Tuesday, 14 November 2006

In search for God

I can't resist this but to post this conversatoin script here :


Iriny: The main difference between Judaism and Christianity is on Jesus Christ. As christians, we believe that Jesus died for our sins on the cross, so that we no longer being separated (death) from our Creator and can enjoy the everlasting presence with our Creator.

Humphrys in Search of God
Sir Jonathan Sacks - broadcast interview
14 November 2006

John Humphrys: It's one thing asking a Christian leader or a Muslim to convert you to their faiths, as I've been doing these past weeks. It's quite another to ask a Jew. The Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks was quite happy to be interviewed for this series, but understandably enough he wanted to know exactly what we'd be talking about. I said "It's perfectly simple: you'll have half an hour to convert me to Judaism, to make me a Jew". He put his hand on my arm, gave me a rather sad smile and said "John I wouldn't dream of it, I'm sure you've got enough problems already."

Jonathan, I rather suspect you meant it.

Jonathan Sacks: Well I did. Judaism is a non conversionary faith and we do believe that you don't have to be Jewish to get to heaven, and we have some very powerful biblical examples of that. Abraham's contemporary, who the bible describes as "priest of the most high god", was not a member of the Abrahamic covenant - was not as we'd say today Jewish. So we do not believe that heaven is reserved exclusively for Jews.

John Humphrys: But you would like, presumably - I hope so, otherwise this programme has no meaning! - you would like to persuade me that God exists.

Jonathan Sacks: I would indeed. I think God is a human universal, and history shows that when people don't believe in God they believe in other things. I'm thinking about fascism, about communism, about idolatry, whether you worship the folk, the race, the economic or political system. One way or another, if you worship anything less than God, anything less than the totality of all, then you get to idolatry, which begins innocently enough but ends in bloodshed on an enormous scale.

John Humphrys: What you're saying then is that it is an essential mechanism, religion is an essential mechanism to deliver a moral code, and not necessarily anything more than that.

Jonathan Sacks: I believe as a Jew that God intrudes into the human situation by way of a call, a voice.

John Humphrys: To you personally?

Jonathan Sacks: To me personally yes, but that is not the important thing. The important thing is that that voice was heard by Abraham, it led him on a journey which gave rise in the fullness of time to Judaism, and indeed both Christianity and Islam trace their spiritual descent from Abraham, and therefore represents the faith of more than a half of the people on earth. And that particular call of God to which some cultures have been open and others have been tone deaf gave rise to a very distinctive civilization that I believe represents the truth about the human condition.

John Humphrys: How come Hitler was able to claim his belief in Christianity and do what he did?

Jonathan Sacks: Hitler was somebody who ultimately believed in race rather than in God. And idolatry happens when instead of allowing God to make you in his image you make him in your image.

John Humphrys: Is yours a merciful God?

Jonathan Sacks: Ours is a merciful God. Ours is the first God of mercy in the history of the human spirit and every book in the bible is saturated with that.

John Humphrys: Why would a merciful God have done to Abraham what he did to Abraham - faced him with that agonising dilemma, "Sacrifice your child if you believe in me"? Why would God have faced a human being with that wicked choice?

Jonathan Sacks: We know that child sacrifice was incredibly wide spread in the ancient world, we know that from every kind of archaeological evidence. Child sacrifice which is referred to many many in the Hebrew bible as the most abominable of all acts, was the kind of thing you expected a God to ask of you, it's what gods regularly asked for their devotees. The essence of the story of Abraham is that at the critical moment God says "Stop - I am not that kind of god".

John Humphrys: So he played with him, he was toying with him.

Jonathan Sacks: He was teaching him. I think you must have had pretty hairy moments when you were first learning to drive John, where your driving instructor slammed on the brakes and said "I did that just so you should learn exactly what would happen if you don't listen carefully". So God slammed on the brakes, it was the most effective way of all of history.

John Humphrys: So it was a stunt then?

Jonathan Sacks: No, it was a learning experience, John, which is what we all need. And it was the revolutionary moment at which God says I do not demand human sacrifices, I am not the god of the Greeks, of the Romans, of the Aztecs, I am the god that holds that life is holy, you must learn to cherish your children. And from the days of Abraham to today John, Jews are the most child centred of all civilizations, we live for our children.

John Humphrys: And the thing about children is that they ask the best questions. Yours is a questioning religion.

Jonathan Sacks: Yeah. There was an English newspaper once that did an expose of what they call "cash for questions" and I found that very droll because in Judaism you don't pay somebody to ask questions; on the contrary, you have to pay them not to ask questions. We are a questioning, argumentative and wrestling faith. The word Israel means one who wrestles with God and with man and prevails.

