Monday, 20 September 2010

Reason (Relationships) and Belief - Kol Nidrei Sermon


I woke up this morning in a reasonable mood.

One of our kids wanted me to get him up.

I rolled over and reasoned whether to wake up my wife and tell her I loved her before I got out of bed.

After thinking about it for a few moments I decided not to, she had been up late the night before and I reasoned she would rather sleep.


I went in to see my son. He said, ‘good morning daddy, I love you.’

I reasoned about how to respond. On the one hand I want him to feel loved, but on the other hand he is old enough to start developing his own sense of the world, and maybe a bland reciprocal response might retard his emotional development.


And then I reasoned about whether to make a blessing before tucking in to my breakfast cereal. On the one hand, I’m a Rabbi – I’m supposed to be in a rather special relationship with God. On the other – what about science? Do I really want to start the day claiming that God is the creator of my breakfast when I know that there are arable farmers, and dairy farmers and Kellogs all chipping in on the creative process.


Being in a reasonable mood can be a little exhausting, no.


Actually – none of that is true.

I didn’t write this sermon this morning.

I don’t subject my relationship with God to the test of reason.

And I don’t subject my relationship with my wife and kids to ongoing tests of reason, I don’t think any of us do.


But I do want to talk, tonight, about reason, God and relationships.


Over the summer I encountered the writing of Damon Linker, and Linker gave me some language with which to engage with what the publishing industry calls ‘The New Atheism.’

Linker suggests that the key that divides those of us who disavow a belief in God from those of us who proclaim a belief in God is our sense of the role of reason in the world.

The key question is this – is reason the path to ultimate truth or do we have to push past reason to reach ultimate truth?


Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and the like say reason is ultimate.

If you can double-blind test an idea, they say, and prove or disprove a hypothesis there you have ultimacy and anything less, they say, is foolishness.

But for me reason falls short, it’s a necessary, but insufficient part of what it means to seek ultimacy.

I’m not advocating we become buffoons or unreasonable boors, but we can’t turn only to reason when we encounter claims made on our time, our purse and our heartstrings.


Reason is fine and if we want to focus on a laboratory experiment or trying to puzzle out a tricky Tosafot – reason is terrifically useful.

But when it comes to relationships reason is dangerous.


The problem with an over reliance on reason is that reason only takes place inside our own skull – it’s an entirely internal process.

It’s no co-incidence that one of Dawkins’ most successful books, before he wrote The God Delusion, was The Selfish Gene. It’s a book that suggests my life is driven by the microscopic pursuit of my own best interests, Survival of the Fittest. As if every time I succeed in crushing a weaker competitor for scarce resources my genes cheer me on.

Reason values self-interest too greatly. If I think about whether it’s more reasonable to look after my own best interests or to do something for someone else, reason will tell me, time and time again, to look after myself.


And tonight – Kol Nidrei – is a night to be focussing on our relationships with others;

I believe we should be training ourselves to look beyond reason not only because it changes our relationship with the world, but also because is changes our relationships with the other people in it.


Reasonable selfishness, I think, is the antithesis of relationships, it promotes an arrogance and a blindness to the needs of others.

It’s a serious problem. If we pursue reasonable selfishness we risk our lives becoming ever more lonely, ever more committed to our own material success to the exclusion of all else.

Reasonable selfishness risks tipping our world tipping into an abyss of plundered natural resources.

We become in danger of thinking that what counts is what we accumulate, not the amount of love and care we spend on others.

I came across the Archbishop of Canterbury on great form on this point. Rowan Williams wrote, a society ‘based on nothing but calculations of self-interest, fed by a … distorted version of Darwinism, doesn’t build a habitat for human beings; at best it builds a sort of fortified box room for paranoiacs.’[1]

Maybe we are there already.


Or maybe not. Actually my sense is that none of us want to live in a selfish world. It may be reasonable, but it’s too lonely.

We want to live in worlds imbued with friendship, relationships, love, generosity, kindness. And all these deeply necessary, deeply needed things are, let it be admitted, unreasonable – or beyond reason. And it may be this deep need for connection is the answer to the all-conquering power of the pursuit of the reasonable.


Reason, certainly, is not a useful tool when applied to religious questions, questions about God.

The New Atheists have been tremendously successful in suggesting that religion, God, are indeed things to which reason applies.

They like to suggest that religion exists to explain what there is in the world, the sort of question that reason is very good at answering, the sort of question religion doesn’t answer so well.

Christopher Hitchens claims that, ‘thanks to the telescope and the microscope [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important.’

And, of course, if religion is nothing other than an attempt to explain things we can see through telescopes and microscopes, religion crumbles before the challenge of reasonable scientific exploration.

