How the Bible has shaped the West

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks detects seven key ideas in Judaeo-Christian culture which explain why the West is unique.
Michael Cook | Mar 24 2014 | comment  



One of the most interesting minds in Britain today is Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom. A philosopher and public intellectual as well as a scholar of Judaism, he was recently appointed Professor of Law, Ethics & the Bible at King’s College London.

His inaugural lecture dealt with the relevance of the Bible for law and ethics in society today. Speaking to a packed lecture theatre, Lord Sacks highlighted seven propositions drawn from Biblical ethics which help to understand why the West developed market economics, democratic politics, human rights and the free society.

'The historian Niall Ferguson quotes the verdict of a member of the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences, tasked with finding an explanation for why the West overtook China in the sixteenth century and went on to industrial and scientific greatness. At first, he said, we thought it was because you had better guns than we had. Then we thought it was your political system. Next we thought it was your economic system. But for the past twenty years we have had no doubt: it was your religion.'

The first three characteristics he identified were: human dignity; freedom and responsibility; and the sanctity of life - a central principle because human beings are in the image of God, therefore human life human life itself is sacred.

Citing American anthropologist Ruth Benedict, Lord Sacks said the fourth aspect was the concept of guilt as opposed to shame.  Articulating the difference between a guilt culture and shame culture, he drew on Sir Bernard Williams’ observation that shame cultures are visual cultures; whereas a guilt culture is a hearing culture. Giving the example of the story of Adam and Eve, he said:

‘It is an extremely significant point that the Hebrew Bible introduced a guilt culture to a world that only knew shame cultures, because guilt cultures make a distinction, and shame cultures do not, between the sinner and the sin. What is wrong is the act not the person.’

His fifth principle was the significance of marriage as the matrix of society, ‘The family is sacred’, he said. 

Sixth, he said, society is covenantal - threaded by the covenant that binds people together and to God in a covenantal bond.

Finally, he said his seventh aspect was a basic principle of Judaism: since every society is the result of the covenant, it means all human power, all political authority, is subject to the transcending authority of the Divine. There are moral limits to power, he asserted: ‘Right is Sovereign over might.’

Lord Sacks said: ‘Those are the seven features that I think make Biblical ethics different from any other ethical system. It is the only ethical system in which love and forgiveness are at the heart of the moral life. It seems to me that all seven of those beliefs are currently at risk.’

He said we had already seen the loss of the sanctity of life in respect of abortion and that we are going to see it in assisted dying - this will be an inevitable consequence of losing our sense of human dignity and our sense of human freedom.

One of the most intriguing ideas that he put forward is that our society has already moved from a guilt morality to a shame morality:

‘Today we see trial by media, trial by public shaming. And in a shame morality, the only ultimate command is, ‘Thou shalt not be found out’. It is very difficult to create space for confession, repentance, forgiveness, rehabilitation. Once you have been shamed, that is the end of you.’

Finally Lord Sacks said he feared we are in grave danger of forgetting the moral limits of power:

‘Today it is all too easy to move from saying ‘I have a right to do x’ to ‘I am right to do x’; that whatever is not forbidden by law is morally permissible and therefore morally reasonable. If we no longer make a distinction between law and morality, if we rely entirely on the market economy, on laws and on regulatory bodies we will have the kind of economic malfunctioning that we have today with greater and greater inequalities and economic behaviour that should be unacceptable.’



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