Review of Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning. New York: Schocken Books, 2011. 370 pp. $28.95

By Yitzhak Lewis

As the title suggests, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ new book, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning attempts to tackle one of the Modern predicaments of faith head on. The question is how to understand the radical division that exists in contemporary thought between science and religion, and what ought a religious individual make of this division? As Sacks quickly illustrates, this is not merely a perceived division. More fundamentally, it is a division in the way we perceive the world.

The lion’s share of the book elaborates the lines along which this division is perceptible and sets up an extensive set of dichotomies to prove (if I may borrow such a scientific word) the very existence of this division in thought. To be clear, Sacks does not argue that this Modern division is merely perceived (or worse, invented by scientists trying to debunk religion). Quite to the contrary, he upholds this division, supporting it with his own empirical arguments (another scientific word) about neuropsychology, physics, political science, sociology and history. By the end of “Part One: God and the Search for Meaning” the attempt to understand this Modern predicament wades forward through a swamp of binary oppositions. The dichotomy Science/Religion has been exegetically elaborated into expertise/authority, future/past, reason/revelation, deconstruction/construction, how/what, function/meaning, form/content, left hemisphere/right hemisphere, body/mind, Athens/Jerusalem, male/female, left-to-right script/right-to-left script, West/East, either-or/both-and, argument/narrative, tragedy/hope, empiricism/imagination, reason/emotion, system/story…

The lists go on, but I would not want to belabor the point. Reading these sets vertically one notices that the religious “ideal type” would in fact be the hopeful narrative of an Eastern female in right-to-left script. Or, at least, this is the argument made by a Western male in English. This may seem ironic at first glance but it does, upon deeper reflection, encapsulate the very predicament Rabbi Sacks is trying to understand in this book: the seeming mutual exclusion that Western thought has adopted (or inserted) between science and religion. This insertion, if not taken facetiously ad absurdum, would lead to a more pertinent conclusion: overcoming the Modern predicament of religious faith, Rabbi Sacks would no doubt agree, is not the hopeful narrative attempt of an Eastern Chinese female to be a Western white man. It is the hopeful narrative attempt of a Western white man to remain a hopeful Western white man, that is, not to be excluded from this category in spite of any division Modernity may insert into our perception of the world and irrespective of religious faith. In this sense Rabbi Sacks continues a long line of Jewish thought that deals with questions of faith in the Modern world.

It is doubtful that anyone has experienced the Modern predicament of faith as deeply as Rabbi Nachman of Braslav (1772-1810). The tormented master, as his biographer Arthur Green (1981) calls him, speaks of the great power of enlightenment, reason and science: the power to turn faith into a leap, a leap over the division inserted between rational thought and religion, a leap into the abyss of doubt. We live now in the most auspicious time for faith, Rabbi Nachman tells his students (Likkutei Moharan A, 21), since neither the past history of the world nor the coming days of the Messiah will be as felicitous for true faith. Before the enlightenment and the age of reason we were incapable of true faith. Since our knowledge was riddled with prejudice it was not possible to discern reality from imagination, nor truth from preconception, and hence it was impossible to maintain a faith free of prejudice. In the coming days of the Messiah, on the other hand, there will be no need for faith since God will be self evident to all; “for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea,” (quoting Isaiah 11:9), the knowledge of God, he explains, not the faith. But now, when science and reason can prove conclusively that God is neither empirical reality nor categorical imperative, now that the abyss of doubt gapes more widely than ever, it is now that adherence to God is truly an act of faith. Only in the age of enlightenment are we truly free to believe.[1]

A profound theosophical observation, to be sure, and it is clear how Rabbi Sacks follows in its footsteps. “Debates about religion and science have been happening… since the seventeenth century” he states on the very first page, but it is only now that these categories have been solidified into two distinct and divided ways of perceiving the world that we can fully appreciate what we stand to lose (as the opening chapter of “Part Two: Why It Matters” is titled). Here comes Rabbi Sacks’ liberal democratic insight that will go a long way in updating Rabbi Nachman’s observation: science and reason cannot maintain the inherent value of human beings. This, Rabbi Sacks argues, has been demonstrated by the greatest political projects of the age of enlightenment: the French Revolution, Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and Communist China (102). The idea of Man’s creation in God’s image is neither empirically real nor rationally robust. To hold strong by this idea one must leap into the abyss of rational doubt, into the realm over which science and reason have no grasp: religious faith.

