Toward a Dialogue of Civilizations
A Dialogue Between Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Prof. Leonard Swidler
The Dignity of Difference:
Avoiding the Clash of Civilizations
Religion has become a decisive force in the contemporary world, and it is crucial that it
be a force for good – for conflict resolution, not conflict creation. If religion is not
part of the solution, then it will surely be part of the problem. I would like therefore to
put forward a simple but radical idea. I want to offer a new reading, or, more precisely, a
new listening, to some very ancient texts. I do so because our situation in the 21st
century, post-September 11, is new, in three ways.
First, religion has returned, counterintuitively, against all expectation, in many parts
of the world, as a powerful, even shaping, force.
Second, the presence of religion has been particularly acute in conflict zones such as
Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Kashmir and the rest of India and Pakistan, Northern Ireland, the
Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia.
Third, religion is often at the heart of conflict. It has been said that in the Balkans,
among Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslims, all three speak the same language and
share the same race; the only thing that divides them is religion.
Religion is often the fault-line along which the sides divide. The reason for this is
simple. Whereas the 20th century was dominated by the politics of ideology, the 21st century
will be dominated by the politics of identity. The three great Western institutions of
modernity – science, economics, and politics – are more procedural than substantive,
answering questions of “What?” and “How?” but not “Who?” and “Why?”
Therefore when politics turns from ideology to identity, people inevitably turn to religion,
the great repository of human wisdom on the questions “Who am I?” and “Of what
narrative am I a part?”
When any system gives precedence to identity, it does so by defining an “us” and in
contradistinction to a “them.” Identity divides, whether Catholics and Protestants in
Northern Ireland, Jews and Muslims in the Middle East, or Muslims and Hindus in India. In
the past, this was a less acute issue, because for most of history, most people lived in
fairly constant proximity to people with whom they shared an identity, a faith, a way of
life. Today, whether through travel, television, the Internet, or the sheer diversity of our
multi-ethnic and multi-faith societies, we live in the conscious presence of difference.
Societies that have lived with this difference for a long time have learned to cope with it,
but for societies for whom this is new, it presents great difficulty.
This would not necessarily be problematic. After the great wars of religion that came in
the wake of the Reformation, this was resolved in Europe in the 17th century by the fact
that diverse religious populations were subject to overarching state governments with the
power to contain conflict. It was then that nation-states arose, along with the somewhat
different approaches of Britain and America: John Locke and the doctrine of toleration, and
Thomas Jefferson and the separation of church and state. The British and American ways of
resolving conflict were different but both effective at permitting a plurality of religious
groups to live together within a state of civil peace.
What has changed today is the sheer capacity of relatively small, subnational groups –
through global communications, porous national borders, and the sheer power of weapons of
mass destruction – to create havoc and disruption on a large scale. In the 21st century we
obviously need physical defense against terror, but also a new religious paradigm equal to
the challenge of living in the conscious presence of difference. What might that paradigm
In the dawn of civilization, the first human response to difference was tribalism: my
tribe against yours, my nation against yours, my god against yours. In this pre-monotheistic
world, gods were local. They belonged to a particular place and had “local
jurisdiction,” watching over the destinies of particular people. So the Mesopotamians had
Marduk and the Moabites Chamosh, the Egyptians their pantheon and the ancient Greeks theirs.
The tribal, polytheistic world was a world of conflict and war. In some respects that world
lasted in Europe until 1914, under the name of nationalism. In 1914 young men – Rupert
Brooke and First World War poets throughout Europe – were actually eager to go to war,
restless for it, before they saw carnage on a massive scale. It took two world wars and 100
million deaths to cure us of that temptation.
However, for almost 2,500 years, in Western civilization, there was an alternative to
tribalism, offered by one of the great philosophers of all time: Plato. I am going to call
this universalism. My thesis will be that universalism is also inadequate to our human
condition. What Plato argued in The Republic is that this world of the senses, of things we
can see and hear and feel, the world of particular things, isn’t the source of knowledge
or truth or reality. How is one to understand what a tree is, if trees are always changing
from day to day and there are so many different kinds of them? How can one define a table if
tables come in all shapes and sizes – big, small, old, new, wood, other materials? How
does one understand reality in this world of messy particulars? Plato said that all these
particulars are just shadows on a wall. What is real is the world of forms and ideas: the
idea of a table, the form of a tree. Those are the things that are universal. Truth is the
move from particularity to universality. Truth is the same for everyone, everywhere, at all
times. Whatever is local, particular, and unique is insubstantial, even illusory.
