Twice in my lifetime I thought I had gained a notable first, only to discover that it was but a humble second.
A few years ago, I was greeted as the first rabbi ever to be elevated to the House of Lords. I was robed in the Moses Room, so named because it is dominated by an imposing portrait of Moses, our first rabbi. He was already in the House of Lords, holding the tablet of the Law, no doubt as a model for the laws enacted in the Mother of Parliaments. There I was, but a modest second.
And now, as this year’s Templeton laureate, I have a similar experience as the first Jew to receive this unique Prize.
But here again, not quite. Scripture tells us that for his pioneering role in religion Abraham received the Divine promise that his “reward would be exceedingly great” – surely the first prize for progress in religion!
I feel deeply privileged to follow these immortals, after an interval of nearly 4,000 years, in receiving such munificent recognition, now enabling me with new resources to promote the furtherance and transmission of our religious heritage, and particularly its application to our times.
For this I am indebted beyond words to the visionary Founder and to the distinguished panel of Judges. over the years they have truly rendered an incomparable service to the elevation of religion and its public recognition. I am especially happy to be honoured in this great land of the Commonwealth with which the very title of my office is closely associated – a land in which I feel very much at home, having been here on frequent visits, and having two brothers living here.
In presenting some thoughts on religion in the post- War world, I will follow a Jewish tradition – to begin with the downside and then to conclude on an upbeat note of hope and confidence.
On the global scale, the fortunes and misfortunes of religion since the Second World War have been without precedent. Pressed from opposite sides, religion was caught in a vice which nearly strangled it – in the East by militant atheism and in the West by equally godless materialism. It is surprising that religion survived this twin assault altogether.
Within religious seeds of doubt were also sown, and a whole school of a “God-is-dead” theology sprang up.
Yes, the trauma of the Second World War, culminating in the Holocaust, threw up questions never asked before, leading to the challenge: Where was God at Auschwitz? for myself, the question is unanswerable – but no more so than when God’s justice is challenged by a cot death striking an innocent infant and devastating the lives of bereaved young parents. Infinity cannot be multiplied, and the inscrutable death of one child or a million, or the six million butchered simply because they were Jews – all cry out equally: Where was God?
The Nazi barbarities may have manifested a dehumanisation of man rather than a dethronement of God. That is true. Nevertheless they shook the religious faith of many who could not embrace the simple logic of a famous Jewish savant earlier this century who said: “For those with faith there are no question, and for those without faith there are no answers.”
Has religion progressed? There were, to be sure, some astounding moral as well as political and social advances in the wake of the War. The clamour for human rights and national freedom gained powerful momentum. The grossest inequalities of centuries came to an abrupt end. Colonialism was dismantled, empires dissolved, and the dominance of the white man was abrogated. Scores of new nations were born, asserting their right to be free and their claim to an equal voice among the newly-emergent United Nations. These are strides without parallel.
Yet, on the whole these forces of liberalisation were motivated not by religion. but by secular nationalism. I believe the only really significant exception is Zionism as the Jewish national liberation movement. It was, and remains, activated above all by religious aspiration rooted of course in the Bible. But otherwise, even the vision of the United Nations itself was hardly conceived by religious promptings.
Of course, the great religions themselves made enormous progress in their interrelations in the post- war world. For the first time in history they entered into dialogues with each other. Religion vested the very term “dialogue” with a new meaning.
Inspired by Pope John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council led the way in promoting an altogether new understanding with Judaism. Had such papal views existed a thousand years earlier, how many millions of lives might have been saved! In interdenominational encounters the word “ecumenism” was disinterred from the dictionaries and given new currency.
There also came forth pioneers as well as simple people of goodwill within each religious community who sought to meet and understand members of other religious traditions and who continue to seek mutual understanding in interfaith organisations such as the 23 national Councils of Christians and Jew worldwide within the ambit to the International Council of Christians and Jews.
Throughout my tenure of office as Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth I have been one of the Joint- Presidents, together with the Heads of the main Christian denominations, of Britain’s Council of Christians and Jews. This contributed enormously to the personal trust and friendship that developed among the leaders of the country’s Christian and Jewish faiths. Indeed, it was in Britain that such a Council was originally founded in 1942 and that a first ever international conference of Christians and Jews was held in 1946 when 150 participants form many parts of the world laid down ‘Fundamental Postulates of Judaism and Christianity in Relation to Human Order’, postulates which can hardly be bettered today.
But again these advances were probably influenced by the secular trend towards greater tolerance rather than by purely religious dynamics. After all, only a few years earlier the great religions looked the other way, and even came to terms with history’s most monstrous tyranny.
Since then, the pages of contemporary history have been further soiled by what I can only call the unacceptable face of religion. Religious extremism and fundamentalism have lately led to brutal oppression and violence gripping millions.
Then there are the world’s most intractable conflicts, such as in Northern Ireland and in the Middle East, to show how hard it is to extinguish fires lit by the combustion of religious zealotry. As further examples, I am bound to include the hawkishness of the religious parties in Israel, and on a different level the offensive campaigns of aggressive evangelism.
Still on the debit side must be listed the pronounced pacifism amounting to craven appeasement among many religious leaders and groupings. By a strange irony, such pacifism is the obverse of religious militancy, but the result is the same. The knowledge that violence will not be resisted inevitably encourages men of violence.
No-one has yet invented a method of overpowering violence in self-defense without force; and where even the threat of force is withdrawn, criminals and oppressors are bound to prevail. Religion all too often prevaricated in this struggle against tyranny and terror.
