The three questions

The Wall Street Journal has an essay by Jonathan Sacks adapted from his new book that says religious violence is not god’s fault.

Predictably, he says some things that I find irritating.

What the secularists forgot is that Homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal. If there is one thing the great institutions of the modern world do not do, it is to provide meaning. Science tells us how but not why. Technology gives us power but cannot guide us as to how to use that power. The market gives us choices but leaves us uninstructed as to how to make those choices. The liberal democratic state gives us freedom to live as we choose but refuses, on principle, to guide us as to how to choose.

The first thing that jumps out at us is how stale that is, how automatic, how deadened by repetition. “Science tells us how but not why” – recite clichés much? But setting that aside – you can tell from “What the secularists forgot” (and from previous knowledge of Jonathan Sacks) where he’s going – it’s religion and religion only that can “provide meaning.”

But can it? The “meaning” it provides is the kind of “meaning” a box of tools has – “somebody made me.” That’s not really more meaningful than being a product of natural selection over millions of years, and it can be less so. Who wants to be a hammer or a car or even a lovingly crocheted blanket? What’s meaningful about that?

Sacks continues the banal litany:

Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence. They are among the greatest achievements of human civilization and are to be defended and cherished.

But they do not answer the three questions that every reflective individual will ask at some time in his or her life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? The result is that the 21st century has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.

That’s not necessarily true. Plenty of people find meaning from science: from doing it, from learning about it, from what it tells us. Sacks is correct that science doesn’t give us a bronze plaque with our Meaning inscribed on it, but who wants that anyway? It’s more interesting and more meaningful to create our own over time.

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