Allow students to form independent stances on sexuality

Rewon Shimray | Opinion Editor

Baylor strives to be a caring community. Other communities are devoted to caring, too, such as hospitals, nursing homes, daycares, and soup kitchens. The fundamentals of caring are similar for all these institutions: caring for another, in the original sense of the word, means suffering alongside another, sharing another’s burden. But the specific form of caring is a little different for these different institutions. For example, caring for an Alzheimer’s patient is not exactly the same thing as caring for a homeless person or a child with autism. How, then, can Baylor become a caring community for all its students, including those who are increasingly being pushed to the margins of society for their controversial views?

A university is devoted to the truth: passing on the truth in its teaching, discovering the truth in its research, and integrating or unifying truth across the disciplines. This purpose helps us see what it means for us to be a caring community: we care for each other when we help each other get closer to the truth. When you help a roommate with his homework, when you stay up late with friends debating whether we have free will, when a spiritual director helps you gain deeper self-knowledge, or a professor explains a theory in a way that finally makes it sink it: these are all concrete ways you participate in a caring university community.

Given that Baylor is also a Baptist, Christian university, it is no surprise that many of our students are eager to pursue the truth about God, and especially God as revealed in scripture and in Christ Jesus. Many of our students come to Baylor with a lifetime of Christian formation in their homes, their churches, and their schools, eager to spend their college years going even deeper into their faith.

Many of these students have been taught that God’s plan for human sexuality is the exclusive, permanent union of one man and one woman. They have been taught to regard as wrong any sexual relations before or outside of marriage. Many have even been striving their young adult lives to live out these values, both by remaining personally faithful to them and by offering counsel, support, encouragement to their friends to do the same.

Believing in these values and trying to base one’s life on them is becoming increasingly difficult in our contemporary secular society. There is scant reinforcement of these values in popular culture. Indeed, there is intense opposition to them. It is widely considered hateful and bigoted, not just prudish, to believe in moral prohibitions of some forms of consensual sexual activity between legal adults.

In these circumstances, it can be demoralizing for students to remain faithful to the biblical norms they have been taught all their lives. They may even begin to be skeptical of those norms, longing to be rid of those old-fashioned convictions so as to lower the social cost of participation in modern society. We all long to be accepted. It is very hard to hold unpopular views.

As a caring, Christian, university community, it is Baylor’s job to care for these students during this time when they must make the decision for themselves whether to live as they have been raised to live, or take a different path.

This does not mean that Baylor can ignore or overlook those students who are exploring alternative understandings of human sexuality. Some students whose dispositions or desires do not comport with scriptural teaching will disregard the traditional views they inherited; others will carry an increasingly heavy cross by continuing to abide by them. Both groups deserve care, albeit in distinct ways. Demonstrating concern and support for students cannot be a zero-sum game. But caring for those students who might be marginalized inside Baylor is also no excuse to fail to care for students who might be marginalized outside of Baylor for their views.

In a pluralistic society we all must ask ourselves which values we will embrace as our own. This is a serious issue, and as members of this community our students deserve the opportunity to consider the question on its rational merits. We cannot unreflectively adopt a politics of identity, or reinforce stereotypes that traditional convictions necessarily make a person hateful, or try to substitute appeals to feelings for rational engagement of the issues.

We should encourage all our students to stand on principle, and abandon their positions only if that is where the arguments really lead. They should have ample opportunity to dig deep into traditional Christian teaching about sexuality, both its scriptural foundation and theological developments. We should give our students the confidence to be honest about how churches might have failed to demonstrate care, while also helping them understand the historical factors that partly explain why that teaching has been abandoned so recently by so many powerful people. We should help our students learn to distinguish forms of care and love that allow for correction from those that demand mere acceptance and affirmation.

Caring for our students in these ways fosters a university which expresses its care distinctively as a university. In our own corners of the university, we see this care in action while gathered with students around the seminar table, carefully reading a great thinker like Plato, discussing what he means together, asking questions like whether Socrates was right to let himself be killed: in moments like these, we are human, for here we seek understanding. This human unity we share is why a university really can offer a distinctive form of care: care for souls, in which we suffer together in the unwavering pursuit of truth, even hard truth.

Tom Ward, Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, Baylor University

Matthew Lee Anderson, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion