Paul Dafydd Jones / Religious Studies

Religion and Sexuality

I sometimes think that the key task of the Religious Studies Department, with respect to undergraduate students, can be easily stated: we aim to help young adults think carefully, respectfully, critically, and imaginatively about religious life in its diverse forms. For sure, this happens in different ways. Professors hold courses on the history of Tibetan Buddhism, on the scholarly interpretation of sacred texts, on religion and war, on ancient Judaism and Christianity, or on the religions of India (our field, to put it mildly, is mind-bogglingly broad and consistently interdisciplinary). A common goal, however, is to enable students to become better citizens, whether that be in the context of the United States or elsewhere. We endeavor to help students to understand the religious diversity of the world in the past and present, therefore to shape the future in valuable ways.

My “dream idea” fits with this understanding of the Department’s mission, but with a twist: it focuses on a set of extremely controversial issues. Specifically, I want to hold a seminar that engages the fraught topic of religion and sexuality, focusing primarily on contemporary Christian views about sexual relationships, reproduction, contraception, and abortion. All of these issues, it seems fair to say, have been acutely controversial in the United States. All of them are tied up with certain views about what it means to be human, and often about what Christians – of various stripes – think that human responsibility entails. And all of them will continue to be central to public debate over the next few decades. What I would like to do, then, is to help some of the talented undergraduates at the University to explore these issues in an academic setting, so that they can contribute effectively to public discussions about religion and sexuality. My role, needless to say, will be facilitative, not ideological, in nature. Rather than promoting any particular “line,” my sole purpose is to help with the formation of a new kind of dialogue about religion and sexuality – one that avoids crass generalizations, cherishes careful thinking, respects difference, and looks towards a new kind of public discourse.

The first half of the seminar – which I envisage involving no more than six to ten undergraduates – would be somewhat conventional in nature. It would involve reading landmark texts, past and present, on topics relating to religion and sexuality. The goal here would be to establish a working knowledge of different viewpoints and to create a social context in which different beliefs and convictions are debated in a respectful and scholarly way. The second half of the seminar would involve a series of field trips to organizations that speak publicly about religion and sexuality. There are many possibilities here, the most well known being the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the Family Research Council, Planned Parenthood, the Christian Coalition of America, and the Human Rights Campaign (all of which have offices in Washington, D.C.).

There are two other aspects of the project that require mention. First, I’d like the seminar to be organized around student interests. I’d hold three or four exploratory sessions in the semester prior to the seminar, which would consider students’ interests. Should students want to focus on exploring a very particular topic – say, religion and same-sex relationships, religion and intimate-partner violence, religion and pornography – then I’d help them construct a syllabus around that topic, and organize field trips accordingly. When the actual seminar took place, then, students would “hit the ground running”: they’d already know each other, and they’d already have a sense of where the seminar was headed. Second, I’d encourage students to think about continuing their conversations after the seminar. This could take various forms: occasional meetings, continued interaction with organizations outside the University, or even a University-wide forum.

I envisage the project expenses to be as follows:

  • Food and soda for exploratory meetings: approx. $200
  • Funding for field trips: tickets to Washington D.C., meals, sundry costs: approx $2200 (this could be considerably lower, depending on transportation options)

As a final word, I would say that I’m thrilled to be named as one of the Mead Honored Faculty for 2010/2011. I look forwards to the opportunity to celebrate the legacy of Professor Ernest “Boots” Mead through closer interaction with students.