Church and state at a crossroads.

Church and state at a crossroads. Credit: iStock

There is a theory about the Supreme Court that says it is limited by the willingness of the people to go along with what it rules. So it couldn't have effectively ruled that black students and white students must receive integrated schooling in 1905, rather than 1955, because the people weren't ready. It wouldn't have worked. Ditto axing bans on interracial marriage before 1967.

In some sense the same argument is being debated on same-sex marriage. There are people who say it's a right, and must be guaranteed now. There are people who say it's blasphemy and should never be guaranteed. But there is also the line of reasoning that it probably is a right, but the court could not have forced it on the states before now (and still might have to wait a bit).

Point being, nine guys and gals can't bend a nation to their will if the people truly aren't ready, no matter how snazzy their black robes might be.

Lately, I've wondered whether God doesn't work that way, too -- assuming he/she/it exists. Maybe we get the revelations we get at certain times, and keep getting more and more revelations, because we receive only what we're ready for.

We have an Old Testament that instructs us in the treatment of slaves. God knows slavery is wrong, even if you're good about feeding and housing and providing free dental. God always knew that telling us to free slaves, not to be nicer to them, was the way to go. But a religious document instructing people to give up their slaves, at the time the Old Testament was written, might simply have been ignored. And if the Old Testament had told us women were to have equal rights with men, most people (men, at least) would have said either, "No thanks, we're good with our vast assemblage of pagan gods that lets us do what we want," or, "Get out of here before I smote you, or smite you. Whichever."

Christians believe we then got the New Testament, and it's the best truth, but does not generally invalidate the Old Testament. And, you know, the New Testament is kinder and gentler. More "turn the other cheek" and less violent, grudge-fueled exchanges of eye-plucking. But what if the New Testament were not the final word, but just the update on what the people were ready for?

Islam teaches that much of the Bible is revelation from God, but has the Quran as a later, more perfect revelation. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, too, acknowledges the Bible as holy writ, but adds the Book of Mormon, published in 1830, to its canon. None of these, to me, are exactly on target in explaining how we ought to act.

Many people (Mormons, in particular) believe the U.S. Constitution is God-inspired. And many members of Alcoholics Anonymous believe the tome that has saved so many lives, The Big Book, could not have been written without divine inspiration. It's not just religious writings that are believed to be divinely inspired.

I don't want to throw in any spoilers, but the idea of new revelations is partially the message behind the musical "The Book of Mormon."

If we believe in an active, caring God, it's easy to conceive of one who still inspires writers and political leaders and theologians. You could argue that the law establishing Social Security was God-inspired, or that Obamacare is (that's right, I fed the comment trolls).

It would mean that the flaws in our holy books were limitations God saw in us, not limitations in God's sense of justice. And it would mean we must keep listening for new teachings, refinements of our concepts of justice and love and right action.

What if that's the journey? Is it so hard to believe we have a few sequels to go before the story, and our advancement as moral beings, is complete?

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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