The Power of Ideas

It is always annoying to be told ‘this is a book everyone should read’. It may not help to say this is a book every student should read. But if you are intellectually curious, concerned about the state of the world and looking for answers, The Power of Ideas: Words of Faith and Wisdom by Jonathan Sacks may be a book you should read.

Power of Ideas CoverPublished on the first anniversary of his death, the book is a collection of Jonathan Sacks’ journalism, broadcasts, speeches and other short writings. As such, it provides ideal-length chunks of wisdom that a busy student can take on board in any spare ten minutes. Because of the occasions they stem from (e.g. Thought for the Day), the pieces are not only short, but in them Sacks makes every word count. He knows his listeners can be easily distracted. This has a huge spin-off for those engaged in the advocacy of humane rational ideas: the text is eminently quotable in debate and controversy. Sacks, being a past Chief Rabbi and internationally respected figure, can offer his unwavering statements with a clout which lesser-known writers or church leaders may not command. These things also give him a compelling perspective on world events not readily accessible to a non-Jew. The result is page after page of insights, analysis of society and solution-focussed guidance for those in power, as well as for the rest of us in our daily approach to the maelstrom of world events dominated by recurrent and chronic crises.

Sacks was not only a teacher, but also philosopher, theologian and popular communicator. The titles of his thirty-something books testify to that. It’s hard to think of many others who currently combine those roles successfully and produce writing as widely interesting and useful as in this book.

A breadth of concerns

With 90 or so different topics included (and fourteen pages of Index), it is hard to be comprehensive in review, but a mere seven titles from the first section alone (out of five) will indicate the breadth of his concerns: Religious Tolerance, Leadership, The Danger of Power, Free Speech, The Good Society, Handling Change, Antisemitism. Each of these is a matter of enormous concern at present. University campuses at least as much as the general public need to see a way forward in dealing with these variously emotive and seemingly intractable issues. Those who adopt a minority position on political or ethical issues, those who hold a faith position and a religious perspective on the world – at least within a thinking environment such as university or college – really need to have a cogent response to the secular world view. This latter is often either complacent (‘it is what it is – it’s the only reality we have’) or determined to disallow the faith perspective which is seen historically as negative in impact; and in current matters it is often seen as irrelevant. Those who read Sacks from that secular viewpoint will be hard pushed to maintain that view uncritically; those who read him from a Christian or other religious stance will find not only music to their ears but also deadly accurate and armour-piercing weaponry in the verbal war of words. Or better, the polite debate which should characterise the interface between the Judaeo-Christian view and the secular one, and which Rabbi Sacks exemplified so fully.

people who hold a faith position need to have a cogent response to the secular world view

The context of the Thought for the Day talks does not allow for much controversy or for the development of Sacks’ more profound ideas, the rationale of that programme being to appeal for consensus from as wide a public as possible. Perhaps the keynote is that ‘love of God must lead us to a love of humanity’ (3) for where the voice of toleration does not speak the voice of extremism will. Christians will find each of these reflections uplifting and some will find it useful to be shown that our current belief in tolerance derives in part from a line of thinkers which includes Locke, Jefferson and Rousseau who realised that people should have the right to live and speak according to their beliefs. Historically therefore it was several non-Christian thinkers who ensured this liberty, which less tolerant atheists and agnostics may have forgotten on some campuses.

The value and fragility of democracy

Every Jew in every post-biblical age treasures this liberty more highly than the rest of the world ever can and understands the value and fragility of democracy more highly as a result. But Sacks reminds us that freedom requires ‘respect for minorities, justice and the impartial rule of law, a collective commitment to the common good and a delicate balance of rights and responsibilities’ (25–6). Those words were spoken nearly a decade ago and illustrate what Sacks is explicit about in the more developed essays in the book: the sense that we are not making progress in these areas. Indeed, we are falling back (in standards of justice and truth, in freedom of speech and dissent, in the ability to forgive) as secularism gets more and more of a stranglehold on the unspoken beliefs of millions of Europeans. Sacks sees Europe and the West as a civilisation in decline, but not one without hope of redemption. For within every crisis lies the glorious possibility of re-birth: ‘I have found…that the events that at the time were the most painful were also those that in retrospect most caused us to grow’ (102). The Jews, he says, have survived despite everything they have suffered, despite not having even a homeland for most of their history. And it is at this point that he draws an important distinction between his own religion and the Christian one.

