Book Review: The Great Partnership

Perhaps Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is prescient or maybe he simply recognizes truths that are self-evident. Either way, his book, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning, is as relevant today as it was when his work was first published five years ago. The timeliness and timelessness of issues presented by Rabbi Sacks and the manner in which he examines them bear the hallmark of a classic.

Although Rabbi Sacks is a man of the cloth, the tapestry of his writing is not all black and white; it is color rich. His thesis throughout the book is that science and religion are not opposing pursuits but complementary ones. He proposes that science is the search for an explanation of how things work; religion is the search for what they mean. To support his point of view he derives proofs from both science and religion.

He points out that science teaches us that there are two hemispheres to the brain the left and right and each half specializes in certain functions. The left brain deals with things, objects, and details while the right brain is concerned with subtlety, nuance, and meaning. According to Sacks, one side without the other would produce laws without mercy, technology without morality, and knowledge without wisdom.

As for God, Sacks states that whether or not we believe in Him, He believes in us. He asserts that creation is as wondrous as it is paradoxical, for what God would create a creature which can choose to disobey Him or not believe in Him at all? That is something science has failed to explain but religion has. For the Abrahamic religions teach us that we are created in the image of God, which enables us to discern between right and wrong and possess the free will to choose one over the other. Without free will coupled with the ability to ask ‘why,’ we would not be human; we would be like the animals, neither good nor bad and accountable to no one.

With the art of a poet and courage of an explorer, Sacks embarks upon discrediting moral relativism. He points out that secular morality was unable to withstand the onslaught of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. But neither can society survive ruthless religious extremism. There are many ways to order society but the Judeo-Christian ethic has been the only one to succeed in the West. Its secret is that you must believe freedom is a right granted by God if you expect to wrest it from those who would deny it to you. To believe otherwise you would be at the mercy of capricious tyrants, heartless despots, and errant government bureaucrats.

Rabbi Sacks raises the question can an atheist be moral. His answer is yes. He contends that you need not believe in God to be good nor does being religious make you righteous. On the other hand, those societies that have adopted the secular state as their moral authority have spawned some of the worst of the worst genocidal tyrants in history such as Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. The problem with man defining absolutes in moral conduct is it depends on the whims of the moment. According to Sacks, the way to achieve continuity and sustainability of moral behavior from one generation to another is to follow the teachings of the eternal and immutable authority, God.

Rabbi Sacks does not shy away from presenting a variety of differing and even opposing opinions on the matter of the source of morality and the meaning in our lives. He presents the opinions of those with whom he agrees and those with whom he does not. He is eclectic in his citations; he provides a diversity of sources: Plato, Maimonides, Darwin, Nietzsche, Soloveitchik, Jung, Einstein and a host of others. Using that strange mix of minds, Sacks makes the case for the unique place the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) hold in world history. Much good and more than enough evil have been done in its name. Regrettably having God-given instructions of how man should treat his fellow man is not a guarantee those directives will be followed.

Rabbi Sacks believes that God created both the physical world and placed in it the spiritual man. As such we humans are made from the same stuff as the rest of creation. But we are the only life form which has been endowed with spirituality, for it was man who was bestowed with God’s gift of the breath of life.

Therefore, according to Rabbi Sacks, we have a special role to play in this imperfect world. Our charge in this life is to make the world, not only a better place, but a world as it should be, according to its Creator. Our search for meaning is our mission, and it can be achieved through “the great partnership” of science and religion working in concert to make the world complete, as God intended.

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