More Sex in Seminary: A Response to Tony Jones

More Sex in Seminary: A Response to Tony Jones November 2, 2011

This post is part of a Patheos symposium on the Future of Seminary Education.

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Tony Jones makes some interesting points, and interesting mistakes, in his response to my post on “Sex at Seminary.”

Tony says that in the post I am “complaining that his classmates at Princeton Theological Seminary were indiscriminately jumping the sack with one another.  He then goes on to make generalizations about Christians more liberal than he, based on his anecdotal experience at Princeton.”  Exaggeration may make for a saucier blog post, but it doesn’t do much for clarity.  I actually wrote that extra-marital sex was “distressingly common,” and I made clear that there were some circles at PTS where this was not the case.  I also made clear that I was speaking more broadly of permissiveness that included sexual matters but also extended to drunkenness and (some) drug use, and of a culture that viewed a more traditional perspective on such matters as backwards and judgmental.  I suggested that a culture of permissiveness at PTS might reflect a culture of permissiveness in Mainline circles more generally when it comes to these matters — and this was based not only on my “anecdotal” observations at PTS but by many years of interaction with Mainline denominations and many years of discussions on these matters with Mainline students at the undergraduate, master’s and doctoral level.  In fact, it hardly seems controversial to suggest that Mainline circles view sex, drinking and at least recreational drug use more, well, liberally.  But let’s move on.  Quoth Tony:

But in my two years on campus, I never knew of an instance where a student had casual sex with another student.  Not to say it didn’t happen, just to say that it wasn’t flagrant in the sense that Tim writes.  So, my anecdotal experience negates and therefore nullifies Tim’s.

I’m amused by Tony’s competition of anecdotal experiences here (and I’m tempted to say “My schwartz is bigger than your schwartz!”), but let me offer a few thoughts:

  1. It’s entertaining (if it’s not depressing) to read this even while I’m getting note after note from people talking about the promiscuity they witnessed at seminary — not only PTS, but many Mainline seminaries or divinity schools, as well as some evangelical and Catholic ones.  But Tony’s argument from absence is deeply wanting.  I was at PTS as an M.Div. student, living amongst other single men in a dormitory.  I went elsewhere for my doctorate, where I participated much less in student life.  Tony came to PTS as a well known writer and public speaker on issues relating to youth ministry, as a doctoral student, and lived for two years with his family amongst married students a couple miles from campus at the CRW apartments (where I too lived after I married).  Those are very different worlds.  He says he talked with students in their dorm rooms, but it’s not the same.  Since I was not training to be a pastor, and since I at least participated in the drinking, it was easy for others to confide in me or at least not to feel as though they had to wear a mask.  Tony’s “I never knew of unmarried students having sex” is like Ahmadinejad’s “We don’t have gays in Iran.”  If you were living promiscuously, would you tell Tony Jones?
  2. Of course, Tony also came to PTS after I had left, so we’re not comparing the same years.
  3. Tony’s suggestion that dueling anecdotal experiences negate and nullify each other is a simple logical error.  If I were making a universal claim that every student or every circle of students at PTS engaged in extramarital sex, then evidence that some students did not would indeed constitute a disproof.  But my claim was clearly that these things were “distressingly common” in something less than all circles.  The claim that he didn’t see it in in the people he knew is fully consistent with this.  If I said, “Some dogs are white,” my statement would not be disproven by the observation that “this dog is black.”
  4. Finally, the point is not so much about the activity as it is about the culture.  Take an example: bringing vodka in a thermos to class to get through the long lectures.  (I’ve chosen an example in which I participated with gusto, so it’s clear I’m not just being judgmental.)  I’m not blaming anyone; I’m fully responsible for my actions.  But I would never have done such a thing, and joked and laughed about it, in my evangelical fellowships, undergraduate or graduate.  If I had, in the very same instant such behavior had been observed, my friends would have sought through moral persuasion to convince me that this was not right and God-honoring, and would be destructive to my spiritual life.  I also would not have encountered, as the prevailing ethos, the view that promoting abstinence outside of marriage is outmoded and intolerant.  These are very real contrasts, and very easily observed ones, and yet Tony does not seem to acknowledge them.  I take these contrasts to point toward a culture of skepticism amongst many (I make no judgment whether “most” is appropriate here) students at that time toward traditional moral teachings.  In fact, is this really so controversial?  How many classes do you have to attend that question traditional moral teachings before you can say that there is a culture here that, well, does not exactly encourage fidelity to traditional moral teachings?

