Faith: Springtime for theology?

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent  |  May 23, 2002 at 12:37 PM
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PHILADELPHIA, May 22 (UPI) -- Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, has proposed a new paradigm to forestall a global clash of civilizations. His paradigm addressing the unexpected return of religion "as an exceptionally powerful and indeed shaping force" is based on a very ancient text -- the Genesis narrative of the Bible.

As Sacks explained it Tuesday in a lecture sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, his model reverses the previous order of priorities by first stressing "that every human being is in the image of God" (cf., Genesis 1:26).

This, he said, places the Bible in contrast to the ancient world where just the rulers were made in the likeness of God.

Next, said Sacks, comes the Biblical affirmation in Genesis 9 of the "non-negotiable dignity of human life" that is manifest in the Covenant, which shows the Creator as the God of all humanity.

Only then, from Genesis 12 onward, does Scripture go into particulars.

According to the rabbi, this order stands in stark contrast on the one hand to tribalism, including nationalism that dominated the world for millennia until Europe was cured from it by two world wars costing 100 million lives.

The paradigm shift also turns round Platonic universalism, which has "haunted the West" for 2,400 years, as Sacks sees it. Platonic thinking proceeds from the world of senses where all things are like shadows on a wall to the "real thing," the immutable universe of forms, concepts and ideas.

This way of thinking moves from the particular to the universal to arrive at Truth, said Sacks.

The Book of Genesis, on the other hand, "begins with a simple, difficult and profound message. It first tells the universal story of the human situation."

This is important, Sacks said, if one considers that the world has moved from the 20th century, "which was dominated by the politics of ideology, to the 21st century dominated by the politics of identity."

To identify themselves, people do not turn to their common ethnic origins, but to religion, explained Sacks, pointing to the conflicts between ethnically related believers of different faiths in places such as Bosnia, Ireland or India.

Into this environment, the Bible delivers the message Sacks termed "the real miracle of monotheism: unity in heaven creates diversity down here on earth."

"The Hebrew word for holy means to be different, or apart," he went on. "While God makes every human being in the same image -- God's -- he makes them in different colors, with different languages and different ways of worship."

As an analogy, Sacks pointed to the recent scientific discovery that nature is ordered complexity, whereas since the Enlightenment "all nature was seen as one giant machine with many interlocking arts, all harmonized."

"Now we know that nature is all different ... It is ordered complexity with bio-diversity, in which every species has its part to play."

Sacks reminded his audience that the genetic code of every creature -- bats, beetles, bacteria and humans -- consisted of the same words; yet there are some 250,000 different species.

"If it is alive it will use the same dictionary and same code. If it is alive, it's one."

"This one creation in its diversity is what the Bible is hinting at," Sacks continued. Each of us has certain skills. If all of us were the same we would not need one-another."

This insight provides a bridge across the abyss, according to Sacks. It points to the "real miracle" -- that God is greater than religion. "My God is your God, but there are not many gods. God is on your side as he is on mine.

"Only such a God would be truly transcendent. Only such a God can teach mankind."

As one of the world's leading Jewish theologians, Rabbi Sacks is above suspicion of indulging in syncretism, the mixing of religions, which is anathema to Christians and Jews.

Yet he does allow, "Maybe faith has to find its own way."

This could be misinterpreted as an expression of the mushy postmodern suggestion that there exists a multitude of equally valid "truths." But that's clearly not what Sacks meant.

There exists a biblical understanding that God does not leave himself without witness. Hence, says Gerald R. McDermott, an orthodox Episcopalian scholar specializing the relationship between the world's religions, "God has put signs into other faiths to point to himself."

Jewish, Christian and some Muslim theologians have been in agreement on this for quite some time. But by formulating his new paradigm, Jonathan Sacks has uncovered a thorny issue: How do you acknowledge these signs and make use of them without giving up your faith identity -- without turning the diversity he talked about into a meaningless spiritual stew?

Or, to use Christian terminology, how does one cooperate with other religions without disposing of the uniqueness of Christ, which according to McDermott God's signs in these others faiths actually help to understand?

There is only a very fine line between Sacks' important reminder of the "unity in heaven" and syncretism that nearly destroyed Christianity in early church history and has imperiled it many times since -- including now.

Sacks is right: religion has returned powerfully as a shaping force. Consequently, what this changed world needs most at this point are sharp theologians who understand this unity-diversity dialectic.

Religious leaders must cooperate for the common good. But they must not blur the distinctions. In the final analysis, the British chief rabbi has shown in Philadelphia where the world of religion is heading -- either toward springtime of good theology or its demise.

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