John Humphrys: And the question that children ask I suspect most often although I've never done a study of it, is a variation on why you tell me God is a God of mercy, why does he allow these terrible things to happen, the oldest question of them all probably.

Jonathan Sacks: To my mind faith lies in the question; if you didn't have faith you wouldn't ask the question. If I did not believe in a just and law-abiding God, I would not find injustice and human suffering worthy of question whatsoever. After all the universe, if it has no God, is utterly indifferent to my existence, it's blind to my hopes and deaf to my prayers. So if I have no faith I can't ask the question. Faith is in the question. That question that you've just asked me is the question Abraham asked God, and Moses, and Jeremiah and Job. And it is the refusal to give an easy answer is in Judaism the essence of faith. God says "if you knew why this suffering happens you would live with it, you would accept it as the will of God. I don't want you to accept it as the will of God, I want you to go out there and heal the sick, feed the hungry, tend those who are injured. I want you to be", in that wonderful and very distinctive Jewish phrase, "my partners in the work of creation". So Judaism is in the question, not in the answer.
John Humphrys: I have to say that if I asked a politician what he regarded as a very difficult question and he said to me "That is the most difficult question, and if I give you the answer it will destroy your faith in the political system, in the democratic process. It's very important that that question not be answered", I'll think "hello, he's having me on here, here's a political answer for you".

Jonathan Sacks: No, you would think a politician was trying to evade the issue...

John Humphrys: I would.

Jonathan Sacks: ...but if your teacher in school gave you the same answer...

John Humphrys: I'd think the same.

Jonathan Sacks: would understand that your teacher is challenging you by saying "I'm sorry John I can't answer you that, you would have to live with that".

John Humphrys: He or she would, choosing not to answer it, you are saying that that question is capable of being answered.

Jonathan Sacks: It is perfectly capable of being answered.

John Humphrys: Well answer it.

Jonathan Sacks: But if we answered it we would not be what God wants us to be. Let me, if I can explain, a parent of a baby who is ill, who is crying, gives that baby some medicine even though it knows that baby's going to cry even more, because it knows that suffering in the short term is justified in order to make the baby better in the long term. If we take those stances the suffering is in the short term is necessary for good in the long term, we would accept suffering as God's will, God does not want us to accept suffering as his will, God wants us to fight suffering. Judaism is God's call to us to accept responsibility.

John Humphrys: For what?

Jonathan Sacks: For creating a social order that does honour to the human person as God's image, that is the great challenge of creating the just and gracious society.

John Humphrys: But if God is omnipotent why did he not simply say "Here is this perfect structure that you can go off and inhabit and worship me"?

Jonathan Sacks: John, you are a father. Why didn't you say to your child "Here it is, this is what life is, what you've got to do is go and do exactly what I've told you and you'll be happy and I'll be happy"? Because you know that your child is not going to grow into an adult unless you give that child the space to make mistakes and to learn by it.

John Humphrys: That's true but you're missing out a crucial fact in the relationship between father and child, and that is that we, and you're a father as well, will do anything - anything at all - to prevent our children suffering.

Jonathan Sacks: Yeah of course.

John Humphrys: I wouldn't say "Go off, try it, it may end up with your painful death".

Jonathan Sacks: One hundred percent.

John Humphrys: I wouldn't say that.

Jonathan Sacks: Judaism if I may explain something which is very hard for a western mind to grapple with, sees truth as set in time. A child aged five and a child aged twenty five are not the same people. And so in the very early years of childhood a parent is much more protective of children than he is when they're twenty five. And so we find in the bible at the very childhood of the Jewish people God intervenes to rescue them, he rescues them from slavery, he takes them out Egypt, he leads them across the red sea, he does miracles, he gives them water to drink and food to eat. He is a very protective father.

John Humphrys: And he abandons them.

Jonathan Sacks: No he doesn't at all abandon them, God has not at all abandoned us to this day.

John Humphrys: He let the Holocaust happen.

Jonathan Sacks: I am sometimes asked where was God in Auschwitz.

John Humphrys: And you say where was man in Auschwitz?

Jonathan Sacks: And I answer as follows: God was in Auschwitz in the command "thou shalt not murder", in the words "you shall not oppress the stranger", in the words "your brother's blood cries to me from the ground". God was saying those things to the German people and they didn't listen. I cannot let human beings off the hook by blaming things on God; if I do then I'm betraying the mission that he sent me and sent all of us. We cannot escape from responsibility;

Judaism is God's call to responsibility.

John Humphrys: Why do you pray?

Jonathan Sacks: I pray because prayer is my conversation with the voice within that is also the voice beyond.

