Christians can learn from Jews. We can learn how to thrive in the secular world that no longer regards faith as central. So argues Rabbi Jonathan Sacks at the 2013 Erasmus Lecture. Speaking to more than five hundred people on the evening of Monday, October 21st at the Union League Club in New York, Sacks outlined a vision in which religious communities—Jewish and Christian—can function as creative minorities.
Sacks recently retired as Chief Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, the most prominent Jewish body in the United Kingdom. After his appointment in 1991, he emerged as a powerful and articulate spokesman for religious believers.
More than any other Jewish leader Sacks has combined a deep affirmation of Jewish faith and practice with a remarkable ability to speak to non-Jews. More than any other religious figure in the English-speaking world, Sacks has recognized that an increasingly hostile secular culture requires religious people to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, not just to resist the worst excesses of secularism, but to bear witness to faith’s contribution society as whole.
“Creative minorities.” The formulation was used by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in a reflection of the future of Christianity in Europe. But Arnold Toynbee, a mid-twentieth century English historian, coined the term. He argued that new civilizations are made by creative minorities that displace dominant minorities that have become moribund.
Sacks’ main argument comes in his engagement with Toynbee, who presumed that creative minorities press toward empire, wishing to make their vision of reality universal. The one minority that does not fit into this pattern are Jews, and thus Toynbee dismisses Judaism as historically impotent. Impotent? What about the Jewish teacher whose name was Jesus?
Here Sacks zeroes in on Toynbee’s one-sided grasp of culture, which assumes what Sacks calls the Hellenistic view in which influence always seeks to maximize itself through domination. But there is also the Hebraic view. This view does not seek to become universal; it does not construct an empire. Its influence comes from the particularity of love, or to use more traditional theological terms, faithfulness to covenant.
The analysis Sacks provides helps us see that from the Enlightenment forward progressives and liberals were a creative minority of Toynbee’s sort. They sought to displace the ancien regime. They succeeded. Today the West is under their domination. Thus our age promises a new universal empire, one characterized primarily by globalized economic relations and animated by a doctrine of universal human rights.
Christians differ from Jews. Christianity has a missionary impulse that seeks universality. But the similarities are strong as well, not just in the concentration of Jewish particularity in the person of Jesus, but also in our historical moment. In the new secular Enlightenment empire Christians are becoming more and more like Jews. We are a discordant minority, whom modern secular liberalism treats as an archaic residue of an earlier era that has been superseded by reason and progress—an ironic recapitulation of the ways in which Jews were so often treated by the dominant Christian majority in earlier centuries.
It’s tempting to rage against this secular supersessionism. In his eloquent lecture Sacks does not downplay the difficulties we face. But he clearly and forcefully points us down a pathway of creative hope rather than impotent anger. Faith seeks to draw nearer to God rather than defining itself in terms of worldly power. The history of the Jewish people shows us that this venture of love has tremendous staying power, even when politically and culturally powerless. And not just staying power, but influence. Just a few grains of yeast, if they keep their freshness, can leaven the whole lump.
R.R. Reno is editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.