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In this essay, I will enumerate the differences between Christian and secular ethics. The role of theology on ethical decision making will be indicated, along with secular and diverse religious stands on ethical discourses on abortion and divorce. Miscellaneous Christian views which include those of: the Liberals, the Evangelicals and the Neo-orthodox will also be examined.

Furthermore, I will explore the implications of the aforementioned ethical issues on interfaith dialogue involving Buddhism and the Abrahamic faiths.

DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CHRISTIAN AND SECULAR ETHICS

Ethics is a word that originated from the Greek words: ‘ethikos’ and ‘ethos’ which respectively implies custom and character. [1] However, Collins dictionary defines ethics as “a social, religious, or civil code of behaviour considered correct, especially that of a particular group, profession, or individual”. [2]

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I found a clear-cut definition of Christian ethics by Dr Harkness (a professor of applied theology) as “the systematic study of the way of life set forth by Jesus Christ applied to the daily demands and decisions of human existence”. [3] It is the Christian’s code of conduct derived from the scriptures. While Christian ethics aim “is to determine what conforms to God’s character and what does not” it is more of a practical entity in comparison with theory oriented Christian theology. [4]

Conversely, James Bernat in his book, Ethical issues in neurology defines secular ethics as the invention of human ‘rational’ dialogue that assumes that mankind can create a comprehensive and world-wide structure of morality that is void of religious framework. [5] The main approaches to secular ethics are predicated on: “reason, experience or moral sense”. [6]

Additionally, secular ethics consists of various models as: utilitarianism, egoism or hedonism, emotivism and cultural relativism. [7] These models form the framework for most ethical postulations. I will now examine the contrasts between Christian and secular ethics.

A dissimilarity between Christian and secular ethics is that the latter serves as a basis for arriving at “moral judgments” as it appraises existing customs, while supporting the enactment of “laws and policies”. Secular ethics are used as a yardstick to evaluate religious doctrines by application of a determined set of “moral principles”. [8] Christian ethics are founded on godly revelations.

BASES FOR CHRISTIAN ETHICAL DECISIONS

Evangelical Christians base moral ethical decisions on “God’s revelation” which is from nature itself (the general) or from the scriptures (the special). An example derived from the scriptures is the Ten Commandments in Exodus 21-23. Biblical scholars emphasize that the natural law derived from nature itself is inherent in mankind and it is responsible for doing things right without Biblical guidelines. This is referred to in the book of Romans 2:14-15, where Apostle Paul mentioned the clarity of the human conscience in the decision making mechanism.

Similarly, Jesus Christ affirms the same principle when he said men should do unto others what they will have done to themselves, (Matt 7:12). This particular view is upheld by renowned philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and Clive Lewis in their writings. [9] The application of moral decisions on ethical issues is subject to debate as will be indicated in subsequent paragraphs.

SOME ETHICAL ISSUES

This range from: abortion, divorce, homosexuality, same sex marriage, war, money, marriage, sexuality, death, forgiveness, euthanasia, business etc.

I will be focusing on the ethical theme of abortion and divorce within the: secular, Christian and interfaith discourse.

SECULAR VIEWS ON ABORTION

Abortion is “any artificial means to induce the loss of a pregnancy”. An average pregnancy is for forty weeks or nine months. Pregnancy terminated due to natural causes during the first twenty weeks is called a miscarriage, while further than twenty weeks are pre-term delivery. [10]

Nonetheless, abortion involves the moral choice of the mother, as well as the ethical right of the baby to live. Abortion might be inevitable in: rape, poverty, deformity of baby etc. Abortion supporters see it as a retroactive contraceptive while those against it “see it as a little less than prenatal infanticide”. [11] It has been established that moral justification of abortion is common in the secular world.

Under the United Kingdom law (Abortions act 1967); abortion is endorsed within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy as long as certain conditions are fulfilled. It must be in an approved institution, the mother and child’s health are considered, and decisions to be made with the consensus of two medical doctors. [12]

CHRISTIANS ON ABORTION

The Liberals are broadminded on abortion, as long as it is done legally and safely. [13] The woman has full rights over her own body when it involves the decision to abort or not. [14] The Liberals do not deliberate over ethical issues concerning the unborn baby, in contrast to evangelicals’ position.

Evangelical Christians are on strict stand against abortion with scriptural arguments used to portray (baby’s) life in high esteem. They also support of all social aspects regarding pregnancy care and adoption issues. [15] The position of the Neo-orthodox Christians will be examined next.

The Neo-Orthodoxy originated from Germany after the First World War when Karl Barth (a protestant theologian) advanced the ‘theology of crisis’. It was an era when people were disappointed from most beliefs. [16] Neo-Orthodoxy assumes that the scripture can be a faulty human invention, although God’s revelation is continuously present under personal experience. [17] Nevertheless, abortion is not allowed except if carried out to protect the pregnant woman.

The Christian ethics of divorce will be examined next.

