MS. TIPPETT:You know, I start in this place with everyone I interview, whoever they are. If they’re a quantum physicist or a theologian. And I just wanted to hear something about the particular spiritual background of your childhood. Did you have a devout Jewish upbringing?
RABBI SACKS: I was the oldest of four boys. My father, who had come to Britain as a refugee from Poland at the age of six, had to leave school at the age of 14, so he never had an education — not Jewish or secular. My mother had to leave school at the age of 16. So my parents didn’t know that much. What they did have was a great love for Judaism. And, you know, I tend to think that’s the greatest gift you can give a child. Wordsworth said it beautifully. “What we love, others will love, and we will show them how.”
RABBI SACKS:No, actually. In 1990, the BBC asked me to give the Reith Lectures. They’re given once a year. There are six lectures on radio, first given by Bertrand Russell in 1948. I was only the second religious leader to give them, and I called them “The Persistence of Faith.” It was probably the first response to Francis Fukuyama’s vision of the end of history. You know, the Berlin Wall had fallen, Soviet Union had collapsed, end of Cold War. Everyone was seeing what he foresaw as the, you know, seamless spread of liberal democracy over the world.
And I said no, actually. I think you’re going to see faith return and return in a way that will cause some problems because the most powerful faith in the modern world will be the faith most powerfully opposed to the modern world. So that was in 1990, the year before I became Chief Rabbi. Nothing that’s happened since has surprised me, though it has saddened me. Religion is a great power, and anything that powerful can be a force for good or, God forbid, for evil. But it’s certainly fraught and dangerous and needs great wisdom and great — if I can use this word — gentleness.
MS. TIPPETT:And so I’d like to draw you out on how Jewish experience and Jewish tradition — you know, what resources and vocabulary that might bring to this global moment, which is not merely uncertain, but certainly marked by change, which is stressful for human beings. One of the ways you’ve talked about that, not uncontroversially, is about the approach you see deep within Jewish tradition to difference.
RABBI SACKS:Yeah. It seems to me that one of the things we most fear is the stranger. And at most times in human history, most people have lived among people who are mostly pretty much the same as themselves. Today — certainly in Europe and perhaps even in America — walk down the average main street and you will encounter in ten minutes more anthropological diversity than an 18th-century traveler would have encountered in a lifetime.
So you really have this huge problem of diversity. And you then go back and read the Bible and something hits you, which is, we’re very familiar with the two great commands of love: Love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might; love your neighbor as yourself. But the one command reiterated more than any other in the mosaic box — 36 times, said the rabbis — is love the stranger. For you were once strangers in the land of Egypt. Or, to put it in a contemporary way, love the stranger because, to him, you’re a stranger. This sense that we are enlarged by the people who are different from us — we are not threatened by them — that needs cultivating, can be cultivated, and would lead us to see the 21st century as full of blessing, not full of fear.
Oh, sure. I mean, you take — you know, I’m really not very good at sort of operating machines, so I fall back on that old aphorism, “When all else fails, read the instructions.”
MS. TIPPETT:Right. [laughs]
RABBI SACKS:And here we are reading those instructions afresh through the eyes of quantitative and experimental science and discovering what the great traditions of wisdom were saying three or 4,000 years ago. We now know that it is
- doing good to others,
- a network of strong and supportive relationships, and
- a sense that one’s life is worthwhile, are the three greatest determinants of happiness.
And, you know, somehow or other, against our will sometimes, we are being thrust back to these ancient and very noble and beautiful truths. And that we can now do so in a fellowship — awkward, perhaps, and embarrassed — between religious leaders and scientists and social scientists.
RABBI SACKS:Yeah. Well, let’s not try to describe this as 21st-century radical theology. It always helps if we can locate it in sacred texts. So for me, here is a moment where the hero of the Book of Exodus is a young man called Moses and the villain of the Book of Exodus is somebody called Pharaoh. But it’s Pharaoh’s daughter who, at great risk to herself, saves the life of this young baby who she knows immediately is a Hebrew baby, that she says so, and she knows her father has decreed that every male Hebrew child shall be killed. So at great risk to herself, she takes this child into her home and brings it up. So now we have the daughter of the biggest villain of the book who is responsible for the saving of the life of the hero. Now if that doesn’t challenge our paradigms, I don’t know what does.
