Thursday, 31 July 2008

The Dignity of Difference under Fate

By all accounts the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks, gave a powerful lecture to the bishops at Lambeth 2008 on 28th July. He connected his own Dignity of Difference (the title of his very insightful book: even if there are parts to disagree with, it is a powerful statement connecting the concept of a unified God and a diversity of people) with a Covenant of fate for all humanity (via the symbol of the rainbow).

This Covenant of fate is where we have to be together, because we are under pressure. Differences are put on hold. Intelligent readings of Noah's Ark know that it is a story of shoah, and Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote of a sense of solidarity among victims in such a situation, it taking the twentieth century holocaust to realise the difference between a covenant of fate and a covenant of faith.

The covenant of faith is made when times are good, and when people can dream of the future. Today, however, that is fragmenting along with the specialisation and particularities of the age.

This would link in with the earlier part of the lecture. I do disagree with his sharp distinction between the exchange of politics and money in contract and the richer reciprocity in community and faith. There is an argument that all forms of exchange are reciprocal, and all have an additional benefit: in other words, what starts out as contract might well become covenantal. Two decide to have sex, and in fact make love; two decide to talk, but gain conversation. Equally, covenantal relationships have contractual benefits. Sociologists, by the way, do not call it "trust", as the Chief Rabbi claimed, but reciprocity: "trust" is for theologians.

My view of faith is based on trust; my view on why faith works is based on reciprocity: at the ritualistic and the service of others levels. Gift-exchange theory is crucial: it has a religious heart and a universal potential in so many areas of life. There is the gift side: the covenantal, and the exchange side: the contractual.

Of course the Chief Rabbi was not talking Anglican politics at all, but one must wonder how this might translate to Anglican institutional affairs.

If he is right, then the actual covenant of Anglicanism is going through the same specialisation and fragmentation as other relationships, and there is the potential for alienation. What will stop alienation is the potential for realignments, potential for agreements again. The boundaries may be narrower, though ecumenically there are likely to be refreshing elements.

Yet it would be peculiar if a covenant of fate were to operate to keep Anglicanism together. That would mean a situation of fear, of loss, of constriction, usually from outside.

In fact, if the dynamic of the loss of actual covenant of faith has its way, and Anglicans do fragment, the world's covenant of fate may still see co-operation between Anglicans, as they go about faith into the world business. There is every opportunity for friendliness. Everyone remains human.

Here is the most visionary part of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' lecture:

And now we must extend that friendship more widely. We must renew the global covenant of fate, the covenant that began with Noah and reached a climax in the work of Joseph, the work of saving many lives.

And that is what we began to do last Thursday when we walked side-by-side: Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians and Baha'i. Because though we do not share a faith, we surely share a fate. Whatever our faith or lack of faith, hunger still hurts, disease still strikes, poverty still disfigures, and hate still kills. Few put it better than that great Christian poet, John Donne: 'Every man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.'

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