Pleonasm and pomposity, those twins of purple prose, define a certain kind of religious writing. A certain kind of holiday writing, for that matter—read a typical newspaper column about Thanksgiving, if you need another example—and any number of political orations. Historians, scientists, social workers—even poets, when called upon for public occasions: They all seem incapable of not turning, say, a graduation speech into a gooey mess of unction and uplift.
The literary model for all these hearty exhortations is, of course, the sermon—which is why, although every discipline sometimes surrenders to the impulse, religious works seem especially prone to pulpit prose. And if you want to understand what Jonathan Sacks is attempting in his latest volume, this is it: He’s trying to write a popular religious book that avoids this typical pitfall of popular religious books. He’s trying to sermonize without the sermon.
Not that he always succeeds; this book has its occasional bits of the homiletic: “The message of Exodus to Deuteronomy,” Sacks writes with a preacher’s pen, “can be summed up simply. It took a few days for Moses to take the Israelites out of Egypt. It took forty years to take Egypt out of the Israelites. The road to freedom is long and hard, and you cannot force the pace.”
But the attempt to avoid that tone, to write a calm and measured account of the sheer reasonableness of faith—that’s a very Anglican thing to do. And though Sacks is Jewish, the chief rabbi of Great Britain, he demonstrates in The Great Partnership that he belongs to a tradition of English apologetics that runs through Christian writers from Bishop Butler to William Paley. From Thomas More to Ronald Knox, as well, if you’re willing to extend the line beyond its Anglican limits. And like his predecessors, Rabbi Sacks is a learned, humane, and temperate man; a genuinely wise figure. He’s also dull. This is a worthy book, but only if you give the word a certain weary and cynical spin when you pronounce it.
The Great Partnership has its genuinely interesting moments, as when Sacks describes crisscrossing America in 1968, riding Greyhound buses from city to city—just to meet the nation’s rabbis and ask them big questions. You can picture the scene: the bemused rabbis, with the extremely serious young Englishman suddenly appearing at the door to demand Jewish answers to the philosophical unprovability of God, the theological explanation of the use of randomness in science, the religious implications of the Thirty Years’ War.
Still, American readers interested in the fundamental theopolitical problem of the foundation of culture, or the relations of science and faith, will find some of the book tedious. Smart as its scholars and thinkers can be, Europe remains far behind the United States in the analysis of church-state relations, the question of religion, and the intellectual appropriation of science. Unless, of course, you’re one of the people who thinks that religion should simply be abolished by the state: pressed into public invisibility until it finally—finally—withers and dies. Écrasez l’infâme, as Voltaire once demanded.
Mostly, it’s to oppose Voltaire’s contemporary children that Sacks has written The Great Partnership. “The story I am about to tell,” he explains, “concerns the human mind’s ability to do two separate things. One is to break things down into their constituent parts and see how they mesh and interact. The other is to join things together so that they tell a story, and to join people together so that they form relationships.” The distinction is a little less clean than he makes it—meshing and interacting is a kind of relationship, after all—but we all understand the basic difference, and Sacks offers us science as the mode of the first activity and religion as the mode of the second.
Throughout Sacks’s attempt to reconcile science and religion, the target is the New Atheists: Harris, Hitchens, and the rest, especially Richard Dawkins. In his moderate soul, Sacks is offended by the immoderation of contemporary atheism, and he is willing to set aside his usual meliorism to savage them for their crass thoughts and vulgar analyses.
The first portion of The Great Partnership argues that science and religion are, in fact, too different to contradict each other: They can’t fight a battle, he insists, if they can’t even agree on a battlefield. Athens and Jerusalem are the poles of Sacks’s geography, and he uses them as images again and again. Thus, for example, he suggests that the philosophy, and even the grammar, of the ancient Greeks gave birth to science; the spirituality, and even the alphabet, of the ancient Hebrews gave birth to monotheistic religion.
If that’s a little simplistic, the basic idea is clear: Science aims at chopping things up to learn how they work, while religion aims at joining them together to learn what they mean. And we need both, Sacks insists, if we are to locate ourselves in the universe. When one side is suppressed, as the political culture of Europe is determined to suppress religion, the result is our lostness: We wander without meaning in a landscape without horizons.
In the last portions of the book, Sacks undertakes a rapid survey of the problems of evolution, the existence of evil, and the damage of religious fanaticism. Religions need to be open and accountable, he insists.
When they develop into closed, totalizing systems and sectarian modes of community, when they place great weight on the afterlife or divine intervention into history, expecting the end of time in the midst of time, then they can become profoundly dangerous, for there is nothing to check their descent into fantasy, paranoia, and violence.
What’s interesting in all this is not Sacks’s particular analyses, all of which are fairly typical of modern apologetics, but the clear indication, lurking just beneath the unruffled prose, that the author is growing worried. The moderate Jewish form of the Anglicanism in which he has lived all his life—the sense that we needn’t worry too much, for the center will hold no matter how wide the gyre around it opens—no longer feels existentially safe. From that young man traveling around the United States on a bus to learn the content of his rabbinical faith, Jonathan Sacks has lived long enough to see himself and his well-centered faith redefined as the radical fringe in Europe.
One wishes an actual Anglican in authority—the Archbishop of Canterbury, say—had as much sense. But for all of them, Christian and Jew alike, their calm and very British sense of being reasonable must feel increasingly threatened. A curious time we live in, when a tone of moderation and sensible balance is forced to feel itself the lonely voice of a prophet, crying in the wilderness.
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.