Pluralism and Orthodoxy

This is a book review that I wrote for the Blogcritics site. The book is the 2003 revised edition of The Dignity of Difference by Jonathan Sacks. The Blogcritics version of the review is nearly identical to this. The ISBN for this book is 0826468500. There is a copy of the 2002 first edition in the Winnipeg Public Library system.


This is a book about big issues. It is subtitled “How to avoid the Clash of Civilizations” which implies, correctly, that the author is weighing in with Fukuyama and Huntington on the End of History, the Clash of Civilizations and the evolving world order. It was well-reviewed in Great Britain on its initial publication in 2002, but became controverial when some of the theology comments were challenged by fundamentalists within the author’s own Jewish Orthodox belief community.
Rabbi Sacks has been a relatively prolific writer on religion and theology, and has established a place for himself as a media commentator in Britain. He is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. He writes well, and he must be a gifted preacher and teacher.
His book has probably been marginalized within the book trade as a theologically focussed, typically saccharine liberal clergyman’s commentary on world affairs, which does him and his book a great disservice. There are some passages in the book which discuss the Jewish orthodox position on religious diversity and tolerance, which will be of interest to students of religion and students of the Bible. However his main focus is on the role of religion and morality in a world with a globalized market economy. His argument spans philosophy, politics and economics. He is no mere dilettante. He is well-read and learned.
He disagrees with the idea, implicit in Fukuyama’s idea that the capitalist west defeated communism, that the arrival of the global economy will mark the end of conflict and struggle. That idea was discredited by 9/11 and the rediscovery by the academic elites that most human beings are religious in a fundamental way. He also disagees with the idea that religion is, or has become the main source of discord and conflict in the modern world.
He writes about the importance of religion as the part of human life where we find meaning and and where we find the values that ground our moral and ethical ideas. He disagrees with the Rationalist notion that religion will wither away as society evolves and with the idea that society is evolving on its own. Human beings need meaning and value. He argues that many of the great injustices of modern history have arisen when political and economic ideas were adopted as nearly religious systems of fundamental values. Nationalism became Nazi racism. Equality and socialism became totalitarian communism. Free market economics has created a society of consumerism, great wealth, and great poverty. Free market economics as translated into ethics has given the Western world an ethic of relativism and personal choices.
He argues in favour of tolerance and diversity. He argues that Plato, and Western philosophers and theologians who follow Plato, was wrong to believe that there is a single abstract ideal reality and the idea that happiness and perfection may be brought about by the perfect social and economic order. In this part of the book he follows the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The reality of life is flourishing and evolving diversity. He argues theologically and Biblically that one transcendant God created a world of diversity and made one great covenant with humanity in which humans must have faith – but not all the same faith.
He argues that religion and religious values are important parts of life, but he argues against allowing religious values to directly drive political and economic decisions. Politics and economics are tools for security and justice, to be used in a manner that respects the good of the community. He also recognizes that governance is a complex and subtle business and that societies governed by clerics – modern Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban – have had incompetent and repressive governments.
To some extent, he is rewriting the ideas of classical liberalism with a greater respect for religion. To some extent he is writing within the modern theological school of neo-orthodoxy with an emphasis on tolerance and diversity. He appears at times to wear the shoes of an urbane liberal academic too comfortably.
He fails, significantly, to address the questions of accomodating fraud, emotionalism, fanaticism and mental instability when those issues appear within the context of religion. He argues that religions should respect each other, without saying, for instance, whether the ramblings of Shirley MacLaine on her past lives, or the fraudulent New Age speculations of the Celestine Prophecy are worthy of tolerance and respect. While some of that is peripheral to his concerns, the encounter with fundamentalism surely is not.
He has a series of prescriptions for alleviating poverty and promoting education that sound like the classic liberal formula for a healthy world polity and economy. He appears to say that some of the misconduct of opposing fundamentalists should be tolerated and forgiven in the hope of ending the cycle of retaliatory violence, which does not seem to me to say much more than that we may hope to appease them, and that our own goodness will be a shield and an example.
He favours free markets, but rejects the primacy of the market – the nearly religious idea that the market is sacred. He rejects humanism and liberalism as belief systems, and is a strong spokesman for his own religious tradition, but he is prepared to work within a pluralistic order.

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