“Faith is the courage to take a risk” (286 – ‘to take a leap,’ Rabbi Nachman might have corrected), Rabbi Sacks states in the final “Part Three: Faith and Its Challenges”. In the introduction, Rabbi Sacks had made a commendable promise: “Religion has done harm as well as good… This is a shattering fact and one about which nothing less than total honesty will do. We need to understand why religion goes wrong. This is what I try to do in chapter 13” (6). Nearly 250 pages later he has the courage to take the risk. Rabbi Sacks begins this most honest account by asserting that religion goes wrong for several reasons that can and should all be guarded against. It goes wrong when sacred texts are read literally; when coming to terms with the existence of evil reduces monotheism to dualism; when the gap between what is and what ought to be is so large we begin to hope for the apocalypse; when we mix up religion in the political pursuit of power; and when we fail to see there is more than one answer to the central questions of mankind. All of these can and should be guarded against by the traditional institutions of monotheism and interpretation on the one hand and the Modern institutions of secular democracy and civic dialogue.

This promise (to deal honestly and openly with the challenges of faith) lies at the heart of Rabbi Sacks’ engagement with questions of Modern faith, and is the key to grasping the broader picture of his ambitious project. It is also its soft spot. When religion goes wrong, he argues, monotheism is reduced (or increased, perhaps) to dualism. Theodicy poses serious challenges to the faithful. “Dualism is thus able to preserve the goodness of God while attributing the suffering of the faithful to a malevolent force” (256). But what does this dualism look like? What are its attributes? “Dualism is a faith of sharp distinctions,” Rabbi Sacks explains, “between body and soul, this world and the next, material and spiritual, substance and form…” (255) What about the sharp distinction between religion and science, we might ask? What of the extensive set of dichotomies the book has lined up in “Part One”, how is that different from Rabbi Sacks’ predecessors who “saw reality in starkly dualistic terms”?

While it may seem there is little difference in the way dualism divides between material/spiritual or form/substance and the way Rabbi Sacks has done so, there is in fact a deep theological difference between dualism and binarism. Dualism relegates God to heaven in order to explain how evil reigns on earth. It inserts a division between the divine and heavenly and the evil and earthly. Its aim is to conceptually separate God from the earthly world so as to defend God against blame for the evils of human reality. For Rabbi Sacks, the binarism at the base of “The Great Partnership” is meant to defend God (or religion) against the fact that science reigns over empirical reality. It inserts (or upholds) a similar divide for two reasons. First, in order to prevent Sacks’ binarism from lapsing into dualism, it is imperative to “keep God out of it”, that is, to reground theological dualism in secular (i.e., scientifically proven, historically verifiable) binaries.

Second, “The Great Partnership” between religion and science is a partnership based on division. But unilateral division is not partnership. For science to claim its own division from religion is not enough to create a partnership. It’s not even enough to create a division. This is the broader setting of Sacks’ argument. Religion must identify and maintain its own divisions from science. It must explain in fluent, articulate prose – as Sacks does masterfully – what distinguishes it from reason, empiricism and science (good and bad alike). Atheism may deserve better than the “new atheists”, as Sacks suggests, who wish to insist upon science’s division from religion while resisting religion’s claim to a positive division from science. Traditional-minded Jews, on the other hand, have certainly found their right spokesperson.

[1] For more on this see Joseph G. Weiss. Studies in Braslav Hassidism. Jerusalem, 1974


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