Friday, October 2, 2015

The Clash of the "Rules"

A while back I was at the hospital with a young pregnant couple [just the woman was pregnant, not the husband].  She was pregnant with twins, not identical. Her pregnancy was very high-risk for several medical reasons, including a tear in her uterus causing her amniotic fluid to leak. She was on bed-rest most of the pregnancy.

At 26 weeks, the doctors performed an emergency C-section in an attempt to save the babies. They each weighed about one pound and both were on every life-support machine imaginable. Both had under-developed brains and lungs. One had brain bleeding. Both had jaundice, in addition to many other medical issues.

Several doctors were on rotation at the hospital as well as the primary doctor - and each had an opinion of the current situation and the potential outcomes. None of the opinions were the same. One doctor was adamant that at least one of the twins would not survive and firmly believed both would be faced with extreme developmental problem – mental and physical. On the opposite end was a doctor who simply said he had seen children in similar condition radically improve and others in better condition worsen. The majority of the doctors were somewhere in between. All within just a few hours of the births.

At one point a doctor came in to let the mother know one of the twins was massively struggling even with the life support equipment. He wanted her to know she might be faced with a decision whether to terminate the life-support equipment because he believed the child’s brain function was deteriorating.

I doubt many can even imagine the turmoil the family was experiencing unless they experienced it themselves. I was there and still cannot process it.

The family, who were religious, decided they needed to get a religious perspective on what they should do. The family happened to be Muslim, so they asked me to locate the scholars to find out.

I began calling immediately. Within an hour I had scholars from all over the world, including the United States, responding. And I got the answer.

There is no answer.

Every scholar responded, “it depends” and that religious text (as well as scholarly opinions) supported many possible decisions because every tiny fact made a difference in determining the best course of action. In the end, each scholar gave the same advice: the parents would have to make the best decision based on the facts as they saw them and be content in the knowledge that a scholarly opinion that supports their decision exists.

I have to tell you, the parents were disappointed. What they wanted was a scholar to tell them the “answer” so they would not have to take responsible for it themselves. So they feel they were following "God’s will."

I do realize that is comforting. Unfortunately, that is not how life works.

God gave us standards, and even scholars have made further interpretations, but in the end most things come down to our choices and how we justify them.

What if we had only asked one scholar who, based on his interpretation of the facts we provided, said they could not remove the life support? They could have chosen not to remove the life support and felt comforted in the belief that this was “God’s will.” But the same could be said had we only contacted one scholar who said they should remove the life support.

Obviously, most people do not have access to multiple scholars and are, therefore, completely unaware that so many life decisions have the answer of “it depends” – or that so many scholars have different interpretations of the same facts, even within the same “school of thought.” [There are several different branches of legal jurisprudence, or legal doctrine, and individual Muslims usually choose one branch, or school of thought, to follow when determining what the “rules” of Islam are.]

Which is too bad. It causes us to be a little lazy in the study of religion because we are given a “rule” and just run with it, without understanding the “why” behind the rule or the exceptions possible.  Without understanding the “why” it is even more difficult to relate the “rule” to new facts and situations we encounter throughout life, unless those facts fit neatly in the box we have created around the “rule.”

It also causes us to be very judgmental. We assume the “rule” we know is the only rule, that anyone not following the “rule” we know are going against Islam.  When in fact, different schools of thought often have a different interpretation of the rule – if not a different rule entirely – and individual facts can and do change the rule in every school of thought. 

Oh, the clash of the rules.

The same can be said of all religions. Getting all scholars, in any religion (even within sects), to agree on everything is simply impossible.

Yes, this makes religion complicated. Yes, it makes it messy. Yes, it means we do actually have to make our own choices. Yes, it means we will be accountable for our choices – especially if we are blindly following “rules” without any understanding of their application.

But mainly it means we are responsible for whether or not we search for knowledge in addition to the choices we make as a result. That’s what “freedom of choice” means.

This struggle of "what should I do" occurs across cultural and religious lines, even within non-religious spiritual or personal "codes of conduct." Have you experienced a "clash of the rules" yourself?"

* The parents did not have to make the life-support decision in the end, and both babies are thriving.

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