You can find God in the other side, and that is something the Bible is doing quite a lot. After all, there’s only one perfect individual — well, perhaps two, if you like — in the whole Bible and neither of them is Jewish. One is called Noah and one is called Job and neither is Jewish. Noah comes before Judaism. Job is what I call every man. Then you look at all the prophets of ancient Israel, and they spent a lifetime preaching to the Israelites, and nobody listened. God sends one prophet, Jonah, to non-Jews, the people in Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s traditional enemy, the Assyrians. Here, all he does is say five Hebrew words, one English sentence: “In 40 days, Nineveh will be destroyed.” And they all repent. So it turns out that non-Jews are better at listening to Jewish prophets than Jews are.
MS. TIPPETT:[laughs] Right. So there is this paradox, this very interesting recurring threat of otherness and …
RABBI SACKS: The Bible is saying to us the whole time, don’t think that God is as simple as you are. He’s in places you would never expect him to be. And, you know, we lose a bit of that in English translation. Because, when Moses, at the burning bush, says to God, “Who are you?” God says to him three words: “Hayah asher hayah.” And those words are mistranslated in English as “I am that which I am.” But in Hebrew, it means “I will be who or how or where I will be,” meaning, don’t think you can predict me. I am a God who is going to surprise you. And one of the ways God surprises us is by letting a Jew or a Christian discover the trace of God’s presence in a Buddhist monk or a Sikh tradition of hospitality or the graciousness of Hindu life. You know, don’t think we can confine God into our categories. God is bigger than religion.
and then, as I often do, once I’ve worked on a talk, I just — at some point, you have to just let go of the outcome. And you say, “Look, if they boo and they throw things, it’ll last for 20 minutes. And then it’ll be over, and I’ll have an anecdote. It’ll be fine. I’ll go back to my life.”
Ms. Tippett: In Now Go Out There, you said, “The opposite of love is fear,” and you told these graduates that “fear can take that expensively educated brain of yours and reduce it to the state of a dog growling over a bone.” But you did say, “Ask yourself who’s noticing how scared you are,” and that that’s where your soul is. And if you can get curious about it, you get less scared
.. you note the connection between “breakdown” and “breakthrough.”
Ms. Karr:Right. [laughs] Is it a nervous breakdown or a nervous breakthrough? That’s right. That’s a good question.
Ms. Tippett:Because you had both, right?
Ms. Karr:Well, I think every nervous breakdown is a nervous breakthrough, if you let it be. I really do. I really believe that. I believe that it’s the old Hemingway saw of: “All of us are broken, and some of us get stronger in the broken places.”
Ms. Tippett:Yeah, here’s something else you said. You called the place you went the “Mental Marriott.” [laughs]
The cultural roots of our political problems.
It’s become clear in the interim that things are not in good shape, that our problems are societal. The whole country is going through some sort of spiritual and emotional crisis.
College mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president’s repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans. At the root of it all is the following problem: We’ve created a culture based on lies.
Here are some of them:
Career success is fulfilling. This is the lie we foist on the young. In their tender years we put the most privileged of them inside a college admissions process that puts achievement and status anxiety at the center of their lives. That begins advertising’s lifelong mantra — if you make it, life will be good.
Everybody who has actually tasted success can tell you that’s not true. I remember when the editor of my first book called to tell me it had made the best-seller list. It felt like … nothing. It was external to me.
The truth is, success spares you from the shame you might experience if you feel yourself a failure, but career success alone does not provide positive peace or fulfillment. If you build your life around it, your ambitions will always race out in front of what you’ve achieved, leaving you anxious and dissatisfied.
I can make myself happy. This is the lie of self-sufficiency. This is the lie that happiness is an individual accomplishment. If I can have just one more victory, lose 15 pounds or get better at meditation, then I will be happy.
But people looking back on their lives from their deathbeds tell us that happiness is found amid thick and loving relationships. It is found by defeating self-sufficiency for a state of mutual dependence. It is found in the giving and receiving of care.
It’s easy to say you live for relationships, but it’s very hard to do. It’s hard to see other people in all their complexity. It’s hard to communicate from your depths, not your shallows. It’s hard to stop performing! No one teaches us these skills.
Life is an individual journey. This is the lie books like Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” tell. In adulthood, each person goes on a personal trip and racks up a bunch of experiences, and whoever has the most experiences wins. This lie encourages people to believe freedom is the absence of restraint. Be unattached. Stay on the move. Keep your options open.
In reality, the people who live best tie themselves down. They don’t ask: What cool thing can I do next? They ask: What is my responsibility here? They respond to some problem or get called out of themselves by a deep love.
