Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The wide grasp of fundamentalist reading

Protesting the recent Supreme Court decision to join most of the world in banning the senseless execution of juveniles, Justice Antonin Scalia articulated a view of the constitution text that could just as easily be voiced by a biblical literalist. He stressed the importance of reading the text of the constitution and to discern its meaning as originally intended. He explains, "When I find it, the original meaning of the constitution, I am handcuffed."

Much of this debate revolves around whether or not the constitution is a "living document" or one whose original intent strictly delimits its interpretation. These type of disputes should not be unfamiliar with those of us engaged in the study of the bible. Ultimately, we might ask the fundamentalist whether we should read the constitution and the bible in the same way. Is the founding legal document of the US in some way inerrant or infallible? Of course, I don't mean that those who hold the inerrancy of scripture would attach the same significance to the constitution. Nevertheless, at times, we proffer this nation the kind of adoration, dedication, and awe due solely to God; neither should we inject a text with the reverence due only to God.

Justice Scalia seems to neglect a vital insight into the practice of reading and interpretation. Though the letter of text remain relatively unchanged, we never come to a text in the same way twice. We have changed, and our society has changed. In the case of the execution of juveniles, this is thankfully true.