It takes a great mind to reset the at times wearisome debate between science and religion. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks magnum opus achieves this in a book that points primarily to the future of the human race whilst incidentally shedding light on the nature of science and religion and how they can get more into partnership. His prime thesis builds from the widely recognised division of the brain into left and right, analytic and synthetic. This illuminates the separate processes of science, which takes things apart to see how they work, and religion, which puts things together to see what they mean. That insight is harnessed to the conviction that, just as a healthy brain requires the balance of analysis and synthesis, so a right-minded world requires the coming together of science and religion.
Quoting Einstein, `Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind', Sacks tackles both irrationally based religion and the overstepping arrogance of some scientists, appealing for a new alliance of believers and sceptics for the good of humanity. For the sake of our children and their children it is imperative we build the stable families and communities essential to political, economic and environmental sustainability. Religious people have no monopoly on morality, contrary to the views of a minority of religious zealots. Rather, through the humility essential to their vision, people of faith should be ready partners with people of goodwill of all faiths or none in building a healthier world.
The Great Partnership is a deep book, passionate, detailed and yet returning from different routes to the simple and compelling thesis of its title. It is eloquent about what society loses when it turns its back on God: the sense of human dignity, a strategy for the common good, the morality of obligation and responsibility, respect for marriage and parenthood and something of the meaningfulness of life.
Sacks identifies and engages with three main contemporary challenges to faith communities: Darwin, the problem of evil and bad religion. He identifies literal fundamentalism, the tendency to move from text to application without interpretation, as a major threat to the health of religion alongside dualistic and messianic tendencies, the misuse of power by religion and its unreadiness to compromise with other world views. This tendency is also found among contemporary atheists.
The book ends with a brilliant `Letter to a Scientific Atheist' that admits the limits of any knowledge of God whilst affirming the need for `sacred discontent' if there is to be real impetus to get the world from where it is to where it ought to be. There is some impatience with Richard Dawkins definition of faith as the refusal to ask questions. Sacks sets this definition alongside those of Planck, Einstein and Nietzsche who define faith as the very determination to press on asking questions. This, he points out, is not so far from the spirit of Abraham, father of faith, who pressed on to an unknown destination.
From a Christian vantage point the book appears lacking in its engagement with divine intervention and the revelation of the resurrection. The Chief Rabbi seems critical of an implied Christian otherworldliness. For all of this his book will go on my shelf as the best response yet to The God Delusion of Richard Dawkins. It has the advantage of being a gracious and easily readable book that stretches both mind and heart and one that most helpfully deals with the God questions in parenthesis. The discussion about God comes as part of a wider examination of issues that are as real for atheists as they are for theists because they seem vital for the future of the world. Those questions about building stable communities and a sustainable global environment will not go away.