Again, why has not religion spoken out more forcefully against the worst international evil: the vast and indiscriminate international arms trade?
Each of the 160-odd wars since World War II has been fought and fueled with arms purchased, imported and freely shipped form countries ready and eager to sell them for commercial gain or political advantage. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 87% of all major weapons supplied to Third World countries have come from none other that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. What a mockery of the purpose for which the UN and its Security Council were set up!
By denying arms especially to Third World countries, not only would their aggression, their civil wars and their acts of terrorism be starved to attrition, but their national economics would be saved from the drain of arms purchases. They would than be able to invest their resources into food production, education and industry, turning these countries from destitution to prosperity.
By arousing the world’s conscience against this evil, religious energies would be more to preserve human life than umpteen appeals for food or money to relieve starvation.
This leads me to the credit side of religion. Its momentous contributions are often belittled or ignored. Religion remains our principal defence against the erosion of moral values. The Bible is still by far the worlds leading best-seller.
Of particular importance in this age of technology, religion prevents human life from becoming mechanized, a mere extension of the machine.
Without religion, the incomparable beauty of love in the generation of human life would vanish and be replaced by antiseptic syringes, test tubes and petri dishes, not much different from assembly lines spewing out cars or computers.
Religion asserts eternal values in a shifting world. the sudden collapse of Communism illustrates how quickly yesterday’s idols become tomorrow’s villains.
Indeed, religion was a decisive factor in the downfall of Communism; first in Poland, then in East Germany, and finally in Russia itself.
Let me give you one literary example to contrast the stability of religion with the ephemeral values of our world – in vogue today and discarded like an empty battery the day after.
By far the most widely-read literature of our times are our newspapers. And yet the very day after publication they are dated and obsolete.
Now compare this flimsiness of our values, of our reading, of our culture with the immortality of a single chapter of Isaiah or the Psalms!
If you ask, why have these achievements of religion been so little highlighted and acclaimed, let me answer with a parable my late father was fond of relating.
A lioness once took her little cub on a walk for instruction on the facts of leonine life. Said the mother: “We lions are kings of the animal world, and can overpower any other creature. Even human beings are at our mercy. You never need to fear anyone.”
As they walked, they passed a monument showing Samson tearing up a lion. “But mother” said the shocked cub. “didn’t you just tell me that we can overwhelm even humans and need never be afraid?”
“Yes”, she replied, “the monument proves it. Were this to occur commonly, they would not put up a monument!”
The press, like monuments, records the freaks, the exceptions rather than the rule. The major achievements of religion are commonplace, and part of the norms of life. They escape publicity, for they need no monuments.
Perhaps the most urgent contribution religion can yet make in our age is to counter the individual’s sense of impotence and irrelevance, that we are but insignificant bystanders in the drama of events in which the really fateful historical decisions are made by a handful of political leaders and some outstanding scientists, industrialists, and a few others who leave their fingerprints on the tapestry of history.
Our faith teaches us that to consider ourselves dispensable is a false sense of humility. In a famous passage nearly two thousand years old our sages taught us: “Why was a single human being originally created?” God could just as easily have made a thousand or a million progenitors of the human race, making life much easier by mutual service in the fabric society? The answer: “Therefore was man created singly, so that each human being should say ‘for my sake was the world created’ “- out of one human being the whole of mankind emerged.
Religion wants to endow each human being with a sense of uniqueness. We all must aspire to contribute something which no-one else could give. Our ambition must be to ensure that the world would not be the same without us.
I recall that in 1957, when I was still Chief Rabbi of Ireland, I went on my first lecture tour of the United States and Canada. Here I made a proposal which thought widely reported was never acted upon. I now repeat it some thirty years later, in the hope that my Templeton distinction may give it greater resonance than a fluttering shamrock leaf driven across the Atlantic in 1957.
The United Nations proclaimed a “Geo-Physical Year,” calling upon the world community to undertake special projects to promote the exploitation and understanding of the physical universe in which we lived. That global effort helped considerably to advance our scientific knowledge.
I then said, and I propose it again today: Why not similarly proclaim a “Geo-Spiritual Year” in which countries the world over would be urged to participate in an unprecedented global effect: Let the world’s finest brains and resources explore man’s spiritual condition, and how best to enhance it!
Could not underwater or outer space research, and other scientific exploits be matched in excitement, and in usefulness to human progress, by worldwide projects:
to study the causes of marriage-breakdown,
to experiment on new approaches in the fight against crime and vice,
to find out scientifically how we can make our youth less selfish and more committed to the service of others,
to study the impact of the ethical issues raised by the quest for justice and peace, or how to cultivate ambition and to nurture a taste for art, literature and culture generally?
Perhaps during such a Geo-Spiritual Year schools the world over might be encouraged to participate in substantial prize essay competitions on some outstanding feats of virtue, on singular examples of nobility of heart and mind, on charity at its finest, or on some spectacular success in turning a dropout into a noble citizen, such prizes to be published in the world’s press to create widespread public interest and involvement.
Let our finest academic minds be harnessed:
to study the role of religion in human refinement,
to analyze the religious factor in business honesty and human decency,
and to probe into the relationship of religious faith to political creativity and social stability.
In an age when we can peer into the mysteries of the genetic code inside us, of the sea beneath us, and the heavens above us, let us try to discover the one formula which still eludes us: how to build two homes next to each other that happiness reigns inside them and peace between them.
Thus could my fellow-humans share in my debt for the Templeton Prize as an encouragement not only of progress in religion, but of progress through religion.