Teaching Christian Sexual Ethics: Reflecting on Week One

Last Thursday marked the beginning of my time as an adjunct professor teaching Christian Sexual Ethics at the Candler School of Theology. I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach this class not only because once upon a time I was a Candler student who wished that such a course was offered during my matriculation, but also because I understand the necessity and value of a course such as this at such a time as this. So, with the first week behind me yet ever on my mind, I want to reflect on it.

The first day of class is often “getting to know you” time and my first day of class was no different. I spent time, with varying levels of success, introducing students to the overall structure of the class, though in telling them about the structure of the class I completely missed telling them about the class as in, “What is Christian Sexual Ethics?” I did a brief lecture that laid a foundation for the first quarter of the class, the section that will deal with historical documents that have influenced the discourse of and on Christian Sexual Ethics. I trotted out the usual suspects: The ones such as Paul, Plato, and Augustine who set the body against the soul or flesh against the spirit. Aquinas and his virtue-based approach to the body and sex. Then we quickly went through how sexual ethics turns topical in the 19th-21st century. Finally I asked the students, what is it that they want and need from the course. The answers were varied. We spent the second half of class discussing a few chapters in Michael Coogan’s God and Sex, a book that I recommend to people who are interested in beginning their study, in sober fashion, of what the Bible really says about sex. It was a lively discussion where students shared their understanding of the text, their theoretical perspectives adjacent to it, and personal experiences within their lives and their contexts.

It felt like a good class but it was only the first day. Since the class I have been thinking about the kind of space I want to create for the students, something that I could not have decided until I had an opportunity to meet and engage with them in the classroom. Now that I have done that once I am reflecting on what I think the task of a Christian Sexual Ethics teacher is, particularly as I see the ways in which students are hungry for knowledge, knowledge that will deconstruct the myth and production of sex and sexuality as the Christian Church has constructed it, for the sake of church contexts they may be leading or will lead in the future, and the knowledge that will give them a new ethical code to follow.

It is my belief that in teaching Christian Sexual Ethics one does not, necessarily, just prescribe a way forward. That is, the job of the person who teaches Christian Sexual Ethics is not to promote what to think but it is to promote how to think about what we have been thinking about the discourse at large. It is to test and approve or disapprove the ethic of Christian Sexual Ethics, particularly that which is prone to be regulatory. Thus I promote no new ethic that can be conceived of as in line with a new normal or that which would be conceived of as liberal, but I desire to take every side of the discourse, consider it in context, consider it outside of its context regarding the way it has been taught, and then think through the ways in which we might move forward with or from it.

I consider what one student said on the first day about presenting “alternative ideas,” which, in her definition, was not about actual alternative ideas but about how we make room for those who believe in the tradition–or what more progressive to liberal Christians might call the “conservative” teachings of the church. How do we talk to those for whom abstinence before marriage is still the model, purity is de riguer, marriage is between one man and one woman, etc? I felt this student deeply because it reminded me that space must be made for a multitude of views and that there is a possibility that someone could believe in the traditional teachings of the church on sexual ethics and if that is the case, how do we make room for that and ensure that if one stays close to traditional views they do no harm in the process? Because I am under no delusion that one can remain within the realm of tradition or the traditional and not toe the line of doing harm that can do violence either physically or metaphysically. How do we hold views that may be considered more liberal without making them the norm and categorical imperative? How do we help people own their sexuality wherever they fall on the spectrum not presuming that an interest abstinence denotes being a prude or a robust sex life denotes a whore? Can we break the binary that both implicitly and explicitly suggests to be tradition is to be repressed and to be liberal is to be liberated? Is there something in between all of this?

To teach Christian Sexual Ethics toward the end of liberation cannot always mean teaching liberal, it includes teaching what is considered liberal but it is not only that. It talks to tradition and contends with it and permits space for separating the wheat from the chaff in those teaching so that it might be possible to utilize the theoretical frameworks of a tradition to more liberating ends. Just as we are fully human and fully divine beings, we require a full conversation that includes all we can consider about how we move through the world as the embodied divine, little words made flesh. With this in mind we move forward entrusting one another with a full range of being and thinking through who and how we are on this earth and we wrestle with that on every level. We create space to wrestle with the implications of our commitments to our bodies and to God and to help determine for ourselves how to reconcile these two seemingly disparate modes. It is not only about how we live as faithful and sexual beings but how we think about how we live in accordance with that way of being.