John Humphrys: But is there, as Christians believe, a personal god who knows, spots when every sparrow falls, and knows when you get on your knees at ten o'clock in the evening?

Jonathan Sacks: Yeah of course.

John Humphrys: He's listening to you.

Jonathan Sacks: God is listening to me in a much more direct way in Judaism than in Christianity, because in Christianity you pray through a son of God, in Judaism we talk directly.

John Humphrys: You cut out the middle man.

Jonathan Sacks: We cut out the middle man, exactly so.

John Humphrys: And you believe he is listening to you.

Jonathan Sacks: I have no doubt about it.

John Humphrys: Why does he not listen to the starving, to the sick, to the mother whose child is dying of cancer, to the people in Auschwitz.

Jonathan Sacks: I've told you we do not live in the age of God the strategic intervener.

John Humphrys: So he's given up on that stage.

Jonathan Sacks: He hasn't given up on us at all. When I found myself in a difficult situation when my late father did not intervene to help me out of it, I did not believe that my father didn't exist. Many years later I realised that he was teaching me there are certain things I just have to learn for myself.

John Humphrys: But if you had asked you father to do something that was crucial to your survival, or if you'd asked your father to do something that might have prevented someone else suffering, you'd have expected him to respond and do everything he could.

Jonathan Sacks: God always responds, not always as fast as we would like, not always in the way we would expect, but God does respond. There have been times, I've known them certainly, I've felt metaphorically as if I were drowning and God has stretched out his hand and saved me, I have no doubt about whatsoever.

John Humphrys: Well then it takes me back to the question that I ask incessantly, possibly boringly, which is: if he did that for you, why, unless he's a very discriminatory type of God, does he not do it for everyone who sincerely wants help? And heaven knows the mother whose child is dying sincerely wants help and may well be a person of great faith. Why choose Jonathan Sacks?

Jonathan Sacks: John I think we know enough about science today, we probably always did, to know that a physical universe without collision, destruction, cannot exist. I mean we are...

John Humphrys: God can create anything.

Jonathan Sacks: ...we are the dust of exploded stars. If those exploded stars had not exploded we wouldn't have an earth, and you and I wouldn't be here.

John Humphrys: And God ordered then do so.

Jonathan Sacks: God places us in a context, a physical context in which there is birth and growth and decline and death.

John Humphrys: Twenty years ago I went up to Lockerbie on that terrible night when the Pan Am aircraft was blown up and the bits fell on Lockerbie, some bits fell on houses and some bits fell on fields, those people who were in the houses were killed. And the thing that struck you walking around that ghastly evening was the entirely arbitrary nature of it, number 17 survived, number 21 did not survive. It seems to me that the God you're describing is a very arbitrary dispenser of justice and fairness and not a dispassionate merciful God.

Jonathan Sacks: You're operating on the wrong image to begin with. God has set us in a physical world in which physical happenings can be random. Now there are faiths that do not believe that, but I do believe that, that's a condition of physical existence. I cannot believe in God the creator of the physical world, and at the same time have a view about the physical world that makes every phenomenon of physics or biochemistry, the intentional and interventionist act of a God who is doing everything. God is a remote cause not a proximate cause. And if you find the randomness of that really challenging then John you have more faith than you think you have. Because actually you want to believe in a just world, and that is the first movement of faith, the belief that what we do on this earth is not insignificant, that there is such a thing as a moral purpose to a universe. And what I'm really trying to distinguish is the question why did this happen, for which I don't have an answer. And the question what then shall I do, for which I have a very clear answer.

John Humphrys: Scientists operate on the assumption that nothing can be believed or be expected until has been proven, there must be proof. And I've noticed reading what you've written that you have a huge respect for science, you're an intelligent man.

Jonathan Sacks: It's really good for describing things, it's not at all good at describing people.

John Humphrys: Well all right. Scientists say that until it has been proven, not just to my satisfaction but until the experiment must be able to be repeated and repeated and repeated until we have absolute proof we cannot accept that. Now that is exactly exactly the opposite of the message that you have been delivering to me during this conversation. You're saying it cannot, none of this can be proven, we do not have the answers, you must simply believe it.

Jonathan Sacks: What you're doing John is keep repeating the same mistake which says religion doesn't fall within the canons of science therefore it must be faulty. I'm saying you're using the wrong metaphor, and that metaphor is not accidental it's been written into western culture ever since. The conversion of Constantine to Christianity and the fact that the first Christian texts were written in Greek and therefore we are, as a famous American philosophist said, a series of footnotes to Plato. I want you to think about faith not as a quasi or pseudo scientific proposition, I want you to think of it as a marriage. That's what happened at Mount Sinai, God married himself to a people, a people married itself to God and they agreed to go hand in hand together to an uncertain future.

