Lord Sacks steps into a fraternal squabble

Not In God’s Name


A familiar anthropological prism is deployed in Jonathan Sacks’s book. People crave a sense of identity, they frequently find it in groups, and this can result in the best and worst of human behaviour. We are kinder, or at least more tolerant, to those within our tribe, and we have a habit of looking askance at outsiders. This model has the apparent benefit of explaining a wide range of human characteristics: all the way from altruism, or at least self-serving generosity, to acts of savage violence.

Sacks, I’m sure, understands the risks that accompany such an overarching analysis. You can easily start gobbling up the motivations of ancient cave-dwellers, the burghers of 15th-century Flanders and the present-day inhabitants of the Bronx in a single interpretative bite, without worrying too much about historical differences or the many exceptions to the rule. Still, if we accept the concept of human nature we have to start somewhere. Big ideas can be useful when treated with caution.

Sacks uses the term “pathological dualism”. This creates a world inhabited by “them” and “us” and can lead to the dehumanisation and scapegoating of our rivals. Atrocities are apt to follow, and we strive for self-justification, preferably under the banner of some lofty ideal. There have been many versions of this latter commodity, but a twisted conceptualisation of religion has sometimes led the pack.

Sacks stresses, with appropriate volume, that this is an abuse of religion’s purpose. Killing or hating in the name of God is utterly despicable. It is “not righteousness but idolatry”. He also reminds us that there is nothing unique about religion being recruited in this way: secular philosophies work just as well.

This abuse of religious faith remains an urgent problem, however: “the greatest threat to freedom in the postmodern world is radical, politicised religion”. When seeking a remedy, Sacks does not follow the crowd and denounce faith as an inherently divisive phenomenon. On the contrary, he argues that a more accurate understanding of religious belief, principally the three Abrahamic faiths, has every chance of improving the situation.

He faces an obvious question. If, as he suggests, monotheism should be a force for good, why have the three prime examples – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – endured such turbulent relationships? The notion of “sibling rivalry” is at the core of his answer.

At this point, the psychological jargon becomes rather distracting and we hear all about “mimetic desire” and related concepts. But the basic point is intriguing: concocted fraternal squabbles, an alarmist sense of mutual threat, and envying what your sibling possesses have all helped to produce enmity and that age-old sense of them and us. The closer you might have been, the farther you can drift apart.

As anyone who has ever fallen out with his brother could attest, such manufactured antipathy can stir deep passions and engender lasting resentments. Should we really transfer such mechanisms from domestic squabbles to the clash of world religions, however? Well, why not?

At the very least, such an analysis opens up the cheering possibility that there is nothing inevitable about the antagonism between these three great faiths and the haunting tragedies it has produced. Perhaps we just took some terrible turns, misunderstood each other and overlooked what we always had in common.

Sacks urges us to revisit our foundational texts, chiefly Genesis, which is important, in different ways and forms, to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Genesis is, on the face of things, brimful of brothers not getting along so it might not seem like the most obvious resource. Sacks floats a re-reading which rejects the notion that Genesis legitimises a theology of violence and division. Take Isaac and Ishmael, for instance. What better blueprint, even justification, for fraternal spats and divisions? Well, says Sacks, not really. To suggest that Isaac is chosen and Ishmael is rejected apparently represents a gross oversimplification. God, in important ways, does not reject Hagar and Ishmael, Sarah is portrayed in an unfavourable light, and the reader’s sympathy lies with the people who suffer.

There are even hints of ultimate reconciliation and this, on Sacks’s account, is writ large in other tales from Genesis. Esau and Jacob certainly have their problems, but “nothing in the story is at it seems” and, in the end, there is a coming together.

Sacks sheds light on details that, if read correctly, lead us to the conclusion that “sibling rivalry is not written indelibly into the human script”. His Genesis emerges as a “more profound, multi-levelled, transformative text than we have taken it to be”.

There are moments when Sacks’s argument is freighted with decidedly modern understandings of progress and identity. But I imagine that Genesis can accommodate daring exegesis that stems from a compassionate awareness of tragedies, past and present, and a desire to bring brothers closer together.

Jonathan Wright