In writing the majority opinion for the Supreme Court’s recent decision on gay marriage, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said, “No union is more profound than marriage for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family…It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
Many conservatives are up in arms about the decision. Fellow Justice Antonin Scalia wrote, “The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic.” Okay… I guess we could say the court was sharply divided.
The justices are often divided about how the United States Constitution should be interpreted. Scalia and those on the right believe in originalism. They are convinced the Constitution should always be interpreted according to the specific language of its authors. Beyond that, the democratic process should take precedence. Kennedy and others believe the Constitution is a living and breathing document, in which the intent of the authors is taken into consideration, but interpreted in light of the growing body of human knowledge added since the document was written. For instance, the founding fathers knew little or nothing of monogamous homosexual relationships, but today we understand the common nature of these relationships and the rights that should be afforded to these individuals.
While many Christians are enraged by Kennedy’s words, the truth is the Bible has been seen as a living and breathing document for centuries. We no longer consider ourselves bound by the 613 laws of the Old Testament, because those teachings found their completion in Jesus. But those are not the only changes we have made in our understanding of scripture. At the time the Bible was written slavery was common, and the scriptures encouraged slaves to be obedient to their masters. Do we believe that instruction today? The question of obedience is not even relevant, because we do not believe there should be slaves and masters.
It is the church’s living and breathing response to historical change that brought about that shift in understanding. The same could be said of eating meat sacrificed to an idol, or Paul’s admonition that it is best for Christians to remain unmarried. And some would argue (and I would agree), the same could be said for monogamous gay relationships. Historically we have not viewed the Bible as a book of ironclad rules. We have seen it as a divinely inspired document to be understood and interpreted by the church embodied in each culture and age.
Christianity is not primarily propositional, or doctrines to be believed. It is not primarily experiential, a feeling to be received. Christianity is a language to be learned, and you learn a language by immersing yourself in the culture, in this case, the body of Christ. By living together and loving God and neighbor, the scripture takes on meaning, not as a book of rules, but as a divinely inspired guide to our common life.
Just as the members of the Supreme Court came to different conclusions on gay marriage, Christians will come down on both sides of this issue. We have a choice. Those on either side can treat the other with respect and grace, or we can follow Antonin Scalia’s example and excoriate our peers and call their words pretentious and egotistic. We get to decide the spirit we will exhibit. The world gets to decide what they think of that spirit.
Photo (FlickrCC) by Patrick Feller