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Compendium April 2005 (Vol 27, No 4)

The Editor's Desk: "Reconciling Science and Faith"

by Beth Thompson, VMD

    It is spring. For me, that means celebrating the holiest week of the Christian year. As much as I love the spirituality of the season, the past years have shown me more evidence of the seemingly irreconcilable differences between science and religion. Both have been severely "sound bitten" by the media and polarized by politicians. That's why I was so thrilled to find an article in The New York Times about a man whose life passion has become bridging that divide. Rabbi Nosson Slifkin is an ultra-orthodox rabbi who has made a career out of drawing parallels between natural history and Jewish scripture. Rabbi Slifkin (zootorah.com) has systematically set about trying to reconcile rather than contrast scientific knowledge of the natural world with sacred text. He draws parallels between the big bang theory and an account of the creation of the universe by a medieval sage. He conducts religious classes and workshops in zoos. He's working on an encyclopedia of the animal kingdom and how it relates to the Bible (for the rabbi, having eight books published before he was 30 years of age obviously wasn't enough). His passion? Biblical zoology. His premise? Inspiration comes from the natural world, and Judaism rates it as a religious obligation. Every animal possesses unique attributes and characteristics from which we can learn different lessons. Animal identification conveys lessons about the Torah and religious concepts, and studying zoology in the context of religious teaching imparts important lessons about how to relate to the animal kingdom by tackling issues such as vegetarianism and kindness to animals.

    Curious about other major religions, I spent a day surfing for Christian and Muslim (I'm saving Buddhism and Hinduism for another day) thoughts and teachings concerning animals/wildlife and conservation. Although animals are mentioned over 25 times in the gospels, there's not much specific teaching on how Christians should behave toward animals. Historically, Western Christianity's understanding of animals seems to be characterized by humanocentrism and dominance. Thinkers from Aquinas to Luther to Calvin stress how God favored humans and gave animals to us for our own use. Christianity has been called the most anthropomorphic religion the world has known. Recent thinkers have done much to change that, but their message is heard through animal rights and vegetarian groups more than from the pulpit.

    In contrast, the Koran teaches that God assigned the earth "to all living creatures." Mohammed is reported to have told his followers "it behooves you to treat the animals gently." He had much to say about practicing "universal mercy" and taught that all creatures are like a family of God. The Islamic tenet of compassion to all extended to animals. Providing animals with food and drink is "among those virtuous gestures which draw us one step nearer to God." Mohammed forbade the beating of animals and animal fights and classified the unnecessary slaughter of animals as one of the seven deadly sins.

    So, it seems, Judaism and Islam are full of instruction on humanity's relation to the natural world; Christianity leaves much more to speculation. In this season of renewal, whatever our faith, I wish us all the opportunity to use our profession, scientific knowledge, and relationship with the natural world as a springboard for personal growth. May we all grow in compassion toward all living things.

    NEXT: Update on Equine Therapeutics: Priapism in Horses