But religion doesn’t stand or fall because of things discovered by science. And Hitchens’ claim ‘is rather like saying,’ and I’m borrowing the phrase from Terry Eagleton,[2] ‘that thanks to the [discovery of the] electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.’


Actually the analogy of Chekhov – novels – and religion is a good one.

Reading a novel is an exercise in letting go of reason. We don’t read a great novel, or watch a great film and worry about whether it depicts true events. Good novels shake us loose[3] from the pursuit of reason above all else. When we read novels we don’t ask the question – ‘do the characters in this book exist?’ We ask the question, ‘do I believe in the characters in this book?’ And that’s a vital distinction when it comes to religion and God.


The New Atheists have been carried away with the question ‘Does God exist?’ But it’s the wrong question. God doesn’t exist in the same way as anything else in the Universe exists. Tables exist, cats, dogs, people exist. Even the Higgs Bosom particle exists – unless of course it doesn’t (and if you want to know if it does or doesn’t of course you’ll need lots of reason and a vast microscope to find out). But whether or not some microscopic particle exists, or not, has nothing to do with God. God isn’t something that is, or is not present, like a table or an electron.

God is the reason for existence, its justification and its source of meaning. God is that on which existence depends. God explains why there is something other than nothing.

Once there is something, science is great at working out how it works, but science doesn’t go back far enough for the religious mind.


Just as the key question when reading a novel is, ‘do I believe in this?’ The key question when it comes to God is ‘Do I believe in God?’

Belief – something we can depend on, something that impacts on the way we live our lives. It’s not just an intellectual commitment – belief drives action.

Can we, do we, live our lives with the conviction that there is something beyond reason, greater than self-interest, beyond the mechanical unfolding of some giant conglomeration of selfish genes?

I try to. And that is what belief means to me.

Can we, do we believe in something we cannot see, cannot test, only feel and respond to?

Do you believe in God? I do.


Belief at its most basic level, means accepting that there is a reason for there being something rather than nothing.

Belief, at least a Jewish kind of belief – the kind of belief that I offer for members of this community – means accepting that something other than pure reason pervades the Universe.

Belief is the antithesis of the self-regarding morality driven by the Selfish Gene.

Belief is about that which is other than our own self-interest.

Belief means believing that there is something else to engage with and care about.

Belief, on the other side of reason, is a kind of anti-selfishness.


If an over-reliance on reasonableness folds us in on ourselves, opening ourselves to belief lifts our horizons above ‘me myself and I’ – and towards ‘me and something, or someone, else.’

And that has to be good news for the world in which we live and for the lives we live in it.


When we believe we acknowledge something beyond wanted us here, we come to feel that our existence and our actions, in some way, matter.

And here we are very close to the grounding of religious morality.

Because when we look around we realise that we are not the only people here, we are not, therefore, the only people mattering, counting, being important.

If they are suffering there is a problem. If we could hurt we must strive not to – for they count.


We tune in not just to some sort of cosmic power, but also to the needs of others.

Belief in something other than us opens us up to believing in someone other than us. Belief opens our souls to believing that other people matter, not just as vehicles for sustaining our own existence, but as people in their own rights.

The step beyond reason is a step into morality.


It’s unreasonable to be told – v’ahavtra lreicha camocha – you should love your fellow.

It’s unreasonable to be told that if we hurt a fellow human being we have to mend that hurt – apologise.

It’s unreasonable to be told that we should observe Shabbat – stop working, stop spending.

These are unreasonable claims, but absolutely vital truths if we are preparedto recognise that there is something other than our own self-interest that counts.

The step beyond reason, into belief, pushes us into an ethical engagement with our world and those we share it with.


Belief is not a totem one can hold onto to hide from scientific reasonableness.

It’s a training in seeing and being moved by others.

Belief is not a guarantee of any particular kind of salvation either in this world or a world to come.

It’s an attunement to the importance of caring about that which lies beyond self-interest.

It’s not about turning away from the world and the people who live in it

It’s about an ever more profound engagement with those around us.


Belief, I believe, makes us better, it lifts up our horizons and allows us to see more deeply.

And I commend it to us all.

I encourage us to believe more deeply, care more intensely and feel more confident as we move beyond the limited power of reasonableness in this coming year.

And in this way, please God, we should all find a sweeter, healthier and happier year.


Gemar Tov, may this be our sealed decree for the year ahead.

[1] Citizen Ethics in a Time of Crises, Citizen Ethics Network (2010) p. 9.

[2] Reason, Faith and Revolution (2009). I am hugely in the debt of Professor Eagleton’s book. His analysis underlies much of what I say here.

[3] A phrase of the literary critic Catherine Gallagher, The Rise of Fictionality.

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