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Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Light of the World, and the Insight of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

A very merry Christmas Day to our readers.

I have been holding back, waiting for just the right time, to write about an extraordinarily spiritual interview that was broadcast on NPR some weeks ago, with the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, of the UK.  For those of you who may not be familiar with Lord Sacks, or his office, the link will take you to his website for more information.  For the less curious, the office of Chief Rabbi is an equivalent to the special honor held by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and he is (to give him full title) the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, an office dating back to 1704.  The broadcast was the program 'On Being' hosted by Krista Tippet, and the subject of much of the interview was the Dignity of Difference (which is not coincidentally, the title of Baron Sack's 2004 book).

Today, that time came together beautifully, again thanks to an email that arrived like a Christmas present under the tree, from my friend Sara who provides me with so many of my writing ideas. (Thank you, Sara, and Merry Christmas!)  For those of you who have followed my link to the Star of Bethlehem lecture, let me also share with you this news story on the same subject, relating to the recent English translation of an ancient Syriac text in the Vatican Library, the Revelation of the Magi.

How do these disparate topics come together?  That is the reason, at least, a reason, for reading Penigma!

Sir Jonathon throughout his interview with Krista Tippet touched me spiritually very deeply.  Listening to him speak it is evident that he is a man who has devoted his life to the human relationship to God. At other points in the interview, his observations on more secular and ecumenical topics touched me equally, but more intellectually.  Tippet quite fairly describes Sacks, in her introduction:
As Chief Rabbi since 1991, Jonathan Sacks has carved out an authoritative, and sometimes controversial, voice in the modern United Kingdom — it's a relatively secular culture in what officially remains a Christian state.

He's not just a spokesman for the Jewish community. He is one of the most visible religious figures in British public life — commenting on radio and television and counseling government ministers on issues of the day.
Although he did not ascend to the office of Chief Rabbi until 1991, in 1990, as part of the Reith Lecture Series, the BBC invited Sacks to present the lectures for that year.  His topic was The Persistence of Faith.  Lord Sacks describes his 1990 presentations, which I take from  the interview transcript :
It was probably the first response to Francis Fukuyama's vision of the end of the history. You know, the Berlin Wall had fallen, Soviet Union had collapsed, end of Cold War. Everyone was seeing what he foresaw as the, you know, seamless spread of liberal democracy over the world.
And I said no, actually. I think you're going to see faith return and return in a way that will cause some problems because the most powerful faith in the modern world will be the faith most powerfully opposed to the modern world. So that was in 1990, the year before I became Chief Rabbi. Nothing that's happened since has surprised me, though it has saddened me. Religion is a great power and anything that powerful can be a force for good or, God forbid, for evil. But it's certainly fraught and dangerous and needs great wisdom and great — if I can use this word — gentleness. [ bold represents my emphasis added - DG]
I was taken by the power of this observation as it relates to our conflict with terrorism, but also to how it relates to the conservative efforts by our own religious right in the United States to push us as a nation into embracing a Christian theocracy rather than a purely, exclusively secular representative government which respects religion but does not embrace any specific faith over another.  Sack's observations appear, to me, to be every bit as applicable to the rants of Michele Bachmann or any of the delusional fanatics associated with Bradlee Dean and his YCRYCH so-called ministry or others which have close connections with right wing political figures.  Our own government this holiday season has been expressing concerns for the possible violent terrorist actions of home-grown terrorists here in the United States as much or more than the concern for terrorists acting from outside our national boundaries.

When Sacks says "the most powerful faith in the modern world will be the faith most powerfully opposed to the modern world" he seems to my eye and ear to epitomize the incident of Senator John  McCain, storming off the floor of the Senate.  He perfectly encompasses the pseudo-history and pseudo-religion of Glenn Beck ranting on Faux Nuisance.  It pretty much addresses any day's broadcast by Rush Limbaugh.

One of the smartest men with whom I have ever had the pleasure of working made the observation in an annual meeting that change was inevitable; we could not stop it, and we had only limited means to control it.  So our options were to expend our energy in resisting that change, which would occur anyway, or to embrace it, and to the best of our ability to shape and direct it as part of the change, participating in it and anticipating it.  I believe that to be the opposite to faith which opposes the modern world.

Before anyone gets their knickers too twisted, let me also add to this observation that Sacks has also expressed deep concern at the negative influences of materialism and consumerism, as well as secularism, on modern life. This is a man devoted to spirituality, and to understanding and promoting the role of religion in modern daily life, especially within family life.

