Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 28 August 2011

28 August 2011 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

The Chief Rabbi in this country, Jonathan Sacks, has recently published a fascinating book entitled ‘The Great Partnership’, with the sub-title ‘God, Science and the Search for Meaning’. At this service last Sunday I talked about the central theme of the first part of the book, which he summarizes as ‘Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.’ If you are interested last week’s address is on the Abbey’s web-site, as this one will be as well. Today I want to reflect on the later part of his book, where he develops the theme further.

Jonathan Sacks does, of course, wholly value science’s capacity to take things apart, and he extends that admiration to the very significant work of Charles Darwin in the nineteenth century. He has no difficulty in accepting Darwin’s explanation of evolution as the way life on this planet developed, including human life, and in that I suspect he is followed by a very large proportion of Christians in this country at least, certainly including me. But he does question the conclusion that some of Darwin’s more recent followers have drawn from evolutionary theory, namely that there is therefore no meaning to life, the whole thing is a completely random development that was just the consequence of chance. And he argues against that on the grounds that such a view is not something that can be established by science. Meaning, or meaninglessness, lies in the eye of the beholder, and if a scientist comes to the conclusion that there is no meaning in life, it is just a random chance, then that is a conclusion he comes to for reasons other than scientific ones. Scientists are, after all, human beings as well, and while they may well be very able as scientists in taking things apart, in then trying to put them together all sorts of other human characteristics come into play. Indeed, as Sacks points out, it was a very distinguished scientist, Albert Einstein no less, who wrote ‘Science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary.’ And Einstein continued ‘representatives of science have often made an attempt to arrive at fundamental judgments with respect to value and ends on the basis of scientific method, and in this way they have set themselves in opposition to religion. These conflicts have all sprung from fatal errors.’ A good scientist, as Einstein obviously was, knows the limits of what he can establish by scientific investigation alone.

But if Sacks is critical of some scientists in going beyond what they can properly claim as scientists, he is also critical of some spokesmen for various forms of religion, who can be equally dogmatic, narrow minded, and blinkered in their views. He has a chapter in his book entitled ‘When Religion Goes Wrong’, and it certainly can go very wrong in all sorts of ways. Of the five potential errors he notes perhaps the most dangerous is the view that some people certainly have that their way of seeing things is the only right way, and that they are the sole possessors of truth. There are an alarming number of religious fundamentalists of all sorts of different religions who seem to believe that of their views. Of course some of the new atheists seem to be just as dogmatic, one even wrote of religious moderates as the most dangerous people because they gave religion a good name, and he thought ‘the very ideal of religious tolerance … is one of the principal forces driving us to the abyss.’ Well, if that notion really caught hold, it would be the end of this Abbey!

But what Sacks is arguing for is a serious conversation between religion and science, where each respects that they are both dealing with the same world but from different perspectives, and that each has something to learn from the other. Jonathan Sacks believes that there are three fundamental questions which are ultimately religious ones, but where scientific knowledge must be taken on board and given every due seriousness. His three questions are: ‘Who are we?’ ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘How then shall we live?’ Of course you could say that they are impossible questions because they are so huge, and so difficult to answer, and that meanwhile we have far more practical and urgent questions to ask like ‘how should we deal with the future of our planet with its various environmental challenges?’, or ‘how do we deal with the human conflicts that so disfigure our world in many places and some of which could threaten us all?’ Well, those are of course very important questions to consider, but some sort of understanding of where the answers to Sacks first three questions lie might help us in deciding those other more practical and possibly more immediate issues.

If it is true, as Sacks believes and as do I, that where what Sacks describes as the far side of the knowable there is a Presence who brought us all into being, who wants us as Sacks puts it ‘to use our time on earth to take the risk of trusting other people, to befriend them, to love them, to forgive them when they harm me and to give them another chance, to act honourably, to resist temptation, to refrain from doing wrong even when I know I shall probably not be found out, to make sacrifices for the sake of others, and to refuse to become cynical even when I know the worst about the world and the people in it’ then that begins to give a clue on how we might solve some of those other more immediate questions. Of course you do not need to be a religious person to act in all of those ways, there are those who describe themselves as atheists who act thus, and thank God for that, but religion can be a buttress to help such qualities survive, because it roots them in something more fundamental than simply personal opinion.

Yet survive that way of being must, if we are not going to damage the world irreparably, instead of starting to try to heal it. We need to recognize that behaving in such a positive way is not just a personal life-style choice, but it is necessary for our world’s future, and it is rooted in that religious search for meaning that dares to speak of God. And that is why I believe this book by the Chief Rabbi is so important not just for religious people, but for the future of our world.

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