I spent part of today working with a friend on the early stages of a book on ‘communication’ due for publication (possibly) next year. During our conversation I recalled something I had read a couple of days ago in an intriguing report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) entitled Faith in the Nation: Religion, identity and the public realm in Britain today. It was published last year and includes articles by leading religious leaders in the UK.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor highlights the need for Christians (and other religious groups) to transcend their differences in order to counter the driving and intolerant forces of secular liberalism in Britain which proclaim as an absolute dogma that all views are acceptable in the public sphere except religious views. The Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks then takes this further in a gentle but incisive expose of our shallow consumerist culture. In a pithy paragraph he puts into words what many people instinctively feel, but can rarely articulate:

sacks-lambeth08“Religion is an agent of social change, the most powerful there is. Almost every other institution today offers us what we want. Religion teaches us what to want. It is the last refuge of what philosophers call second-order evaluation. It tells us that there is something beyond autonomy, rights and the satisfaction of desire. It speaks unashamedly of duty, compassion, responsibility, loyalty, obligation, the sanctity of life, the sacred bond of marriage, and the covenant of human solidarity. It tells us that our worth is not measured by how much we earn or what we buy, but by the good we do and the love we create.”

I am a fan of Jonathan Sacks. Not only is he a passionate and erudite speaker and writer, but he is also a good, honest and humble man. He was invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to address the bishops of the Anglican Communion at last year’s Lambeth Conference in Canterbury and his speech provoked several standing ovations. I blogged (for Fulcrum) at the time and reported thus:

He began by describing politics (the State), economics (the Market) and worship (Religion) and illustrated very vividly how both State and Market operate on the basis of competition and ‘winning’. Covenant, on the other hand, has to do with both parties ‘winning’ and with creating ‘arenas of cooperation’. A contract (politics and economics) is an agreement between two parties who come together for mutual benefit (a transaction), whereas a covenant brings two parties together to share their interests (a relationship). He observed that ‘contracts benefit – covenants transform’. He developed and illustrated this from Darwin and Dawkins.

He then went on to go back to the beginning of covenant in the Ancient Near East and pointed out that given the religious/political coincidence of the relevant world view (get the gods on your side in order to guarantee your ‘gain’), the idea of a covenant between a god and people was simply absurd. And this, via an explanation of covenantal language in Hosea and Jeremiah, led to his central thesis – which is so suggestive for the Anglican Communion.

He compared the three covenants in Genesis and Exodus: Noah, Abraham and Moses (Sinai). He then posed the question: when did Israel become a nation? Deuteronomy 26 says that they became a nation while in Egypt whereas Exodus 19 says they became a nation when they left Egypt. Sacks says that both are true because they are different sorts of covenant. Egypt was a covenant of fate; Sinai was a covenant of faith. The former occurs when the people are bound together by a common suffering, fear and enemy; the latter occurs when they share dreams, aspirations, ideals and a common hope. In Egypt the people were bound by a covenant of fate, in Sinai by a covenant of faith. So, the covenant with Noah was one of fate (destruction of the world) and with Abraham and Moses was one of faith (shaping the world).

Sacks described how the covenant of fate (with Noah) was forged in desperate times of basic survival. Like the rainbow (‘the white light of God’ perceived as the spectrum of colours), this covenant bears witness to what Sacks has called ‘the dignity of difference’. He broke this down into three elements: (a) the sanctity of human life, (b) the environment and (c) respect for diversity. He expanded on each of these before noting that the Isaiah dream of the ‘wolf lying down with the lamb’ was already fulfilled in the Ark when their common predicament (survival from drowning) made their mutual cohabitation essential. Faith, said Sacks, is particular; fate is universal.

As covenants of faith begin to fall apart in contemporary society, so it is the covenant of fate that is pulling us together.

Sacks went on movingly and poignantly to describe Jewish fears of Christians for the last thousand years before the Holocaust and beyond. He then noted how Joseph (Genesis 50) worked out that even though we cannot rewrite the past, we can redeem it. In the case of Christians and Jews, he said, the past in now being redeemed (at least in the UK). He then noted how, when we marched together through London last Thursday on behalf of the world’s poorest people, we (Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, etc.) did not share a faith, but we did share a common fate.

Religions, he maintained, needed to show the world how, sharing a common fate, we could live and work together – faiths bound together by a common fate. We should be a blessing to the world by walking together and emphasising the covenant of fate over the particular covenants of faith.

Now, I realise that this is only a sketch of Sacks’s thesis, but I found it powerful at the time and even more so now. Tomorrow I will be interviewing in Croydon all morning and then going into London for the afternoon session of the General Synod. I will miss the debate on Women Bishops, but will be there for the debate on the uniqueness of Christ. There will be differences of opinion in the former and differences of language (at least) in the latter. But I will hear Sacks’s powerful and compelling appeal for even those who differ on detail to remember that the world needs not only those who forge covenants of faith, but, in a fragmenting culture, those who remember (and neither minimise nor despise) the covenant of fate.