American religion faces challenges if it wishes to stay relevant. It must find a way to appeal to the young who lean progressively on cultural issues, without distancing itself too much from the more “traditional” roots to which many believers cling. According to a Gallup poll, few young people support conservative stances on issues like same-sex marriage, and according to the Pew Research Project, more of them are dropping their connections to organized religion. Christianity needs to adapt to this demographic shift, and it needs new thinkers to lead the way. One of these new thinkers was on campus last week.
Richard McCarty studies Biblical sexual ethics, a field which seeks religious answers to questions about sexual morality. On Wednesday, Oct. 2, he gave a presentation at Albion College about how sexual norms have been redefined over the course of human history. McCarty then discussed how religion and interpretation play into the creation of these norms, and what that means for the religious today.
McCarty’s work informs how Christians can find the justification for progressive beliefs in the Bible, and how “traditional” Christian values aren’t so traditional after all. I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with McCarty before his presentations for a few words.
What exactly is your presentation on tonight? What do “sexual ethics” mean for college students in 2013?
My PhD is in religious ethics, specializing in sexual ethics, so tonight’s talk is titled “Religious, Sexuality and Ethics in the 21st Century: We’ve Always Been Redefining Morality.” What I want to do tonight is both descriptively, but also confess, what the traditional voices are–because I used to be one of them–that said, when it came to marriage, marriage has always been defined as one man and one woman, and when it came to sexual morality, that the answer has always been that sexual activity is wrong unless it’s in a heterosexual marriage. In my own research, whether it was in the seminary or getting my Ph.D., what I found is that those statements are simply not true. I can forgive somebody who believes that they are true, but hasn’t really researched them at all. But if someone knows that they are not true, and still says them anyways, I really have a problem with that. So tonight, I’ll be starting with the traditional rhetoric of “marriage is always between one man and one woman,” looking at “sex is only good if it’s between a heterosexual married couple,” and I’ll make the argument that that is not true, and that we’ve always been redefining sexual morality. We’re going to see how Christians, from after the time of Jesus and Paul all the way up to our own day, have been redefining sex and marriage. The configuration of marriage, how many people should be married, the purpose of marriage and sex, and the moral value of sex have always been changing. That’s a historical fact. We’re going to end with, hopefully, a conversation about how even though ideas about sexual morality have always been changing, that – whether people are straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender – we might be able to name some common goods to pursue in sexual relationships. We can do that more confidently knowing that we can put some moral terminology with it.
So, there are some things on which people, regardless of orientation and religion, can agree? It’s almost in a secular sense that you can define sexual ethics.
I think that it’s true what you just said, that you can define sexual ethics in a secular sense. Although I think that oftentimes if we define secular as “rational” reflection on sexual morality, that is not antithetical to religious thinking. I think that’s been a false dichotomy that’s been foisted upon us in the last hundred years to think that somehow religious thinking must not be rational thinking. They’re two wings of one bird. Especially if one is religious, and I think that the religious can honor those who live by reason alone. I think that we can come to some agreements. We can all agree that rape is wrong. Then we can start talking about, as religious and secular people, what are some goods that we can pursue? It’s easy to say the “thou shall nots,” but what about the “thou shalls?” What should we pursue? There, I think that there are a number of goods that are defensible in a religious worldview, whether we’re talking about pursuing relational intimacy, recreation, reproduction. I still think that religious and secular people can agree on these things.
You mentioned that you formerly believed in these “conservative values.” What caused this shift in your beliefs?
Well, I was raised Roman Catholic, and l so I grew up with all the Catholic teachings on sex, which is never before marriage–and even in marriage, never without contraception. I shifted over into Protestant Christianity in my late teens and early twenties, and I simply accepted what the priests and pastors were saying about these issues. I had no reason to disbelieve them, and it seemed to me that if you wanted to be faithful, you just accepted these beliefs as they were handed down to you.
Were these the first interactions you were had to these issues? Through these preachings?
Oh, sure, absolutely, and in that sense I think that’s a common story, regardless of whether anyone calls themselves progressive or conservative, secular or religious. I think a lot of people, especially in the American West, have their first encounters with thinking about sex through religion. One of the things that you do, especially in college, even in divinity school and the seminary and the PhD, is that you try to understand how these teachings come together and why some people hold the positions that they do. As a Protestant in particular, the value is “what does the Bible say about these issues?” In order to answer that question, you have to be able to read the Bible in its original language, interpret it in light of its context, and what I found is that contemporary traditionalists were foisting onto the text assumptions that they already have about these issues. Assumptions they likely also learned from tradition. If someone thinks the Bible is going to be an important prop on their stage, they go back and look for verses that sound like what they already believe. I say, let’s do better than that. If the Bible is going to be important to you as a moral authority, well, study it carefully. Revision and revising don’t need to be dirty words. If we’re holding a position and it turns out that the position is not worth holding, change it. If we’ve been saying things about the Bible that, on careful study, cannot be held up, stop it! Change!
Are most people adequately informed about sexual ethics and religion? If they aren’t, what can they do?
Well, I don’t want to accuse people of being uninformed. People can only live in their culture. We’re in a really interesting moment in time where our culture is going through a transition around issues of sexual morality. There was a time when people were in a culture that presumed heterosexuality was the norm, that presumed marriage was necessary. When they came to the Bible, that’s what they found. Now we’re in a culture in which those things are no longer the norm, and so we presume a little bit more diversity. When we read the Bible, we say that there must be some contextual understanding of that passage. When you ask if people are adequately informed, it’s to say, we live in a culture with certain presumptions, and that’s how we read texts, through the lens of our experience. So now, let’s all get educated on these issues.
Your viewpoint on incorporating new evidence into your positions is something that many critics of religion seem to be calling for. It’s an important view.
It is, and I think it’s interesting, perhaps even coincidental, that the earliest Christian schools taught that if you want to interpret the Bible, which is key, you can’t just read the Bible like a novel, you actually have to try to understand what the author means, which is a very difficult prospect. You can’t just guess what a word means, you have to figure it out. That takes a lot of work. If you really believe that the Bible contains the inspired word of God, you’re not going to be an armchair Bible reader. You can’t open it up and know what God means. You’re going to care enough to do the in-depth study. I can attest, it’s boring work. But if you’re looking for wisdom, you can perhaps unearth what’s in the text instead of projecting onto the text what you think the words mean.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Something I was just asked in a lunch dialogue was, “Do these things matter for people who aren’t religious?” The answer to that is yes. People who have no interest in religion whatsoever, people who are not religious, need to take an interest in religion. In our society, the people who wield the rhetoric of religion are often capable of really moving their troops, and for better or worse, instituting policy. It’s one thing to say that religion is not for you in practice, and another to say that you won’t study it at all. When people do that, that’s saying to the religious folk, who are the majority, “Go ahead, do what you want, I’m stepping away from the table.” I think that when we study religion critically, whether we are people of faith or not, we actually engage in a cultural dialogue.
Photo by Daniel McQuown