Celebrating Spiritual Difference – Some Way to Go? The Dignity of Difference – How to Avoid the Clash of Civilisations, by Jonathon Sacks, London, New York: Continuum, 2003
Review by Mike King, January 2005
Two events in 2003 create the context for my review of this excellent book by UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: firstly an interfaith lecture by Professor Jonathan Magonet, and secondly the annual BPS Transpersonal conference. I attended Magonet’s talk partly because it was arranged by the Temenos Academy and hosted by the Nehru Centre (London’s Indian cultural centre), and partly because I was intrigued as to how the chosen issue of idolatry could “cut across boundaries of faith and ideology” as the flyer claimed. While the erudition, charm and eloquence of Magonet were in no doubt, his thesis – that the proscription against idolatry united the religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – angered the Hindus who had joined the audience. I was the first to raise the example of Ramakrishna (whose worship of the goddess Kali could only be construed as idolatry by Abrahamic monotheism), to which Magonet politely replied that he knew nothing about him. The interfaith dialogue over drinks and snacks then polarised into two groups: the monotheists in one corner and the Hindus (and myself) in another. I deeply regret that such a circumstance led me to join one group rather than another, but there was no easy repair to East-West relations at hand. Later that year I became perceived as anti-Semitic at the BPS conference because I suggested that the Western secular rejection of religion was due to the intolerance within monotheism, demonstrated in the violent persecution of ‘idolaters’ documented in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible).
For these reasons I tread carefully in the review of The Dignity of Difference, wary that I applaud it on the one hand for its brave exploration of pluralism, but stumble again over the issue of intolerance within monotheism on the other. I say brave because Sacks caused outrage in the orthodox Jewish community with his first edition, and had to withdraw and rewrite parts of it to meet his critics. His central thesis – now a little watered down – is that, amongst the competing conceptualisations of a world order now emerging, the key test is: “does it make a space for otherness? Does it acknowledge the dignity of difference?” He continues: “No universal code as such tells us what we would lose were the multiplicity of civilizations to be reduced; were one culture to dominate all others; were distinctive voices to be lost from the conversation of mankind.” The book is in fact full of such marvellous passages (ensuring that I will use it as a source for quotes for many years to come). His analysis draws on a uniquely Jewish concept of Tzedakah, a combination of redistributive justice and charity forged in the first century as the Jewish people were uprooted from their agrarian lifestyle. No universal code, not even that of human rights, goes this far: Sacks argues that this principal should be the basis of a new covenant between peoples. The book in fact works towards proposals that answer the subtitle “How to Avoid the Clash of Civilisations,” a laudable goal but one which I am less interested in than the issue of pluralism (I say this because I believe that readers of such a book, whether singly or collectively, simply lack the agency to implement anything so generally stated, however worthwhile).
Religious and spiritual pluralism is in fact central to my study and scholarship for many years, based in a profound love of all the worlds’ religious and spiritual traditions, teachings and practices, including Judaism. The experience of having upset Jews in the course of my historical analysis has led me to study their faith (both mainstream and mystical) in more depth. Yet, as in my approach to all traditions, I keep a critical faculty open, whether to point out the caste system in Hinduism, the Inquisition in Christianity, or the affect on children of the Tulku system in Tibetan Buddhism. Hence I feel obliged to also point out where I part company with Sacks in his otherwise wonderful book. As a person trained in secular thinking who has fallen profoundly in love with the worlds’ spiritual traditions, I operate within a ‘postsecular’ mindset, drawing on the spirit of secular open enquiry, but passionate about spirituality. Hence when I read a work that is effectively ‘presecular’ I have no problem with the fact that Sacks draws only on his own tradition to make the points that I would also like to make (but with all the traditions at my disposal). It is when his “dignity of difference” seems to have certain gaps in it that I am alerted. The first one – and quite understandable – is around an antipathy towards the Greek mode of thought, which he characterises as “Plato’s Ghost,” an influence to be exorcised. I actually enjoy this because Western culture is largely constructed in the tension between the Hellenic and the Hebraic, and is reprised even recently in the exchanges between Jacques Derrida and Emanuel Levinas – both Jews – where Derrida argues for the Hellenic and Levinas for the Hebraic. Levinas in fact reprises Sacks’ argument in a dense postmodernist language: that the Greeks deny otherness in the clear Hellenic light of universalism or sameness. So far so good, but, if we take the Hellenic spiritual impulse to be at the heart of the Neoplatonist tradition, then we might wonder if Sacks is in fact denying this modality of the spirit the dignity of difference he holds so dear. More problematic are his occasional references to polytheism and Earth religions which show up the blind spot of the Abrahamic monotheists to these earlier modalities of the spirit. Polytheism is dismissed on the very page where he exhorts a spiritual generosity “to see God, or good, or human dignity in those whose language is not mine, whose skin is a different colour, whose faith is not my faith and whose truth is not my truth.”
I will conclude by saying that it is the job of the postecularist like myself to do the utmost to affirm the grandeur, beauty and relevance of presecular religion, while pointing out its occasional blind spots. Hence, despite these reservations, I regard Sacks’ book as a treasure-house (and I have barely skimmed its surface in this short review) precisely because he draws on an ancient tradition: his offering of Tzedakah is just what the world needs.