This is a dangerous idea, because it suggests that all differences lead to tribalism and
then to war, and that the best alternative therefore is to eliminate differences and impose
on the world a single, universal truth. If this is true, then when you and I disagree, if I
am right, you are wrong. If I care about truth, I must convert you from your error. If I
can’t convert you, maybe I can conquer you. And if I can’t conquer you, then maybe I
have to kill you, in the name of that truth. From this flows the blood of human sacrifice
through the ages.
September 11 happened when two universal civilizations – global capitalism and medieval
Islam – met and clashed. When universal civilizations meet and clash, the world shakes and
lives are lost. Is there an alternative, not only to tribalism, which we all know is a
danger, but also to universalism?
Let us read the Bible again and hear in it a message that is both simple and profound,
and, I believe, an important one for our time. We will start with what the Bible is about:
one man, Abraham, and one woman, Sarah, who have children and become a family and then in
turn a tribe, a collection of tribes, a nation, a particular people, and a people of the
What is striking is that the Bible doesn’t begin with that story. For the first eleven
chapters, it tells the universal story of humanity: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and
the flood, Babel and the builders, universal archetypes living in a global culture. In the
opening words of Genesis 11, “The whole world was of one language and shared speech.”
Then in Genesis 12, God’s call to Abraham, the Bible moves to the particular. This exactly
inverts Plato’s order. Plato begins with the particular and then aspires to the universal.
The Bible begins with the universal and then aspires to the particular. That is the opposite
direction. It makes the Bible the great counter-Platonic narrative in Western civilization.
The Bible begins with two universal, fundamental statements. First, in Genesis 1, “Let
us make man in our image, in our likeness.” In the ancient world it was not unknown for
human beings to be in the image of God: that’s what Mesopotamian kings and the Egyptian
pharaoh were. The Bible was revolutionary for saying that every human being is in the image
The second epic statement is in Genesis 9, the covenant with Noah, the first covenant
with all mankind, the first statement that God asks all humanity to construct societies
based on the rule of law, the sovereignty of justice and the non-negotiable dignity of human
It is surely those two passages that inspire the words “We hold these truths to be
self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with
certain unalienable Rights...” The irony is that these truths are anything but
self-evident. Plato or Aristotle wouldn’t know what the words meant. Plato believed
profoundly that human beings are created unequal, and Aristotle believed that some people
are born to be free, other to be slaves.
These words are self-evident only in a culture saturated in the universal vision of the
Bible. However, that vision is only the foundation. From then on, starting with Babel and
the confusion of languages and God’s call to Abraham, the Bible moves from the universal
to the particular, from all mankind to one family. The Hebrew Bible is the first document in
civilization to proclaim monotheism, that God is not only the God of this people and that
place but of all people and every place. Why then does the Bible deliver an anti-Platonic,
particularistic message from Genesis 12 onwards? The paradox is that the God of Abraham is
the God of all mankind, but the faith of Abraham is not the faith of all mankind.
In the Bible you don’t have to be Jewish to be a man or woman of God. Melchizedek,
Abraham"s contemporary, was not a member of the
covenantal family, but the Bible calls him “a priest of God Most High.” Moses"
father-in-law, Jethro, a Midianite, gives Israel its first system of governance. And
one of the most courageous heroines of the Exodus – the one who gives Moses his name and
rescues him – is an Egyptian princess. We call her Batya or Bithiah, the
Daughter of God.
Melchizedek, Jethro, and Pharaoh"s daughter are
not part of the Abrahamic covenant, yet God is with them and they are with God. As the
rabbis put it two thousand years ago, “The righteous of every faith, of every nation, have
a share in the world to come.” Why, if God is the God of all humanity, is there not one
faith, one truth, one way for all humanity?
My reading is this: that after the collapse of Babel, the first global project, God calls
on one person, Abraham, one woman, Sarah, and says “Be different.” In fact, the word
“holy” in the Hebrew Bible, kadosh, actually means “different, distinctive, set
apart.” Why did God tell Abraham and Sarah to be different? To teach all of us the dignity
of difference. That God is to be found in someone who is different from us. As the great
rabbis observed some 1,800 years ago, when a human being makes many coins in the same mint,
they all come out the same. God makes every human being in the same mint, in the same image,
his own, and yet we all come out differently. The religious challenge is to find God’s
image in someone who is not in our image, in someone whose color is different, whose culture
is different, who speaks a different language, tells a different story, and worships God in
a different way.
