Adapting with the times: Should religious texts be “living documents”?

My friend recently shared this NPR article on Facebook: Justices Ginsburg and Scalia: An Unlikely Bond, which is totally worth a read. I had no idea that the two justices, whose opinions in the court could only be described as diametrical, are such good friends. This article also introduced me to the concept of a “living document,” which I find very fascinating.

Essentially, that feud is about whether the Constitution is, as Scalia has put it, “dead” — that it means what the Founding Fathers said it meant at the time it was adopted. Or whether it is a “living” document, that the founders meant to adapt to the times. Scalia agreed last night that he has to find a better word than “dead” — that the word really doesn’t sound right, and he settled instead on “enduring.”

Scalia rejected Ginsburg’s argument that the Constitution is “living,” contending that to allow our founding document to adapt to the times would render it “subject to whimsical change by five of nine votes on the Supreme Court.” Ginsburg countered that Scalia’s “originalist” approach is not faithful to the idea of “We the people.” The Constitution, she maintained, has to expand to cover more than the “white, property-owning men” who once were “we the people.”

I would have to concur with Justice Ginsburg on this issue. The founders could not have conceived how the 21st century society would be. Laws that were drafted in ways that were consistent with the social norms and beliefs of the time they were introduced and may not apply well to our current collective consciousness. For a constitution to constantly serve “we the people” then it must adapt.

This bring me to the topic of this post: Does the same apply to religious scriptures? Should religions adapt to the times?

If the answer to the above question is no, then two issues come to mind: slavery and homosexuality. If we take all the scriptures literally, then there would be religious doctrines that approve of slavery and are anti-homosexuality, Christianity being one. However, Buddhism also contains text that seems anti-gay. But if religion at its core is about love, compassion and acceptance, why do these texts exist?

This is where I believe the context is key when interpreting the scriptures. At least in Buddhism, the phrases preventing non-heterosexual men from getting ordained is designed to prevent chaos within the Sangha community, and was initiated NOT by the Buddha himself but by some monks in response to a scandal between two monks. Therefore, it is perhaps irresponsible to conclude that Buddhism is against homosexuality. Considering this context, the Buddha was simply creating a new order based on complaints from other monks who are afraid that the reputation of Buddhism would be tarnished if these scandals continue.

Fast forward to today. Scandals involving Buddhist monks actually involve heterosexual ones too. Many straight men use the cover of the Buddhism to lure women into their arms, and even raping them. It is not fair then to exclude homosexuals based on the premise that they may cause scandals. If Buddhism is truly about love and acceptance, then the gay men who really respect the Buddhist faith should be embraced by the religion, not pushed away. The same should go for Christianity. After all, it is only too convenient–and hypocritical–to ignore what the Bible says about slavery and then claim that God is anti-Gay.

Let me know your thoughts! Should religious scriptures be living documents?



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