This month's news that John Paul Stevens will retire from the Supreme Court was a big deal to people who follow politics. But after reading an intriguing recent New Yorker profile of Stevens, one of the oldest and longest-serving justices in history, I think his retirement should also be a big deal to people who care about hermeneutics.
Yes, I know hermeneutics is a preaching word, a fancy term for the interpretation of Scripture. But after reading the Stevens profile I see an analogy between what preachers do and what judges and especially Supreme Court justices do (and what Stevens did better than most for so many years): they ask, week after week, "How do you interpret an old, sacred document, and apply it to contemporary life?"
The New Yorker profile contrasted Stevens' legal philosophy with the fiery conservative justice Antonin Scalia, contrasting "Stevens’s cautious balancings against Scalia’s caustic certainties" when it comes to interpreting and applying the law in difficult cases. Stevens believes the law is a living, breathing thing, and that it adapts to changes in society. (In legal speak, his view is called legal realism.) Scalia, on the other hand, believes in strict construction or originalism, which seems to mean that the law should be fixed and rigid, and that it can always be read literally.
Scalia, for instance, sneered at Stevens when Stevens appealed to personal experience in a legal opinion about the death penalty. "It is Justice Stevens's experience that reigns over all," Scalia sneered. Personal experience and subjective perspectives, in Scalia's view, should be set aside on the bench.
But Stevens told the New Yorker that even though he carefully studies history and legal precedent before ruling or writing an opinion, he also believes that the law isn't fixed and unchanging. "The original intent cannot be the final answer—the world changes," Stevens said. If you doubt that, remember the uncomfortable truth about both the Constitution and the Bible: they explicitly condone slavery. Original intent isn't perfect.
The reality of the law, and of Scripture, is that there's no such thing as a literal or pure reading. Scalia interprets the Constitution. Stevens interprets the Constitution. Fundamentalists interpret Scripture. Non-fundamentalists interpret Scripture. It's not whether you interpret, but how, and how well.
Many preachers know this; they know that a Scripture text can elude, puzzle, and defy a clear interpretation and a simple sermon. They know that non-interpretation of Scripture is not an option. (Just as they know that purely whimsical free association isn't the point of preaching, either. Most preachers are coloring, but coloring inside the lines.) This is why, dating back to the time of Jesus, rabbis have always sat around and argued about what Scripture actually means. And Jesus himself was always questioning the prevailing take on the law: "You have heard ... but I tell you ..."
Scripture is not a traffic manual, and neither is the Constitution. Nor are they mere suggestions. But it makes sense that interpretation can be difficult, since, in the case of Scripture at least, the sacred text is just a glimpse of an unfathomable mystery.