This is a paradigm shift in understanding monotheism. And we are in a position to hear
this message in a way that perhaps previous generations were not. Because we have now
acquired a general understanding of the world that is significantly different from our
ancestors’. I will give just two instances of this among many: one from the world of
natural science and one from economics.
The first is from biology. There was a time in the European Enlightenment when it was
thought that all of nature was one giant machine with many interlocking parts, all
harmonized in the service of mankind. We now know that nature is quite different, that its
real miracle is its diversity. Nature is a complex ecology in which every animal, plant,
bird, every single species has its own part to play and the whole has its own independent
We know even more than this thanks to the discovery of DNA and our decoding of the
genome. Science writer Matt Ridley points out that the three-letter words of the genetic
code are the same in every creature. “CGA means arginine, GCG means alanine, in bats, in
beetles, in bacteria. Wherever you go in the world, whatever animal, plant, bug, or blob you
look at, if it is alive, it will use the same dictionary and know the same code. All life is
one.” The genetic code, bar a few tiny local aberrations, is the same in every creature.
We all use exactly the same language. This means that there was only one creation, one
single event when life was born. This is what the Bible is hinting at. The real miracle of
this created world is not the Platonic form of the leaf, it’s the 250,000 different kinds
of leaf there are. It’s not the idea of a bird, but the 9,000 species that exist. It is
not a universal language, it is the 6,000 languages actually spoken. The miracle is that
unity creates diversity, that unity up there creates diversity down here.
One can look at the same phenomenon from the perspective of economics. We are all
different, and each of us has certain skills and lacks others. What I lack, you have, and
what you lack, I have. Because we are all different we specialize, we trade, and we all
gain. The economist David Ricardo put forward a fascinating proposition, the Law of
Comparative Advantage, in the early 19th century. This says that if you are better at making
axe heads than fishing, and I am better at fishing than making axe heads, we gain by trade
even if you’re better than me at both fishing and making axe heads. You can be better than
me at everything, and yet we still benefit if you specialize at what you’re best at and I
specialize at what I’m best at. The law of comparative advantage tells us that every one
of us has something unique to contribute, and by contributing we benefit not only ourselves
but other people as well.
In the market economy throughout all of history, differences between cultures and nations
have led to one of two possible consequences. When different nations meet, they either make
war or they trade. The difference is that from war at the very least one side loses, and in
the long run, both sides lose. From trade, both sides gain. When we value difference the way
the market values difference, we create a non-zero sum scenario of human interaction. We
turn the narrative of tragedy, of war, into a script of hope.
So whether we look at biology or economics, difference is the precondition of the complex
ecology in which we live. And by turning to the Bible we arrive at a new paradigm, one that
is neither universalism nor tribalism, but a third option, which I call the dignity of
difference. This option values our shared humanity as the image of God, and creates that
shared humanity in terms like the American Declaration of Independence or the UN Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. But it also values our differences, just as loving parents
love all their children not for what makes them the same but for what makes each of them
unique. That is what the Bible means when it calls God a parent.
This religious paradigm can be mapped onto the political map of the 21st century. With
the end of the Cold War, there were two famous scenarios about where the world would go:
Francis Fukuyama’s End of History (1989) and Samuel Huntington’s Clash of
Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996).
Fukuyama envisaged an eventual, gradual spread first of global capitalism, then of
liberal democracy, with the result being a new universalism, a single culture that would
embrace the world.
Huntington saw something quite different. He saw that modernization did not mean
Westernization, that the spread of global capitalism would run up against countermovements,
the resurgence of older and deeper loyalties, a clash of cultures, or what he called
civilizations – in short, a new tribalism.
And to a considerable extent, that is where we are. Even as the global economy binds us
ever more closely together, spreading a universal culture across the world – what Benjamin
Barber calls “McWorld” – civilizations and religious differences are forcing us ever
more angrily and dangerously apart. That is what you get when the only two scenarios you
have are tribalism and universalism.
