Reith Lectures: The Persistence of Faith
In November 1990, the Chief Rabbi Elect, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, delivered the Reith Lectures on BBC Radio 4.
In a series entitled “The Persistence of Faith”, the Chief Rabbi Elect analysed the role of Religion and Ethics in a secular society over six lectures.
In which Rabbi Sacks argues that religion is the best moral framework for society.
There are moments when you can see the human landscape change before your eyes, and 1989 was one of them. In retrospect it will seem as significant a turning point in history as 1789, the year of the French Revolution and the birth of the secular state. Throughout Eastern Europe, communism appeared to crumble. The 20th century had broken its greatest idols, the two versions of an absolute secular state: fascism, defeated in 1945, and communism last year. But what, in this revolution of the human spirit, lies ahead?
In the middle of it all, the American historian Francis Fukuyama wrote an article entitled The End of History. In it he described the global spread of liberal democracy not as the triumph of an ideal, but as the victory of consumer culture. In the end, colour television had proved a more seductive prospect than The Communist Manifesto. Politics had moved beyond ideology. As Eduard Shevardnadze, the Soviet foreign minister, put it, ‘the struggle between two opposing systems’ had been superseded by the desire ‘to build up material wealth at an accelerated rate’.
Dialectical materialism was over; mail-order catalogue materialism had taken its place. Eastern Europe had discovered the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie.
It was, said Fukuyama, the end of history as we had known it: the struggle over ideas that had once called forth daring, courage and imagination. Instead, we would increasingly see societies based on nothing but the free play of choices and interests. What would absorb the human imagination would no longer be large and visionary goals but ‘economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands’.
History would end not with the sound of apocalypse but the beat of a personal stereo.
Fukuyama’s analysis takes us deep into irony. Because such a brave new world suggests a massive impoverishment of what we are as human beings, its accuracy as a prediction is matched only by its narrowness as a prescription. The human being as consumer neither is, nor can be, all we are, and a social system built on that premise will fail. The East has engaged in self-examination and has turned for inspiration to the West. But the West has yet to return the compliment and ask whether its own social fabric is in a state of good repair.
I believe it is not. And the problem lies not with our economic and political systems, but in a certain emptiness at the heart of our common life. Something has been lost in our consumer culture: that sense of meaning beyond ourselves that was expressed in our great religious traditions. It is not something whose eclipse we can contemplate with equanimity. Religious faith is central to a humane social order. To paraphrase a rabbinic saying: if we have only a secular society, even a secular society we will not have.
For some years, we have known that unrestricted pursuit of economic growth has devastated our physical environment. Pollution, waste and the depletion of natural resources have disturbed that ‘narrow strip of soil, air and water … in which we live and move and have our being.’ No one intended it. It happened. But, having happened, we can no longer ignore it, and whether our political commitments are blue or orange or red, we have all gone green. We have become aware that there are limits to growth.
But, as well as a physical ecology, we also inhabit a moral ecology: that network of beliefs, relationships and virtues within which we think, act and discover meaning. For the greater part of human history it has had a religious foundation. But for the past two centuries, in societies like Britain, that basis of belief has been profoundly eroded. And we know too much about ecological systems to suppose that you can remove one element and leave the rest unchanged. There is, if you like, a God-shaped hole in our ozone layer. And it’s about time we thought about moral ecology too.
I speak from within the Jewish tradition, in which religion is more than what the individual does with his own solitude. God enters society in the form of specific ways of life, disclosed by revelation, mediated by tradition, embellished by custom and embodied in institutions. Faith lives not only in the privacy of the soul but in compassion and justice: the structures of our common life. The Hebrew Bible and the rabbis saw society as a covenant with God, and morality as a divine imperative. That tradition has deep echoes in Christianity and Islam as well, and has shaped our moral imagination.
To it we owe our ideas of the dignity of the individual as the image of God, and the sanctity of human life. It underlies our belief that we are free and responsible, not merely the victims of necessity and chance. And if we think of society as the place where we realise a vision of the good, somewhere behind that thought lies the influence of Exodus and Deuteronomy and Amos and Isaiah.
But one of the most powerful assumptions of the 20th century is that faith is not like that. It belongs to private life. Religion and society are two independent entities, so that we can edit God out of the language and leave our social world unchanged. After all, the whole history of the modern mind has been marked by the progressive detachment of knowledge from religious tradition. We no longer need, nor would we even think of invoking, God in order to understand nature or history. That battle was fought and lost by religion in the 19th century. But if what we know about ourselves and the world is independent of God, what difference could it make whether or not we still had religious faith? It might make all the difference to the private mind of the believer, but in the public world in which we act and interact, it should make no difference at all.
It was in the 1960s that we discovered how false this was. It was then that radical theologians took perverse pleasure in reciting that God-at least as we had known Him- was dead. But far from making no difference, that made a very great difference indeed. Because it was just then, in the decade of doing your own thing, that morality began to seem simply a matter of personal choice. A moral revolution was announced.
In 1967, Sir Edmund Leach began his Reith Lectures with the words, ‘Men have become gods. Isn’t it about time we understood our own divinity?’
A massive shift was taking place in our public culture. Something was lost which we have not yet replaced. Faith and society turned out to be connected after all. If the idea of God was in eclipse, so was the way of life which it served as a foundation. The biblical tradition and its hierarchy of values had lost their persuasive power. And for a moment, rather than lament the fact, we enjoyed our liberation.
The Sixties were probably the last time revolution could be sung to so cheerful a tune. Since then we have become increasingly aware of some of the problems of our social ecology: the urban slums, pollution, broken families and residual poverty which seem to yield neither to the welfare state nor to the minimalist state. We are less sure than we were that the future will be better than the past, that economic growth is open- ended or that Utopia can be brought by any sort of revolution. So long as confidence in human progress remained high, religious belief seemed a dispensable commodity. But that optimism has now been shattered. Technology, which seemed to give man godlike powers of creation, has given him also demonic possibilities for destruction. Our loss of a shared morality has fragmented our social world and made even our most intimate relationships seem fragile and conditional. The question is: what moral resources have we left to lend us faith in difficult times? And the answer surely is: far fewer in Fukuyama’s consumer culture than there are in the biblical tradition. We cannot edit God out of the language and leave our social world unchanged.
But is Britain yet a post-religious society? Suppose that you had just landed in Britain for the first time and you wanted to know whether you had arrived in a religious country. What signs would you see? You would certainly see some. Here and there you would notice large religious buildings, mainly churches and cathedrals, whose intricate grandeur suggested considerable prestige. You would discover that religious leaders, bishops in particular, were quoted in the newspapers and sat in the House of Lords. You would be struck by the fact that a large number of businesses stopped on Sunday and, asking why, would receive an explanation that could hardly fail to mention Christianity. You might stop to ask why so many people were called John or David or Sarah or Elizabeth and you would learn that these were originally figures in the Bible. Inquiring, you would find that four in five Britons still regard themselves as Christian, that there are ethnic minorities where different traditions are still strong, and that only a tiny minority of the population describe themselves as atheists or agnostics. You might conclude that you had arrived in a religious society.
But you could hardly fail to notice different indicators as well. Examining the city skyline, you might well suspect that the true cathedrals of the urban landscape are office blocks. You would notice that the arenas where crowds gathered and formed temporary communions were football matches and pop concerts. You would see far fewer people engaged in spiritual exercises than in physical exercises. And if you came across individuals in solitary meditation, they would probably be watching a video rather than reading the Book of Common Prayer.
You might be perplexed that so many churches had so few people in them; that there were urban areas where fewer than one in a hundred attended church on Sunday. And you would be struck by the fact that the largest crowds visiting cathedrals were tourists, not worshippers. Religion might be, in Stevie Smith’s words, not waving but drowning.
What would you make of it all? You would, I think, rightly conclude that these survivals of religion were just that: survivals, residues of an earlier age in which religious institutions played a far greater part in our culture than they do today. But you might notice this as well. That places of worship weren’t quite yet museums. Inside them, you weren’t an observer or spectator only. You participated.
They were perhaps the one place left where you stood in a living relationship with the past.
How is it, then, that religion, that was so central a component of the culture ofthe past, has come to be so marginal in the present? It is a story part-intellectual, part-social.
There was the rise of experimental science in the 17th century, the discovery that you could find out more about the world by observing it and framing hypotheses that could be tested, than by relying on past traditions: what Don Cupitt calls the shift from myths to maths. There were the revolutionary changes in the way human beings were perceived: Spinoza’s insistence that man, too, is a part of nature and subject to its laws. Marx’s suggestion that our ideas are the product of economic forces, and Darwin’s discovery that, as someone once put it, man’s family tree goes back to the time when his ancestors were swinging from it. Individually, these weakened the hold of the narrative in the first chapter of Genesis in which man was created in the image of God. Collectively, they suggested the power of free inquiry as against the authority of ancient texts, when it came to the pursuit of knowledge.
The biblical tradition, far from being able to stand aside from these developments, eventually came under their scrutiny. Once thinkers were able to distance themselves from religion’s claims, they were able to see it as a phenomenon to be explained like any other, in terms of economics or psychology, the projection on to heaven of human interests and needs. The supernatural had a natural explanation, and this weakened the idea of a divine intrusion into the human domain, immune to the relativities of time.
The ideas, central to the Bible, of revelation, miracle and redemption were undermined.
And these intellectual developments went hand in hand with a transformation of society. It was difficult to see truth as timeless when the world was embarked on a roller-coaster of change. The industrial revolution broke up old crafts and communities and the traditions that went with them. And it changed the way people began to think about religion’s most potent domain: ethics, or how to behave. An ethic which took science as its model would focus not on precedent but on consequences. Actions, like hypotheses, could be tested, and the best were those that produced the greatest happiness for the greatest number. All this meant a quite tangible shift in the direction of human thought, from past to future, from essence to function, from virtue to pragmatism, and from passivity to control Not only were the communities disrupted in which religious traditions had been lived and transmitted, but the entire cast of mind in which biblical ideas found a home had now gone.
Consciousness had been secularised.
And throughout it all, with few dissenting voices, the consensus was that it was a journey of moral progress. But, as they used to say in Yiddish: if things are so good, how come they are so bad? Because our modern conviction that man is part of nature, subject to its laws, is much more like paganism than the biblical view of human dignity. The idea, which has gained great power in recent decades, that human life is dispensable through abortion or euthanasia looks more like a regression than a moral advance. And the notion that authenticity means making our own rules, is the loss of a world of value beyond the self. Wasn’t the crucial biblical insight that something else might be true? That man, gifted with language and thus imagination, might seek meaning in the midst of chaos and come to experience it in the form of a moral call not implicit within nature, but beyond? We might well feel that the whole thrust of the scientific imagination when applied to human culture was not so much to elevate man to the status of a god, but to reduce him to the quintessence of dust, and brand all else an illusion. If so, we would have had our first intimation that what seemed so liberating about a postreligious age might be no more than a narrowing of human possibilities.