John Humphrys: But God gave me the ability to question in the way I am questioning; you may not approve of that...

Jonathan Sacks: Jews always approve of questions.

John Humphrys: ...but you keep telling me that I'm basing them on a fundamentally mistaken premise. If that is so and it's the best I can do, and God knows I have tried over the past few years to find a way of approaching this that takes me to where you are. I see people like you like Rowan Williams and many other religious leaders and I think gosh they've got something I haven't got. It's like the kid who sees another kid with a bigger lollypop.
Jonathan Sacks: No it isn't like that at all. It's like somebody who's tone deaf who comes across a bunch of people who are dancing and can't quite figure it out.

John Humphrys: I'll accept that, doesn't much matter, but either way I'm made in God's image, I've been give this ability too. But how is it that you, except of course it's slightly difficult here because you are one of God's chosen.

Jonathan Sacks: No no that's not the key thing, if I may say the following. My late father loved music, loved classical music, he used to play the violin as an amateur, he loved it. I was tone deaf to classical music, I really was.

John Humphrys: I have a musician son, I know exactly what you mean, who who loves Bach beyond everything and can play it beautifully.

Jonathan Sacks: So my dad you know didn't let up, and he thought look if we're not going to get him on the subtle stuff let's get him on the big bangs and the clash of cymbals. So he took me, I remember this time and time again, to hear Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture with full mortar effects, you know you've got the canons going off in the upper tiers of the Albert Hall and yeah it's exciting so he seduced me into music that way. Once I've been hooked I kept going, and eventually I discovered all the orchestral works, he loved Mahler, I discovered Mahler and I loved it to, but I kept going. And I arrived at that moment where I just discovered what spiritual depths there were in the late Beethoven quartets, now they never spoke to my father, but they spoke to me. But I couldn't have got there had he not made that initial starting gesture of saying come along and here some, don't just think you are destined to be tone deaf.
John Humphrys: So the metaphor is fine as far as it goes, but of course these don't go far enough because if we place God in the position of the father whom you describe, and I'm saying as I am look help me out here, I'm actually trying quite hard but I don't get that help from my Father/God, what am I to do.

Jonathan Sacks: I'll tell you very simply John, if I wanted to persuade you to become Jewish. The first thing I would do is take you to our old age homes, to our schools, to the ways that we really do try and make life better for people here on earth in simple no religious physical ways. Now if at the end of the day you said to me now what drives people to do that, I'd say okay lets now move to the second stage and I'd show you our prayer book. And I would show you that three times a day we remind ourselves that God lifts the foreman, heals the sick and asks us to do what he does and become his partners. And then slowly we would move inward, and maybe you would never get to a point where you could say 'yeah I really hear that presence speaking to me'. But I think you would have learned a little bit of a mystery that turned this very tiny people into people that made a disproportionate impact on the world.
John Humphrys: If I were to be sceptical about that, cynical about it, I'd say what a pity God didn't stop with your faith, what a pity that we have Christianity resulting from it, and then Islam resulting from it. Look at the wars between those various religions and the horrors that have been visited on humanity as a result of it. So why did God create all those competing religions.

Jonathan Sacks: I don't think he did at all. I think there is something in Christianity and Islam that I as a Jew cannot accept, much as I admire those faiths. They did say something that I find very difficult: that "God has now spoken to us and therefore he's torn up his promises to you", and that is why anti-Semitism came into the world. Christians were very disappointed that Jews didn't become Christians, and that is something I do not blame God for, for heaven's sake.

John Humphrys: You don't blame God for anything though do you, you can't blame God for anything can you?

Jonathan Sacks: God gives us life and the circumstances in which we can grow toward him. I do not believe that a blame culture is a terribly great culture. You remember Adam and Eve fancying the one fruit in the garden that they're not allowed to eat, and they ate it, they sinned. God said what did you do, I told you not to eat the fruit, so Adam said well it wasn't me it was her, and Eve said it wasn't me it was the serpent. Now blame is what makes you lose paradise.

John Humphrys: Am I selfishly entitled to feel disappointed that having had long conversations with three very serious thinkers there's been no blinding flash, there's been no road to Damascus, there's been no great revelation that says to me ah this will open the door for you to accepting faith.

Jonathan Sacks: Just try and listen to the music, it took me a long time after all those 1812 crashes and bangs to understand the Beethoven quartets, but I think the things is that I never gave up. And do you know what for four thousand years Jews have wrestled with God and God has wrestled with us, but we never gave up. Faith is the refusal to give up.

John Humphrys: Sir Jonathan Sacks, thank you very much.

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