Review: Divine teaching and the way of the world

An Orthodox Jewish philosopher argues that life has meaning but not in an unchanging form for all people at all times


By David Conway, November 3, 2011
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The Mother of Moses, by Simeon Solomon, 1860. From Jewish Art: A Modern History by Samantha Baskind and Larry Silver (Reaktion Books, £19.95)

The Mother of Moses, by Simeon Solomon, 1860. From Jewish Art: A Modern History by Samantha Baskind and Larry Silver (Reaktion Books, £19.95)

By Samuel Fleischacker
Oxford University Press, £60

Woody Allen, who can always be relied on to ap-proach the big questions of life in his own, affecting way, once quipped: “Not only is there no God, try getting a plumber on a weekend.” For all his success as a film-maker, Allen recently disclosed that, “I never thought I was doing anyone a favour bringing children into the world… The best of lives are tragic and sad… it’s not a nice thing to do. The world doesn’t need it, the kid doesn’t need it.”
Are Allen’s atheism and his jaundiced assessment of the value of human existence connected? Sam Fleischacker, an Orthodox Jewish professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois, Chicago, would almost certainly say so.
Without faith in the divine or supernatural provenance of some sacred text or teaching, Fleischacker argues, human beings lack reason to attach value to their lives. It is only because sacred texts and teachings purvey visions of a supreme good awaiting humankind, or at least those who live according to their prescriptions, that anyone has reason to trust in their divine provenance.
In precisely which text or teaching to place one’s faith depends, he argues, on which of their several visions of the supreme good and of the path to achieve it inspires us most. And this depends largely on our acculturation and upbringing.
That being so, no one can establish the superior credentials of his or her own faith to those of others who do not share the same sensibility and outlook. Indeed, on Fleischacker’s account, it makes perfect sense to suppose that, should God exist, God might have revealed to different portions of humankind different visions of a supreme good each of whose prospects equally makes life worthwhile to those inspired by it.
Fleischacker maintains that, at all times, the ethical demands of religion should accord with the highest standards of morality independently understood, as should any metaphysical claims accord with the best current secular understandings of the world. In other words, divine teaching must always accord with “the way of the world” --- as Fleischacker terms morality and science.
While we might, therefore, have compelling ethical reason to place our faith in the divine provenance of some sacred text, exactly what it teaches must always remain a matter for each generation to decide in the light of that generation’s moral sensibility and scientific understanding. Fleischacker’s account of religions thereby immunises them from being discredited by science or the deliverances of an enlightened conscience by demanding their perpetual reinterpretation.
While Fleischacker’s book is a philosophical tour de force, meriting close attention by all interested in religion, sadly these days only the likes of Woody Allen will be able to afford it at its current exorbitant price.
Fortuitously, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks has just published a somewhat similar apologia, on behalf of Judaism. Letters to the Next Generation 2, freely available on his website (www.chiefrabbi.org), it offers Sacks’s observation that: “faith is the answer to the questions… Why are we here? How then should we live?… The simplest and most elegant hypothesis is the one Judaism introduced… We and the universe are here because Someone wanted us to be… who invites us to become His partners in the work of creation.”
Maybe the Chief Rabbi’s office should send a copy to Woody Allen.

David Conway is a visiting fellow in the School of Philosophy and Art History at the University of Essex.

    Last updated: 11:59am, November 3 2011