But only the first. For the fact, almost too obvious to need re-stating, is that not only have technological societies not replaced religious belief with some new overarching canopy of meaning. But in principle they could not do so. The very growth of modern knowledge has come about through specialisation and compartmentalisation, so that an integrated universe linking man and the cosmos is now beyond us. The more we know collectively, the less we know individually. Each of us understands very little of our world.
Not only that. The productive and social changes of the last two centuries have vastly multiplied our choices. Long gone are the days when our identities, beliefs, and life chances were narrowly circumscribed by where and to whom we happened to be born. We are no longer actors in a play written by tradition and directed by community, in which roles are allocated by accidents of birth. Instead, careers, relationships and lifestyles have become thing we freely choose from a superstore of alternatives.
Modernity is the transition from fate to choice. At the same time it dissolves the commitments and loyalties that once lay behind our choices. Technical reason has made us masters of matching means to ends. But it has left us inarticulate as to why we should choose one end rather than another. The values that once led us to regard one as intrinsically better than another-and which gave such weight to words like good and bad have disintegrated, along with the communities and religious traditions in which we learned them. Now we choose because we choose. Because it is what we want; or it works for us; or it feels right to me. Once we have dismantled a world in which larger virtues held sway, what is left are success and self-expression, the key values of an individualistic culture.
But can a society survive on so slender a moral base? It is a question that was already raised in the 19th century by figures like Alexis de Tocqueville and Max Weber, who saw most clearly the connection between modern liberal democracies and Judaeo-Christian tradition. It was de Tocqueville who saw that religion tempered individualism and gave those engaged in the competitive economy a capacity for benevolence and self-sacrifice.
And it was he who saw that this was endangered by the very pursuit of affluence that was the key to economic growth. Max Weber delivered the famous prophetic warning that the cloak of material prosperity might eventually become an iron cage. It was already becoming an end in itself, and other values were left, in his words, ‘like the ghost of dead religious beliefs’. Once capitalism consumed its religious foundations, both men feared the consequences.
The stresses of a culture without shared meanings are already mounting, and we have yet to count the human costs. We see them in the move from a morality of self-imposed restraint to one in which we increasingly rely on law to protect us from ourselves. In the past, disadvantaged groups could find in religion what Karl Marx called ‘the feeling of a heartless world’. A purely economic order offers no such consolations. A culture of success places little value on the unsuccessful.
The erosion of those bonds of loyalty and love which religion undergirded has left us increasingly alone in an impersonal economic and social system. Émile Durkheim was the first to give this condition a name. He called it anomie: the situation in which individuals have lost their moorings in a collective order. It is the heavy price we pay for our loss of communities of faith.
Fukuyama described a future dedicated to ‘economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems … and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands’. But is such a world socially viable? Not all human problems are technical. One, above all, is not: the search for meaning which gave rise to the religious imagination in the first place.
I have called the biblical tradition, ‘part of our moral ecology’, by which I mean that until recently the language of British and American politics was rich in biblical themes: covenant and kinship, exodus and liberation, human dignity and responsibility. A religious vision could inspire Edmund Burke to conservatism, William Cobbett to socialism, and wend its variations from Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King. At times it spoke of the duty of the state to the individual, at others of the freedom of the individual against the state. It was a language, not a party political programme. But it was a distinctive language, quite unlike the vocabulary of a consumer culture, in which we speak only of rights and entitlements, interests and choices, self-expression and success. It referred to meanings beyond the self, to moral communities beyond the individual and to relationships more enduring than temporary compatibility. It was a language that linked private faith to public action. It brought together what modernity has split asunder: society and the self. It was this tradition that led the great Talmudist, Rabbi Hayyim of Brisk, to define the role of a religious leader as, ‘to redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor’. It moved one of Judaism’s greatest mystics, the Rabbi of Kotzk, to say that ‘someone else’s material concerns are my spiritual concerns.’
But it is just this that leads me to believe that Fukuyama’s prediction has not yet come to pass. For we still see other people’s suffering and poverty not as things that merely happen as part of an impersonal order, but as things we ought somehow to relieve.
And, for so long as we do so, we have moved beyond a view of society as just the free play of interests. It remains a moral enterprise, actualising its values through history; the end point of which is redemption or, in Aaron Lichtenstein’s fine phrase, collective beatitude. We are back in the language of justice and compassion, words we once learned from the Bible and which led us to construct the society we have.
Which leads in turn to a significant conclusion: that, though our churches and synagogues are under-attended, people have not stopped identifying themselves as religious individuals; nor have they yet stopped thinking in religious ways. However attenuated, the attachments remain. And this means more than that religion is for us a matter of nostalgia, or habit, or memories of grandparents and a simpler way of life. It means that it still remains for us a possibility.
We are capable of being moved by calls to our conscience, to acts that make no sense in terms of self-fulfilment or private ambition. We have not yet lost the language of older and larger visions of the shared redemptive enterprise. We have it because the biblical tradition survives in our culture-marginal, endangered, a survival to be sure, but still there. Reminding us that the rules we make are subject to the rules we didn’t make, and that the making of moral history is not yet at an end.
In which Rabbi Sacks explores how objective standards influence our ethics.
What is missing in each of these cases is the idea once thought to be definitive of morality: that there can be obligations which constrain our choices, and duties that place a limit on desire. It is not that we have stopped thinking morally altogether. It is that our moral imagination is bounded by three central themes: autonomy, equality and rights – the values that allow each of us to be whatever we choose. The central character of our moral drama is no longer the saint or the hero, but the free self, unencumbered by attachments, unobligated by circumstance, freely negotiating its temporary contracts with others: Frank Sinatra singing ‘I did it my way’.
As a result, much of what we used to do as moral beings has come to seem repressive, even a denial of the human condition. To make moral judgments is to be judgmental. Calling a way of life ‘wrong’ is an assault on the integrity or authenticity of others.
The most fundamental of all parental wishes, to educate our children in our own morality, is indoctrination and a denial of their free development. We know that not all choices are wise. But we are reluctant to let that fact serve as the basis for a moral conclusion. Instead, we make a distinction between acts and consequences.
Acts are freely chosen; consequences are dealt with by the state. So governments are there to treat AIDS, child abuse, homelessness and addiction but not to disseminate a morality that might reduce them in the first place. Something quite revolutionary has happened to our ways of thinking: what I would call the demoralisation of discourse.
We now no longer know what it is to identify a moral issue, as something distinct from personal preference on the one hand or technique on the other. We have arrived at Nietzsche’s conviction that morality is no more than a camouflaged way of imposing our will on others.
Slowly and imperceptibly, it has come to pass after all. The decline of religious ethics has brought about a metamorphosis of conscience into something which it is hard to call morality at all. If God does not exist, all is permitted. Or to put it less dramatically, religion and morality have moved in tandem. They have become privatised and lost their moorings in an objective order. We have reached Nietzsche’s transvaluation of values. But what, then, happened to Nietzsche’s nightmare?
Certainly, we have lost our sense of being part of a single moral community in which very different people are brought together under a canopy of shared values. It has become difficult to see ourselves as part of the collective enterprise that preceded our birth, will persist after our death and which gives meaning to our struggles. Beyond producing and consuming, work and leisure, we find it hard to say what gives meaning to our lives. We have become inarticulate about the reasons for our choices. And the bonds between us, so important to understanding who we are, have become strained. We feel the need to liberate ourselves from our parents. We find it harder to imagine ourselves living on in our children. Each of our relationships, including marriage, has become provisional. The apartment we call the self has grown more self-contained, and therefore lonelier.
These changes have happened slowly and we have adjusted to them, which is why most of the time they are invisible. The greatest exile, as a Jewish mystic said, is not to know that you are in exile. But social commentators have given our situation a name. David Reisman called it ‘The Lonely Crowd’; Peter Berger, ‘The Homeless Mind’; Christopher Lasch, ‘The Culture of Narcissism’. Each of these phrases echoes the sense of being thrown in upon ourselves so that we can no longer hear that voice of the other that in morality was called altruism and, in religion, transcendence.
We cannot go back to where we were. But neither are we condemned to stay where we are. We have reached the limits of individualism and we can now state its inner contradiction. Perhaps the best way of doing so is to think about language. A baby expresses itself by crying; but until it learns a language it cannot tell us what it feels. We learn to speak by growing up among others who speak to us. Slowly, and at first by imitation, we acquire a language, until we are able to construct sentences by ourselves. In that process, two things are essential. The first is the community of fellow speakers, our family and then an ever-widening circle. The second is the particular tradition embodied in the language itself, its meanings and associations, divisions and connections, each of which has a history we unconsciously adopt as we learn to become articulate. The greater our mastery of the language, the more we are able to say what we feel and imagine what we might become. Without community and tradition, there is no self-expression beyond the inarticulate cry of a child.
The history of moral thought since Spinoza has been a progressive eclipse of community and tradition. That was once seen as a great liberation; but we can see it now as a great privation. Individualism condemns us to the task of constructing our own morality. But a private morality is no more possible than a private language. It is not surprising that in the 20th century there have been philosophers, AJ Ayer among them, who argued that moral talk was mere emotion. The word ‘wrong’ was an inarticulate cry masquerading as speech. If so, far from reaching a state of sophistication, we have regressed to a moral childhood worse than that of which Spinoza and Freud accused religion. Moral education is not simply learning to make choices. It is becoming part of a community with a particular tradition, history and way of life. It is like learning a language. The contradiction at the heart of individualism is that there can be a self unencumbered by tradition, unfettered in its freedom. That is as inconceivable as an art without conventions or a thought without a language in which it can be expressed. The sovereign self, by dissolving its attachments, has become a kingdom without a country.
The Talmud tells the story of a man who came to the great sage Hillel and asked him to convert him to Judaism with one proviso: that he refused to accept rabbinic tradition. Hillel agreed and began by teaching him the Hebrew language. The next day he continued the lesson but this time he changed everything he had taught him the previous day. The man protested. ‘How can I learn if each day you teach me something different?’ ‘You see,’ said Hillel, ‘even to learn a language, you need to accept my authority as a teacher, and the traditions that give meanings to the words.
How then can you learn Judaism without tradition and authority?’ That seems to me a parable for our time.
The problem of our moral ecology is that we have thought exclusively in terms of two domains: the state as an instrument of legislation and control, and the individual as the bearer of otherwise unlimited choices. But morality can no longer be predicated on the state, for we have become too diverse to allow a single morality to be legislated.
Nor can it be located in the individual, for morality cannot be private in this way. We have neglected the third domain: that of community. But it is precisely as a member of a community that I learn a moral language, a vision and its way of life. I become articulate by acquiring a set of meanings not of my own invention, but part of a common heritage. I become connected to others through bonds of loyalty and obligation that are covenantal rather than contractual. And I become connected, too, to the community’s past and future, so that I can understand my life as a chapter in a larger narrative. That is what Jews, Christians and others do when they grow up within a religious tradition, and it is what Aristotle believed education was: induction into a community.
