[Christianity Today, February 2005]
Anyone who’s been on a college campus lately will confirm the depressing report delivered by Vigen Guroian in his essay [about sex on campus]. As someone who does a lot of campus speaking, I’ve seen my fair share of posters announcing sex-toy workshops, transgender celebrations, and, on one Ivy League campus, an open invitation to a “naked party.” What’s a naked party? Anybody who wants can attend, but you have to take off all your clothes to stay.
It makes you want to weep for the children, for girls in particular, who deserve to be protected from this carnival of leering and molestation. Guroian hits the target in his demand that colleges do more to provide such protection. But what about the students themselves? How can we help them resist this expectation?
There are three typical strategies, and I don’t think any of them works. The first is practical: We tell students to abstain because immorality leads to misery. But the libertines in the audience don’t see evidence that this is so; they’re having fun, for the most part, and it doesn,t look like anyone is harmed. The second is romantic: We tell students that marriage is glorious. Once again, they don’t see a lot of evidence of that, not in the lives of married people they know, perhaps especially in the lives of their parents. What they saw at the breakfast table for the last 18 years doesnt look that great, and what they did last night didn’t feel that bad.
The third is our foundational premise that it’s a matter of “objective morality.” We regularly complain that young people have no absolute values; that, in Guroian’s words, “There is no right and wrong.” But this message is likely to strike hearers as irrelevant, speculative, and quaint. Not only that, but flat-out wrong. These students have an objective morality. It’s just different from ours. They believe that it’s objectively wrong to dump someone in a callous way. It’s wrong to have sex with someone who isn’t willing. It’s wrong to transgress any one of a hundred subtle etiquette cues about who may sleep with whom under what circumstances. There is plenty of objective morality on their side, and they think it’s better than ours. As far as they can see, theirs is working and ours looks pointlessly difficult. Why should they switch? This argument sounds like nothing more than “because I said so.”
What we really mean, of course, is “because God said so.” And indeed persevering in chastity is so difficult that no other motive except self-abandoning love of God is sufficient. All the warnings about the dangers of promiscuity, all the vaunted bliss of marriage, can be irrefutably countered by somebody’s experience. Doing the right thing is not guaranteed to make you happy, and the wicked sometimes thrive. But because the love of God constrains us, because our bodies are not our own but bought with a price, we persevere in a difficult path, pressing on toward the light ahead.
Now, this is a difficult sell to people who don’t believe in God. For them, this is like a shiny new car with no engine. If you don’t have the motive of love for God, passion for purity looks like an empty shell.
I believe that the only conversation that will currently make sense begins with faith in God. The best we can do is speak passionately about our own experience-our own transformative contact with God, and how it has reordered actions and relationships, and empowered ever-greater deeds and greater love. It’s not a bad story, actually, and authentic passion has a way of connecting with an audience that theoretical propositions cannot.
I say “currently” because I think there is long-term hope. Look at It Happened One Night. While that excellent film exhibits good sexual morality, it also displays behavior more acceptable at the time: drunkenness, smoking, threats to “sock” the female star. Hollywood wouldn’t include such elements today, because the culture changed. It got better. Bad behavior hurts, and eventually this becomes undeniable. Chastity has been such a fixture of human history that the current situation is wildly anomalous, and I expect it will eventually right itself, probably due to women realizing that promiscuity doesn’t make them feel empowered, but endangered. It may even turn out, in a supreme irony, that the current phenomenon of transitory student lesbianism was just a strategy of desperation, the only way society currently allows young women to tell boys, “Go away, I’m not ready.”
“God hates sin,” some emphasize. But God hates sin like the parent of a leukemia victim hates cancer. God really does love the sinner. In order to reach the sinner we will have to love them too, and offer ourselves humbly and authentically as examples of what God’s power can do.