Making Covenant: between relativism and determinism


A group of clergy here in Rhode Island invited me to join them at one of their book club meetings this fall. So in preparation of that meeting I’ve been reading Rabbi Jonathan Sach’s book “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for meaning.” If you’ve not read it yet, stop here, go and order a copy, and then come back and keep reading…

In the book Sach’s discusses what happened to us as a society as we made the shift from a modernist world view into a post-modernist one. That I’m writing that we made the shift might seem to be news to some of you. Certainly, depending on where you live in the world, or in America, that shift is not completed — and in a number of places it seems to have stalled even. But for the most part, in the halls of academe the shift is complete.

The philosophers of the 19th century who argued that it was incorrect to prioritize one viewpoint or idea over another influenced the physicists of the early 20th century. Those scientists took the ideas of relativism as expressed by Foucault and Nietzsche and much to most of the world’s discomfort, discovered that, at least in the physical world, relativism seems to be the order of the day. There are in principle Universal Truths, but scientifically speaking at least, we don’t seem to be able to exactly express them. And so universal truth has become essentially a matter of faith scientifically and experimentally speaking. We want it to exist so that all the wonderful work done by the classical Greek schools of philosophy will still be relevant. But it doesn’t and they aren’t – at least not in the way they were to people in the time of Newton and the other giants of scientific determinism.

That shift landed us in the world of the post-modern. But post-modernism has its own sets of problems. It becomes impossible to speak of universal meaning anymore. Things become rapidly reductionist and personal. And that is making it harder and harder to find values that a large group of people can agree to. Which is in turn making it harder and harder to create the sort of broad participation in the kinds of structures that make society and common good possible. People will choose the morals they like, persecute the people they don’t, and will be moving inexorably into the dead-end of a intellectual echo-chamber that threatens to undermine any attempt to back out of it.

Rabbi Sachs though sees an alternative to polar opposites of absolute and relative meaning. Let me quote from his writing at some length as he discusses “meaning” as a moral identity rather than a philosophical quality.

“This is meaning as a moral identity, something I acquire by being born into a specific community with a distinctive history, when I recognize a duty of loyalty to a past and responsibility for a future living faith and handing it on to those who come after me. It is what Edmund Burke thought society was: ‘a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born.’ It is not meaning discovered or meaning invented, but meaning collectively made and renewed in the conscious presence of God — that is to say, an authority beyond ourselves and our merely human devices and desires”

The Rabbi describes this act of co-creating meaning with God to be the making of covenant with God and society. Sachs says that we can lift ourselves out of the trap caused by Scylla and Charybdis of Absolutism and Relativism by intentionally creating meaning as a community – a community that includes the sacred presence of God. And for us Christians, it’s a God we know through the power of the stories of the scriptures, and particularly in the stories that Jesus told us.

When Jesus, in the words of institution, says that we drink the cup of the New Covenant at the altar each time we make Eucharist, can we not understand his meaning to say that by remembering the story of his self-sacrificial death and resurrection, we have the lens by which we as a community can see our own stories in his? And by seeing our stories as part of his, together we make a meaning that allows us to live in the society that Jesus describes as the Kingdom of God.

I’m quite taken with this idea. It gives us a way to understand the shared ritual of worship – not as a magical act of protection, nor as a dying echo of a fading hope — but as a way of placing ourselves into the garden where we make meaning, where we are making covenant with one another. The stories, the songs that tell the stories, the rhetorical gestures that reinforce the meaning of the stories all work together to give us the lens to see our lives and our circumstances in a perspective that is not limited to our own experience.

And by that gift we are able to escape the echo-chamber, and give to the generations that follow a society that has both meaning and purpose.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. I agree completely about Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book. It is one of the very best about science and religion and what it means to be people of faith in the 21st Century. We make meaning through story, ritual, and prayer. It is through religion that we have a rich and full expression of life with God.

  2. David R. Heimbecker says

    Amen, and again I say, “Amen”! Looking forward to our dinner at the Aurora Club.

    Sent from my iPhone – Dr. David R. Heimbecker

  3. Heather Kiss says

    As it was, could be now and should be forever more. Globalization and our mobile society often make it hard for peoples to form safe “families” founded in love and mutual respect. Church is the place that we can find that experience/relive the story/ take part in the ritual/pray…if welcomed with open arms and peace.

  4. Well said! The Klesis curricula I’ve mentioned to you were crafted specifically with the invitation in mind to explore what happens to our stories when we see them in the context of: a) stories of a faith community; and b) the stories of God’s love for and creation and redemption of the world.

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