Morality and religion turn out to be connected after all. It is not that we need to be religious to be moral; but that we need to be part of a community. And it was Émile Durkheim who argued that this was the heart of the religious enterprise, that it provided the symbols that constituted communities and thus made possible pursuit of the common good. Modernity has been deeply destructive of communities, and yet such persisting sense as we have of a good beyond ourselves is probably due to their influence on us. Our religious traditions are an extraordinarily powerful moral resource. Not as a source of universal truth, because we live in a Babel of many truths. But at the fundamental level of creating communities built on a moral vision, and in educating us to collective pursuit of the good. Forming communities of meaning is religion’s peculiar power. And it is in communities that the moral enterprise begins.
In which Rabbi Sacks explores the religious institution of marriage in society.
Philosophers love posing dilemmas. Here’s one. You’re standing in the National Gallery at the opening of an art exhibition. Suddenly a fire breaks Out and spreads with enormous speed. In front of you is a priceless Leonardo. To your right is one of the country’s most respected elder statesmen. To your left is your four-year-old daughter. You can only rescue one of them. Which do you save?
Well, if you emerged into the open air with the painting or the statesman, you might have contributed to the greater good. But I wonder whether we would altogether trust you as a human being.
Somehow, the family goes to the heart of our sense of moral obligation. Our ties to our children and to our parents are fundamental; and not the result of any rule or reflection. Rather, they have to do with who we are and our peculiar relationship with those who brought us into the world and those we have brought into being in turn. We would be inclined to say it is an instinct, a natural feeling. But it is also a matter of culture, of acquired values.
Back in 1976, there was an earthquake in Communist China. And the Chinese press carried a report about a man who had rescued a local Communist official from a fallen building. His own child was also trapped, and he had heard him crying for help. But he chose instead to save the official, whose social value he considered to be greater.
By the time he returned to the wreckage for his son, he found him dead. The Communist newspapers wrote about the incident as an example of proper behaviour. What these examples suggest is that there is more than one way of ordering our loyalties. We might inhabit a culture in which family ties mattered less to us than they do now. But what they might also suggest is that such a culture would be an altogether colder and less personal one. The family is not just one of our social institutions, but, in a very real sense, the one on which all others depend. Our families might change, but if they did, much else would change in the way we understood the world, and not necessarily for the better.
But that, of course, is precisely what has been happening. Throughout Europe and America in recent years, changes in the family have been significant and sudden. In Britain, for example, the latest estimates are that 37 per cent of marriages will end in divorce. One in four children is born outside of marriage, and cohabitation prior to or in place of marriage has increased to the extent that it is soon likely to be the norm. The proportion of single-parent families has risen from eight per cent in 1971, to 14 percent in 1987. In some urban areas, the figure is much higher. In inner London, for example, it is more than one in four. Not only that. More people are staying single for longer. There are more and more open, homosexual and lesbian relationships. So that we have moved, within the space of two decades, from the convention of the stable nuclear family – husband, wife and children in permanent relationship – to an extraordinary diversity of sexual and social arrangements, many of which are consciously temporary and provisional. One projection suggests that by the end of the century only one child in two will have parents who were married when it was born and who stay together until it has grown up.
Some people would argue that these changes are more apparent than real. People are what they always were. It is just that what they once did secretly they now do openly. Until the 1960s, there were established conventions of sexuality and marriage, and some of them were given the force of law. Since then, homosexuality has been legalised, divorce made easier, and illegitimacy has had most of its legal disabilities removed. But there is no reason to suppose that until then what people did always conformed to what they were supposed officially to do. Peter Laslett, for example, has calculated that even in the 19th century – that age of high moral rhetoric – three out of every five first children were extramaritally conceived. As for divorce, the rising figures are at least in part the result of legal reforms which have made available to everyone what had been in the past the preserve of the few. Besides which, divorce is not necessarily a weakening of the institution of marriage. It may simply be a sign that we expect more from it The present situation, then, may just be one in which the choices people always sought are now neither legally foreclosed nor morally condemned. It is not so much that behaviour has changed, as that we have stopped imposing on it the straitjacket of myth, morality and law.
But this, I think, is simply mistaken. A way of life is not only constituted by what people do but also by the framework in which they understand what they do.
Removing the legal and moral sting from cohabitation, divorce, illegitimacy and homosexuality does not leave the world unchanged. The gradual transformation by which sin becomes immorality, immorality becomes deviance, deviance becomes choice and all choice becomes legitimate isa profound redrawing of our moral landscape, and it alters the way we see the alternatives available to us.
The change has been revolutionary. Think how far we are from the world of Jane Austen’s heroines, where demure young ladies spent their time anxiously waiting for the right man – in terms of class, income and character – to come along. It is harder still for us to think ourselves into the Jewish townships of Eastern Europe only three generations ago, made famous by Fiddler on the Roof. There, in the world of my grandparents, a couple would simply not meet without elaborate inquiries and negotiations taking place beforehand between the respective families, often with the help of that archetypal Jewish figure, the matchmaker. Boy and girl met with a view to marriage, and who could marry whom was governed by an elaborate social code, never made explicit but understood by everyone. Was Chaim the Tailor a suitable match for Mendel the Grocer’s daughter? The whole town would have a view on the matter, so it was as well to get it right. The couple might eventually meet and be left alone, but the community was, in a sense, there in the room with them.
Since then, a whole cluster of associations has been exploded. In the 19th century, society was still deeply divided by class, religion and ethnicity, and this set firm limits on whom you could think of marrying. Today, those demarcations have almost gone. Not only that. Birth control has separated sex from having children. The entry of the state into education and welfare has, to some extent, separated having children from raising them. The waning of religious teachings has removed the stigma of cohabitation and illegitimacy, and marriage itself has lost its once sacramental character. Living together and the ease of divorce have taken from our most basic relationships the sense of permanence with which they were once invested. Old lines of connection and separation have disappeared, leaving us in a world without boundaries.
It is not surprising that novelists, playwrights and film-makers have taken boy-meets-girl as the primal scene of the breakdown of tradition. Because it is here that the breakdown has been most immediate and dramatic. Even in that ordered world of Jane Austen, for example, we can hardly fail to notice the new importance the novelist gives to the individual, and his or her private emotions. The long journey of modernity, from society to self has already begun. And it was not long before English novelists were exploring a new kind of emotion, romantic love, which for the first time had the power to break through the iron boundaries of class. By 1980, the Jewish writer Israel Zangwill had produced a play called The Melting Pot, in which a Jewish boy whose parents had been killed in the Kishinev pogrom meets and marries the daughter of the Russian colonel who had been responsible for the murder. Marriage within the faith, which had been until now a central religious value, was dismissed as antiquated prejudice.
As the century proceeded, even romantic love began to seem an anachronism. Sexuality declares its independence from marriage. Better bed than wed. The very idea of moral rules began to seem out of place in the context of personal relationships. Where once, only a few generations ago, individuals met and in that meeting carried with them the internalised history of a community, today we meet as spontaneous selves in a present which hears few marks of a shared past or a predictable future. Rather, the values that underly what we do have been radically transformed.
But have these been changes for the better? In some respects, surely, they have. There can sometimes steal upon us a mood of misty nostalgia in which the sun always shines on the past. But in the case of the British family, that involves selective vision. It overlooks a history of often loveless but interminable marriages, and the dependent and subordinate position of women. In Hogarth’s engravings of the 18th century, and Dickens’ novels of the 19th, there are scenes of appalling brutalities practised on children. Some theorists have suggested that it was only with the decline in infant mortality rates, at the end of the 18th century that parents could take the risk of investing affection in their children. It was only when you were sure your child would live that you could afford to give it love. And it took enlightened social thought in the 19th century to end the employment of seven-year-olds in the cotton mills of Lancashire. The move from the authoritarian to the democratic family, in which each of the members has a say; the idea of love as the basis on which two people come together and get married; even the importance of the family itself as a ‘haven in a heartless world’ are all relatively recent, and enrich our sense of relationship. So is hard to place all the changes in the modem family on the side of loss.
But there have been some voices to suggest that we have not gone far enough. One influential line of modern thought has argued that the family is in need not of change but abolition. Karl Marx suggested that the bourgeois family lay at the heart of the capitalist economy. Radical post-Freudians argued that it was a source of psychological distress, schizophrenia especially. Feminists like Shulamith Firestone have seen it as the perpetuation of patriarchy. And Sir Edmund Leach, in a famous sentence in his Reith Lectures, summed it up when he said that ‘Far from being the basis of the good society, the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all discontents.’
Now whether or not we agree with these ideological critics, they take us to the heart of the proposition with which I began, namely that the family is not just one of our institutions, but a formative one, the crucible in which much else of our social structure takes shape. We learned from Malinowski’s studies of Melanesia and Margaret Mead’s of Samoa that there are very different ways of organising sexuality, kinship and socialisation. But we also know that these would result in different attitudes to politics, property, and the relationship between the individual and society. The French anthropologist Emmanuel Todd has recently traced an impressive set of connections between different family systems and the worldwide distribution of political ideologies. The absolute nuclear family, for example, is closely related to liberal democracies, the authority in the home to authority in the state. The family is the birthplace of our social world. So we might arrange our families differently. But it will be a different kind of world that we will be creating.
It was Margaret Mead who pointed out that the deep sentiments we call human nature are formed by the primary groups in which we are raised. ‘If these are essentially changed,’ she said, ‘human nature will change with them.’ It is a discovery that the pioneers of the kibbutz made early on. Having abolished marriage and the family and handed children over to collective child-minders, they found that they had raised a generation quite unlike themselves: less emotional, striving and individualistic; more matter-of-fact and inclined to think of identity in terms not of the self but of the group. As our families fragment, so do the deepest structures of our consciousness.
When a certain kind of family breaks down, so do the values which once linked parents and children and gave continuity and character to our inherited world.
Which is precisely why ideological radicals have focused on the family. Change it and you change humanity. But let us turn the argument round. If changing the family would change the world, protecting the family might be the best way of protecting our world. Which is, I believe, what religious tradition has been doing until now.
Because the Hebrew Bible is above all shook about the family. It begins with one: Adam and Eve and the command to bring the next generation into being. And from then on the hook of Genesis never relaxed its grip on the subject. It endlessly turns to some new variation in the relationship between husbands and wives, parents and children. Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebeca; Jacob, Rachel and Leah: these are not miracle workers or agents of salvation. The heroes and heroines of Genesis are simply people living out their lives in the presence of God and the context of their families.
