Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 21 August 2011
21 August 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
How can we find God? Or, perhaps to be a little more accurate where can we find God? That is the fascinating and obviously very fundamental question asked in a book by someone who I at least consider to be one of the more thoughtful and original theological writers in this country today, Jonathan Sacks, who is the Chief Rabbi. His book is entitled The Great Partnership, with the sub title God, Science and the Search for Meaning, and it was only published earlier this year. Obviously Sacks asks that question about God as a Jew, but he claims, I think rightly, that he is writing out of the whole Abrahamic tradition, which incorporates Christians and Moslems as well because all three religions are in some sense the children of Abraham.
Early on in his book he makes what might seem to be a rather technical point, but one which is obvious enough, although I do not think I had ever quite thought about it before, namely that the New Testament was written in Greek, yet that was a language that quite possibly Jesus himself did not speak. He would, of course, have known Hebrew, but whenever the actual words spoken by Jesus are recorded in the New Testament they are Aramaic, for example when he brings the little girl back to life in Mark 5 v 41 he says ‘talitha cumi’ which is Aramaic for ‘Little girl, get up’, or when he prays to God using the word ‘Abba’, again it is an Aramaic word meaning ‘father’, and when on the cross he cries out ‘Eli, Eli lama sabachtani’ it is the standard Aramaic translation of a verse from Psalm 22, ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me.’ The evidence of the New Testament is that the language Jesus used most regularly was Aramaic, which is not surprising as it was the language used by most people in Israel at the time, and Aramaic is a Semitic language of the same linguistic family as Hebrew. Yet by the time the New Testament came to be written the centre of Christianity had moved from that Jewish background to a more Gentile, Greek speaking world, and we have the strange phenomenon that quite possibly the founder of Christianity would not have understood the book in which the faith was conveyed to the world.
Well does that matter? In one sense obviously not, but there is one very practical difference between the two languages. Greek is written from left to right, like English, but Hebrew and Aramaic is written from right to left. Sacks believes contained in that is something quite profound. He makes much of what is now a well known theory that we each have left brain activity and right brain activity. The left brain is analytical, it takes things apart, it tries to see in the way science tries to discover how things happen, it starts from facts and seeks to develop them into theories of how things work. The right brain, on the other hand, approaches things in a very different way. It starts from feelings and emotions, it sees what holds things together, it tells stories rather than analyses facts, it is concerned about relationships not about what things are in themselves. Of course Sacks believes as I suspect we all do that to be fully human we need both ways of thinking, we need both parts of our brains. It is not that one is better and the other worse, it is that both are needed, they are complementary.
But the Greek speaking world did, he believes, often start from left brain activity, it was the world of analysis and philosophy, it was the world of Aristotle and Plato, it became the basis for the world of science. But the Hebrew speaking world started more from right brain activity, it did not put forward a philosophical explanation of God, but rather it told stories about him, as in the opening chapters of Genesis, indeed it did not tell one story about creation but told two. It did not put forward a philosophical analysis of the development of monarchy and the difference between it and democracy, as the Greek philosophers did, but it told the story of Samuel and Saul and David, a human drama of what happened rather than an analysis of different theories of government.
And that relates what is the central theme of the first part of his book, which he repeats on a number of occasions. Science, he says, takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. And as you will imagine he does not see those two things as being in opposition, we need both to be fully human.
But Sachs maintains that one of the consequences of the move of Christianity to the Greek speaking world was that the Christian Faith then developed against the background of a philosophical system that thought that science and religion were interrelated, both offering explanations of how things were, with theology thinking, at least in the high Middle Ages, that it was the queen of the sciences. And that brought about the hugely influential and powerful role of the church within science which only really started to break down when the church rejected Galileo, and other scientific developments, with the result that science, quite understandably, sought to break away from religious control. But the Hebrew speaking world, Sachs maintains, never quite followed that path, and while continuing to think religion sought to find the connections that gives us the meaning of things it did not interfere or claim control over the scientific investigation of how things work.
So when it comes to how or where we might find God, he believes the clue is in that activity of the right side of the brain rather than the left side, in the world of stories, of relationships, or, if you like, the world of the arts rather than science. God is to be found not in an examination of how things are, but rather in the world of how things might be, of human yearnings for meaning and purpose, in the world of human beings striving to make the world more humane, or, as Sachs puts it, people becoming ‘God’s partner in the work of creation’ as we use the freedom God has given us to make his world as it might be. This is obviously not in any sense to deny the importance of science, it can and does help us enormously to see how to do things and why things work as they do, we need both parts of the brain, but they are not in opposition but are complementary, they form what he calls ‘The Great Partnership’, each needing the other if we are to be effective in making our world better than it is. We need scientific knowledge and must accept its discoveries unflinchingly, but we also need a sort of faith to use it for a greater purpose. But ‘faith’, says Sacks, ‘is not certainty. It is the courage to live with uncertainty.’ But it is the faith that makes people strive to do great things. And so, he suggests, that is where we will find God, in other people, in those who are driven by their faith to do extraordinary things for humanity because they feel they must. God is to be found not in the explanation of how things are, but in the vision of what we might become. It is a thought provoking and challenging concept.