Sacks goes on to observe, (again from the interview transcript):
"It seems to me that one of the things we most fear is the stranger. And at most times in human history, most people have lived among people who are mostly pretty much the same as themselves. Today, certainly in Europe and perhaps even in America, walk down the average Main Street and you will encounter in 10 minutes more anthropological diversity than an 18th-century traveler would have encountered in a lifetime.

So you really have this huge problem of diversity. And you then go back and read the Bible and something hits you, which is we're very familiar with the two great commands of love: Love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might; love your neighbor as yourself. But the one command reiterated more than any other in the mosaic box — 36 times said the rabbis — is love the stranger for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. Or to put it in a contemporary way, love the stranger because, to him, you're a stranger. This sense that we are enlarged by the people who are different from us — we are not threatened by them — that needs cultivating, can be cultivated, and would lead us to see the 21st century as full of blessing, not full of fear."[ more of my emphasizing - DG]
This thinking of Lord Sacks was in my thoughts over the Islamophobic fuss with Juan William's statements about fearing a stranger in 'muslim clothing' on an airplane.  I postulated the position of Williams and all of Faux News talking heads was foolish.  Logically, people who have previously practiced terrorism did not wear ethnically distinctive clothing that would have attracted attention.  I am intellectually driven, and intellectually curious, which is why I argued with my colleague Pen about this issue.  It is quite characteristic of my curiosity, (some would say contrariness) that I would have sought to sit next to such a hypothetical person rather than felt fear and avoidance.  My concern  would be that this person was more probably afraid of all of us in the western world who were both different and outnumbered them, and observe that such a person could use a word or gesture of kindness.  There was no sense in being afraid of him or her.  If we choose, we can make decisions like this, or about mosques in our respective communities (or Hindu temples, or any other religious structure or organization) using our intellect.  Or, we can choose to focus on the 'otherness' of people, and respond emotionally, and irrationally, which is the best explanation I've seen so far of our rampant Islamophobia, especially from the right.
Ms. Tippet, in this interview (from the transcript) said:
So I'd like to talk about the ideas that you brought forward in The Dignity of Difference and I think have continued to develop ever since. You know, I remember a very intelligent, excellent American journalist commentator after September 11, 2001; he made a statement that what those events demonstrated was that, in order for the three monotheistic religions in particular to survive and be constructive members of society in the 21st century, they would have to relinquish their exclusive truth claims. I think that sounded like it made a lot of sense to many people." [my emphasis- DG]
and then  Tippet went on to say in the interview:
"One thing that I'm struck by in conversations I have with scientists, with neuroscientists, with clinical psychologists, first of all, is how science is now able to demonstrate biologically that it is ."when we are able to see the other, to see the welfare of the other, as somehow linked to our own, that we're able to rise to these moral ideals."[my emphasis again - DG]
In his response, Lord Sacks addresses this
"One of the ways God surprises us is by letting a Jew or a Christian discover the trace of God's presence in a Buddhist monk or a Sikh tradition of hospitality or the graciousness of Hindu life. You know, don't think we can confine God into our categories. God is bigger than religion."

So, back to how the Revelation of the Magi relates to this concept of our predominant monotheistic religions giving up their claims to exclusive truth, as the conduit to God, as the expression of the will of God. The Revelation of the Magi describe the Star of Bethlehem as descending and becoming the Christ child, as human figure which glows like a star.  It describes this Christ child speaking to them, despite apparent infancy, asserting that he has appeared to humans many times before, and is part of and the inspiration for, other religions.

I will spare our Penigma readers a mini-presentation on the Gnostic notions of a docetic, non material non-corporeal Christ, or a review of the Albigensian crusades as examples.  I won't wander into a discussion of Manichaeism  Suffice it that in the pursuit of religious conformity, neither Gnosticism generally or the Cathars specifically were able to persuade anyone to give up their claims to exclusive truth.  The newly English-translated ancient text seems of this Gnostic era and philosophy.  But given the new interest that this interpretation of the biblical nativity story has evoked, we might hope that the notion that God is  greater than religion, greater than any theistic monopoly can contain, will be a positive one.

When better to espouse an ideal which relates to the nativity story of the Gospels, and to a text in the collection of the Vatican library, translated by a scholar from Oklahoma - center for some of the most conservative religious and political figures of our country, than today of all days. What better day than the birth of such a 'mighty counselor' to address a post to the thoughts of Sir Jonathan Sacks.

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