By planting themselves in one neighborhood, one organization or one mission, they earn trust. They have the freedom to make a lasting difference. It’s the chains we choose that set us free.
You have to find your own truth. This is the privatization of meaning. It’s not up to the schools to teach a coherent set of moral values, or a society. Everybody chooses his or her own values. Come up with your own answers to life’s ultimate questions! You do you!
The problem is that unless your name is Aristotle, you probably can’t do it. Most of us wind up with a few vague moral feelings but no moral clarity or sense of purpose.
The reality is that values are created and passed down by strong, self-confident communities and institutions. People absorb their values by submitting to communities and institutions and taking part in the conversations that take place within them. It’s a group process.
And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came to the sepulcher at the rising of the sun. —Mark 16:1‑2
Continuing Cynthia Bourgeault’s reflections, drawn from her book The Meaning of Mary Magdalene:
[Mary Magdalene’s anointing of Jesus] provides a powerful ritual access point to Christianity’s own deepest transformative wisdom. To begin with, it makes it virtually impossible to experience the Paschal Mystery in any other way than as an act of redemptive love. When Mary Magdalene is returned to her traditional role as the anointer of Jesus, a very important symmetry is also restored. We see that Jesus’s passage through death is framed on either side by her parallel acts of anointing. At Bethany she sends him forth to the cross wearing the unction of her love. And on Easter morning he awakens to that same fragrance of love as she arrives at the tomb with her spices and perfumes, expecting to anoint his body for death. He has been held in love throughout his entire passage.
As Bruce Chilton succinctly summarizes: “She connects his death and Resurrection.”  And she accomplishes this precisely by bracketing the entire experience in the parallel rituals of anointing. In so doing, Chilton adds, “Mary Magdalene established the place of anointing as the central ritual in Christianity, recollecting Jesus’s death and pointing forward to his resurrection.”
But what is it that she is actually pointing forward to? What is this Paschal journey from a wisdom standpoint? In the common understanding, Christianity has tended to view the resurrection as Jesus’s triumph over physical death. But for Christians in the wisdom tradition (who include among their ranks the very earliest witnesses to the resurrection) its meaning lies in something far deeper than merely the resuscitation of a corpse. Jesus’s real purpose in this sacrifice was to wager his own life against his core conviction that love is stronger than death, and that the laying down of self which is the essence of this love leads not to death, but to life. . . . Thus, the real domain of the Paschal Mystery is not dying but dying-to-self. It serves as the archetype for all of our personal experiences of dying and rising to new life along the pathway of kenotic transformation, reminding us that it is not only possible but imperative to fall through fear into love because that is the only way we will ever truly know what it means to be alive.
Within the context of the resurrection, then, anointing becomes the ritual most closely associated with the passage from death of self to fullness of life, from egoic alienation to “union on a higher plane.” As such, it conveys the very essence of Christianity’s transformative wisdom.
And its gatekeeper is Mary Magdalene.
Cynthia Bourgeault has spent years studying Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ closest apostles, often conflated with a prostitute. Cynthia reclaims Magdalene’s significance as Jesus’ beloved companion and a model of authentic love.
Christ is not Jesus’s last name—an obvious but so-often overlooked truism. It means “the anointed one.” And however much his followers may have wished for the ceremonial anointing that would have proclaimed him the Davidic Messiah, the fact is that he became “the Anointed One” at the hands of an unidentified woman who appeared out of nowhere at a private dinner bearing a jar of precious perfume and sealed him with the unction of her love. . . .
I believe that the traditional memory of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s anointer . . . holds the key to . . . understanding . . . the Passion as an act of substituted love. It also . . . offers a powerful ritual access point to the Christian pathway toward singleness and “restoration to fullness of being.” If we are fully to avail ourselves of Mary Magdalene’s wisdom presence today, it will be, I believe, primarily through recovering a wisdom relationship with the ritual of anointing—that is, coming to understand it . . . as an act of conscious love marking the passageway into both physical and spiritual wholeness.
Her passion has transformed her into one of the initiated ones. And in The Cloud of Unknowing, the author recognizes this same quality of passion as the key element that not only frees Mary from her sins but catapults her into unitive consciousness and a state of continuous beatific communion:
When our Lord spoke to Mary as a representative of all sinners who are called to the contemplative life and said, “Thy sins be forgiven thee,” it was not only because of her great sorrow, nor because of her remembering her sins, nor even because of the meekness with which she regarded her sinfulness. Why then? It was surely because she loved much.