Moving on.  Tony quotes Scott Paeth: “Clearly the sexual mores that he [Tim, yours truly] took for granted coming from his background and outlook aren’t reflective of every Christian (even, I suspect, every evangelical Christian). They certainly aren’t reflective of the sexual mores that I grew up with, or experienced as being widespread in two mainline seminaries (including PTS).”

The first person to respond seriously to this picture loses the humor contest.

In other words, Scott agrees that there are different ethical cultures here, between the evangelical Christian culture I experienced growing up and the “sexual mores” that he grew up with and experience in Mainline settings.  Again, I think this should be transparently obvious.  To be clear, I’ve never lived in an evangelical bubble.  Growing up, I spent far more time in the gymnastics world than I did in the church world, where there were few evangelicals, and I went to a secular university that celebrated all sorts of alternative moralities.  I wasn’t expecting a bunch of Puritans when I came to PTS, but I was surprised at the casualness with which promiscuity and drunkenness were treated by my fellow Christians.

Scott then goes on to say:

I suspect that Tim would like to think that his position represents the normative base point for Christians in the early part of the 21st century, and [he] can’t figure out why folks in seminary have deviated from that base point. I think the truth is the opposite. Tim’s very sincerely held believe [sic] is, and has been for a very long time (I’d guess since at least the early 20th century), very far from the norm among Christians. However, it took until the 1960s before people were willing to be more open about the rarity of actual adherence to the principle of premarital chastity…Tim’s position is the outlier, and has been for a very long time.

Scott makes here, and Tony cites approvingly, a very common category mistake.  Let me explain:

  1. While I’m talking about moral ideals, Scott seeks to refute me by referring to moral actions.  I’m less concerned when seminarians have extramarital sex than I am when they no longer honor and strive for the moral ideal of reserving sex for marriage.  In other words, my “sincerely held belief” is that Christians should encourage fidelity to biblical standards of sexual integrity, which (in my interpretation of the scriptures — and yes I know about the concubines, for goodness sake) include abstinence from sex outside marriage.  The fact that many Christians (including many evangelicals) fail to live up to those ideals is not necessarily a good reason to abandon them.  Consider the moral ideals in the Sermon on the Mount.  I don’t believe I’ve been strictly obedient to a single one.  And yet I’ve been humbled and refined and instructed by the attempt.  The pursuit of those ideals teaches and shapes me in important ways.
  2. Part of the ambiguity here has to do with the word “norm.”  While I would assert that abstinence outside marriage is still “the norm” across most of global and American Christianity today in the sense that it is held forth as a moral principle we should honor (i.e., it is morally normative), Scott responds that it is not “the norm” in the sense that it is not “normally” practiced.  But that’s missing the point.  Moral ideals have great worth.  They teach us what matters to God, they turn us from selfishness to selflessness, and they show us our sinfulness and our need for grace.
  3. Someone will say, “So you’re saying it’s okay to engage in premarital sex as long as you feel guilty about it?”  No.  I do believe it’s spiritually harmful for a young Christian to engage in premarital sex; but I believe it’s more harmful by far when that young Christian ceases to believe that God cares about sexual integrity.  While acknowledging all the wonderful things Princeton had to offer, I’m suggesting that a stronger emphasis on sexual and personal integrity would have benefited the students.
  4. Finally, there’s an implicit trend toward accommodation here.  Even if the rest of the world gave itself over to premarital sex, does that mean Christians should?  And even if the great majority of Christians engaged in premarital sex, is that our standard for what’s right?  Does it really matter whose view is the “outlier”?  For all the usual objections (polygamy amongst the patriarchs, concubines for the kings, etc), I think the biblical teaching on these matters is pretty plain.  Yes, there are those in evangelical and Mainline circles alike who say that abstinence is no longer practical, given changes, for instance, in the average marrying age.  Those are conversations worth having, and we can have them in another series.  But the fact remains that most Christian bodies and denominations today still teach that sex is intended for marriage; most Christian leaders still make the biblical case for abstinence outside marriage; and I believe (though I don’t have data presently) and that most Christians around the world today still believe in the ideal of saving sex for marriage.  So, I’m not sure it matters, but my belief is hardly an outlier.  The ideal of abstinence outside marriage is, I believe, both normative and normal, even if the achievement of that ideal has grown rarer.

There’s much more to be said here, but I’ll close by thanking my interlocutors, Tony and Scott.  For those who feel I’ve been insufficiently generous to Princeton Theological Seminary, please read this post on Finding Jesus (Again) at Seminary, and please do join in our series on the Future of Seminary Education.  We just posted another “doozy” of a post in Kyle Roberts’ “Open Letter to Women in Seminary.”  Check it out.

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