The Dignity of Difference. Jonathan Sacks.

Sacks, Jonathan. The Dignity of Difference. Continuum Bloomsbury, London 2003, first published 2002. NF; 01/14.

This is a complicated, moving, and difficult book the ideas of which I find affirming. Consistent, I guess I mean, with what I imagine I’m thinking myself.

Sacks is an English Orthodox rabbi who struggles with the fundamental question of how, if your religious beliefs are absolutely and exclusively correct based on faith, there can be other religious ideas also absolutely and exclusively correct. Of course there is a famous inconsistency here…

Religion, he says, seeks to force end-of-the-days peace which will vindicate its understanding of truth. But this can be historical peace’s worst enemy. In 17th century Europe, the Renaissance secularized metaphysics as an answer to that failure of religion to compromise. Sacks was understandably interpreted by some in his first edition to be relativist. Here he softens his positioning back toward fundamentalism, which seems paradoxical, but still he is seeking a synthesis.

He characterizes religious attributes as reverence, restraint, and humility. I like his idea that ethical and moral behaviour requires an understanding that we are authors of events. He introduces the idea that the global economy blurs or eliminates that necessary identification. We are just tossing on an unpredictable ocean of monstrous economic events over which we have no control. On the other hand he advocates free markets which he sees as operating on difference. The differences among us creates value, since each of us has something unique to give, to trade.

He is most attractively for me profoundly antiplatonic. He believes in the particular as distinct from the general (see also my review of J Barzun), and the platonic ideal that we must overcome our differences may he warns be dangerous because it is our differences that make us what we are. Plato he implies suggests that each of us is a mere instantiation and therefore replaceable. Sacks opposes this and so I suppose do I. “Because we know what it is to be a parent, having our children, not children in general, we understand what it is for someone else, somewhere else, to be a parent, loving his or her children, not ours.” I’d call that his fundamental argument and it’s a wonderful thought.

“The challenge to the religious imagination is to seek God’s image in one who is not in our image.” Again the paradox in human terms, without abandoning the unavoidable fundamental ideology of faith. Sacks also puts it this way: If I can’t recognize God in someone who is not in my image, then I made God in my image instead of letting Him make me in His. This feels to me for some reason epigrammatic and a bit specious but it is a pretty nice sound bite if you believe in his fundamental thesis as I obviously do.

He strengthens his emphasis on religious attributes by arguing that moral responsibility is an attempt to “fight despair in the name of hope”. We are not passive objects, but the responsible authors of our deeds, and that isn’t a frightening or dreadful burden, but a chance to make life work for us.

On economic theory, he says markets serve humans, not the other way around. They are good at creating wealth but not at distributing it. The critical message of Judeo-Christian theology is that all men are in God’s image, not just kings, rich people, and clergy. All property belongs to the God, so while men can possess it, the possession involves trusteeship and eventually must include sharing. Poverty hurts society because it deprives us of responsible citizens. Finally, he says, we have a global economy but not a global culture, and there is danger in that.

In respect of moral responsibility, he discusses the prisoner’s dilemma, and argues that there is a rationale for altruism once the famous game is iterated: played over and over again so finally each player understands that the best outcome is a compromise.

I’ve struggled with religious doctrine and fundamentalism, unable to avoid being a theist in my simple emotional heart but having equally strong unhappy feelings about exclusive retributive divisive fundamentalism. Don’t believe our understanding? We’ll see you quite properly toasting for eternity, from our place in Heaven’s glassed-in gallery. I’m pleased to imagine that Jesus, Moses, Buddha, (and I know for sure) John Sloan reject on simple natural moral grounds everything about that metaphysic.

My reading of this book by a fundamentally doctrinary clergyman manages to help me feel vindicated in the underdog understanding of religion and morality that seems to suit me. 9.5/7.8.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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