Last week, a dear friend who is an avid reader and one of the most thoughtful Christians I know, sent me a copy of a book he had just finished reading, "Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times" by the former Chief Rabbi in the British Commonwealth, the now late Lord Jonathan Sacks. I began reading it over the weekend and find it to be a fascinating commentary on our world. So much so, that I thought it might be a fun one to read with others. I'll share how at the end of this post...First, a bit about the book.
The book is argues for a recovery of a moral common ground in a society. Sacks relies on what we might recognize as a Judeo-Christian ethic in his moral vision, but seems to think many of the principles can function in a secular society. It requires intercepting the massive shift from "I" thinking to "We" thinking. On the first page of the book, Sacks writes:
"A free society is a moral achievement. Over the past 50 years in the West this truth has been forgotten, ignored or denied. That is why today liberal democracy is at risk. Societal freedom cannot be sustained by market economics and liberal democratic politics alone. It needs a third element: morality, a concern for the welfare of others, an active commitment to justice and compassion, a willingness to ask not just what is good for me but what is good for ‘all of us together’. It is about ‘Us’, not ‘Me’; about ‘We’, not I’."
The market is not enough. Neither is the state. Both operate on competition-- one with regards to money, the other with regard to power. Sacks continues:
"If we focus on the ‘I’ and lose the ‘We’, if we act on self-interest without a commitment to the common good, if we focus on self-esteem and lose our care for others, we will lose much else. Nations will cease to have societies and instead have identity groups. We will lose our feeling of collective responsibility and find in its place a culture of competitive victimhood."
The phrase "competitive victimhood" jumped out at me when I read it. If that doesn't describe the outrage machine on social media every day, then what does?
Without morality-- a common vision of the common good and a commitment to it-- freedom will be lost, either by anarchy or by tyranny. Sacks explains:
"The market will be merciless. Politics will be deceiving, divisive, confrontational and extreme. People will feel anxious, uncertain, fearful, aggressive, unstable, unrooted and unloved. They will focus on promoting themselves instead of the one thing that will give them lasting happiness: making life better for others. Freedom itself will be at risk from the far right and the far left, the far right dreaming of a golden age that never was, the far left dreaming of a utopia that will never be."
Without a recognition of the danger and a recovery or reconstruction of a shared moral vision, much of what undergirds societies in the West is at risk, said Sacks.
"Liberal democracy is at risk in Britain, Europe and the United States. So is everything that these democracies represent in terms of freedom, dignity, compassion and rights. The most technologically advanced societies the world has ever known have forgotten just this: we are not machines, we are people, and people survive by caring for one another, not only by competing with one another. Market economics and liberal politics will fail if they are not undergirded by a moral sense that puts our shared humanity first. Economic inequalities will grow. Politics will continue to disappoint our expectations. There will be a rising tide of anger and resentment, and that, historically, is a danger signal for the future of freedom."
If Sacks is right, the danger signals are flashing bright red.
Nevertheless, some massive questions come to the surface:
Is he right about the necessity of morality?
Is it really possible to have a shared vision of morality for the sake of the common good?
And even if it were, is that what Christians should care about? (Sacks, after all, seemed to take a somewhat universalist approach to religion.)
Still, if you're comfortable reading things you might disagree with for the sake of sharpening your thinking, then let's do a little thinking out loud together. It's not an academic book, so those look for a more detailed analysis of cultural shifts and movements (like, say, Charles Taylors "A Secular Age") will be disappointed. Nevertheless, for a popular level book, it takes on some major issues, raises some critical questions, and make some bold assertions.
SO...Let's think out loud together! Here's how:
Pick up a copy of the book (from the library or wherever books are sold).
Sign up for my emails here.
I'll record a 5-minute (or so) video synthesizing the key ideas in each section of the book and adding some commentary and theological reflection of my own.
I'll email you my videos every two weeks or so, beginning in April.
At the end, we’ll do a wrap-up Zoom call to discuss your thoughts.
Here's the book trailer:
About the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks:
An international religious leader, philosopher, award-winning author and respected moral voice, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was awarded the 2016 Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Described by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales as “a light unto this nation” and by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as “an intellectual giant”, Rabbi Sacks was a frequent and sought-after contributor to radio, television and the press both in Britain and around the world.
After stepping down as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth – a position he served for 22 years between 1991 and 2013 – Rabbi Sacks held a number of professorships at several academic institutions including Yeshiva University, New York University and King’s College London. Rabbi Sacks was awarded 18 honorary doctorates including a Doctor of Divinity conferred to mark his first ten years in office as Chief Rabbi, by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey.