How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations

Faced with change, those who feel threatened by it turn to religion as a source of stability, an expression of the things that do not change.

Miriam Lancaster

Book Review

book review culture Jonathan Sacks love morality tribalism

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a renowned philosopher and theologian who once served as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, wrote The Dignity of Difference one year after the events of 9/11.

In its prologue, he describes his experience at a meeting of religious leaders who come together to pray in solidarity after the destruction of the World Trade Center and how this event inspired The Dignity of Difference.

Before prescribing his suggested solution, Sacks first introduces his understanding of the problem. In describing the moral and spiritual aspects of globalization, he states, “Bad things happen when the pace of change exceeds our ability to change, and events move faster than our understanding. It is then that we feel the loss of control over our lives. Anxiety creates fear, fear leads to anger, anger breeds violence, and violence—when combined with weapons of mass destruction—becomes a deadly reality.” When a society can’t catch up with the world’s rate of change, all sense of cultural stability is threatened, and the very core of individual identity is put on trial.

Sacks notes that when people are “faced with change, those who feel threatened by it turn to religion as a source of stability, an expression of the things that do not change.” Religion, he argues, is certainly capable of providing a solution or way of coping with the issues that arise from globalization. However, turning to religious identity can cause problems of its own. Chief among these is the issue of tribalism, which he defines as “the idea that those who do not share my faith—or my race or my ideology—do not share my humanity.” This basis of thought has often been the inspiration for atrocious acts of violence.

It is a fast-growing belief that universal commonalities, characteristics that are common to all people and cultures, are the ultimate destination on the road to peace and tolerance. According to Sacks, however, universalism is incapable of answering questions of identity, coexistence, or cooperation:

Universalism is an inadequate response to tribalism, and no less dangerous. It leads to the belief—superficially compelling but quite false—that there is only one truth about the essentials of the human condition, and it holds true for all people at all times. If I am right, you are wrong. If what I believe is the truth, then your belief, which differs from mine, must be an error from which you must be converted, cured, and saved.

The solution to cultural conflict, as Sacks presents it, is moral particularity:

There is no road to human solidarity that does not begin with moral particularity—by coming to know what it means to be a child, a parent, a neighbour, a friend. We learn to love humanity by loving specific human beings. There is no short-cut.

By this theory, we learn to love all people by first loving our people.

We can learn the structure of harmonious relationships between different cultures by understanding the covenantal nature of relationships that exists naturally within families and communities.

Members and citizens alone cannot sustain themselves, let alone establish a framework of collaborative action and collective grace. Covenants exist because we are different and seek to preserve that difference, even as we come together to bring our several gifts to the common good.

For peace to function within a world of difference, we must love all people in the way that we love our own families and communities. This is not a natural inclination, but it is a concept that fully aligns with second greatest commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

About the Author

Miriam is a student and second-generation Messianic Gentile raised in the United States where she attends a Messianic congregation.

Book Review

book review culture Jonathan Sacks love morality tribalism

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