I’m not sure I’m in the best position to make a contribution to this blogathon, given its topic, Sex and the Soul. I have grown long in the tooth and I find myself sounding like my parents. But, I must be honest: I think the topic looms huge, the veritable 500-pound gorilla always there in the corner of the room.
Maybe a story from my own college experience will help to frame my concern. As an undergraduate student at Kansas State University back in the 70s, I became active in Campus Crusade. I got involved with Crusade after a brief hiatus from being a college student. So, this was my second go-round on campus as a student.
Through a mutual friend, I met a beautiful young woman who was also in Crusade. She was the kind of girl who lit up a room. She had her life together! She was confident, strong, focused and pretty. I, on the other hand, was not emotionally in a good place to be dating her, or anyone else, for that matter (a bad break-up, on the rebound).
When I first got to know her, I fell hard and was completely infatuated. We started dating and things got kind of serious fast. Our “going together” as the old folks call it, was a very public thing in our campus ministry.
And then I got cold feet and dumped her. Abruptly. Out of the blue. It wounded her, naturally. And especially because she was one of the high-profile student leaders, our break-up became part of the chatter.
In response, our campus director, Jim Cook (I was in his action group) made a pastoral visit on me. I’ll never forget his question. With transparent compassion and gentle boldness, he asked, “Are you, two, sexually involved?”
Fortunately, I could honestly answer, “No.” That beautiful girl and I were spending a lot of time together, but the relationship had stayed at the, so to speak, innocent, romantic level: holding hands, kissing, that’s it.
I wonder how we are doing with our students these days on this topic. We know that college students have always drunk too much, done crazy things, made post-adolescent mistakes and felt the sting and shame. We also know that young people have always had sex and plenty of it has been outside of marriage. But I think some things are truly different for this present generation of students.
Probably quite a few readers of Faith on Campus are aware of books like Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Christian Smith and others). The chapter on sexual activity and the emotional debris left trailing behind students makes for a sobering read. More recently, I read Arthur Levine and Diane Dean, Generation on a Tightrope. They say that a significant number of students have disconnected sex and romance altogether. Sex is fun. It’s recreational. It’s a natural appetite. It goes with being in college almost on par with classes and exams, only a lot more fun. Yes, friends with benefits.
What, exactly, is an appropriate response? I’m not sure, entirely, but I do know this: what Jim Cook did for me so many years ago needs to be done for and with our college students today. It starts with repeatedly teaching students on that Christian discipleship is a whole-life enterprise. Sex life included. And people in pastoral positions have the responsibility (and the authority, frankly) to “meddle.”
Rather than doing the old “sex and dating,” which actually lets us deal with the issue in a way that has little real impact, we should back up to more basic truths about what is involved in following Jesus. Then, very clearly, we should inform our students that what we’re talking about covers their sex lives. And, yes, we might have to ask them hard questions. We have to do so with pastoral wisdom, with all diligence regarding professional boundaries, etc., but we must do it.
It won’t be easy. In fact, it will be difficult and probably even controversial. We might lose a few students who don’t want that kind of pastoral, communal, spiritual intimacy (and, of course, I’m using “intimate” here in a very literal and non-sexual sense). But we don’t have a choice. Sex does affect their souls.
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