At the conclusion of this course I hope that students might be able to articulate where they have been and where they are going in light of the sources and resources that have been set before them over the course of the semester and that given all of this they might leave different than they came, whatever that looks like.

So once more unto the breach I go to teach Christian Sexual Ethics, hoping that I do the topic justice, uncovering what is unjust and just about our reflections on and utilization of sexual ethics in our tradition and hoping that I help students see a way forward for themselves and their contexts.

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Promises to Myself on the First Day of My PhD Program aka The First Day of the Rest of My Life

Today is the first day of the rest of my life. I know that sounds cliché and probably a bit dramatic, but it’s true. Today I begin doctoral studies at Emory University. It’s almost unreal to me that this day is here. I’ve prayed about this, put in the work, had a small community of family, friends, and colleagues helping me through the process and this moment has finally arrived. Yesterday evening as I was with some of my cohort at a picnic, one of the faculty members said, “Enjoy your last night of freedom.” I hated the sound of that but I recognize that in many ways I’m losing the freedom I’ve known for the last few years. I’ve taken a drastic cut in compensation to pursue this degree. I’ve moved out of my nice one-bedroom apartment to share a house with some good friends–which I must say is actually nicer than the apartment I left. I won’t be able to go out as freely, eat as lavishly, and spend as much money on any one thing as I’m accustomed to because of this journey that I’m embarking on. Yet for all of these sacrifices I’m still thinking a lot about promises I want to keep to myself for myself, my family, my friends and this city that I will call home for the next 5-6 years. I don’t want to be one of those people who makes graduation the target at the expense of livelihood, health, friends, and family–because there are apparently people who will sacrifice all of that in pursuit of this degree (see below).

I recently saw this posted on a groups for PhDs and was disturbed by the amount of people--most of the respondents--who thought this was a good thing.

I recently saw this posted on a groups for PhDs and I was shocked to find that most picked graduate over everything else. 

This can’t be life. It can’t be my life. I didn’t decide to doctoral work so that I could lose all sense of self and the world around me. I’m not interested in doing this work  in isolation–although I know the work can be isolating. Yesterday I sat through an orientation where one of the students said, “You will be destroyed, and you will have to rebuild yourself.” I have everyone else’s advice and cautionary tales but now it’s time for me reflect. I decided to create a list of promises to myself as I begin this journey and am sharing it in hopes that family and friends who’ll read this will hold me accountable over the years and that someone else starting a new chapter in life might be encouraged. So here goes:

