There's a vigorous debate in the United States about the nature of our constitution. Liberals tend to argue that the constitution is a living document, while conservatives, like the late Justice Scalia, claim our constitution is "dead, dead, dead".
If the authors of the constitution were alive today - having lived through 239+ years of U.S. history - do we really think they would ask their 1787 selves how to interpret the constitution?
In secular law, the debate is reasonable. Because the authors are dead and a "living" constitution risks judicial tyranny, we do need to find some way to reasonably restrain the interpretation, especially since we can amend the constitution if we aren't happy with its meaning.
This same "living" versus dead argument often happens in religion. Those who argue for dead" are often conservatives, and they are hurting their own cause. It is proper for all of us to deliberate before breaking with long-held tradition. However, insisting that the understanding of sacred text is frozen puts the most fundamental belief of religion at risk.
When any religious person claims that a sacred text is "dead" - in that the understanding of its meaning is fixed forever - they are directly at odds with their own idea of a living, active God
Most religions claim that God is present and active in our lives. That is what I understand Islam to teach. The Qur'an doesn't give us a mechanism by which to differentiate an outcome actively caused by God with an outcome that God passively allows. Yet for all the majesty and power we attribute to God, a lot people seem to teach that God engages us only on the micro-scale.
God will save a single person from a falling piano, and we praise God's involvement, but on matters of philosophy where many more people are impacted by an unjust belief, we seem to teach that God is silent simply because there are no new scriptural revelations. But scripture is not the only form of revelation.
One of the most oft-repeated verses in the Qur'an is:
Behold, God enjoins justice, and the doing of good, and generosity towards [one's] fellow man; and He forbids all that is shameful and all that runs counter to reason, as well as envy; (16:90)
The language of this verse is expansive. There is no one definition of "justice" or "generosity" or "good" that captures the scope of the words. Why do we believe that God, in choosing such deliberately expansive language, would constrain it to how some human might understand it hundreds of years ago?
Why do we feel bound to tradition when the Qur'an explicitly criticizes those who follow something just because it has alway been so.
But when they are told, "Follow what God has bestowed from on high," some answer, "Nay, we shall follow [only] that which we found our forefathers believing in and doing." Why, even if their forefathers did not use their reason at all, and were devoid of all guidance? (2:170)
The command is to follow what God has explicitly bestowed, not what people have understood was bestowed. God is no less capable of being as specific as those who interpreted God's words. When God is not specific it is for a deliberate reason.
If we choose to confine the expansive language of the Qur'an in a particular human's understanding, then our allegiance isn't to the living God because the living God isn't constrained by time. Only a dead god would be.
When we choose the past over the present, our allegiance turns from God to men. They have become our god. How do we know this? By simply asking the question: would any of the religious scholars who laid down rules thousands of years ago - if they were alive today - turn to their 1000-year-old writings to figure out the meaning of the Qur'an?
Of course not. They would re-read God's words and use all the information we have today to arrive at what they believe is God's will.
If we believe in an active, living, omniscient God, then all the information we have today is the same information God knew when the text was revealed. And all the information we have today is also a product of God's will. How rational is it to ignore any of the information God has made available to us with the passing of time?
During one of the Supreme Court case involving gay rights, Judge Scalia wondered when excluding homosexuals from marriage became unconstitutional. His point was that when the 14th amendment was ratified, we know for sure that the people who ratified it had no intention of legalizing homosexual sodomy or same-gender marriage.
So which year did the 14th amendment expand to now encompass homosexuals?
The question itself is a red herring. It presumes a very constrained meaning for words that cannot be so constrained. The amendment requires "equal protection". The meaning of equal doesn't change over time. Our understanding of what is equal may change.
I find Scalia's question reasonable in the context of a constitution written by men, but I have a serious problem when we want to apply the same logic to a text we claim it is written by God.
With a human written document, the intentions are necessarily limited by a human's very small scope of knowledge.
For God, the intention is timeless because God knew then what we know now, and God intends for us to use as much knowledge as God chooses to give us. If we want to claim God is alive, active and omniscient, then the text God wrote must be interpreted as if its author is present.
If conservative religious scholars believe that sacred texts have a fixed meaning, then they are necessarily presuming God is "dead", and they are the ones pulling the trigger.
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