. . . Even though she may not have felt a deep and strong sorrow for her sins . . . she languished more for lack of love than for any remembrance of her sins. . . .…
Have you ever wondered why creation happened in the first place? Or, like the old philosophical question, why is there anything instead of nothing? Many of the saints, mystics, and fathers and mothers of the church have said that God created because, frankly, God (who is love) needed something to love. To take that one step further, God created so that what God created could then love God back freely.
If you’re a parent, compare this with your relationship with your children. Probably your fondest desire, maybe at an unconscious level, when you first conceived or adopted a child was “I want to love this little one in every way I can!” Perhaps you thought, “I want to love this child so well that they will love me in the way that I have loved them.” Your love empowers them to love you back.
I think this is what God does in the act of creation. God creates an object of love that God can totally give Godself to that will eventually be capable of loving God back in the same way, in a free and unforced manner.
The Franciscan philosopher-theologian John Duns Scotus (1266–1308) taught that Christ was “the first idea in the mind of God” (or the “Alpha” point, Revelation 1:8 and elsewhere), not an after-the-fact attempt to solve the problem of sin. The Gospel, I believe, teaches that grace is inherent to the universe from the moment of the “Big Bang” (suggested in Genesis 1:2 by the Spirit hovering over chaos). This cosmic Christology implies that grace is not a later add-on-now-and-then-for-a-few, but the very shape of the universe from the start. The Christ Mystery (Inspirited Matter) is Plan A for God—and not a Plan B Mop-up exercise after “Adam and Eve ate the apple.”
We were “chosen in Christ before the world was made,” as Paul puts it (Ephesians 1:4). It was all “determined beforehand in Christ” (1:9). Human sin or human-made problems (13.8 billion years after the Big Bang!) could not be a sufficient motive for the Divine Incarnation, but only love itself, and even infinite love! The Christ Mystery was the blueprint of reality from the very start (John 1:1).
God’s first “idea” was to pour out divine infinite love into finite, visible forms. The Big Bang is our scientific name for that first idea, and “Christ” is our theological name. God never merely reacts but always supremely and freely acts . . . out of perfect and gratuitous love. Anything less is unworthy of God.
When we look at history, it’s clear that Christianity is an evolving faith. It only makes sense that early Christians would look for a logical and meaningful explanation for the “why” of the tragic death of their religion’s founder. For the early centuries, appeasing an angry, fanatical Father was not their answer. For the first thousand years, most Christians believed that the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross—the “price” or the ransom—was being paid not to God, but to the devil! This made the devil pretty powerful and God pretty weak, but it gave the people someone to blame for Jesus’ death. And at least it was not God.
Then, in the eleventh century, Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033–1109) wrote a paper called Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Human?) which might just be the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written. Thinking he could solve the problem of sin inside of the medieval code of feudal honor and shame, Anselm said, in effect, “Yes, a price did need to be paid to restore God’s honor, and it needed to be paid to God the Father—by one who was equally divine.” I imagine Anselm didn’t consider the disastrous implications of his theory, especially for people who were already afraid or resentful of God.
In authoritarian and patriarchal cultures, most people were fully programmed to think this way—working to appease an authority figure who was angry, punitive, and even violent in “his” reactions. Many still operate this way, especially if they had an angry, demanding, or abusive parent. People respond to this kind of God, as sick as it is, because it fits their own story line.
Unfortunately, for a simple but devastating reason, this understanding also nullifies any in-depth spiritual journey: Why would you love or trust or desire to be with such a God?
Over the next few centuries, Anselm’s honor- and shame-based way of thinking came to be accepted among Christians, though it met resistance from some, particularly my own Franciscan school under Bonaventure (1221–1274) and Duns Scotus (1266–1308). Protestants accepted the mainline Catholic position, embracing it with even more fervor. Evangelicals later enshrined it as one of the “four pillars” of foundational Christian belief, which the earlier period would have thought strange. Most of us were never told of the varied history of this theory, even among Protestants. If you came from a “law and order” culture or a buying and selling culture—which most of us have—it made perfect sense. The revolutionary character of Jesus and the final and full Gospel message has still to dawn upon most of the world. It is just too upending for most peoples’ minds until they have personally undergone the radical experience of unearned love. And, even then, it takes a lifetime to sink in.