  1. Put God First: When I first wrote this list I actually had something else first, but when I wrote it again I decided to put God first, even if only for semantic reasons. But really, I don’t just want God to be first on a technicality, I want God to be first on purpose. I believe that I didn’t get here on my own and I don’t think I will get through this without grounding myself in God. My goal is to recover my relationship with God and get God back to the number one spot by getting back to the spiritual disciplines and committing to worship every week.
  2. Do Your Best, Not Anyone Else’s: What great temptation there is to meet everyone else’s expectations or compare yourself to others. To meet the expectations of faculty, of the people who recommended you, of friends who believe you’ll do everything exceedingly well, of family who are rooting for you…But this is not for any of them, not totally. No, my job is to do my best and not anyone else’s. To not drown myself in everyone’s expectations nor to get pulled into the sin of comparison. My goal is to do my best every single time. I will read as much as I can every single time, ask the questions that are important to me, risk sounding stupid if I just don’t understand something, write with courage and present with confidence. And if I ever fail to do any of those things, I won’t beat myself up, I’ll just do my best the next time.
  3. Take Good Care of Yourself: I know myself. In my first graduate program I was notorious for keeping late hours. I drank a lot of caffeine–albeit healthy caffeine (Shot outs to Guayaki Yerba Mate!). I sometimes ate garbage foods. I didn’t make much time for exercise. I had a one-track mind. But this time around I don’t want to do that nor do I think I can afford to do that. My goal is to keep the same exercise routine I had before the program started which means I will exercise 2-3 times a week. I have to do this because I can’t afford to gain any weight–literally, because I don’t wear cheap clothes–but also because–and more importantly–I believe that a healthy, fit body leads to a healthy, fit mind.
  4. Eat Well: If you know me you know that I love to eat. My ex-boyfriend once said that I eat like it will be my last meal. This doesn’t mean I eat like the food is running off the plate but that my meals are sometimes too lavish and opulent. I’m like the Marie Antoinette of food. I have no problem spending a lot on a meal with friends–granted I won’t be able to do that often given my new graduate student status–because I love a great food experience and great company. But, in keeping with my new status, my goal is to still find ways to eat well by simplifying ingredients, buying fresh food, and treating myself dining experiences on occasion–maybe once a month. I want to get to a place where dining out becomes special, an incentive even, rather than just this part of life that I feel I’m obligated to because I can afford it. So eating to live will be my first priority and every now and then I’ll live to eat.
  5. Keep In Touch with Family & Friends: I sometimes drop off the face of the telecommunications earth and the only way I can be found is on social media. When I have a lot on my plate the last thing I want to do is pick up the phone. Maybe I’ll text you, maybe I won’t. Maybe you’ll call me and I won’t pick up or call back for days/weeks on in. I first hope that no one takes this personally and charges it to my head not my heart. But I also hope to just be better about keeping in touch with the people I love–and even those I just like, moderately. My goal is to communicate with family and friends regularly. I honestly can’t say what the frequency of this will be because I know it will vary, but If you don’t hear from me for more than two weeks, and we communicate regularly, reach out.
  6. Make Time for Love: When I first found out I got in to this program I joked that I was going to start a new blog entitled, “PhD or Mrs: Which Will Happen First?” Right now I’m almost willing to place my bets on finishing my dissertation first before I get married. The former seems so much easier to me. I’m also just happy being single and recognize that I can get a lot accomplished as such, but I don’t want to be single for much longer. There are so many amazing things happening in my life that I want to share with not just family and friends but also a partner who can sojourn with me and I with them. I want nothing less than someone who knows their purpose and is actively working to manifest it because that is what I’m doing. I want someone who’ll sit in a coffee shop and read with me when I’m reading–their own book of course, cook dinner when I’m on the verge of starving myself, whisk me away when I get too wrapped up in all of this, and generally be a confidant and co-conspirator in living on purpose. I say all of this not to sound completely self-interested in what someone can do for me in a relationship, but to be clear that I need a partner who will support me. I’ve never had a problem being a man’s cheerleader, support system, confidant, chef, Kleenex, but it’s time for Nicole to also receive the same. But none of this will happen if I’m always in the library, my room, or the corner of a coffee shop–well actually I guess he can find me in the library or coffee shop. My goal is to be intentional about making time to date truly interesting people and be open to the package the truly interesting people come in. I wouldn’t mind a neuroscientist or chemist, just putting that out there.
  7. Be Yourself and Grant That Self Grace: Truth is, I may fail to keep all of these promises. I may wake up with just enough time in the morning to shower and get out the door. I may compare myself to my colleagues. I might stop exercising for a stretch out of necessity or straight-up exhaustion. I may go back to eating BBQ rice because that might be all I can afford. I might go into an isolation so deep that only my housemates can pull me out–and that will only be because we live under the same roof. I may remain single for the next six years because, hell, it might really be easier to complete a dissertation rather than navigate these dating streets. A lot can happen, but in the midst of it all I want to remember two things, 1. I want to remember to be myself and be gracious to myself.

Just this past Sunday I had a friend jokingly greet me saying, “Hey doctoral student!” I replied, “Nicole is sufficient.” I’m not interested in being called “Doctor” or “Professor,” especially not before I’ve rightfully earned those titles. I want to be Nicole through all of this, the woman with a good sense of humor, a healthy appetite, a high-sartorial sense, a lover of God, cupcakes, and dresses. A good daughter, loyal friend, distant but lovingly consistent family member, a civically-engaged citizen, and a grounded child of God. I know I will change through the years, but don’t let me change too much.

So if you read this and we are friends, either in real life or just virtually, will you hold me accountable? Periodically ask me how I am doing–please don’t assume that because I look or sound like I have it together that I actually do. Ask me when last I prayed and encourage me to do so–maybe even pray with me if you are feeling inclined. Ask me about the last good meal I had; if I’ve exercised lately; if I’ve met any handsome, brilliant, wonderful men; ask me if I feel like myself. Ask me anything. I know that I am because of many of you who have nurtured me up to this point. I will continue to be because of that as well.

So off I go to begin this beautiful journey…