Does Obedience Matter?: Responses to Readers of “Sex at Seminary”

Does Obedience Matter?: Responses to Readers of “Sex at Seminary” October 31, 2011

I suppose I should not have written a post that referenced sexual promiscuity, and touted “Sex at Seminary” in the title, and hoped that the ensuing conversation would focus on anything other than, well, sex.  The article has been passed around and linked here and there, and it’s essentially served as a bright neon SEX! SEX! SEX! sign to anyone who wants to debate sexual ethics.  And many do — in evangelical circles and mainline circles alike.

My intention was to provoke a conversation over the importance of moral formation and sexual integrity within the context of pastoral training at seminary.  As I made clear in the initial post and a followup, I thoroughly enjoyed Princeton Theological Seminary and learned many things there.  I happen to be an evangelical and a conservative, and so, predictably, people are interpreting (or dismissing) my comments through those lenses.  It probably would have been more helpful to hear these comments from a fellow Mainline Protestant, preferably of one impeccably liberal pedigree — and in the past few days I’ve heard from quite a few of those who do agree with me.

In any case, I wanted to address some of the criticisms.  But let me begin with a positive comment.  A junior at PTS writes me and says, when she read the post:

“I smiled, LOL’d and nodded in agreement. You put to words the overall feel and timbre of my experience here…It’s good to know you made it through three years and even continued with further students…Again, thank you. Your post affirms what is and what is possible.”

Actually, I would say that the responses I’ve received so far have been 7-to-3 positive.  I am, at least, not alone.  Evangelicals, Mainliners with a more traditional perspective toward sexuality and drinking, and even less traditional Mainliners have written to say that they too were surprised by the moral permissiveness they found at seminary and were concerned that this did damage to the spiritual lives of the students.

Now, on to the juicy stuff.  I received a note from a fellow I’ll call D.B., who told me there was “a lot awfully wrong” with my post, speculated on the size of my testicles (let’s just say: he’s a skeptic), referenced the Ku Klux Klan, and suggested I should learn from those Mainliners who can do “the drinking, drugs and sex and maintain a healthy spiritual life.”  However, “as an evangelical that [learning something from them] wouldn’t be a possibility, would it?”  He admonished me to “remember how much shame and sin are cultural constructs that do not necessarily equate with acts that offend God.”

D.B. tells me that he has “spoken at many seminaries” and “edited theological journals” (heh).  Apparently I don’t believe I can learn from non-evangelicals.  Which is obviously why I’ve helped to build a multi-faith website, why I’m a member of Evangelicals for Mitt, why I’ve promoted the work of Bob Roberts at multi-faith bridge-building, why I went to a Mainline seminary, and why I studied religion at two entirely secular institutions (Stanford and Harvard).  And, wait a minute, didn’t I say that I learned many things at PTS?

Anyway, buried amidst the rubbish, he made a substantive point: I am “an evangelical used to holding certain beliefs: drunkenness and drugs are sinful, as is any sex outside of marriage.”  I expect to experience intimacy with Christ through certain means — personal Bible reading, small group study, etc.  I neglect the latter once I get to seminary, my spiritual life suffers — and then I “start complaining about the ‘cultural’ side of things, of rumours of pre-marital sex, drinking alcohol and ‘foul language and unclean talk.'”  This, he suggests, is “self-reinforcing.”

It’s a substantive point, as I said, but it’s not going to win any insight contests, either.  The problem is the stark divide it posits between personal moral behavior (especially as it pertains to sex, drinking and drugs) and a “healthy spiritual life.”  The delusion is that you can have the latter without the former.  It harkens back to several Hellenstic religions and the implication that you can do whatever you like with your body, as long as your soul is attuned with the divine.  It’s fascinating, and it’s tempting, especially tempting to seminarians who might like to think that they’ve gone beyond such mundane matters as abstinence or sobriety.  It’s just not biblical, and it’s certainly not Christian.

This is the whole point.  Obedience matters.  Not because it determines our salvation.  But because it shapes us.  Biblical injunctions against fornication and drunkenness are numerous and clear.  If you believe that the Bible is the Word of God, or even a witness to the Word, then you have to take those injunctions seriously.  God has good reasons for the things he calls us to do or warns us not to do.  Over time, they shape our character, our sensibilities, our relationship with God.  We’ll be tempted to believe, but we ought not to believe, that we can do whatever we please with our bodies, that we can ignore the things that God tells us to value and honor and serve, and then we can get a few minutes with God and enjoy a “healthy spiritual life.”  The discipline of daily obedience, of moment-to-moment obedience, brings us constantly into God’s presence and constantly under God’s lordship.  Through obedience we learn more about the cares and the character of God.  So obedience is not a tool of our redemption, but it is a way by which the redeemed express their gratitude to God and come to know God better.

Now, I was not out to blame anyone for the fact that my spiritual life suffered during my seminary years.  I only blame myself.  But I blame myself in part because I gave up on the idea of obedience.  And I suspect that many people I know, evangelicals and Mainliners alike, who found their spiritual lives taking a dosedive in seminary, could have been helped by a culture that more strongly encouraged fidelity to the values and practices that have passed down the stream of generations amongst Christians.

I’ll write a response to Tony Jones in a second post…

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