And we can perhaps now see that this forms the foundation of the Bible’s larger moral and social themes. The family is the matrix of individuality. It is that enclosed apace in which we work out, in relation to stable sources of affection, a highly differentiated sense of who we are. It is hard to imagine s culture which did not possess a close family structure arriving at the breathtaking idea that the human individual is cast in the image of God.
De Tocqueville once wrote that ‘as long as family feeling is kept alive, the opponent of oppression is never alone’. By which he meant that the family is the great protection of the individual against the state. It is no coincidence that totalitarian regimes have often attacked the family. Against this, it was the Bible that gave rise to the great prophets who dared to criticise kings. The family is the birthplace of liberty. Not only that it is where we care for dependants, the very young and the very old, those to whom we gave birth or who gave birth to us. And it is a short step from this to the biblical vision of society as an extended family, in which the poor and powerless make a claim on us, by virtue not of abstract principle but of feelings of kinship. it is this that lies behind the prophetic identification with the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. They are not merely people with theoretical rights. They are part of the family.
Marriage, for the Bible, is a covenant and one closely related to that which joins humanity to God and the members of society to one another. A covenant is not merely a contract. It is a religious, not just a legal agreement It is one in which the partners bind themselves to mutual fidelity and concern. So that the biblical idea of society, which flows from its view of marriage, is different from the secular idea of a social contract. it is not just an association for mutual advantage. it is a covenant of loyalty and trust.
And the family is where we discover our past. The Bible instructs us to teach our children diligently, speaking of God’s law when we are at home or on our way, when we lie down or when we rise up. Repeatedly it tells parents to tell children the story of their origins, the exodus and the long journey to freedom. The family is where traditions are handed on, where I learn that the past lives on in me, and through me in my children. It is the basis of collective memory. And on it rests the biblical view of history as the stage on which the covenant between man and God is enacted and within which we construct a just society. The family is ‘a narrative institution’, the place where we tell the story of where we came from. And its breakdown leads to what J. H. Plumb called ‘the death of the past’, the loss in our society of a historical sense.
So the family as a religious institution is what holds much of our moral world in place. It lies behind our ideas of individual dignity and freedom, of social kinship and concern, and our sense of continuity between the future and the past. Lose it and we will lose much else as well.
Why then do we seem to have been doing just that? Because of the most powerful legacy of the Enlightenment – our idea of the abstract individual, detached from the collective bonds of history and sentiment. The self of modern moral theory has no limits on what it can choose to do or be other than those externally set by law. No one way of life has any intrinsic precedence over any other so long as it is freely chosen.
Such a theory tends, in the long run, to dissolve morality altogether. But certainly it deconstructs the family. It undermines its ethical foundations. Because at every stage the concept of the family stands counter to the idea of unrestricted choice. To be a child is to accept the authority of parents one did not choose. To be a husband or wife is to accept the exclusion of other sexual relationships. To be a parent is to accept responsibility for a future that I may not live to see. Families only exist on the basis of choices renounced. And our secular culture has made that voluntary closure of options hard to accept or even understand.
The family has persisted as an institution; but increasingly we have lacked the resources to say why it should. Our intellectual world has not given it space. To the contrary, our current lack of any norms relating to sexuality and marriage precisely reflects the supreme importance we have given to the abstract individual, without binding commitment either to the past or to the long-term future, open-endedly free to choose or unchoose any style of life. The family has lost its moral base.
Admittedly, this has not happened because of Enlightenment philosophy alone. It has happened because of social changes of which that thought was an early anticipation. Education and welfare, which once took place within the family, have been largely transferred to the state. Television means that information is no longer filtered to the child primarily through its parents. The pace of change means that we can no longer assume a common world with our children. And in a technological society, age loses the authority of wisdom. It is our children who understand computers, not us. The mass entry of women into the workforce has dramatically changed our child-rearing practices. And these changes, along with the breakdown of our moral traditions, have weakened the force of family bonds. We cannot unwrite them. But we cannot suppose that they do not have momentous implications for those who will inherit the world we have made.
The irony of the 1980s is that the decade which witnessed the worldwide retreat of the state before the individual also witnessed the accelerated disintegration of the family, the primary protection of the individual against the state. Our private lives will be significantly eroded if one child in two will no longer reach maturity in stable association with the people who brought it into being. What then will stand between us and the impersonal operations of the free market and the state? From whom, other than our parents, wifi we learn who we uniquely are? The 20th century, through Freud and others, has taught us the enduring influence of our early experience of childhood. But the 20th century has rendered the family uniquely problematic. And the world that witnesses its loss will be a colder and less human place.
But it is here that we come up against a surprising fact that has run like a connecting thread through these lectures. Despite the many factors making for its erosion, the family persists. It still lies at the heart of our sensibilities. Few things so distress us as television pictures of children separated from their parents, or move us like scenes of families being reunited. Overwhelmingly, we do still marry and hope that our marriages will last. In a recent survey almost nine out of ten of those interviewed said that they valued faithfulness as the most important ingredient in marriage. We still believe in the family, without quite knowing why.
The family is a religious institution that survives in a secular culture. Our attachment to it makes no sense in terms of the theories or social changes that have surrounded us since the Enlightenment. But it makes a great deal of sense in terms of the argument I have been advancing, that we are still more religious than we suppose. Faith is not measured by acts of worship alone, it exists In the relationships we create and it lies deep in our moral commitments.
The Jewish tradition saw the family as the greatest religious domain of all. The first commandment in the Bible is to have children, and there is no act we can perform that testifies more lucidly to faith in the future of our world. The survival of the Jewish people throughout almost 4,000 years of exile and dispersion is due, above all, to the strength of its families. And it was when parents and children sat together round the table that they could most immediately feel the touch of the Divine Presence.
The family is a much assaulted, much wounded institution, but it endures: testimony to a sense of covenantal love that can still break through the secular surface of our lives and surprise us by its unexpected and religious strength.
In which Rabbi Sacks explores the language of religion and community.
Earlier this year, Harold Pinter delivered a public lecture entitled, ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ It had not been written by Pinter, but by Salman Rushdie who, for security reasons, was unable to deliver it himself. Here was one of those charged moments in which we felt the inescapable clash of two cultures: modernity and tradition in the shape of an iconoclastic novelist and an outraged Islam. At stake was not only the rarefied issue of blasphemy, but even the most fundamental question of what words mean, and what a book is. Throughout the controversy, Rushdie had argued that The Satanic Verses was, after all, just a novel, in which words are intended neither to cohere with reality nor to represent the views of their author. Muslims, raised in a tradition of sacred texts, saw the written word as altogether more freighted with significance: a sentence is an entity in its own right and an author cannot escape responsibility merely by invoking the conventions of the modem novel. Who was right? There was, of course, no answer. Not because the question was difficult but because the two cultures that addressed it excluded one another.
In his lecture, Rushdie spoke directly to the theme of the novel in contemporary society. It was, he said, a privileged arena; born, in Carlos Fuentes’ words, ‘from the fact that we do not understand one another, because unitary, orthodox language has broken down’. He went on to tell this parable. Imagine you are imprisoned in a large, rambling house. It is full of strangers and friends. At some point you realise there is no way out. Then one day you discover a room full of voices, talking about the house and everything and everyone in it. You find solace in this room; without it, you would go mad. That, said Rushdie, was the function of the novel. ‘Literature,’ he said, ‘is the one place in any society where, within the secrecy of our own heads, we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way.’
It was a provocative definition, both of literature and of sanity. Because we might well reply that listening to voices talking about everything in every possible way is not sanity but the quickest route to madness, and that it is precisely the condition not just of high literature but of the whole of our fragmented culture. For sanity, the inhabitants of Rushdie’s house might well gather together, first just a few, then in growing numbers, to listen to someone who could tell them the story of the house, and why they came to be there, and what lies outside, though no one has ever returned.
This religious narrative might seem to them the one thing that made living in the house tolerable, and when, one day, their gathering was interrupted by a stranger with a radio from which poured voices talking about everything in every possible way, they might feel that some privileged arena had been intruded on. The two parables, like the two cultures, exclude one another. And conflict of this kind is buried like an explosive charge in one of the great under-examined words of our culture: pluralism.
What is a plural society and how did we arrive at it? It is worth remembering that not long ago the phrase might have seemed a contradiction in terms. In 1959, Lord Devlin argued that ‘what makes a society of any sort is community of ideas, not only political ideas but also ideas about the way its members should behave and govern their lives.’ He added, ‘If men and women try to create a society in which there is no fundamental agreement about good and evil, they will fail.’ He was, of course, speaking about morals rather than culture. But there is little doubt that he had in mind a relatively unified society, shaped not only by moral teaching but by a broad set of common traditions, what Hegel called Sittlichkeit: the shared symbols and civilities that made England so quintessentially English.
It was an elevated view of this culture that, for example, inspired John Reith in the early days of the BBC. Reith believed that broadcasting has a responsibility to reflect and strengthen what he called ‘that spirit of common-sense Christian ethics which we believe to be a necessary component of citizenship and culture’. The voices speaking on John Reith’s BBC might talk about everything, but not in every possible way.
They were recognisably speakers of a common language, members of a cultural establishment. In fact, as late as 1955, when a Mrs Margaret Knight delivered a radio talk suggesting that there could be morality without religion, one daily newspaper complained that the BBC had allowed ‘a fanatic to go on the rampage beating up Christianity’. And one of the governors of the BBC asked whether the broadcast constituted seditious libel.
It was this shared culture that underlay the liberalism of the 19th century. During that century, civil rights were extended to Catholics, members of the Free Church, and Jews. And a clear distinction was made between the public and the private domain. Religious confession became a matter of private conscience. And access to the universities, professions and public office was open to all. But there remained a distinctive language of society, and whoever wished to enter had to learn it. Irishmen, Jews and other new arrivals had to pass through what John Murray Cuddihy called ‘the ordeal of civility’ and acquire the accents, nuances and intricate codes of polite society. One of the rules was that religious nonconformity was permitted, so long as it was private. And Jews learned to hide their identity so well that Sidney Morganbesser once defined their creed as incognito, ergo sum.
The key word in this process was assimilation. As new arrivals entered still traditional societies, they were expected to dissolve from groups into individuals and absorb the dominant culture. By any earlier standards, this was a benign procedure. Before the 19th century, religious and ethnic minorities had been barred from at least some civil rights. But it was not without its traumas, particularly for the transitional generation. The Jews of Central Europe felt them acutely. Having broken away from their parents’ faith, they found themselves still regarded as outsiders in the new society whose manners they had so carefully cultivated. They were in that psychologically devastating no man’s land between an excluded past and an excluding present; so that an observer like Jacob Klatzkin, writing in the early 20th century, could speak of a whole generation of ‘rent and broken human beings… diseased by ambivalence, consumed by contradictions, and spent by restless inner conflict’. It was the intellectuals of transition, double outsiders, who helped shape the modern mind: among them Marx, Durkheim, Freud, and Kafka. Salman Rushdie is, I suppose, their Islamic counterpart.
