to deadly conflict. The answers won't be easily forthcoming, but we take up that conversation with the hope that if we admit how very small is the measure of the human mind, we might help to prevent religious conflicts by seeking truths in other faiths.

Now finally let me mention that Rabbi Sacks will be signing copies of his books tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. in the exhibits area at the Penguin Random House booth which is number 133. Now please join us for some delicious desserts, drinks, and more conversation. If you turn left as you exit the theatre and take the escalator down to the river level, go straight through the doors and just outside you will find rooms 4 and 5, where we will hold a reception. Thank you so much for coming. I do hope you were inspired, I do hope you were challenged, and I do hope you will take some of the insights shared tonight into your classrooms, into your scholarship, and into the world in which you live to help promulgate the message, to help make a difference. Thank you. Thank you very much.

You may also enjoy watching Rabbi Sacks' lecture on the Danger of Outsourcing Morality, delivered at the ceremony where he accepted his award as the 2016 Templeton Prize winner.