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Understanding the LGBT-religion debate – Part 2: Interpreting religious text

By Saiful Saleem

The religions that have perdured are the ones that have succeeded in transmitting their message across time and spaces, instead of merely communicating their message within a particular time and space. These religions tend to have been able to achieve this by having at least one central text (in many cases multiple texts) that lays out its origins, teachings, precepts and guidelines. It is from the texts of a religion that one comes to form ideas about religious positions on a given issue or about religious practices, ceremonies or customs.

It is thus not unusual that when religious people speak out against homosexuals and homosexuality – which happened recently in response to Pink Dot 2014 – they are assumed to be backed up by verses from the central texts of their religions. The basic assumption is that there exist a number of verses in which condemnation of same-sex relations is clearly expressed without leaving any doubt. After all, a sentence like “thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination”, which appears in the Book of Leviticus (King James Version), seems to be a quite categorical prohibition of homosexuality. In fact, in one translation (Living Bible), this sentence is rendered as “homosexuality is absolutely forbidden, for it is an enormous sin”.

And therein lies the problem. As evidenced by the above usage of the term “homosexuality”, which did not exist prior to the 19th century, the translating of a text inevitably changes it – in some cases, just slightly, but in other cases, as is the case above, very significantly.

We must remember that a considerable amount of time separates us from the time periods in which the central texts of most religions were conceived. Texts are a product of the periods in which they were written – especially in terms of the language used. It is all too easy to unconsciously impose our systems of understanding unto old texts, hence rewriting them as we read them.

The translation of any text has the obvious benefit of democratizing reading in the sense that it opens the reading of that text to more readers who, in theory, no longer have to rely on an authoritative and centralized interpretation. Yet, the downside of translation is that it is the interpretation, and to some extent the rewriting, of a text by the translator.

So when an individual reads the translated text, she is reading, and thus interpreting, an interpretation of the text. At some level, most people understand the importance of a careful, nuanced and contextualized interpretation of religious texts. Sometimes for that reason, we outsource this travail to those whom we consider to be religious scholars. Once these scholars have interpreted a particular text, they often communicate their interpretation, in some cases aided by today's video-hypersphere, via the spoken word – through video blogs of religious leaders, or more traditionally, through sermons.

In the Western philosophical tradition, beginning with Aristotle and Plato to Rousseau and Saussure, there has been a distinction between the real and representations of the real. In other words, a distinction between reality and appearance. According to Aristotle, “spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words”.

The words that you are reading right now would thus constitute that which is a representation of that which is real – the latter being my thoughts. The written word is then a representation of the spoken word. This is to say that writing is subordinate to speech, which is the immediate presence of thought. This goes hand in hand with the idea that language originated from a process of thought that produced speech, which in turn produced writing.

All this points to the privileging of oral language over written language within the Western philosophical tradition. Jacques Derrida would however argue that this is merely the arbitrary privileging of one side of an opposition and the marginalizing of the other side. Instead of reversing binaries, Derrida seeks to deconstruct them. In our context, Derrida would deconstruct the relationship between the signifier (the word “tree” or “pokok”) and the signified (the concept of a tree) by explaining that a word does not refer to a universal image, rather it refers to other signifiers that can then trigger even other signifiers. This is what Derrida had in mind when he wrote that “there is no outside-text” (“il n’y a pas de hors-texte”).

This implies then that to truly understand a text, it must be situated in its context. The reader, who inadvertently is the interpreter, must take into account the language of the text, including the grammar and vocabulary used in the epoch in which it was written, as well as the history of the language itself, and then also the history of the society in question. To put it simply, since signifiers call into mind other signifiers and concepts, the text can only successfully be interpreted if the writer and the reader share the same database of signifiers, codes and concepts.

The point of embarking on this discussion of writing and speech is two-fold. One, to encourage the re-reading and re-interpretation of religious texts and two, to remind ourselves that the interpretation of any text, let alone very old religious texts, is a difficult task that requires very careful research and analysis.

For that reason, one should be wary of those who stick to one single interpretation and refuse to consider that traditional literalist interpretations might be faulty and that there exist other alternative interpretations that should not be easily discounted.

In Islam, Christianity and Judaism, various scholars, such as Scott Kugle and Jacob Milgrom, have analyzed the oft-quoted verses that are usually cited to prove that same-sex relations are considered an abomination within the Abrahamic religions.Instead, some scholars have alternative interpretations of these verses.

For example, the verses on the people of Lot might be considered to be less a condemnation of same-sex attraction, love or relations, than of mass rape and brutality. Similarly, Khaled el-Rouayheb states that “the relevant passages [...] do not specify which sexual acts had been committed by the people of Lot”. In spite of that “from an early period, Muslim jurists identified ‘the act of the people of Lot’ with an intercourse”. El-Rouayheb goes on to contextualize pre-modern Islamic societies by saying that “falling in love with a boy was widely considered to be an involuntary act, and as such outside the scope of religious condemnation”.

These interpretations should not be dismissed simply based on the notion that there exists a mainstream interpretation that has been privileged, in opposition to an alternative interpretation that has been marginalized. We need to be aware that every text has within it a plurality of meaning – it is only through the careful reconstruction of the database of signifiers, codes and concepts that existed when the text was written that we can reconstruct the interpretation that the writer intended.

Saiful Saleem is a Singaporean PhD student in French at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His research interests include 20th-century French literature, gender and sexuality and the intersection of philosophy and literature.

This article is adapted from Saiful's original post on his blog.