Assimilation was painful. But it seemed to be the only way a society could sustain its coherence while admitting large numbers of newcomers. It was in America in the early 20th century that a quite different idea began to take shape. By then, vast numbers of immigrants had entered the United States, too many and too varied to suppose that they would rapidly merge in the melting-pot. It was in 1915 that a young philosopher called Horace Kallen proposed a new model of a culturally diverse society. He made a clear distinction between the state and what today we would call ethnicity. And he regarded it as a misconception that each new immigrant group should undergo assimilation to the dominant culture. Instead, he envisaged that while there would be a common language of America, each group would have for its emotional and involuntary life, its own peculiar dialect of speech; its own individual and inevitable aesthetic and intellectual forms. It was the first argument for cultural pluralism. What Kallen saw was that liberalism would have to move one stage further. It had emancipated minorities as private citizens, but it had not yet made space for them as public cultures. The next step was inevitable. America should become cosmopolitan.
That was pluralism in theory. In practice, though, it was not until the 1960s that a whole series of developments in America and Western Europe shattered the idea of a single public culture. It was then that the civil rights movement in the States announced that black was beautiful Local identities began to be asserted, Welsh and Scottish nationalism among them. There were large new immigrant communities in Britain. There was talk of resurgent ethnicity. Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan stated bluntly that the point about the melting-pot was that it did not happen.
Grandchildren of immigrants developed a fascination for lost family traditions. Marcus Hansen propounded the law that the third generation labours to remember what the second generation strove to forget. The secular city had rediscovered what Harold Isaacs called ‘the idols of the tribe’.
And it was not only ethnicity that began to tear at society’s seamless robe. There was the youth rebellion against moral conformity. There were communes and counter- cultures and alternative lifestyles. And for once, the guardians of the older order had no reply. The idea of a strong national culture had, after all, served as the foundation of the century’s greatest evils, fascism and communism. The past seemed to have used up its moral capital. The future was best left in the hands of those who would inherit it. Theologians spoke about the death of God and the shaking of the foundations. Liberals argued successfully that law could not be used to enforce private morality. And with remarkable speed that set of fundamental agreements which Lord Devlin spoke of as the basis of society had been dissolved. The lines between private and public were redrawn. Political opinions, which were once not discussed at dinner, were now emblazoned on T-shirts. Sexual language and imagery which had been sheltered behind a code of reticence now became publicly sayable and showable. It was not long before that George Bernard Shaw had shocked audiences by his use, in Pygmalion, of the word ‘bloody’. We had become restless with the Victorian ideal of civility-being one thing in public, another in private.
Within a decade, society had taken on the character of Rushdie’s definition of literature, voices talking about everything, in every possible way. Pluralism was liberalism carried through to the public domain.
But in the process there was a dramatic change in our social ecology. Precisely because liberalism gained power in the 19th century, it was able to take for granted a high degree of shared morality and belief, without having to reflect too carefully on the institutions that sustained it. Pluralism takes much further the idea that there is no such shared basis of society. Public policy should be neutral in matters of religion and morality and should merely adjudicate impartially between conflicting claims. The problem is that pluralism gives rise to deep and intractable conflicts while undermining the principles by which they might be resolved. It disintegrates our concept of the common good.
Sometimes we can witness this fragmentation at an early stage. Take, for example, the recent argument over religious broadcasting. It produced an unusual convergence of interests. Evangelicals and at least some secularists would both prefer a situation in which religious groups were able to buy time to deliver their message, if necessary on minority interest channels. To both sides, the move from broadcasting to narrowcasting, from a wide to a specialised audience, represented a clear gain. To the secularists, it would free mass audience channels from having to provide religious programmes. To the religious, evangelising on the air would mean not having to hold back from proclaiming the truth as one sees it. Both sides gain and no one, apparently, loses. But there is a loser. It is the idea of a shared culture at a level beyond entertainment and information.
Anyone who has ever delivered a religious broadcast knows how difficult it is to speak to an unknown and open audience. To our fellow believers, we can address words of fire; to a wider public, only the vaguest generalities. Broadcasting as opposed to narrowcasting is low on authenticity. But if we are to have a public culture, and one with a religious dimension, it is a discipline we have to undergo. We have to learn to speak to those we do not hope to convert, but with whom we wish to live. Narrowcasting frees us from that burden. But it moves us nearer a situation in which opinion is ghettoised into segmented audiences. And where the increase of choice means that we only have to listen to voices with which we agree.
There are more serious examples. Take the one with which I began. Liberals and religious minorities have both objected to a situation in which only Christianity is protected by the blasphemy laws. Instead, all major faiths should have equal protection. But how? One side argues that the blasphemy laws should be extended to cover them all. But that way conflict lies, because Christianity, Judaism and Islam have all at some stage been regarded as blasphemous by one another.
Buddhists, for their part, opposed the proposal because their own rejection of monotheism might be construed as blasphemous by Christians, Muslims and Jews alike. Perhaps, then, blasphemy could be translated from an offence against religion to an assault on deeply held convictions. But if so, it is difficult to see why religious convictions should be especially privileged; and if all convictions were given equal weight, we would rapidly move to a situation where the beliefs of any might constrain the expressions of all. Liberals have therefore argued for an abolition of the offence of blasphemy altogether. But this would give equal protection to each religion by giving no protection to any.
Or consider the problem of religious education. For liberals, the answer seemed to lie in teaching all children all faiths. The problem is that giving many religions equal weight is not supportive of each but instead tends rapidly to relativise them all. It produces a strange hybrid in which the primary value is personal choice, and we feel free to choose bits of one tradition and place them alongside pieces of another, disregarding the different ways of life that gave them meaning in the first place. A multicultural mind can use Zen for inwardness, Hassidic tales for humour, liberation theology for politics, and nature mysticism for environmental concern. But that is a little like gluing together slices of Leonardo, Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Picasso and declaring the result a composite of the best in Western art. The simultaneous presence of voices talking about everything in every possible way degenerates rapidly into mere noise.
Parents might well conclude that the only way of passing on their values to their children was to choose a highly segregated education. And that, surely, was pluralism’s promise: that different religious and ethnic traditions could defend themselves against assimilation-in this case, assimilation into multiculturalism itself. The demand for segregated, denominational schools grows rather than diminishes in a pluralist society. But this offends against another principle of pluralism, the harmonious mix of different groups. As a result, the Commission for Racial Equality has recently argued for the end of all denominational schooling. A proposal to which all religious groups will be equally opposed.
These are conflicts in which pluralism comes down firmly on both sides at once. The reason is that at its heart are two incompatible views of a plural culture. One sees it as a place where many traditions meet and merge. The other sees it as an environment where distinct traditions can guard their separate integrity. At stake are two conflicting views of freedom, one which focuses on the individual, another which emphasises the group. Each side sees the other as a profound threat to its values.
Liberals see religions as an assault on personal autonomy. Traditionalists see liberals as undermining religious authority. In both cases, non-negotiable values are at stake. Pluralism becomes a moral bank account that is always overdrawn. It endorses mutually exclusive visions of the good, and, by abandoning the concept of a common good, leaves us inarticulate in the face of cultural collision.
From this deadlock, there is a way out. And that is to think of a plural society not as one in which there is a Babel of conflicting language, but rather as one in which we each have to be bilingual. There is a first and public language of citizenship which we have to learn if we are to live together. And there is a variety of second languages which connect us to our local framework of relationships: to family and group and the traditions that underlie them. If we are to achieve integration without assimilation, it is important to give each of these languages its due.
Our local languages are cultivated in the context of families and communities, our intermediaries between the individual and the state. They are where we learn who we are; where we develop sentiments of belonging and obligation; where our lives acquire substantive depth. Pluralism should not simply be neutral between values.
Rather, it must recognise the very specific value of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus and Jews growing up in their respective heritages. Traditions are part of our moral ecology, and they should be conserved, not dissolved, by education.
But this is only viable if we develop an equally strong public language of common citizenship, and it must have a richer vocabulary than the single word ‘rights’. It was Horace Kallen himself, the first advocate of pluralism, who argued the need for values which everyone must agree on ‘if they mean to live freely and peacefully together as equals, none penalising the other for his otherness and all insuring each the equal protection of the law.’
Our language of citizenship has a history. It belongs to what Felix Frankfurter described as ‘the binding tie of cohesive sentiment’ that underlies the ‘continuity of treasured common life’ of a nation. But like all languages, it evolves. And we must respect both the history and the evolution. Perhaps we would no longer say as confidently as John Reith that the ‘spirit of common sense Christian ethics’ is a ‘necessary component of citizenship and culture’. But that tradition remains a significant part of our national life, even if it has been joined by other voices, some religious, some secular.
We have tended to neglect that public language in recent years. We would be hard pressed to say what shared values today made us a society. Perhaps in this age of Europeanism and domestic diversity, we have moved beyond the whole idea of a national identity: our attachments are either larger or smaller than that. It may be only at times of conflict, like the Falklands War or, for that matter, the World Cup, that we are strongly aware of national belonging at all.
If so, I believe it is a mistake. The more plural a society we become, the more we need to reflect on what holds us together. If we have only our local language, the language of the group, we have no resource for understanding why none of our several aspirations can be met in full and why we must restrain ourselves to leave space for other groups. We begin to have expectations that cannot possibly be fulfilled. This creates sectarian leadership, the politics of protest, single issue lobbies, and sometimes acts of violence. Pluralism can lead to a contemporary tribalism and no one has painted a darker picture of it than Tom Wolfe in his novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. In its pages, contemporary New York has become a society of conflicting ghettoes-white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, black, Irish Catholic and Jewish- and to wander out of your own into someone else’s is to fall headlong into nightmare. That, surely, we must avoid.
The task of representing shared values traditionally fell, in England, to the established Church. Our current diversity makes many people, outside the Church and within, feel uneasy with that institution. But disestablishment would be a significant retreat from the notion that we share any values and beliefs at all. And that would be a path to more, not fewer, tensions. In a society of plurality and change, there may be no detailed moral consensus that can be engraved on tablets of stone. But there can and must be a continuing conversation, joined by as many voices as possible, on what makes our society a collective enterprise; a community that embraces many communities.
Keeping this first language alive means significant restraints on all sides. For Christians, it involves allowing other voices to share in the conversation. For people of other faiths it means coming to terms with a national culture. For secularists, it means acknowledging the force of commitments that must, to them, seem irrational.
For everyone, it means settling for less than we would seek if everyone were like us, and searching for more than our merely sectional interests: in short, for the common good.
