The Magazine

Reason for Faith

The case for the peaceful coexistence of science and religion.

Oct 1, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 03 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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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.

Charles Darwin, ca. 1874

Charles Darwin, ca. 1874

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.