"True Islam", the Regensburg Affair, and Interfaith difficulties in Bioethics

Funny thing, history. It either condemns or vindicates if you give it long enough. I think in time, history will vindicate Benedict XVI over the Regensburg Affair. You will remember the violent condemnation that followed his remarks about the relationship between reason and religion, especially comparing the Christian tradition to the Islamic tradition.

With the Regensburg affair supplying the background context, it is instructive to read this essay by Mansoor Alam: “True Islam or Islamic formalism?”.

Given that Dr Alam is a former Pakistani diplomat with very wide experience of both the Islamic and Western worlds(having served as Consul General of Pakistan in Saudi Arabia, Minister/Deputy Head of Mission in London, Director General Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad for the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, Ambassador to Mexico (with concurrent accreditation to Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica, El-Salvador, Nicaragua, Belize and Cuba, Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Ambassador to Egypt, Ambassador to Russia and Finland and Director General Foreign Service Academy in Islamabad), I think we can safely assume he knows what he is talking about.

To give you a taste of what he says, here are some bites:

There are many causes of our decline [the decline of Islamic civilisation] but the one that stands out in our history is our refusal to think, reason, and question as we fear that it will destroy our faith. In the process we have also arrogated to ourselves the responsibility of protecting God, forgetting that God can take care of Himself and is not afraid of man’s attempt to understand the true nature of His creation and the outcome of such efforts…

We should not be afraid of reason, logic and science because, while all the Biblical prophets were endowed with the power of miracles, our Prophet (pbuh) was endowed with the power of reason to turn the non-believers into believers.

In this regard it leads me to think also of the difficulties we (Catholics) are experiencing here in Victoria getting interfaith agreement in opposition to the bill for decriminalisation of abortion currently before our Parliament.

It isn’t that Muslims, Christians and Jews (and Buddhists and Hindus for that matter) are not generally agreed on the principle that abortion is wrong. It is that only one of these religions, ie. Christianity, and the Catholic form of it at that, gives REASON precedence over LAW in matters of ethics.

What do I mean? Well, the US Pelosi affair is a good indicator. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed that because some Church fathers (eg. Augustine) accepted the ancient scientific notion that the foetus was not “animated” (or “ensouled”) until a period of time after conception (eg. 14 days, 40 days – note the magic numbers) the matter should be an open question in Catholicism today.

However, as the USCCB corporately and many US bishops individually have firmly pointed out to Ms Pelosi, Catholic teaching is open to being updated by science, because science is a rational pursuit of knowledge (get that folks – the Church is NOT anti-science because the Church is PRO-REASON).

I’m going to quote at length from the USCCB statement just to give you an idea of how strongly the Catholic moral stance is based on REASON and SCIENCE:

In 1827, with the discovery of the human ovum, the mistaken biology of Aristotle was discredited. Scientists increasingly understood that the union of sperm and egg at conception produces a new living being that is distinct from both mother and father. Modern genetics demonstrated that this individual is, at the outset, distinctively human, with the inherent and active potential to mature into a human fetus, infant, child and adult. From 1869 onward the obsolete distinction between the “ensouled” and “unensouled” fetus was permanently removed from canon law on abortion.

Secular laws against abortion were being reformed at the same time and in the same way, based on secular medical experts’ realization that “no other doctrine appears to be consonant with reason or physiology but that which admits the embryo to possess vitality from the very moment of conception” (American Medical Association, Report on Criminal Abortion, 1871).

Thus modern science has not changed the Church’s constant teaching against abortion, but has underscored how important and reasonable it is, by confirming that the life of each individual of the human species begins with the earliest embryo.

Given the scientific fact that a human life begins at conception, the only moral norm needed to understand the Church’s opposition to abortion is the principle that each and every human life has inherent dignity, and thus must be treated with the respect due to a human person. This is the foundation for the Church’s social doctrine, including its teachings on war, the use of capital punishment, euthanasia, health care, poverty and immigration. Conversely, to claim that some live human beings do not deserve respect or should not be treated as “persons” (based on changeable factors such as age, condition, location, or lack of mental or physical abilities) is to deny the very idea of inherent human rights. Such a claim undermines respect for the lives of many vulnerable people before and after birth.

Hmmm. So much for the “Black Myth” of Science v. Religion.

But now here is my point, at long last, and where we return to Regensburg and Dr Alam’s essay: Does reason get the same air time in Islam? For that matter, does it get the same air time in Judaism and Protestantism?

Let’s start from the back, shall we? There are a good many protestants – of a liberal bent, but still sola scriptura types – who point out that the Scriptures do not condemn abortion, nor do they define when life begins. Hence: Because the “letter of the law” does not forbid abortion, neither do we.

