NEW YORK — Young Christians continue to grapple with how to reconcile traditional and restrictive church teachings on sexual ethics with the intimate relationships they experience and witness in their social circles, according to a religious studies professor and recent surveys.
The traditional Christian view that sex is only to be experienced in heterosexual marriage has been shared by less and less Americans over the years. A 2013 Gallup poll indicates that Millennials (those 18 to mid-30s) are least likely to hold the same view. Americans who claim to be Christians can also be counted among those with liberal views on premarital sex. One could ask if this means that Christian doctrines on sex and sexuality need to be loosened or revised to meet the needs and concerns of the present culture.
Dr. Teresa Delgado, associate professor in the Religious Studies department at Iona College since 2005, appeared on "CP Newsroom" to comment on the changing attitudes of some Christians on matters related to human sexuality. The Theology and Ethics professor noted some of the particular concerns her undergraduate students have shared with her over the years, in terms of conflicted feelings when it comes to their faith and sexuality.
Many young Americans, predominantly white and under the age of 30, have become disenchanted with, or even hostile toward religion. The Pew Research Center, which has reported an increase in religiously unaffiliated Americans, explained that "the unaffiliated are concentrated among younger adults, political liberals and people who take liberal positions on same-sex marriage." The Public Religion Research Institute reported earlier this year that its survey found Millennials to be the most supportive of same-sex marriage.
The PRRI also pinpointed a particular trend in their findings among Millennials in regard to their childhood faith.
"Nearly one-third of Millennials who left their childhood religion say unfavorable church teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people played a significant role in their decision to head for the exit," said PRRI CEO Dr. Robert P. Jones of the survey's findings.
The Christian Post reported previously in an article questioning whether evangelical churches need to accept gay marriage to attract Millennials:
"Even among self-described Evangelicals, the Millennials showed the highest level of support at 43 percent (though the poll only included white Evangelicals), compared to 33 percent for generation X, 22 percent for Baby Boomers and 19 percent for those 68 and older. The poll also found that 70 percent of Millennials 'believe that religious groups are alienating young adults by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.'
Some Evangelicals have pointed to this and similar studies to argue that Evangelical churches need to end their opposition to same-sex marriage or they will die off."
Though speaking from a Roman Catholic perspective, Delgado's remarks reflect general concerns espoused by Christians, and Millennials in particular. Watch the video of Delgado's "CP Newsroom" discussion in the player below. It is followed by an excerpted transcript.
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CP: You say the church is "obsessed" with sex and sexuality while paying little heed to "the array of other important ethical concerns that human beings face on a daily basis." But aren't churches forced to look at these issues more closely because marriage and sexuality are some of the leading social issues of the day?
Delgado: It's important that the church do that in order to be relevant. What I think has happened though, is that our tradition has put sexuality on the side of control of 'thou shalt not' and that anything that is considered secular or that is part of the world is assumed to be permissive and part of the 'thou shall,' kind of 'anything goes.' So we've inherited this dichotomy of the church being responsible for maintaining some control around sexuality and maintaining those boundaries of ethical sex because the rest of the world does not have those boundaries. The rest of the world allows that permissiveness and that limitlessness around sexuality, so it has an important role to play.
What I think has happened though, is because of that dichotomy, you either are or you aren't somewhere within there, and I think there are many people who fall in-between. That is, they are not willing to accept a complete permissiveness of secular culture but they are also not willing to accept an exclusive and seemingly controlled environment that the church has created around sexuality and sexual expression.
CP: When you speak of "exclusivity" you mean heterosexual marriage?
Delgado: Not just heterosexual marriage, heterosexual marriage as the only place that ethical sex is permitted. But even within heterosexual marriage, certain types of sexual expression being frowned upon in relation to others that is anything that is not leading or open to procreation. So even within heterosexual marriage there are some other factors that offer a sense of control.
CP: What are you hearing in your classes and conversations with students on this subject?
Delgado: It seems that there is a generation gap between the younger generation, the 18-22 year-olds that I'm teaching on a semester by semester basis, and they seem to be moving toward the direction of looking at the Christian tradition through the lens of love and compassion. And that any expression of love, of real love and compassion is consistent with the Gospel. Whether that's heterosexual love, whether that's homosexual love and even whether that's what is understood as asexual...or platonic love, that all of those are acceptable expressions and consistent with the Gospel message. They are less inclined — and maybe this is just students I'm teaching at this particular college, which is predominantly Roman Catholic, although that has shifted. But even among those Roman Catholics, there is a real disagreement around some of the questions of sexuality. So they're definitely moving in a direction that is away from the traditional or orthodox interpretation of the biblical text under the church's teachings.
CP: What is their authority for how they frame the Gospel?
Delgado: I think that they're looking at the Gospel in the way many biblical scholars look at the biblical text, which is that this is understood as a Word of God with infinite and eternal truth but filtered through the finite and limited experience of human beings. So they are making that distinction between God's Word as truth and God's Word as literal truth. And leaning more in the direction as God's Word as speaking some kind of truth, that has to then connect with their own experience. So experience is an important source for Christian ethics in general and it seems to be more of a predominant source in young people's understanding of their Christian ethics. So they're looking at the biblical text, they're looking at tradition, but they're also then kind of testing that out with experience. Not just of their own personal experience because then that would be relativist. But the experience of their community, of their peers, and they're saying something's not connecting here, something is not being reconciled, why is that. They're questioning.
CP: We can't all be right, so how do we work it out. What's the meeting ground?
Delgado: I would first look at the way in which our churches, some of the Mainline churches have tried to work this out. Not all Christian traditions see this issue in the same way. Before I came down here, I was looking at some of the information on the Pew Research Center on the study of American religion. It gives the various traditions a position on homosexuality. The Lutheran church for example, the Missouri Synod has one view, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has another. Within the Episcopal fold, there's differences between the Episcopal church in the U.S. and the Anglican church in England. So even within the umbrella that's Christianity, there are many different viewpoints and even within those, those are shifting and changing over time. So to even expect that all young people or all people would have a sense of what is their authority and that would be one particular voice, I think would miss the nuances of interpretation that each tradition has.
I think maybe the [meeting] place is a point of dialogue. Can we come together and hear each other in ways that are not dismissive, that don't create pockets of exclusivity? That's what I'm hearing from students in their papers… I ask the question to young people of how do they reconcile, or where are the places where there's been conflict between their inherited or lived out faith tradition and their sexuality.
And what I've heard over and over, overwhelmingly is they want to reconcile the two and they can't seem to. In the absence of that reconciliation there are no resources for them to be able to think about and live out an ethical sexual life and still be considered part of a faith tradition. That to me, that's sad. That makes me sad because what it says to me is they feel shut out from a church tradition, that in my understanding of Christianity, is about all being invited around the table of the Lord. So there's work to be done.