In Conversation with…Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on God and Science


God, Science and the Search for Meaning

This is an imaginary conversation cum interview conducted between myself, Keren Hannah, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, past Chief Rabbi of Britain and well-known author and teacher. The subject of Science and Religion is one addressed in his book, The Great Partnership, which Andrew Marr, British broadcaster, author and political journalist, describes as, “The most persuasive argument for religious belief I have ever read.” 

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KH:  There have been historic battles waged over the issues of Science and Religion. Do you see any balance between the two?

RJS: Yes. Science and Religion are two essential perspectives that allow us to see the Universe in its three dimensonal depth. Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. Science is good at sorting and analyzing things [characteristic of the left-brained masculine mind] and Religion is good at focussing on relationships with people [ more characteristic of the feminine right-brain].
Whole civilizations have made, and are making, mistakes because they could not distinguish and integrate the two and applied the logic of one to the logic of the other.

KH: Can we say, then, that Science is more detached and impersonal, dealing with matter and cold, hard facts, while Religion is more people orientated and can include wonder and mystery?

RJS:  Not necessarily.  When you treat things as if they were people the result is myth. Light is the sun-god, rain is from the sky-god; the Creation itself is worshipped rather than the Creator. Science was born when people instead started to observe, measure and record Nature and thereby have increasingly discovered the limitless wonder of the Intelligent Design that sets and holds all of Creation in place with immeasurable power, as well as with breathtaking beauty, from the widest vistas to the microscopic molecule.

A greater tragedy occurs, however, when the left-brain totally dominates and people are treated as things. The result is dehumanization. People are categorized by color, class or creed and treated differently as a result. A major shift in mankind’s understanding occurred when the Creator of all was sought by and revealed to the man Abraham. As a result of this covenantal relationship, people stopped seeing each other as objects and began to see each individual as unique, sacrosanct, in the image of God.

KH: Obviously, then, it’s important to clearly distinguish that things are things and people are people.

RJS: Realizing the difference is sometimes harder than we think. The challenge facing every society, civilization, even each family, couple and individual, is to see the two spheres as separate but needing to be integrated to form a healthy and balanced whole. That is harder than it sounds. It is, in fact, the first presented to mankind at Creation.

KH: What can we understand from the accounts in Genesis?

RJS: That God created the first man, Adam, whole and complete, with both hemispheres of his brain intact. The heart and purpose of Creation, however, was relationship – between God and people but also a person with others, and so God separated the right side of Adam and formed woman. Eve was born. God did not simply create another carbon copy of Adam. He made two from the one being and presented the challenge, “Now become one. You each have someting that the needs. Learn how to respect and value the differences in the other and by co-operating and partnering together you will learn how to live in harmony and wholeness with one another; and also with your Creator – God. Because this is Love.

KH: What happens when God is removed from the equation of people and relationships?

RJS: In a world [or relationship] without God, the primary reality is “I” – the atomic, physical self. Other people are not as real to me as I am to myself. “Why should ‘I’ be moral? Why should ‘I’ be concerned about the welfare of others to whom ‘I’ am not directly related? ‘I’ pass my genes on to the next generation. ‘I’ engage in altruism.” That attitude may seem selfless but actually serves self-centered ends.

KH: So, without God, without the ‘Thou’ in , as Martin Buber describes, the ‘I and Thou’ relationship with God, only the ‘I’ is left. In effect, then, ‘I’ – the person – becomes god? The will of the person is exalted above the will of God.

RJS: Yes. This is reflected in every sphere of human endeavor. Consumerism is about the ‘Choosing I’. Liberal democracy about the ‘Voting I’. Family is about the ‘Physical I’…and so on.

KH: In regard to the ‘Political I’, Abraham Joshua Heschel once commented, “History is the arena in which the will of God is defied.” What effect does a godless stance in a society or nation have on a wider, world-history scale?

RJS: The four terrifying regimes based on a godless society that arose in history were the French Revolution, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and Communist China. The danger today is a radical religiosity combined with an apocalyptic political agenda, able through terror and assymetric warfare to destabilise whole nations and regions, a la the Crusades, in the name of their god and religion. The religious moderates of all faiths would agree that this is as destructive as secular totalitarianism.

KH: How can the moderates stand against the terror-based factions?

RJS: While it is imperative to stand against terror, we need to be aware of another danger. The new atheism has launched an unusually aggresive assault on religion in general, which is not good for intellectual integrity, spiritual awareness, for science, or for the future of the West.  When a society loses its religion it tends not to last very long thereafter. It discovers that having severed the ropes that moor its ethics and morality to something transcendent, all it has left is relativism; and a relativism that is incapable of defending anything including itself.

KH: That is a sober warning. Can you sum it up in a nutshell?

RJS:  When a society loses its soul it is about to lose its future.


You can order the book on Amazon The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning


3 thoughts on “In Conversation with…Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on God and Science

  1. I was fortunate to have Lord Sacks personally sign a copy of his wonderful book when he made a visit to Perth. I treasure the book and the wisdom within it. I miss Lord Sacks’s Friday contributions on the BBC.

  2. Thanks Jenny. Would love to engage in a real face-to-face conversation with Rabbi Sacks!
    Janet, it’s a blessing that we can enjoy his wisdom in book form – also his ‘conversations’ on his website.

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