March 24, 2017

On Originalism

Originalism is a useful tool in determining authorial intent, but apart from that it is self-defeating as a legal philosophy. To understand the intent of the framers of a document by examining the original meaning of the words they used in the context in which they wrote is so obvious as scarcely to need defense. To give a trivial example, if you want to understand a first century BC text in Latin you had best begin by realizing that first-century BC Latin is neither fourth-century BC Greek nor twenty-first-century English, and the cultural contexts of these different languages also play a role in any attempt at discerning what, for instance, Julius Caesar was writing about. Just because the US Constitution is written in English doesn't mean any of the words have the same meaning they do today. I can guarantee that not one of the authors intended "arms" to mean "snub-nose revolvers" or "tactical nuclear weapons" when asserting a right not to be infringed by the state.

So originalism has its purpose as a hermeneutic tool. But it is less helpful — perhaps disastrous — when it is raised to the level of a philosophy, or worse, ideology. The notion that the Constitution should be set in 18th-century stone, and be inapplicable to later circumstances is belied by the fact that the document provides for its own amendment. The framers were intelligent men, aware of the fact that language changes, as do the times. To suspect they regarded their words as inviolable and unalterable, fixed in meaning and application only to what they intended, is to attribute an almost sacral quality to the Constitution, which is nothing short of idolatrous. I will confess I imagine that even some of the authors of Scripture itself would be shocked to think people of a later time would regard what they intended as topical advice to be unalterable divine mandate for all time. How much less would the men of Enlightenment America regard their efforts to be immutable and fixed for all time?

So go to the sources, read the contemporary commentary, study the lexicons and dictionaries by all means. But remember these are but the starting points for understanding and application. If the Constitution is to live — let it live. Do not suffocate it in the bonds of originalism's lack of imagination and understanding.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

March 22, 2017

But for Wales...?

The election of a new bishop to serve the Welsh Diocese of Llandaff has created a good deal of storm and strife. The electing convention failed to elect by the necessary 2/3 majority, and so the choice devolved to the five bishops to take up the task. Among other things, they stated that they chose "not to give further consideration to any candidate nominated at the Electoral College in order not to compromise the integrity of the College process."

Among those nominated was Dean Jeffrey John of St Albans. If you don't know who he is, you can stop reading now. If you know, you will recognize the significance of his nomination. Beyond that nomination, he received (so it has been reported, though much of this was to be confidential) unanimous support from the Diocese of Llandaff itself, and a majority of all the other required votes, but less than the 2/3 required for election.

Now, I can well understand the rationale the bishops embraced in their most recent action; it might well be true, all other things being equal, that to consider any of the candidates who failed in the earlier round would be to second-guess the process, or perhaps cobble the future ministry of anyone so nominated who was approved on the second go. Indeed it might be seen as quite irregular to award the seat to one who failed to win it by the normal process.

But all other things are not equal. Dean John has a past, one that includes several quite irregular twists and turns towards an episcopal seat. Secondary considerations and "concerns," such as are raised in other parts of the Anglican Communion, have reared their heads. And there is a very slight difference between "concern" and "fear of consequences" — and "fear" is English for phobia — and I think you know which phobia this seems to be.

It is a mess, without a doubt, and will get messier before it gets clearer.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

The title is part of a quote from Man for All Seasons when More chides Rich for his betrayal: "It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world ... but for Wales, Richard?"