We do not need to look far for a metaphor of our situation. The book of Genesis gives us our first description of what Salman Rushdie calls the breakdown of language, the confusion of voices talking about everything in every possible way. But the Tower of Babel is not the end of the biblical narrative, merely its beginning. In the next chapter, Abram is called to a faith that will not become the faith of everyone, merely the covenant of a single extended family. Other peoples will testify to God in their own distinctive ways. In a plural world, there are many paths to the Divine Presence; many languages in which faith is expressed. What, then, is the religious imperative after Babel? Simply this. That Abram is told: in you will all the families of earth be blessed. That necessary tension between local and public languages, being faithful to one tradition and yet a blessing to others, is one of the great themes of the Bible. As it deserves to be of our time.
In which Rabbi Sacks assesses the explosive mix of religious revival and nationalism.
For some reason, religious conviction in the modern world produces in us a mixture of surprise, fascination and fright, as if a dinosaur had come to life and lumbered uninvited into a cocktail party. I remember, three years ago, taking part in a panel on the use of bad language in broadcasting. Everyone else addressed the subject of obscenity. I was asked to speak about blasphemy. No one had given blasphemy much thought for many years. The one exception – Mary Whitehouse’s prosecution of Gay News – seemed to be just that: a stray pebble tossed into a sea of calm indifference.
At the time, I quoted T. S. Eliot who believed that blasphemy was no longer possible. He thought that you could only blaspheme if you profoundly believed in the reality of that which you profaned. No one, according to Eliot, believed that strongly any more. Along with faith, blasphemy too had died.
Few of us could have imagined that, within a few months, The Satanic Verses would make blasphemy front-page news throughout the world and that 18 people would die in religious protests about a novel. Here was religious belief very much alive in the way the Bible had once portrayed the presence of God: a whirlwind shattering rocks and uprooting the cedars of Lebanon, fascinating in its power, terrifying in its destructiveness. It was the hurricane our weather forecasters failed to predict. Why did the resurgence of religion take us by surprise? And how shall we react to it? We lamented the loss of faith. Shall we fear its rediscovery still more?
One picture dominated our understanding of religion in the modern world. Faith was being ousted from one room after another of its once stately home. Science investigated nature, history explored the past, businesses maximised profits, technology increased control and governments mediated conflicts, all outside the sacred canopy of faith. Religions might still be true, but they had lost what Peter Berger called their plausibility structure, their objective embodiment in society. Faith might remain a private consolation, but it could hardly govern the public domain.
The priest, guardian of the sacred, was left stranded, the last amateur in a world of professionals, the last practitioner of the unquantifiable. For healing, we would prefer a doctor; for catharsis, a psychotherapist. Welfare and education had been transferred to the state. And prayer had become what one churchman recently described as a list of ultimatums given to God when all other avenues had been exhausted. The human imagination would still need the narratives that explained ourselves to ourselves. But art and drama long ago declared their independence from religion. Wherever the man of God turned, he found someone else already doing his job. Religion was the ineffable become the unemployable.
None of this meant that the great religions were about to be eclipsed. But it meant that some hard bargaining would have to take place. Faith no longer had its mansion.
Could it negotiate for itself at least a modest apartment in the tower of Babel? And if so, which of its now cumbersome furniture would it have to throwaway?
So began the varied strategies of religious liberalism and modern orthodoxy. Religion would concede the loss of its empire. It would grant independence to the vast domains of knowledge and decision where once it had been the colonial power. But it would reserve some restricted territory for itself: as a mode of experience, or the voice of conscience, or a spring to social action, or as some immediate, self-contained, even mystical way of knowing. The very powerlessness of religion might be its salvation. In Hamlet’s words, it could be bounded in a nutshell and still count itself king of infinite space.
We can hardly understand religious reactions to modernity without appreciating the extent to which scientific rationalism seemed to carry all before it. From Hume and Voltaire onward, religious belief became a subject of ridicule and disdain. It was primitive, irrational, an opiate, a neurosis, an illusion for those who could not face reality. Some form of accommodation seemed necessary: the only way to recover self-respect. Modernity had won the battle, and religion had to salvage what it could from defeat.
Here and there, there might be groups still untouched by the process-rural communities, the American Bible Belt, the Jewish townships of Eastern Europe. Some might even opt out of it altogether, like the Hassidim, the Jewish mystical circles of Eastern Europe. But that meant strict withdrawal, enclosed communities and a sectarian form of religious organisation. There might be occasional revivals, as there were in Victorian Britain and, periodically, in America. But these were no more than lingering pools left by the outgoing tide. Churches and synagogues had either to make their peace with secular values, as they did in America, or lose adherents, as they did in England. Either way, religion had lost its power to shape societies. It had become the sacred facade of an increasingly secular social order. By the close of the 19th century, Oscar Wilde was already calling religion the fashionable substitute for belief. Preachers were left to lament the ‘melancholy, long-withdrawing roar’ of the retreating sea of faith. Even the unexpected appearance among students in the 1960s of mysticisms, cults and countercultural movements was no more than a minor parenthesis in the larger proposition.
But it was just then that observers began to detect something else. In 1965, Charles Liebman published an article on orthodoxy in American Jewish life. Until then, it had been assumed that Jewish Orthodoxy was in a state of terminal decline. As Jews arrived in America, they set foot on the escalator of acculturation and left their religious baggage behind. The second and third generations joined progressively more liberal congregations, if they identified religiously at all. Now, for the first time, Liebman’s article drew a different picture. Far from being ready to expire, orthodoxy was ‘the only remaining vestige of Jewish passion in America’ and ‘the only group which today contains within it a strength and will to live that may yet nourish all the Jewish world’.
A few years later, Dean Kelley produced a strikingly parallel analysis of American Christianity. Documenting the growth and decline of various denominations, he found that those that were prospering were groups like the Southern Baptists, Pentecostalists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons.
It seemed as if a large-scale cultural conversion was taking shape, a turning of the tide. Secularised Christians were being born again. Assimilated Jews were taking the path of religious return.
A more considered analysis showed that this was not quite so. Those who crossed denominational boundaries were highly visible but numerically few. A society-wide revival was not in the making. The millennium was not yet in sight. But what was happening was significant, none the less. Those whose faith was most demanding had larger families and they gave their children a strong religious education. They had low rates of attrition and were effectively raising a new generation who shared their values. Against the denominational drift, they were holding their own, and demography was in their favour. In an open society, the strongest religious commitments were those best fitted to survive.
And this gave confidence to once demoralised traditional voices. In the backlash against the chaos of the Sixties, their convictions rang out clearly. They knew what they believed, and their opinions had none of the complicating subordinate clauses of the religious liberals. They spoke with that rarest of modern accents: authority. They had learned the lessons of modern communication and organisation. Conservative and evangelical groups became the most enthusiastic users of radio, television and mass mailing. In America, the Moral Majority became a significant force of political pressure. And from these long-neglected circles came the unmistakable sounds of triumph. By the end of the 1970s, they could claim that they had now acquired the influence long yielded by liberals. It was a matter less of numbers than of mood. But it was a significant turn, and raised serious questions about the picture of religion in the modern world. Modernism, liberalism and rationalism no longer looked invincible. Going with the secular flow had ceased to be the best strategy.
Why did it happen? We can speak only in the broadest of terms, but we can surely say this. Our image of religion these past two centuries has been part of a larger picture. It is reflected in the key words that came to dominate social thought in the 19th century: civilisation, progress, evolution, even the word ‘modern’ itself as a term of praise. These words testify to the profound future-orientation of modern culture. The new is an improvement on the old. Optimism and anti-traditionalism go hand in hand.
It was a compelling scenario. Science would fathom the mysteries of nature, and technology would harvest its treasures. Reason would replace superstition and tolerance would triumph over prejudice. The modern state would bring participation and equality. The individual would have liberty of choice, freed from paternalist authority. So long as modernity delivered its promises, the voices of lamentation could be ignored.
But, at some stage in the 1960s, profound doubts began to be expressed. Technology had given us the power to destroy life on earth. Economic growth was consuming the environment. The modern state had the power to organise tyranny and violence on a scale hitherto unknown. Racial animosities had not disappeared: they had fired the ovens of Auschwitz. ‘No Utopia had yet been brought by revolution, and the free market was increasing inequalities between rich and poor. In the secular city, there was homelessness and violence, and individualism had made the most basic relationships vulnerable. Robert Bellah caught the mood when he said, ‘Progress, modernity’s master idea, seems less compelling when it appears that it may be progress into the abyss.’
No one was so well-prepared for these doubts as those long-ills attended conservative religious leaders. They had developed a deep pessimism about modern culture. They had preached against its excesses and idolatries. And now they could say: we told you so. They spoke directly to modern discontents. Against the fragmentation of knowledge, they could offer wholeness of vision. Against an overreaching civilisation, they spoke a coherent language of restraint. Marx and Freud had called religion an illusion. But now religion could reply that it had rejected the greatest illusion of modern times: the self-perfectibility of man. Precisely those religious movements that seemed to have been left behind by modernity became, ironically, an avant-garde of post modernity.
But it is just here that we must confront our ambivalence. We lamented the loss of faith. Shall we fear its rediscovery still more? One word expresses that ambivalence: fundamentalism. It is fundamentalism, or what is sometimes described as religious extremism or fanaticism, that makes us wonder whether religious revival might be not a refreshing breeze but a destructive hurricane. The word was coined in America in the 1920s in the wake of a series of pamphlets setting out the fundamentals of Christian belief. At its simplest level it is just that – a kind of common-sense defence of orthodoxy in a highly secular age. A reaction against what is seen as a liberal intelligentsia’s subversion of established beliefs. What makes this a peculiarly 20th-century phenomenon is that our culture has moved so far from its religious roots that it now takes almost an act of defiance to use words like revelation, truth and authority in their traditional sense. A fundamentalist refuses to let faith be relativised by history or science or sociology. Revelation stands above time and speaks to us now as clearly as it ever did. We may have changed wavelengths on our cultural radio, but we can still hear the voice of God.
But fundamentalism is not just orthodoxy. In Protestantism, for example, it is the belief not only that Scripture is true in every respect, but also that for the most part it is to be understood literally. A fundamentalist tends to reject what is often called neo-orthodoxy – the idea that doctrine, though true and timeless, needs always to be interpreted in the light of our particular time. That, to the fundamentalist, sounds like sophistry. Instead, religious texts speak to us now, directly and without interpretation, because nothing significant has changed between the moment of revelation and modern times.
But now a problem arises. To hold orthodox beliefs is one thing. To do so in a deeply secular culture is another. How do you live your faith in a world that daily seems to ignore it? Broadly speaking, there are two alternatives. One is to disengage as far as possible from society; the other is to try to change it. Orthodox Jews tended to do the first: to live in enclosed communities. But other conservative religious groups favoured the second. This has meant, especially in America, campaigns to reverse permissive legislation on abortion, homosexuality, pornography and other perceived symptoms of moral decline. It is when fundamentalism moves from a defensive doctrine into the political arena that we begin to fear a war of cultures. It is one thing to believe in absolute truth; something else to seek to legislate it in a plural culture. At this point, fundamentalism crashes headlong into liberal politics, and the stakes of the confrontation are high.