Sacks sees Europe and the West as a civilisation in decline, but not one without hope of redemption

In Britain, when we talk about religion, we tend to mean what someone believes. For Jews however, ‘religion is fundamentally about rituals, the things we do together as an expression of collective memory and shared ideals’ (21). That is surely an interesting insight, possibly surprising for the rest of us, but something from which we can learn. From these rituals (especially Passover) a culture preserves its memory, keeps faith with its forebears and hands on its legacy to the future. Young children in the family unit are central to how this works as they learn the stories and carry out the actions in the rituals. What it means historically is that ‘we never lost our sense of identity, of who we were and why’ (44). Equally, the Jewish people, however much dispersed and alienated, never lost their sense of hope and ‘we never forgot the destination: a world of justice, compassion and peace’ (44).

Remembering where we come from, where we are headed, and why, means that you have ‘a map of values that don’t change’ (44). These are important ideas for young Christians who may be easily blown off course as the cultural and ethical winds change direction seemingly moment by moment. Christians should learn from this wise leader and Orthodox Rabbi who was steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Taking the bull by the horns

Sacks’ use of what Christians call the Old Testament in providing exemplars for today is forthright and unembarrassed. It’s as if he is saying to us: this is my Holy Book; it is full of truth and wisdom; you would expect me to call upon its riches to illustrate what I mean. But it will not escape most readers that this is something that Christians find increasingly difficult in our current climate. If Rabbi Sacks can help the Church use both Testaments in the same confident manner that he does, he would have done us an enormous service. Speaking of a family adopting a screen-free day once a week, he writes: ‘Wow. Well done Moses, I thought. Some 3,000 years ago you gave us the Sabbath to free us from slavery to Pharaoh, and now we’ve rediscovered it to give us freedom from smartphones’ (42).

where he defends, he does so robustly and where he attacks, he is rational and humane, seeking the common good

The Credo section of the book naturally takes us a lot further into the author’s thinking. Here he speaks his mind on matters of greater controversy: science and religion, faith schools, fundamentalism, marriage, politics and identity. Where he defends, he does so robustly and where he attacks, he is rational and humane, seeking the common good.

It is refreshing, for instance, to hear a public intellectual calling religion ‘our noblest effort to understand ourselves’ (76) and with provisos this, it seems to me, is a highly defensible position to adopt and one we should hear from our pulpits rather than the current vogue for constant apologies – even though these too have their place. After all, the ‘great religions are our greatest treasuries of wisdom’ on how best to live a life and ‘the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age’ (155). ‘Prayer changes the world because it changes us’ (82) is something Christians believe and understand; it is a line that might be used more often in argument. Taking the bull by the horns is also something more Christians might learn to do in the way that Sacks does when speaking of religious fundamentalism. So often, he says, it is assumed that the fundamentals of religion are dangerous, before stating: ‘On the contrary, religions become dangerous when we forget their fundamentals’ (65).

Embracing the fundamentals

One of those fundamentals is that the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures insist on liberty and equal rights for all because we are all created in the image of God, ‘regardless of class, colour, culture or creed’ (333). This is why the Darwinist notion of life as mere struggle for survival is both wrong and inadequate as a basis for human flourishing. Instead of tying himself in knots trying to make Genesis fit with Darwinian science, Sacks merely says, ‘the Bible tells us otherwise’ (40). Sacks sees the opening of Genesis ‘not as pseudo-science, still less as myth, but as jurisprudence…the foundation of the moral law’ (92). In two brief pages he manages to fit insights missed by a hundred commentators. These are sure to be hugely useful in those late-night discussions where the veracity of the Bible’s depiction of origins comes under fire.

Sacks' insights will be useful in those late-night discussions where the Bible’s depiction of origins comes under fire

Science is essential in telling us how the world is, but we need religion to ‘tell us how the world ought to be’ (128) and to answer the question, ‘Where do I belong? Of what story am I a part?...How then shall I live? (107). If students are not asking themselves these questions and provoking debate about them amongst their fellows, then tertiary education has lost a fundamental part of its value. We should thank God, says Sacks, for great scientists, but ‘religion is about open hearts, not closed minds’ (106).