There is no instant solution, but there is a responsibility that rests with us all,
particularly with religious leaders, to envision a different and more gracious future. As
noted earlier, faced with intense religious conflict and persecution, John Locke and Thomas
Jefferson devised their particular versions of how different religious groups might live
together peaceably. These two leaps of the imagination provided, each in their own way,
bridges over the abyss of confrontation across which future generations could walk to a
I have gone rather further than Locke’s doctrine of toleration or the American doctrine
of separation of church and state because these no longer suffice for a situation of global
conflict without global governance. I have made my case on secular grounds, but note that
the secular terms of today – pluralism, liberalism – will never persuade a deeply
passionate, indeed fanatically passionate religious believer to subscribe to them, because
they are secular ideas. I have therefore given a religious idea, based on the story of
Abraham, from which all three great monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam –
descend. A message of the dignity of difference can be found that is religious and
profoundly healing. That is the real miracle of monotheism: not that there is one God and
therefore one truth, one faith, one way, but that unity above creates diversity here on
Nothing has proved harder in civilization than seeing God or good or dignity in those
unlike ourselves. There are surely many ways of arriving at that generosity of spirit, and
each faith may need to find its own way. I propose that the truth at the heart of monotheism
is that God is greater than religion, that he is only partially comprehended by any one
faith. He is my God, but he is also your God. That is not to say that there are many gods:
that is polytheism. And it is not to say that God endorses every act done in his name: a God
of yours and mine must be a God of justice standing above both of us, teaching us to make
space for one another, to hear one another’s claims, and to resolve them equitably. Only
such a God would be truly transcendent. Only such a God could teach mankind to make peace
other than by conquest or conversion and as something nobler than practical necessity.
What would such a faith be like? It would be like being secure in my own home and yet
moved by the beauty of a foreign place knowing that while it is not my home, it is still
part of the glory of the world that is ours. It would be knowing that we are sentences in
the story of our people but that there are other stories, each written by God out of the
letters of lives bound together in community. Those who are confident of their faith are not
threatened but enlarged by the different faiths of others. In the midst of our multiple
insecurities, we need now the confidence to recognize the irreducible, glorious dignity of
Toward a Dialogue of Civilizations
Deep-Dialogue / Critical-Thinking
Rabbi Sacks, you have insightfully related the history of humanity to the basic biblical
vision, bringing the contemporary world into sharp, creative focus. I find that I am in
fundamental agreement with your interpretation, and have been for quite some time. I am
grateful for your showing how the history of humanity can be helpfully seen in the light of
the Hebrew Bible. You have done this by relating the two terms: Universalism and Particularism.
This approach sheds its own particular light on human history. I would like to offer my
interpretation through two other terms: Deep-Dialogue and Critical-Thinking.
This is not an “instead of” approach, but an “in addition to” one.
I have made an argument elsewhere that from the beginning of human history we humans have
been in a monologic mode, that is, we have always talked in monologues, i.e., with
ourselves: With other persons who thought as we did – or should! Fundamentally we never
talked with persons who thought differently from us in the search for “truth,” for
reality; we talked to other-thinking persons to teach them the truth we knew. We were
convinced that we held the truth – we would not hold the position we did if we were
not convinced that it was true, was the real. However, we are now moving – slowly,
painfully, but ever more rapidly – out of this monologic mode into a dialogic mode.
One of the advantages of so-called “Post-Modernism” is its lifting up the importance
of difference. Its main disadvantage, in my judgment, is its tendency to claim that there is
only difference. This of course is a strange position, since it would not be possible
to talk with someone about differences were there not a commonality as a basis to
communicate, as a starting point to compare with in order to discern the differences.
Remembering that “dialogue” in contemporary usage primarily means a
conversation with someone who thinks differently so we can learn, not so we can
teach, the dialogic approach is fundamentally the classic “catholic” both-and way. We
are not limited to either the “universalistic” or the
“particularistic” way of understanding human reality. In fact, though it was perhaps
almost impossible to see in the past, we now see that it is not only possible to
choose both the universal and the particular, but that it is necessary to embrace
We increasingly are aware that there is no knowledge except interpreted knowledge.
The very act of knowing is basically a relational act. Knowing is the relating of the
known to the knower. That means that the knower is part of the act. As Thomas Aquinas noted
centuries ago, “the known is present in the knower according to the mode of the knower.”
For example, if the only way I can “see” is by wearing rose-colored lenses, then
everything I see will be rose-tinted, whereas if you do not wear rose-colored, but
blue-colored (or any other kind of ) lenses, things will not appear rose-tinted to you, but
blue-tinted. Obviously there is something “objective” out there that I see in a
rose-tinted manner and you in a blue-tinted. You and I will never be able to see
“reality” except through our lenses. However, the fact that you and I are able to
communicate with each other about the “reality” we each see through our own lenses, and
perhaps even actually do things with/to that reality – which we both then see and
can agree at least that something has been done to reality, and at least to some
degree what has been done – convinces us that there is a reality existing outside
our seeing, our perception of, it.
