How the Bible has shaped the West

Lord SacksBy Michael Cook, MercatorNet

 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks detects seven key ideas in Judaeo-Christian culture which explain why the West is unique.

 

One of the most interesting minds in Britain today is Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom. A philosopher and public intellectual as well as a scholar of Judaism, he was recently appointed Professor of Law, Ethics & the Bible at King’s College London.

 

His inaugural lecture dealt with the relevance of the Bible for law and ethics in society today. Speaking to a packed lecture theatre, Lord Sacks highlighted seven propositions drawn from Biblical ethics which help to understand why the West developed market economics, democratic politics, human rights and the free society.

 

‘The historian Niall Ferguson quotes the verdict of a member of the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences, tasked with finding an explanation for why the West overtook China in the sixteenth century and went on to industrial and scientific greatness. At first, he said, we thought it was because you had better guns than we had. Then we thought it was your political system. Next we thought it was your economic system. But for the past twenty years we have had no doubt: it was your religion.’

 

The first three characteristics he identified were: human dignity; freedom and responsibility; and the sanctity of life – a central principle because human beings are in the image of God, therefore human life human life itself is sacred.

 

Citing American anthropologist Ruth Benedict, Lord Sacks said the fourth aspect was the concept of guilt as opposed to shame. Articulating the difference between a guilt culture and shame culture, he drew on Sir Bernard Williams’ observation that shame cultures are visual cultures; whereas a guilt culture is a hearing culture. Giving the example of the story of Adam and Eve, he said:

 

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