Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #096. First published in the St. Cloud Times online July 4, 2015; in print July 5

In his 2004 book, "Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution," the late Jaroslav Pelikan notes both the Bible, the normative text for the Christian church, and the Constitution, the normative text for the American republic, are obliged to speak "to radically changed situations of later times, many of which the writers who originally framed (the documents) could not themselves conceivably have foreseen."

On June 26, the Supreme Court provided a dramatic instance of interpreting the Constitution.

The majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, extending to same-sex couples the right to marry, invites reflection on what it means that "new occasions teach new duties," as James Russell Lowell put it in an 1844 poem called "The Present Crisis." Lowell was writing about the national debate over slavery — an earlier momentous controversy over what the Bible and the Constitution say.

Obergefell v. Hodges illustrates two ways in which biblical and constitutional interpretation are similar: the relation of tradition to new knowledge, and the balancing of principles.

First, the relation of tradition to new knowledge.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, starts by revering tradition. "The centrality of marriage to the human condition makes it unsurprising that the institution has existed for millennia and across civilizations. Since the dawn of history, marriage has transformed strangers into relatives, binding families and societies together."

But tradition is the starting point, not the conclusion. While marriage has traditionally been construed as opposite-sex, "History and tradition guide and discipline this inquiry but do not set its outer boundaries." "If rights were defined by who exercised them in the past, then received practices could serve as their own continued justification and new groups could not invoke rights once denied."

Moreover, we have new knowledge. We know, as earlier generations did not, that same-sex attraction is not a choice, but "a normal expression of human sexuality and immutable." Gay and lesbian people are not adopting a lifestyle. They are simply living their lives.

And they are not demeaning marriage. "Far from seeking to devalue marriage, (they) seek it for themselves because of their respect — and need — for its privileges and responsibilities. And their immutable nature dictates that same-sex marriage is their only real path to this profound commitment."

In other words, in light of new knowledge, the Court sees same-sex marriage as an extension of an ancient traditional good, not a repudiation of it.

And so with the Bible — tradition is the starting point but not the conclusion. For long — and for some still today — the Genesis account of creation of fixed species in seven 24-hour days with the Earth at the center was literally true, but for many interpreters, reverence for Scripture is not undermined by acknowledging the Big Bang and evolution. This is not a disowning of God, but an extension of worship of the God who says, "Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing" (Isaiah 43:18-19).

A few churches, but not many, still abide by Paul's requirement in 1 Corinthians 14:34 that "women should be silent in churches"; Paul's assumption is trumped by recognition that women are not inferior. And very few Christians obey Jesus' command to sell all they have and give to the poor.

It is difficult — I would say impossible — to take the whole Bible literally.

Second, balancing principles is another way in which biblical and constitutional interpretation are similar.

Justice Kennedy writes: "The Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause are connected in a profound way, though they set forth independent principles. … Indeed, in interpreting the Equal Protection Clause, the Court has recognized that new insights and societal understandings can reveal unjustified inequality within our most fundamental institutions that once passed unnoticed and unchallenged."

In other words, when fundamental principles converge, as they do in this case, new occasions can teach new duties.

And thus it is too in biblical interpretation. Slavery for centuries passed unnoticed and unchallenged in much of the Christian world, with other biblical passages for support. But it was revealed as anathema when fundamental convictions — for example, we are made in God's image and there is neither slave nor free — converged.

At the end of his book, Pelikan quotes John Henry Newman, who in 1845 is writing about Christian doctrine (and, by extension, the interpretation of the Bible) in a way that resonates with the vigor of the American constitutional system: "it gathers strength as it moves along; it grows and is not overgrown; it spreads out, yet is not enfeebled; it is ever germinating, yet ever consistent with itself."

Obergefell v. Hodges, with its relating of tradition to new knowledge and its balancing of principles, is a landmark in this gathering of strength.