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Rabbi Lord Sacks: Religious Believers Face Harrowing Choices in These Tense Times

Rabbi Lord Sacks: Religious Believers Face Harrowing Choices in These Tense Times

Terry Mattingly's syndicated column OnReligion


As long as there have been chase scenes – think 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 State.

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 1991-2013 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," said Sacks.

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," said Sacks.

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.

Rabbi Sacks, who won the 2016 Templeton Prize, is convinced that 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 may 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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