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are a discordant minority, whom modern secular liberalism treats as an archaic residue of an earlier era that has been superseded by reason and progress—an ironic recapitulation of the ways in which Jews were so often treated by the dominant Christian majority in earlier centuries.
So, believing Jews have always been a creative minority, and now they’re fast being joined by believing Christians. Reno says that Rabbi Sacks did not dismiss the seriousness of the present moment’s challenges, but offered “a pathway for creative hope rather than impotent anger.”
Here’s a video link to the entire 55-minute lecture. I’m going to watch it later. Impotent anger is too often my culture-war default setting; I could use some creative hope.