Then there is Judaism. We have a lot of agreement with Orthodox Judaism, but we part company on this fact: that from the moment of conception the embryo is a human being with a human soul. Orthodox Jews (and indeed most progressive and reform Jews) will be of the opinion that there is no true human life there until “40 days later”. Here is Rabbi Avraham Steinberg (distinguished medical ethicist and and paediatric neurologist at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Centre, ordained Orthodox rabbi and a recipient of Israel’s highest civil award, the Israel Prize, advisor to Israel’s Rabbinic Council, chair of the government inquiry into Israel’s Dying Patient Law, and author of the 7-volume Encyclopaedia of Jewish Medical Ethics) on the Religion Report recently:

Avraham Steinberg: …For instance, stem cell research which is a cutting edge of science today, is acceptable by Jewish tradition based on almost all rabbis that dealt with it currently, whereas in Christianity, it is not allowed. The same holds true for in vitro fertilisation. The same holds true for pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. All these ultra-modern technologies are permissible, with some qualifications, by almost all rabbis. …And from a Jewish point of view, by principle, this state of the pre-implanted egg both being very young at the age of 3 or 4, 5 days, and not being in a womb as yet, makes it in a status that is not a human being in any sense. So therefore the destruction of it is not murder in any sense. And if there is an over-riding good purpose to do it, tha
t is permissible. So the principle derives from ancient sources, but it is applied to ultra-modern situations.

Stephen Crittenden: And where does – I mean obviously it’s human life, but you’re saying it’s not yet a human being, what is the point where it becomes a human being?

Avraham Steinberg: Right. From a Jewish point of view, there have to be two conditions met. One is that it is within a womb, and secondly, that it reached at least 40 days of gestation.

Now what is he basing his ideas upon? Where does this number of “40 days” come from? Not science, not reason, but Rabbinic tradition inherited from pre-scientific times.

Now Augustine at least, when he put forward his ideas about abortion and the status of the foetus was using his reason based on the best “science” available at the time. We now know he was wrong. The Church, in line with reason, has clarified its constant teaching to recognise the human status and therefore dignity of the embryo from the moment of conception.

But Jews, Protestants and Muslims (who generally share the orthodox rabbinic tradition on this matter) still place the “letter of the law” (ie. received tradition) above reason and science.

The Catholic Church, in contrast, recognises that God’s entire will and law is governed by two factors: Agape and Logos. Love and Reason. And that is what Pope Benedict was saying back in 2006 when he declared at Regensburg:

It is to this great Logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.

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0 Responses to "True Islam", the Regensburg Affair, and Interfaith difficulties in Bioethics

  1. Louise says:

    Lots of interesting stuff here, David.

    our Prophet (pbuh) was endowed with the power of reason to turn the non-believers into believers.

    Really? (I find that hard to believe).

    AS for the 40 days thing… let’s see now, 40 days= less than six weeks from conception or approx 8 weeks from last menstruation, so no Jew should be in favour of abortion after 8 weeks, right? ARe they strict about this or is this all a load of bollocks? Let’s face it, many abortions are performed well after 8 weeks.

    It’s all wrong of course, but I’m just pointing out that most of these arguments are insincere – I think.

    Or what about the argument that people make that we don’t know exactly when conception itself takes place (there is apparently some very complicated process which happens), but again, most or all abortions (including the morning after pill, I suspect) only occur until well after all this has taken place.

    Or what about the doosie of Obama’s Iwhere he said that he “didn’t know when the soul goes into… it’s just very difficult” (paraphrase). As Jill Stanek (pro-life blogger and nurse) said in reply, “Into what exactly? A human body?”

    Yep. It’s all so much clutching at straws.

    But yes, David, the Church is big on reason and faith together. I love being a Catholic!

  2. Schütz says:

    I’m glad that someone read this blog. I thought it was pretty significant, but no-one had commented yet.

    I don’t think they are being insincere, but they are allowing Legal Traditions to trump Reason. That’s what worries me.

    Of course, lots of people say that this is what Christians do, and I grant you, it is what many Christians do, but NOT Catholics.

  3. Christine says:

    David, it is very significant indeed. I tend to jump around on blogs and sometimes forget to come back to the really weighty issues.

    I’m right there with you and Louise.

    Of course, there is a divergence regarding life issues in Judaism from the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist points of view.

    As there are in the various strands of Protestant thought.

  4. Louise says:

    I thought I had left a response here, but maybe I didn’t hit “publish.”

    Anyway, my comment was a bit careless. Most people who split hairs over when babies acquire a soul etc are doing so to try to justify their killing of what we all know is a baby, for it cannot be anything else. However, practicing Jews and Muslims are probably all pretty sincere in their keeping of traditions (which, as you say, David is against reason in this case, due to our greater understanding of embryology these days). I’d also doubt that the average orthodox Jew or Muslim would actually want an abortion, but I might be wrong.

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