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Overcoming barriers between people over sexual morality

I learned much valuable stuff to ponder from a recent conversation with a sweet and honest friend. We were talking about how adolescents navigate their transition into sexual activity and how their parents navigate it with them. As I listened, I gained more insight into the communication barriers between Bible-prioritizing Christians and the public at large with respect to sexual behavior.

(For the record, so as not to leave anyone out, I recognize commonality between the sort of Christians I speak of and highly observant, traditional Jews. Maybe with Muslims to some extent also, although I don't know how much of Islamic sexual mores are religious and how much are cultural or for that matter whether it's possible for Muslims to distinguish between those strands. Also, of course, Mormons—and yes, I know you guys count yourselves as Christians, but that's a separate conversation. And probably Jehovah's Witnesses.

(I also recognize that there are Christians who might take offense at my Bible-centric labels for believers who maintain long-held Christian viewpoints on sexual behavior. Those who disagree might say, "We value the Bible too." Consider yourselves acknowledged.)

One barrier is that Christians who are steeped in biblical teaching consider sexual behavior to be a moral realm, having to do with right and wrong. Most people in most (all?) cultures throughout most of human history have agreed. In many respects their moral convictions about sexuality line up across cultures and eras. In many respects they diverge from each other. But for millennia it was a given that some sexual practices (or practices with certain people or in certain circumstances) were inherently right/good and others were inherently wrong/evil, whichever they were.

However, most people in our place and day do not view sexual behavior this way. Since Sigmund Freud, and accelerating in America in the Sixties, a sexual act is considered healthy or unhealthy, respectful or disrespectful, considerate or inconsiderate, in good taste or in poor taste, age-appropriate or age-inappropriate, but not right or wrong.

There are exceptions. Specifically, assault and pedophilia are considered wrong—so much so that most of our moral indignation, which society keeps us from expressing in all manner of other traditional areas, is vented molten-hot on those offenders. Otherwise, however, sexual behavior is in a category sort of like dental hygiene: what you do with your teeth makes you more or less healthy and attractive and comfortable, but you're not wicked if you don't brush and you're not righteous if you do.

The second barrier is that, for most people, moral convictions about all kinds of things have to do with feelings—that is, a person knows what is right and wrong from how they feel about stuff. Take the compassion that a person feels for someone, the disgust they feel toward something, the desire they feel that demands satisfaction, the shame they feel in the eyes of others, and write those feelings large over society, and that's what right and wrong is. Some of those feelings a person recognizes as personal preferences, so they humbly don't mean to impose—it's right or wrong just for them. Others they feel so strongly—especially if the majority of their circle or prestigious people feel them too—that they are confident asserting their feelings as absolutes.

Moral feelings are essential and unavoidable. The fact that humans have them is a powerful clue to what is really going on in the universe. (C. S. Lewis explores this profoundly in the first several pages of his classic Mere Christianity.) Moreover, at the moment of decision, what we feel has a much stronger sway on our actions than what we think. And what we feel goes a long way toward shaping what we think, making certain conclusions appear much more sound than they are and others not worth considering.

Nevertheless, biblically grounded Christians believe something that most other people today don't, which is that moral principles come mainly from thinking, not feeling. We believe that God has communicated certain principles implicitly in how the world works and that human beings can discover them. We also believe that God has communicated explicitly through prophets and teachers whom he moved to write the books of the Bible. We believe that the Spirit of God operates in the assembly of followers of Jesus so that they use Scripture-shaped reason to derive conclusions for living from these principles.

Therefore, moral principles can be discussed, debated, critiqued, and honed, both with fellow-believers and with non- and other-believers. They are not merely expressed or asserted, as feelings are.

We see it as a major problem when heart and head are swapped. A person whose head is where their heart should be—trying to live a moral life by mere logic—is morally impotent. But a person whose heart is where their head should be—trying to discern right and wrong by how they feel—is morally foolish.

When most people hear what Bible-shaped Christians say about sexual behavior, they interpret those claims through their own assumptions about morality in general and sexual morality in particular. When a Christian says that such-and-such a sexual act is wrong, the other person thinks that the Christian feels revulsion toward that act based on their own tastes, bad experiences, psychological damage, or bigotry; then the Christian is trying to impose their own personal feelings on everybody else; and worst of all the Christian is calling people wicked on an amoral matter of individual taste like the color of car one likes to drive. Meanwhile, the Christian doesn't think she is doing anything like this at all, and it may not occur to her that that's how she is being understood.

In order to get anywhere in living with each other in a pluralistic society, Christians have to invite others to consider whether it is possible that sexual behavior in general might be moral behavior and whether it is acceptable in our society to allow people to mull that proposition over, debate it, and come to conclusions on it. Christians should also invite people to consider whether moral principles might be a matter of thought and not feeling, whether right and wrong is more than mere collective instinct or an expression of one person's will to power over others.

Conversation on those topics may be much more stimulating and fruitful than the ones we usually (don't) have. That approach might also help Christians in our internal task of instructing new and untaught Christians.

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