In a sense I think the Christian churches that have been so dominant in society until recently are still feeling their way as to how they should communicate with the secular. It’s no longer enough, I think, to repeat Christian morals without dialogue about what is best for society and why we hold the views that we do. Religious people need a new language to communicate with a secular world in a meaningful and relevant way. Jonathan Sacks was particularly good at this. He knew how to share religious ideas and translate them into a language that was accessible to those who were not of his faith. Not only is this approach important for society but it is also important for religion. Religious beliefs and morals have developed over the years and been influenced by the times and cultures in which they were articulated. It’s important for religions not to get stuck in the past but to constantly dialogue with contemporary culture, including science, psychology, sociology etc and to reflect on how their faith might relate to the present. It’s this that keeps faiths fresh, innovative, and relevant.
It’s easy to think of religion and society as being in opposition, especially over moral issues, doing battle for what they think is best. Perhaps it’s important to keep in mind that all of us – or at least those of goodwill – are wanting what is best for society and if we are to achieve that then there is a need for dialogue and engagement, listening to one another and considering one another’s point of view. This of course takes time, something that public bodies and politicians are not good at. But Jonathan Sacks was good at it, and we could all learn from him. In a tribute to him after his death in 2020 Rabbi Gideon Sylvester said “Rabbi Sacks searched the modern marketplaces to uncover how people think and speak. His sensitive listening enabled him to create discourse around morality which his audience could relate to without ever feeling that they were being preached at, patronised or missionised.”
An alternative to this engagement and sensitivity to society at large is to withdraw from it and live in a sheltered community cut off from interest in and discourse with the world. Religions have been doing this for centuries. It’s how religious life started with the withdrawal of men and women from the empire to focus on faith and spirituality in the Egyptian desert. When I joined religious life there was a sense of leaving the world to live a truer and more spiritual life. It happened to groups such as the Puritans, the Amish, the Mennonites who sought freedom from the state church of Europe and established communities and churches of their own with a strict but peaceful and simple way of living. It so happened that the Mennonites were on my mind as the debate about religion and society was going on. I had recently seen the film ‘Women Talking’ based on the book of the same name by Miriam Toews and was reading another book by her called ‘A Complicated Kindness’. Both deal with situations within the Mennonite community and show the harm that rigidity, isolation, conformism can do to a community and to personal development. This is not the way forward for religions. Religions like other aspects of life are evolving which will mean struggling with new situations and viewpoints but also offering something, hopefully wisdom, to the evolution of society as we try to learn what it means to live with one another and form the bonds of kinship that will help us work together for the common good.