The world economy is on a knife edge. The future of Europe is hanging in the balance. No one is quite sure why it got this bad. They are even less sure of the way out. The global mood is tense.
The supreme irony of our current situation is that it came about in a secular age not because of a lack of faith but because of too much faith in the wrong things. Faith in the market as a self-correcting system. Faith in the securitization of risk, as if you could eliminate uncertainty by paying someone else to carry it on your behalf. Faith in regulatory authorities to rid the world of sin. Faith in the combination of the market and technology to generate ceaseless economic growth.
Someone somewhere should have remembered the lesson of the world’s first economist, Joseph in the book of Genesis, who first taught the theory of trade cycles, that seven years of plenty tend to be followed by seven years of hardship. All economic planning should factor in worst-case scenarios. The Judeo-Christian heritage teaches humility, the greatest defence against the overconfidence for which we are now paying a heavy price.
But we are where we are, and the only way to look is forward. The question for many of us must surely be: what is the best investment over the next few years? It isn’t the stock market. That may crash. It isn’t housing. Its value may fall. It isn’t works of art. Who knows what taste will be, ten or twenty years from now?
The best investment right now is in spiritual goods: in love, trust, friendship and forgiveness, in prayer and celebration and the life of the soul. Now is the time to invest in the deepest sources of happiness: in marriage, family and home, and the bonds of love between husband and wife, parent and child. Now is the time to invest in community and the supportive networks of people with whom we share our prayers, memories and ideals. Community is where our joys are doubled and our sadness halved by being shared with others.
Now is the time to invest in giving to others of our money and our time. Recent happiness research has shown that above a certain economic level, happiness depends less on what we earn than on what we give. This truth was neatly caught in an anecdote about the great nineteenth century British-Jewish philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore. Someone once asked him, “Sir Moses, what are you worth?” He thought for a while and named a figure. “But surely,” said his questioner, “your wealth must be much more than that.” With a smile, Sir Moses replied, “You didn’t ask me how much I own. You asked me how much I am worth. So I calculated how much I have given to charity thus far this year - because we are worth what we are willing to share with others.” I have known many successful businesspeople, some self-centred and miserable, others altruistic and deeply fulfilled. Sir Moses was right.
We need to recover faith in the Judeo-Christian heritage with its belief that we are here because of One who created us in love, lifts us when we fall, forgives us when we fail, and who believes in us more than we believe in ourselves. The deepest source of happiness is faith in the meaningfulness of life, the knowledge that we are here for a reason, and that though we walk through the valley of the shadow, we need fear no evil for we are not alone.
Towards the end of his recent book, “Civilization,” the historian Niall Ferguson delivers a stunning surprise. He quotes a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, part of a team tasked with the challenge of discovering why it was that Europe, having lagged behind China until the 17th century, overtook it, rising to prominence and dominance.
At first, he said, we thought it was your guns. You had better weapons than we did. Then we delved deeper and thought it was your political system. Then we searched deeper still, and concluded that it was your economic system. But for the past 20 years we have been in no doubt. It was your religion. It was the Judeo-Christian foundation of social and cultural life in the West that made possible the emergence first of capitalism, then of democratic politics.
It sounds absurd but it is true. Long ago the German sociologist Max Weber said the same: the Protestant ethic gave birth to the rise of capitalism. Economic recovery, like happiness, begins with religious renewal. A society is as strong as its faith.
Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. For further details and to subscribe to his mailing list, please visit www.chiefrabbi.org.