But fundamentalism can go deeper still. Many religious believers experienced modernity not as a process to be endured but as an assault to be resisted. It seems as if their most precious beliefs were being ridiculed by an intellectual elite; as if the foundations of the world were being removed. For Christians, it came in the form of secularity; for Jews, assimilation; for Muslims, Westernisation. And it is here that fundamentalism offers a theory, not of doctrine or culture but of history. Seen through sacred texts, present conflicts can become cosmic drama, rich in images of apocalypse: the holy war against the infidel, the global confrontation before the end of days. And once we have reached this point, fundamentalism can-in certain circumstances-move from spiritual vision to extremism and ultimately to violence.
It is when it meets and merges with nationalism that we risk a terrifying return to the wars of religion. It is no accident that the most intractable conflicts of recent years Northern Ireland, the wars and massacres of the Middle East, even the emerging rivalries of Eastern Europe-have had a religious dimension. In an age when secular ideologies have lost their power, revolutionary leaders have enlisted religious passion instead. It is an explosive combination. War becomes a holy struggle against the demonic Other. Terror is sanctified. Hatred becomes a form of piety. The present moment is charged with metaphysical meaning, brushing lesser considerations aside. The complexities of conflict are resolved into a simple dualism of light against darkness. A savage catharsis will bring the promised age.
For the past two centuries, we have assumed that religion, if it survived at all, would do so at the margins of society. This allowed us to leave unresolved the great question of religious coexistence. As Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, religions create communities of love within their own boundaries, but they find relationships across the boundaries far more problematic. The three great monotheisms in particular- Judaism, Christianity and Islam-are absolute in their claims of truth, and therefore tend to divide the world into believers and unbelievers. Historically this has meant, within nations, a denial of rights to other confessions and, between nations, holy war.
Perhaps it was Judaism’s historical good fortune to be deprived of political power at an early stage. Jews were used to living as a minority in exile. And this led rabbinic tradition to articulate an important series of doctrines: that Judaism was not an exclusive path to salvation; that cultures that respected the rule of law could not be considered idolatrous; and that ‘the ways of peace’ must equalise the rights of all faiths. The best tutor in religious tolerance is a situation in which you cannot survive without it. As a result, Jews were religiously predisposed to welcome a liberal political order. In 1783, on the threshold of Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn could point out that since the destruction of the second Temple, 17 centuries earlier; Judaism had lacked any connection between religion and state.
Within Christianity, too, it was the gradual separation of religion and state that allowed, in the 17th and 18th centuries, a doctrine of universal rights to emerge. Even so, religious prejudice could persist in secular forms. By the late 19th century, throughout Central and Eastern Europe, Christian anti-Judaism had become racial antisemitism. It took the Holocaust to make us realise that there is no nightmare like hatred harnessed to the absolute state.
Islam’s encounter with modernity took a somewhat different course. In many countries, it came as a religious and political onslaught: the impact of Western ideas on a proud and ancient civilisation. It was not easy to integrate the two. At first, cultural accommodation seemed possible; but the new values were radically subversive of the old. The new world was less a liberation than a humiliation. So that throwing off the recent past could encompass nationalism and religious revival at the same time. The very reintegration of religion and state could seem like a return to authenticity: away from the decadent secularism of the West, to the lost harmonies of a golden age. The power of Islamic fundamentalism in the late 20th century has taken us by surprise. But we recall that it was only a century ago that the development of empire and the spread of Christianity were seen as going hand in hand. It takes a great catharsis to make us recognise that other religions than our own possess integrity and rights.
Our assumption that religion would always be marginal in modern societies led us to believe that human rights could rest on a secular foundation. The intolerances of religion would be resolved by the simple fact that they would lack power. That was a fatal error in the 19th century; and is still more so today. None of us now inhabits a space occupied only by fellow believers. We are at constant risk of being implicated in events far from home. Innocent shoppers or passengers on a plane are blasted out of existence by a bomb, planted in a cause on which they never took sides. The effects of nuclear or chemical warfare are unrestricted by national borders. The remote has become terribly near. And our understanding of international economics and the environment completes the thought that nuclear weapons began: that no man, no country and no religion is an island in this interconnected world.
Fundamentalism is the belief that timeless religious texts can be translated directly into the time-bound human situation, as if nothing significant has changed. But something has changed: our capacity for destruction and the risk that conflict will harm the innocent. So long as tolerance and respect for human rights rest on a secular foundation they will be overridden by those who believe they are obeying a higher law. And the fact that the great universal monotheisms have not yet formally endorsed a plural world is the great unexorcised darkness at the heart of our religious situation.
We may see, in the future, more national identities expressed in religious terms, as secularism loses its persuasive power. And the great challenge of peace in the 1990s may well be one to which only religious leaders can rise. Behind us lies a bloodstained history of inquisitions, crusades and jihad. But beyond that lies Genesis’ momentous disclosure that every human being-the unredeemed, the infidel, the other- is still the image of God.
Toleration is not, as G. K. Chesterton said, ‘the virtue of people who do not believe anything’. It is the virtue of those who believe unconditionally that rights attach to the individual as God’s creation, regardless of the route he or she chooses to salvation. That is counter-fundamentalism, the belief that God has given us many universes of faith but only one world in which to live together. It is a truth to which we now have no alternative.
In which Rabbi Sacks explains why faith survives.
Religions, it is said, are always dying. But they never quite seem to die. Faith confounds prediction. One of our most tenacious beliefs these past two centuries has been that modern society would be the stage of religion’s final, last performance.
Against that I have suggested another phenomenon: the surprising persistence of faith.
It has been an unlikely and by no means simple story. Let’s take an example. A hundred years ago we could have walked through the Jewish communities of London and seen a process in the making. We would begin in the East End, in Whitechapel. And we would find ourselves deep in the atmosphere of Eastern Europe. It is here that the Jewish immigrants arrived in the wake of the Russian pogroms of the 1880s. It is overcrowded, bustling, noisy, poor; an ethnic ghetto full of strange accents and smells. There are Jewish businesses everywhere: tailors and boot-makers and every few hundred yards a little synagogue. There is no doubt that we are in Jewish London.
A few miles to the west, in the synagogue in Duke’s Place, we would find an altogether different kind of community: Jews who had been in England long enough to have established themselves economically, and to some extent socially as well.
They have combined their religious orthodoxy with a decidedly Victorian manner. The men wear top hats and frock coats; the synagogue is decorous and ornate; the sermon will quote Shakespeare rather than the Talmud and will be delivered in grandiloquent prose. Anglo-Jews, conscious of the novelty of emancipation, have taken great pains to become anglicised.
Some have gone further still. Continuing our walk, we would arrive at London’s first Reform synagogue, whose members believe that substantial accommodations are needed if Jews are to become part of English society. To the scandal of the Orthodox, they have introduced a mixed choir and an organ, abridged some of the festivals and amended the prayer book to make it more congenial to a rationalist age. A journey of five miles on a single morning in 1890 would have taken us through three generations in the process from immigration to acculturation.
Something like this journey has been the fate not just of Jews but of most of us, from English villagers to Irish Catholics to the most recent Sikh and Hindu immigrants. It is less a change of place than a change of consciousness: from parochial to cosmopolitan, local community to open society, from tradition to modernity. On the way, all the old ties are weakened: accents and attachments, particular identities- above all, religious commitment. They belong back in the foreign country called the past; accessible now only through nostalgia. Or so it seemed.
Because, suspending our hindsight and knowing only what we have seen in 1890, we could write the future of those Victorian Jews. In the journey from the East End to the West, there has been a slow attenuation of Jewishness, from a total environment to occasional synagogue attendance. Jews were preparing for the 20th century by leaving their ancient world behind. We might have predicted that by 1990 they would have assimilated to the point of invisibility. There would be, at most, a few pockets of resistance: Jews who turned their back on the modern world. But for the rest, an open society would do what generations of persecution could not achieve. It would put faith into the museum of antiquities. The four-generation rule seemed unbreakable.
The grandfather prays in Hebrew. The father prays in English. The son no longer prays. The grandson is no longer Jewish.
That was the prediction. Secularisation among Christians. Assimilation among Jews. For a long time the evidence supported it. But now it needs to be revised. Already in 1955, the American sociologist Nathan Glazer noted that something momentous had happened to Jews; more precisely, something had not happened. They had not stopped being Jews. By 1990 we can speak not merely of survival but of revival In Anglo- as in American Jewry, every year there are new synagogues and schools. Jews are rediscovering the traditions whose loss their grandparents lamented. At Oxford today you can study Yiddish, the very language immigrant Jews laboured to forget.
The study of Jewish history flourishes as Jews relive their once-relinquished past.
Back to the Future has replaced Gone with the Wind.
And not only among Jews. Because this recovery of identity has been widespread, most obviously among ethnic groups, but in evangelical revivals as well. We will each explain it in our own way. For Jews, the story will include the transfiguring events of the Holocaust and the birth of the state of Israel For Christians it might be told in terms of the traumas of modernity, fears of nuclear and chemical warfare, ecological concerns and the ever-growing inequalities between rich and poor. For Muslims, it might speak of disillusionment with the West and hopes for a cultural and political renaissance of Islam. Other groups will explain in other ways how ethnicity persisted or new forms of community were found.
It is as if we have reached the limits of assimilation into the neutral space of secular society. And hitting them, we have rebounded. A plural culture almost forces us into identifications of this kind. As national identity grows weaker, other identities fill the vacated space, and, of these, religion is the most personal and transmissible. Not only among minorities. Perhaps the most unexpected fact about contemporary Britain is that the overwhelming majority of the population has not stopped being Christian. It may not be reflected in church-going or religious observance. But it answers the question increasingly unanswerable in other terms. The question: Who am I?
But the prediction of deepening secularisation was not altogether mistaken. What has become clear, if paradoxical, is that religious identity can go hand in hand with a decline along all measurable axes of religious behaviour. We practise the rituals of faith less often. We go to places of worship rarely. We can be, it seems, religious and secular at the same time. And religion in a secular society is not what it is in a religious society.
Take contemporary Jewry. Like every other group, it has been affected by new patterns of behaviour radically at odds with traditional norms: mixed marriage, for example, or homosexuality or the rejection of sexually differentiated roles. In the past,
Jews who were drawn to these behaviours would have known that in so doing, they were parting company with Judaism. Today they are more likely to seek a home for them in the synagogue itself. So that Liberal Judaism is driven to ever-wider acceptance of untraditional values. It survives by becoming secularised.
