Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Chief Rabbi on Darwin and Covenant

The Lambeth Conference is an assembly of Anglican bishops convened every ten years by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The last two conferences have received lots of publicity because of the debate in the Anglican Church over homosexual clergy and homosexual marriage. Another noteworthy event at last summer's conference was the plenary address by Sir Jonathan Sacks, who is the Chief Rabbi for Great Britain. (I thank Lewis Slawsky for drawing my attention to this.)

Rabbi Sacks spoke about the biblical idea of covenant, and in doing that, he argued that this idea has been scientifically confirmed by Darwinian evolutionary reasoning. This supports the claim I have often made on this blog that Darwinian science and biblical religion can be rightly understood as compatible in explaining the natural grounds of morality and cooperation.

Rabbi Sacks begins his address by recognizing the significance of a Jew speaking to such Christians. "Many centuries ago, the Jewish sages asked, who is a hero of heroes? They answered, not one who defeats his enemy, but one who turns an enemy into a friend. That is what has happened between Jews and Christians: strangers have become friends."

This leads him into his topic of covenant as a way of answering the question: "what is the role of religion in society, even in a secular society like Britain?"

He suggests that politics and economics manifest two ways to get people to do what we want. In politics, we force people to do what we want. In economics, we pay them to do what we want. But there is a third way--we can appeal to people through love, friendship, or trust. This third way is the way of covenant. While the state and the market belong to the logic of competition, covenant belongs to the logic of cooperation.

Asserting that societies cannot exist without cooperation, Rabbi Sacks then explains how the Darwinian account of the evolution of cooperation through something like an iterated prisoners' dilemma shows the importance of trust or reciprocity in cooperation, which corresponds to what he would call covenant.

Rabbi Sacks says:

"It turns out that the very things that make Homo sapiens different--the use of language, the size of the brain, even the moral sense itself--have to do with the ability to form and sustain groups: the larger the brain, the larger the group.

"Neo-Darwinians call this reciprocal altruism. Sociologists call it trust. Economists call it social capital. And it is one of the great intellectual discoveries of our time. Individuals need groups. Groups need cooperation. And cooperation needs covenant, bonds of reciprocity and trust.

"Traditionally, that was the work of religion. After all, the word 'religion' itself comes from a Latin root meaning 'to bind.' And whether we take a conservative thinker like Edmund Burke, or a radical like Thomas Paine, or a social scientist like Emile Durkheim, or an outside observer like Alexis de Tocqueville, they all saw this, and explained it, each in their own way. And now it has been scientifically demonstrated. If there is only competition and not cooperation, if there is only the state and the market and no covenantal relationships, society will not survive.

He then declares that the waning of religion brings a disintegration of society. But how can the religious idea of covenant be revived in societies that are either secular or divided into conflicting religious faiths?

To answer this question, Rabbi Sacks offers interpretations of the three covenants in the Hebrew Bible--the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9, the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17, and the covenant with the Israelites under Moses in Exodus 19-24.

He suggests that the last two covenants are covenants of faith based on shared religious beliefs. But the first covenant is a covenant of fate, which arises when people come together for mutual protection against a common enemy. The covenant of Noah came after all of humanity had faced the threat of extinction in the Flood.

Rabbi Sacks explains:

"The covenant of Noah has three dimensions. First: 'He who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God, He created man.' The first element is the sanctity of life.

"The second: Read Genesis 9 carefully and you will see that five times God insists that the covenant of Noah is not merely with humanity, but with all life on earth. So the second element is the integrity of the created world.

"The third lies in the symbol of the covenant, the rainbow, in which the white light of God is refracted into all the colors of the spectrum. The rainbow symbolizes what I have called the dignity of difference. The miracle at the heart of monotheism is that unity up there creates diversity down here. These three dimensions define the covenant of fate."

He speaks of this as "the global covenant of human solidarity." And he goes on to argue that we can all join in this global covenant by facing the threats that come from poverty, hunger, disease, hate, and environmental catastrophe.

Although he does not say so, Rabbi Sacks' appeal to the covenant with Noah as a universal moral law belongs to an old tradition of interpreting the laws given to Noah as a natural law that all human beings should understand regardless of their religious faith or lack of faith. David Novak has written about this in his books on natural law in Judaism.

God's command to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 9:7), for example, shows the natural human need for reproduction and family life. And God's command about murder--"He who sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed" (Genesis 9:6)--shows the natural human need to retaliate against homicidal violence. But notice that this is natural law because regardless of whether we see these as divine commands, we can recognize them as natural needs. That's why I say that while religion can reinforce our natural moral sense, that moral sense can also stand on its own natural ground independently of any religious faith. It's not clear to me as to whether Rabbi Sacks would agree with this.

Another problem is that cooperation is inseparable from competition. We evolved to cooperate with other members of our group to compete with those outside our group. Rabbi Sacks recognizes this when he speaks of the covenant of faith as dividing one faith against another, and when he speaks of the covenant of fate as uniting people who face a common enemy. In this way, cooperation seems to depend on a xenophobic propensity based on helping one's friends and harming one's enemies.

Of course, human language and symbolism allow us to create ever larger communities based on abstract, symbolic markers. We can thus expand the circle of cooperation to ever wider groups. And, in fact, much of the moral and political history of humanity can be understood as the expansion of non-zero-sum cooperation to wider circles. That's the theme Robert Wright's book Nonzero.

But I suggest that in expanding the circle of cooperation, we naturally tend to feel a stronger attachment to those closest to us--our family, our friends, our fellow-citizens--than to those farther away. And, consequently, we will always tend to fall into tragic conflicts of interests, in which we must cooperate with some people to compete with others. That's why I include the desire for war as one of my 20 natural desires.

Many of my readers have objected to my claim about the natural desire for war. Some seem to agree with David Sloan Wilson that we could achieve a "shared value system" to support a "global village" as a "moral community" in which we could live in perpetual peace. Rabbi Sacks seems to take this position in speaking of "the global covenant of human solidarity."

I am skeptical about this, because I don't see how human beings could ever escape from tragic conflicts of interest that lead to war. In fact, the Hebrew Bible supports this conclusion, because it's the story of how the people of Israel must fight bloody wars with their enemies. Even the global covenant with Noah at the beginning of Genesis 9 is followed by the division of humanity in the second part of the chapter into conflicting groups descended from Noah's sons. The descendants of Ham are cursed, and they will be the slaves of the descendants of Shem (the line of Abraham). Later, this curse of enslavement on the descendants of Ham was interpreted as biblical authority for the enslavement of blacks. Rabbi Sacks does not mention this or reflect on its implications.

I have written many posts on religion, the Bible, and Darwinism. Three of them can be found here, here, and here.


Anonymous said...

You might be interested in this conservative post about evolution.

xlbrl said...

J F Stephens
The compulsion of war is one of the principles which lie at the root of national existence. It determines whether nations are to be and what they are to be. It decides what men shall believe, how they shall live, in that mould their religion, law, morals, and the whole tone of thier lives shall be cast. From this great truth flow many consequences. They may all be sumed up in this one, that power precedes liberty--that liberty, from the very nature of things, is dependent upon power, and that it is only under the protection of a powerful, well-organized, and intelligent government that any liberty can exist at all.

Seth said...

Good article.

My opinion of war is that it is a branch of money. Money being the object we've been duped into believing is a necessity.