CHRISTIAN ETHICS ON DIVORCE

Jesus’ response to the permission given by Moses for the issuance of the bill of divorce to women was followed by the injunction that divorce is a direct covenant-breaking departure from God’s master plan for marriage, (Matt 19:6 & Rom 7:2). Jesus also denounces divorce in the dialogue with his disciples in Mark 10: 1-11, while arguments resulting from the exception clause (i.e. Condition for divorce) is interpreted by some scholars in the context to mean fornication established against the wife during the betrothal phase of marriage according to Jewish tradition. Unfortunately, the biblical divorce law interpretation is diverse.

Some scholars argue that the exemption clause means adultery which is a leverage to institute divorce.

However, a suitable rejoinder is the reaction of the disciples who concluded that “it is not advantageous to marry” this is interpreted by some Evangelicals as voiding the powers of the husband to divorce a wife under any circumstance, as they are expected to forgive their spouse. [18] The ethical issue applicable to the Old Testament bill of divorce allowed by Moses is that the Bill is meant to protect the women from the frivolity of men, so that they can re-marry rather than be outcasts.

Some Evangelicals justified grounds for divorce to be desertion (by either spouse) and evidence of physical abuse against the wife. There is also a Pauline privilege in (1st Corinthians 7:15) which allows a believing wife to be free from an unbelieving husband who wants a divorce. There are resultant Christian ethical debates concerning the modalities of the freedom, whether it allows re-marrying or remaining single till death.

Contrastingly, Liberal Christians see the scriptural dialogues on divorce as being applicable to the historical contexts of their various times, hence divorce is permitted according to the merit of each case. Marriage characterized with physical abuse is seen as a marriage pledge violation, whereby divorce is granted. [19] The American inception of “no fault” divorce regulation in the 1960s and 1970s weakened the marriage institution, as spouses obtained divorces against their partner’s wish. Similarly, despite independence from the secular laws of the day, liberal Christians amidst their objective application of divorce laws was criticized for being pro-secular because of contractual approaches used instead of covenant obligation by some Christians. [20] The Neo-orthodox view turned out to be permissive.

Neo-Orthodox Christians are permissive due to their existential system which sees Bible precepts as only relevant to the culture of when they were admonished; hence they could not be categorically applied to our times. Therefore they established no ethical grounds for opposing divorce. [21]

THE ABRAHAMIC FAITHS AND INTERFAITH DIALOGUE

The Abrahamic faith is used to make reference to Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other religions that trace their spiritual culture back to Abraham. [22] The platform which religions and cultures meet to exchange views for better understanding of each other is called the interfaith dialogue. The dialogue was prompted by the WCC (World Council of Churches) in 1961, when fledgling Asian Churches needed to coexist with diverse Asian religions. [23]

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Fundamentally, the existence of diverse social issues such as universal poverty has prompted the study and use of ethical approaches to interfaith dialogues. Examples are medical and economic ethics. [24] The Medical ethical considerations are evoked in several issues like Euthanasia, Abortion, Ecology, DNA researches etc. I will be examining the Islamic laws on abortion the next.

ISLAMIC FAITH ON ABORTION AND DIVORCE

Islamic faith which is based on the Quran and the leadership of Prophet Mohammed is guided by five pillars of faith, of which two are: “faith in one God and at least one pilgrimage to Mecca”. Other admonitions require taking care of orphans, prisoners and desisting from: adultery, unfair business practices and unwarranted killings. [25] Some Muslims prohibit abortion. The area of ethical contention is the actual time soul is given to a formed foetus. This is termed “ensoulment” which some Muslims take as 16 weeks into the pregnancy.

However, abortion performed prior to the completion of 16th week is accepted if the health of the mother is endangered or if the baby is under the threat of mental or physical malformation. Another consideration is if the well-being of the family is not going to be properly sustained because of the child. [26] The Islamic religion takes abortion as being immoral in view the revered value of life as indicated in Surah 17:31 which states that: “Slay not your Children…….killing of them is a great sin”. Nevertheless, an Islamic consequentialism holds the mother answerable to the aborted child at judgement day; this is supported by verses from Surah 81, verses 7-14. [27] Surah is a supportive reference in Islam. Abortion applied to pre-marital pregnancy is allowed because the sin of having a child out of wedlock is considered worse than abortion. [28]

Concerning divorce, Islam encourages the termination of irreconcilable marriages in good faith rather than co-existence of spouses in bitterness.

There is an injunction for settling differences through relatives of spouses.

Nevertheless, where this mediation fails then divorce can be instituted, (Quran 4:35). Mubarat is the term used to describe mutually divorce by couples without court proceedings. Procedures called fasakh or Khula are based on the initiation of divorce by the woman. However, talaq (meaning “to separate”) is used to denote the divorce instigated by the husband. This can be done without much official protocols but must be verbalized or documented. [29] The traditional laws of the Jews will be examined next.

