Monday, September 23, 2013

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the Significance of Monotheism: Hope

The Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Lord Jonathan Sacks, writes in the Introduction of his book, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning :

    What made Abrahamic monotheism unique is that it endowed life with meaning.  That is a point rarely and barely understood, but it is the quintessential argument of this book.  We make a great mistake if we think of monotheism as a linear development from polytheism, as if people first worshipped many gods, then reduced them to one.  Monotheism is something else entirely. The meaning of a system lies outside the system.  Therefore the meaning of the universe lies outside the universe.  Monotheism, by discovering the transcendental God, the God who stands outside the universe and creates it, made it possible for the first time to believe that life has a meaning, not just a mythic or scientific explanation. 
     Monotheism, by giving life a meaning, redeemed it from tragedy.  The Greeks understood tragedy better than any other civilisation before or since.  Ancient Israel, though it suffered much, had no sense of tragedy.  It did not even have a word for it.  Monotheism is the principled defeat of tragedy in the name of hope.  A world without religious faith is a world without sustainable grounds for hope.  It may have optimism, but that is something else, and something shallower, altogether....
     ...But a culture that sees the universe as blind and indifferent to humanity generates a literature of tragedy, and a culture that believes in a God of love, forgiveness and redemption produces a literature of hope.  There was no Sophocles in ancient Israel.  There was no Isaiah in Ancient Greece.

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