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Taking the wanting out of waiting

FAITH IN THE FUTURE by Jonathan Sacks Darton, Longman & Todd £11.95
RELIGION, like philosophy, has always begun with questions. Who are we? Where do we come from? What are we here to do? When we forget to ask these questions, or worse still think we have all the answers, our lives begin to lose their meaning. Jonathan Sacks argues that Britain is not asking the right questions.

We have vigorous debates in Britain about the relationship between growing crime and the economy, or between growing crime and the lack of law enforcement, "but the debate we have not had is about the relationship between crime and the devasted moral landscape we have created for our children." Faith in the Future is about that moral landscape, how it became devastated and what we might do about it.

Never forgetful of the "underclass", assaulted by poverty, lack of education and crime, Sacks speaks with equal concern about the "poverty of moral imagination" that afflicts our middle classes. He looks for reasons to explain the family and community breakdown and the despair amongst the young, and finds them within the ethic of secular individualism and the philosophy of moral relativism. The credit card that "takes the waiting out of wanting" becomes his metaphor for the culture of instant and uncommitted gratification. Nietzsche's claim that all truths are equal and therefore none are true becomes the basis of a moral timidity that fears to discriminate between good and bad or between right and wrong.

But Jonathan Sacks is no mere Jeremiah. He believes we can rebuild our moral and social landscape, and outline a "map of meaning with which our children can chart their way through a confusing and chaotic world". He believes that we can rebuild our families and our communities and find some renewed guidance in religious faith.

Jonathan Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of Britain's United Hebrew Congregations. His own vision is inspired by Judaism's long moral and social tradition, yet his appeal is to any citizen of the Western world who feels we have lost our way. He speaks with an urgency bred of "street wisdom" - problems with raising his own children, divorce, the personal experience of being mugged - rather than from some distant pulpit. He appeals to the voice of tradition, yet his vision is not nostalgic. His faith is in the future, not in the past.

Yet in Sacks's call that we move from a social contract of limited self- interest to a moral convenant of shared meaning and value, there are two problems he does not fully articulate. Covenants, he rightly says, are agreements guaranteed "by a higher moral force, traditionally God". He sees family, community and religious faith as the "agents of moral change" that might transform society. Yet while these change-agents are still in reasonable shape within Judaism, they are less so within nominally Christian Britain, where many find the traditional language of the Church so meaningless they have ceased to care.

The other problem is that of social pluralism. Jonathan Sacks sees that a call to rebuild community might result in an unwanted return to nationalism, fundamentalism and intolerance. He urges instead that we build a "community of communities" that recognises the value of all Britain's distinct groups. But what is the basis of the moral covenant that underpins this meta-community? Liberalism's answer was the value-neutral social contract that allowed everyone to go their own way so long as they did not interfere with each other. Sacks acknowledges that this has not worked, but what universal spiritual values might we discover that speak to all while silencing none?

Jonathan Sack's book does not have answers to these questions, but it makes it impossible for us not to ask them. No short review can do justice to the importance of this book. I wish the Chief Rabbi's publishers would bring out a simple-language edition that I could share with my children.