JUDAISM ON ABORTION AND DIVORCE

Judaism as practiced by the Jews precedes Christianity which became distinct in the first Century at the time when Apostle Paul and Peter had contentions with the Jews. The Bible book of Acts Chapter 15, recorded the deviations of the gentiles from the Law of Moses. This caused an argument about the acceptance of uncircumcised Gentiles into the “community of believers”. Some scholars take the advent of Judaism to be the Biblical time of Abraham while others choose the time of Moses. [30]

Nonetheless, two out of the many beliefs of Judaism are as follows: 1) God made a covenant with his people (the Hebrews) through Moses which is the Ten Commandments. 2) Abraham’s offspring are to be the ideal model for all nations to emulate in preparation for the coming of the future Messiah who will rule the world in harmony and fairness. [31]

In similarity to the Islamic faith, high regard is given to the value of life, but the safety of the pregnant woman remains paramount.

Nevertheless, the law of Judaism on abortion assumes the insignificance of fertilized egg cells until the 40th day of pregnancy when it is taken as part of the woman’s body. Judaism allows abortion within the first 40 days of pregnancy but does not permit it thereafter, till full term. Judaism ethically upholds that the foetus is a part of the human body that must not be damaged. [32] The Jewish law allows sanction of persons who cause miscarriage due to a physical strife that involve pregnant women.

Furthermore, intended abortion on an advance pregnancy that threatens the mother in any circumstances would have to be undoubtedly established. The baby is literally considered as trying to kill the mother, in which case severing the limbs of the baby and other similar acts is allowed to save the mother.

A critical aspect of applying the abortion law by the Rabbis (who are in charge of the Judaism laws) is the equal importance given to the life of the baby and the mother at the moment the baby’s head is on the way out of the mother. [33]

The issues of divorce cannot be addressed without talking about the marriage tradition of the Jews.

Judaism upholds the sanctity and integrity of marriage to such an extent that the Talmud (sacred writings) states that “even the altar sheds tears” during separation of couples. Although formal grounds for divorce do not exist, it is recognized that some circumstances make it inevitable. The divorce is predicated on the agreement of the couple and it involves documentation called the get which is the certificate of divorce. There are no hindrances placed against divorced couples who want to get back together in marriage. However priests are prohibited from marrying a divorcee.

The certificate of divorce (the get) specially written by a scribe (in the presence of a judge) is traditionally kept by the woman, and must be made available whenever she wants to re-marry. In modern times the rabbinic courts keep the get and issue the woman with a certificate in place of it.

There is a serious ethical issue that the woman cannot re-marry if there is no evidence of the death of her husband. This situation is called Agunah, which implies that the woman is bound to the husband.

It is generally expected that anyone who breaches divorce conditions are not allowed to be integrated into the Jewish community. [34]

BUDHISM ON ABORTION AND DIVORCE

This religion has its origin from India in the 6th Century with Siddhartha Gautama (Known as Buddha, the enlightened one). Buddhism is a spiritual way of life rather than a religion. Beliefs range from non-existence of a deity and that all things are being constantly transformed, hence the belief in re-incarnation, decency, understanding and reflection. [35]

Over 300 million Buddhists worldwide have no doctrinal guidance on abortion. They however believe in re-incarnation which stands against abortion, therefore consider it ethically wrong, although not too keen on its total prohibition by law. Nevertheless, another Buddhist expectation is the decision of abortion to be exclusively that of the pregnant woman. In Japan abortion is rampant and there is a post abortion ceremony called Mizuko kuyo done by Buddhist priest to assist women in recovering from the after effect of abortion. [36] The following paragraph will cover the Buddhist view on divorce.

Buddhism does not see marriage as a core religious matter. They view non-entanglement with basic family life as a path to greater levels of monkish Buddhist practice, rather than the low-grade lay position where one is free to raise a family. An example was set by the Buddha himself at 29 years of age when he left his family to remain celibate till the end of his life. [37]

Buddhist tenets support moral chastity where marriages remain intact for the sake of the children. Separated couples are encouraged to re-unite. The man who chooses celibate life must renounce his wife so that she is free to remarry [38] .

CONCLUSION

Worldwide moral laws made from the Ten Commandments are somewhat entrenched in most religions and secular regulations [39] . Needless to say that ethics imparted through religion will have most impact on religious people’s behaviour. I discovered from my findings that most religions have some kind of diversity based on ethical principles (such as hedonism and consequentialism) considered in creating the creed of their subdivisions. Just as the Christian’s views vary, so is the specific application of certain tenets of the Abrahamic faiths in various countries. These variations are also present in the Buddhist faith where disparities in India, Japan and other countries are considered.

All facts point to the use of ethical principles to determine religious creeds. The same fact is applicable to the current trend in interfaith dialogues such that participants unavoidably approach most themes brought forward, within the framework of ethical agendas. This has created awareness for the study of ethics by those already equipped with vast knowledge of their faiths.

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