But this creates an opposite reaction too. Jewish survival depends in high measure on the strength of the family: on the decision of Jews to marry, create Jewish homes and raise children committed to continuing the covenant. Until recently, that could almost be taken for granted. But no longer. There has been a sharp rise, in the last two decades, in the rates of mixed marriage, non-marriage and divorce. It has become harder to hand the tradition on across the generations. So that Jews who place a high value on family and continuity feel bound to raise the barriers between themselves and the surrounding society. They survive by refusing to become secularised.
Which is how religion in a secular society becomes polarised. For a majority, it is a tenuous association that does not break the rhythms of a life whose pulse is elsewhere. For a minority, it has become a counterrevolution against an apparent slide into moral anarchy. A plural and fragmented culture translates its divisions into the religious domain. It encourages both an extreme and diffuse liberalism and an extreme and concentrated conservatism, each obeying a different religious imperative: the one to bring religion to where people are; the other to bring people to where religion has always been.
Each religion has had its own critical issues: birth control or abortion or sexual ethics, the ordination of women or the interpretation of doctrine; in the case of Judaism, the very question, who is a Jew? Whether we speak of post-Vatican II Catholicism, or the current Church of England or diaspora Jewry, the coalition between liberals and conservatives has become increasingly fragile. Where one side speaks of autonomy, equality and rights, the other speaks of tradition, obedience and authority. They have become, as Shaw once said, divided by a common language.
But this is just part of a wider disintegration brought about by the loss of what Peter Berger called ‘the sacred canopy’, that overarching framework of shared meanings that once shaped individuals into a society. In its place has come pluralism: the idea that society is a neutral arena of private choices where every vision of the good carries its own credentials of authenticity. But pluralism carries an explosive charge of conflicting interpretations. We have seen some of them in recent arguments about blasphemy, religious broadcasting, multi-faith education and denominational schools. The irony of pluralism is that it leads us to expect a growth of tolerance, while in fact it lays the ground for new forms of intolerance. By dismantling and privatising the concept of a common good it means that no one position is forced to come to terms with the reality of any other.
It is no accident that as pluralism has gained ground, there has been a sharp increase in racial tension and antisemitism, and an air of insolubility about our most basic moral disagreements. Once we lose a common language, we enter the public domain as competing interest groups rather than as joint architects of a shared society.
Communities are replaced by segregated congregations of the like-minded. It is an environment that encourages mutually exclusive visions of the good. And, at its extreme, it produces a clash of fundamentalism, some liberal, some conservative, neither with the resources to understand the other.
It was Robert Bellah who suggested that our social ecology is no less important, and perhaps more fragile, than our natural ecology. It is damaged, he said, not only by war, genocide and political repression, but also by ‘the destruction of the subtle ties that bind human beings to one another, leaving them frightened and alone.’ That is a penetrating description of our own atomised culture. We have neglected the institutions needed to sustain communities of memory and character. The assumption has been that society could exist on the basis of the private choices of individuals and the occasional intervention of the state, as if these were the only significant entities in our social landscape. But a plural society needs a moral and cultural base. Ideally, to use Martin Marty’s phrase, it is a community of communities: a series of environments in which we learn local languages of identity alongside a public language of collective aspiration. It requires two things. It needs communities where individuals can feel that their values are protected and can be handed on to their children. And it needs an overarching sense of national community in which different groups are participants in a shared pursuit of the common good.
In recent years the key word in our political vocabulary has been the individual. In the 1960s the state retreated from the legislation of morality. In the 1980s it drew back from the economy and welfare. And it was assumed in both cases that public responsibility would be replaced by private virtue. Marriage and the sanctity of life would remain as values but would no longer be legally enforced. We would still be pained by deprivation, but we would address it through self-help and philanthropy.
Private virtue was the building that would stay standing once the scaffolding of the state was removed.
But without the communities that sustain it, there is no such thing as private virtue. Instead, there is individualism: the self as chooser and consumer. And the free market can be a very harsh place for those who make the wrong choices. The shift from state to individual at a time when our communities have eroded has carried a high cost in poverty, homelessness, broken families and the drugs, vandalism and violence that go with the breakdown of meaning. In an individualistic culture, prizes are not evenly distributed. They go to those with supportive relationships. To those, in particular, with strong families and communities.
Think back again to the Jewish immigrants of the 1890s. They were not, I suspect, exceptional individuals. But they came with one great asset: a still-influential religious tradition. Few groups have moved faster from inner city to suburbia. And it is not hard to see why. In part, it had to do with the value Jews always placed on the family and education. Parents invested their hopes in their children and made sacrifices for their schooling. In part it had to do with community. Jews had had a long tradition of creating voluntary organisations, their own networks of support.
And in part, too, it had to do with religious self-definition. The Jewish garment- workers in the East End had other sources of self-esteem than their place in the economic order. They had a history. They could stand outside their social situation. They could say, with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, that this is the worst of all possible worlds in which there is still hope. It was those essentially religious structures of solidarity that broke through the cycle of deprivation. And it is hard to see how that dynamic could have been created by the state on the one hand, or disconnected individuals on the other.
Community is the missing third term in our social ecology: the local communities where we discover identity, and the national community where we conduct our conversation about the common good. At both levels, there is an important religious dimension. Locally, our many faiths and denominations are often our fIrst source of belonging. It is in our congregations and ethnic communities, intermediate between the individual and the state, that we find our sense of enduring value, of continuity through change. It is here that the individual is rescued from isolation, that identities are forged and traditions handed on. The critic Peter Fuller once wrote that he doubted whether art could ever thrive ‘outside that sort of living, symbolic order, with deep tendrils in communal life, which it seems a flourishing religion alone can provide’.
And that is true about morality and the family as well. Their natural environment is community; and creating communities is religion’s special power. It is this realm, larger than the individual, smaller than the state, that is, in our time, the primary religious domain.
But religion has a larger role to play as well, in charting our shared moral landscape, that sense of a common good that we need if our communities are to cohere as a society. In Britain, as in America, it was the biblical tradition in dialogue with secular voices that throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries tempered competition with compassion, individualism with responsibility, and gave the search for social justice its prophetic voice. It allowed us to understand ourselves not as replaceable units of production and consumption but as unique individuals capable of enduring commitments of benevolence and love.
For as long as that tradition was influential, we could count ourselves part of a continuing narrative handed on between parents and children, a drama of redemption or salvation within which our moral judgments took on a massive solidity. We stood in collective worship before the great mystery of existence itself, knowing that neither we nor our time were the measure of all things.
It was this that led Alexis de Tocqueville, writing about America in the 1830s, to call religion the first of its political institutions; that which taught Americans the ‘art of being free’. He saw that individualism needed a counterbalance if it was not to consume the very society which gave it birth. Our political structures need a moral base which they cannot themselves create but without which they cannot survive. A culture split between economic and moral individualism, and a series of sectarian minorities, is unlikely to remain cohesive for long.
We have undervalued religion as part of our ecology. It is not hard to see why. With the rise of science we no longer needed it to explain our world. The growth of the modern state relieved it of its roles in welfare and education. Nor did we need religion as a form of social control, when we had law in the public domain and unrestricted choice in our private lives. Religion might survive. Whatever else happened, human beings would still be mortal and would suffer. They would respond to epiphanies and consolations. But if faith survived, it would do so in the margins of life. It would occupy a role in our culture not unlike that of music or art; a fascination for some, but for most an occasional indulgence. As a public presence, its time had passed. It had died, but most people were too polite to say so.
But the obituary was stunningly premature. Religion, allied to nationalism, has emerged as perhaps the most powerful political force in the post-Cold War world. Even in Britain, I suspect that we will hear more about it in the future than for a long time past. There will be the decade of evangelism; anguished voices within Islam; periodic tensions in Catholicism and perhaps the Jewish community as well. Religion will not seem merely marginal. It will be the arena of deep moral and social debates. In part, this may be prompted by thoughts of the coming millennium, but in part it will reflect a growing realisation that we stand at a significant juncture of our cultural history. No less fateful than the one two centuries ago that brought forth the Enlightenment, the modern economy and the secular state.
We have run up against the limits of a certain view of human society: one that believed that progress was open-ended, that there was no limit to economic growth, that conflict always had a political solution, and that all solutions lay with either the individual or the state. We will search, as we have already begun to do, for an ethical vocabulary of duties as well as rights; for a new language of environmental restraint; for communities of shared responsibility and support; for relationships more enduring than those of temporary compatibility; and for that sense, that lies at the heart of the religious experience, that human life has meaning beyond the self.
These are themes central to the great religious traditions; and we will not have to reinvent them. I have suggested that, in a sense, we are already more religious than we assume. When we look at figures of church membership or attendance, ours seems to be a lapsed society. But there are more ways than this that religion enters our lives.
The overwhelming majority of Britons still claim affiliation with the religion of their birth. An established church places faith at the centre of our national symbols. We turn to worship at great moments of crisis or transition. Religion tells us who we are.
But more than that. If someone invented a religion-detector and passed it over the surface of our culture, the needle would swing when it came to our still strong convictions that compassion and justice should be part of social order, that human life is sacred, that marriage and the nurture of children are not just one lifestyle among many. When we lack power, we still feel responsible. When we see others suffering, we can still feel pain. These are traces that the biblical tradition has left deep within our culture: signals of transcendence that can at times move us to otherwise unaccountable acts of conscience and courage.
However tenuous our religious attachments are, they have not yet ceased, and that means that they can be renewed. The question is, what form will they take? For the past century religion has been embattled and defensive. And this has led to the two religious stances most common in the modern world; a diffuse liberalism, on the one hand, sanctifying secular trends after the event, and a reactive extremism, on the other, willing us back into a golden age that neither was nor will be again. The two live by their sibling rivalries, each seeing the other as the main threat to salvation.
And they remind us that, as well as being cohesive, religion can be divisive.
Neither, I believe, is the shape of a coherent future. Liberalism, by placing its faith in the individual, only accelerates the loss of community. Religious extremism seeks to impose a single truth on a plural world. Together they suggest to an age already educated into scepticism that religion divides into the relevant but empty and the authentic but fanatical. These are not the religious imperatives of our time.
Religions are the structures of our common life. In their symbols and ceremonies, the lonely self finds communion with others who share a past and future and a commitment to both. In their visions, we discover the worth of un-self-interested action, and we find, in the haunting words of the Rabbi of Kotzk, that God exists wherever we let Him in. Education and inspiration will renew our communities of faith. The question will be whether they can be revived without the intolerances that once made religion a source of prejudice as well as pride. In our plural, dangerous, interconnected world we can no longer afford to see God’s image only in those who are in our image. It will take courageous leadership to remind us that after Babel, to be authentic to one truth does not mean being exclusive of others. A community of communities needs two kinds of religious strength: one to preserve our own distinct traditions, the other to bring them to an enlarged sense of the common good.
Faith persists, and in persisting allows us to build a world more human than one in which men, nations, or economic systems have become gods. Twenty years ago it seemed as if religion had run its course in the modern world. Today a more considered view would be that its story has hardly yet begun.