Before we leave this section, one further quotation must be made, since every government in recent decades has steadfastly refused to address this issue. Sacks confesses: ‘I find it hard to say how sad it is that marriage is in decline’ (62). He wrote these words in the year 2000. Had he lived to read the recent statistics, he would have wept. ‘It was and is the single greatest source of beauty in ordinary lives – moral beauty, a song scored for two voices in complex harmony’ (62). How craven is the refusal of almost every politician in high office to support even a mild version of this view! Exasperated, he asks, ‘How can we, almost within a single generation, have taken perhaps the Torah’s greatest single contribution to human happiness and simply thrown it away?’ (218). Christians need reminding not only that marriage statistics universally support its positive impact on society (141 and 338) but that the Old Testament stories about polygamous marriages ‘are all critiques that point the way to monogamy’ (333). There is, Sacks avers, a deep connection between monogamy and monotheism.

A portrait of a society in decline

Part Three of the book is a further collection of articles of about the same length and many themes recur there in slightly different form and emphasis: the family, the breakdown of society, morality, the role of religion, the nature of humanity. Sacks’ picture of a society in decline is powerful and for some might be depressing – but it should be read. Secular society continuously fails to reach even the least of its goals and Christians should not be afraid to point this out at the appropriate moment.

secular society continuously fails to reach even the least of its goals and Christians should not be afraid to point this out 

His essay ‘Reversing the Decay of London Undone’ – a reflection on the riots of 2011 – is a masterpiece. In it he refers to landmark commentators Alexis de Tocqueville, Robert Putnam and Niall Fergusson, all of whom discovered, somewhat unexpectedly that it was religion which had served to keep Western society operational rather than military defence or democracy or the economics of capitalism. Religious people, on the whole, make better citizens and neighbours, Putnam discovered. ‘Affiliation to a religious community is the best predictor of altruism and empathy: better than education, age, income, gender or race’ (143) Sacks concludes, asking the question whether we will ever learn: ‘We have begun a journey down the road to moral relativism and individualism which no society in history has survived for long (203). In a later speech he lists the nine indicators of this malaise (348) – again of central importance for the Church to recognise and use effectively.

Christian readers might ponder why it is that this sort of information is hard to find, not only in the media, but in the teaching we are offered from a number of different Christian outlets. Christian students involved in sharing good news with their friends should certainly avail themselves of these facts.

Dissecting antisemitism

Lord Sacks’ addresses to the House of Lords are pithy and tailored carefully to his audience in Part Four of the book but it is Part Five that contains some of his most brilliant work: longer lectures to sympathetic audiences where he allows himself to fly a little more freely. Two in particular caught my attention: an address to the European Parliament on the history and nature of antisemitism (The Mutating Virus) and another to the plenary session of a gathering of Anglican Bishops at the 2008 Lambeth Conference (Faith and Fate). In these longer pieces the breadth of Sacks’ knowledge and the seamless way he moves from being Hebrew scholar, to pastor, social analyst, historian and philosopher becomes fully apparent. The speeches must have been moving to hear, for today, in print, they still bring a lump to the throat – especially when he speaks of Jewish history. The Mutating Virus is probably the clearest description of the nature of antisemitism you will read anywhere.

Sacks is a voice that Christians should heed

Rabbi Sacks begins by explaining what it is and is not. It is not the dislike of Jews; it is not the criticism of Israel. Rather, ‘Antisemitism means denying the right of Jews to exist collectively as Jews with the same rights as everyone else’ (351). Historically, Sacks says, the phenomenon appears among groups who cannot accept responsibility for their own failures – an interesting and illuminating idea. But the shock today is seeing this hatred so widespread within living memory of the Holocaust. Those who do not want Israel in existence are to be found in every single European country, without exception. And in every one of those countries Jews are fearful for their children’s future. The world has 56 Muslim nations and 103 Christian ones but only one Jewish state. That state makes up merely one quarter of one per cent of the Middle East land mass. Yet, of the 193 UN member states, Israel alone has its right to exist regularly challenged.

Apart from the injustice of this, Rabbi Sacks reminds us that the hatred of Jews never ends with Jews. If antisemitism is allowed to breed, many other incursions to freedom will follow. Failed states and societies that allow such evil never ask ‘What did we do wrong?’ but ‘Who did this to us?’ Instead of being self-critical they become aggressive in their attempts to conceal their failings – from themselves and the rest of the world.

Sacks was, indeed, ‘one of the most engaging thinkers of our time’ as The Times put it, but he was also a prophetic voice of both hope and warning – a voice that Christians should heed as much as his beloved fellow Jews and, if they are wise, those with no affiliation to either group.

Jonathan Sacks, The Power of Ideas: Words of Faith and Wisdom (Hodder & Stoughton, 2021)