The “reality” out there is analogous to the “universal” you speak of Rabbi Sacks,
and my and your rose-tinted and blue-tinted sight of it is analogous to the
“particular.” Now, as said, we humans are more and more coming to realize that we need
to dialogue with each other to gain an ever-expanding vision of reality. By the very nature
of “knowing” no one knower, no one group of knowers, can ever see reality except through
its particular lenses. Therefore, we are all very much in need of dialogue with others who
have different lenses so as to gain a never-ending greater sight of reality.
To the extent that we grasp the very meaning of knowing, and draw its implications for
how we should relate with those who have different lenses (different cultures, religions,
classes, genders.....), we will realize that we need to be in dialogue with them so
we can come ever closer (but never completely so!) to a full grasp of reality. This
transforming understanding of ourselves and our relationship to “reality” and to those
who think differently from us is what I designate Deep-Dialogue.
In summary fashion, then, by Deep-Dialogue I mean to:
Reach out in openness to the Other in the search for Truth and Goodness;
Be open to the Other primarily so we can learn, find Truth and
Perceive that for us to learn, to find the good, the Others must teach and open
themselves – and vice versa;
Recognize that because Dialogue is a two-way project, we then both learn –
and share the good;
Learn there are Other ways of understanding, of embracing the world than our own;
Learn to recognize our commonalities and differences – and value both;
Learn to move between different worlds and integrate them in care;
Learn that Deep-Dialogue thus gradually transforms our inner selves – and
our shared lives.
However, the other side of the coin of Deep-Dialogue is Critical-Thinking,
by which I mean:
- (a) Raise our un-conscious pre-suppositions to the conscious level, and
(b) After reflection, make a reasoned judgment (“critical,” Greek krinein to
judge) about them;
- Think analytically (Greek: ana up, lysis break), i.e., to break
ideas into their component parts to see how they fit together;
- Think synthetically (Greek: syn together, thesis to put), i.e.,
to put components of different ideas together in new ways;
- Understand and use very precisely each word and phrase so that our
deliberations and decisions are informed with clarity and grounded in reality;
- Understand all statements/texts in theircon-texts; only then apply them
to our contexts;
- (a) Recognize that our view of reality is one view, shaped by our experience,
becoming aware, thereby, of multiple worldviews, and
(b) See that each worldview is a new meaning network;
(c) Again, only then can we reasonably appreciate/critique them.
In order even to understand the relational character of knowing, and thus what Deep-Dialogue
is and its necessity for us to continue to grow as humans, we obviously need the skills of Critical-Thinking.
Again, the “unconscious pre-suppositions” that each of us have about everything is
analogous to the “particular” you speak of Rabbi Sacks. We can never rid ourselves of
all of them, for they are like the lenses through which we are able to see reality. They are
all the things we are taught by every one and every thing around us from the moment of our
birth and which we absorb without even being conscious of them. As we say colloquially, we
drink them in with our mother’s milk.
However, if we are going to dialogue effectively, we are going to have to constantly
raise these un-conscious pre-suppositions to the conscious level (and in mutuality the best
way to become conscious of an un-conscious pre-position is through a dialogue partner, who
one day will ask us why we assume a certain position – and we then in perhaps startled
fashion will for the first time become aware that we held this un-examined position). When
we then become conscious of this un-consciously held position, we will then be able to
examine it analytically, synthetically and eventually be able to make consciously rational
(i.e., “universal”) decisions about it: to keep, modify, or reject it.
But to do this effectively we are also going to have to develop the skill of using our
terms (including denotation, connotation, emotional and historical baggage, body language,
etc.) as carefully and precisely as possible so we can communicate with our partners what is
really in our mind. And the most important “partner” we need to communicate clearly and
accurately with in Deep-Dialogue is ourselves!
Thus, as said, Deep-Dialogue and Critical-Thinking are two sides of a
single coin of humanity – and there is no such thing as a single-sided coin!
Deep-Dialogue and Critical-Thinking are two sides of the one human
Deep-Dialogue entails at its root clear, reflective, critical thought.
Critical-Thinking entails a dialogue within our own minds and lives –
and hence, at its root is dialogic.
Deep-Dialogue and Critical-Thinking are thus two sides of the coin of
- Deep-Dialogue/Critical-Thinking eventually must become a habit of mind and
spirit, traditionally known as a virtue – a new basic mentality, and
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (London) is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of
the Commonwealth. This address was the Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs for
Prof. Leonard Swidler (Philadelphia) is Professor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious
Dialogue at Temple University.