How Christians Can Talk About Sexual Ethics: Campus Lecture with Visiting Professor Dr. J. Budziszewski
“We human beings may wish we could live in ways that cut across the grain of our nature and still be happy. We demand happiness on terms that make happiness impossible.” Dr. J. Budziszewski, a visiting professor from UT Austin and author of On the Meaning of Sex, addressed 130 students during a lecture on February 9. He explained that we humans want things that are not good for us. Budziszewski has plenty of authority to make this observation. He is a philosopher who has spent decades thinking and writing about natural law. He is a teacher who has seen students wrestle with questions of sexual ethics. And he is a Christian who, like Paul in Romans 7, sees our human tendency to fail in doing the good we want to do.
Modern culture is confused about sexual ethics. For Christians, Scripture answers questions about sexual ethics, and the Holy Spirit teaches the goodness of obedience to God’s law. But what about people who have never read what the Bible says about human nature and the way of life that allows them to flourish? Budziszewski’s lecture “Sex: Apologetics Without Apologies” took up this question: how should Christians talk about sexual ethics with people who do not already see their value, people who might not acknowledge that sexual ethics even exist? He did not attempt to outline sexual ethics or the reasons why they are important. Rather, he focused on using natural law principles to guide how we talk about sexual ethics.
Conversations with co-workers, friends and students have shown Budziszewski that people are frequently dissatisfied with relationships. So many are perpetually disappointed with ex-wives, ex-boyfriends or past hookups. They recognize something wrong with their lifestyle but don’t know what to do or how to change. He acknowledged that others claim perfect happiness in their lifestyle that denies sexual ethics. To both groups—the disheartened and the perpetually optimistic—defenders of sexual ethics can present a more beautiful vision of how to live. Budziszewski urged his listeners to talk about sexual ethics with confidence and to rely on the testimony of natural law.
You might think this charge—to use natural law when talking to our friends—sounds ridiculous. How many friends want to listen while we lecture on befuddling concepts to build up to our point that they shouldn’t sleep with their boyfriend? None. But Budziszewski did not suggest lecturing or teaching natural law. He encouraged using natural law to help you understand what kinds of common-sense points to make about human nature. But we should talk about these things with plain language and only when the time is right: no lecture or natural law expertise required. He illustrated the point like this: if you need to tell your friend it is dangerous to walk off the edge of a cliff, you will not overcomplicate things by trying to explain the inverse-square law of gravitation to them. You will simply warn, “You’ll fall!” Understanding something about natural law raises our awareness about certain matters of common sense so that we can help others see these things too.
According to Budziszewski, there are four different witnesses within our human nature which show what the natural law is: deep consciousness, awareness of design, details of design and understanding of natural consequences. In conversations with real people—classmates, friends, co-workers—Christians can ask questions that get people thinking about each of these things and what their presence says about how we should live.
First, Budziszewski said that humans have deep conscience: a real (though often ignored) knowledge of objective right and wrong. Relativist objectors say morals are merely the product of socialization, handed down through social custom. But even in our culture, which denies sexual morals, people often feel conflicted about their unethical choices. Thus, Budziszewski suggested asking the person whether they ever feel conflicted about their choices. People rarely admit their confusion outright; more often, it emerges between the lines of their denial. In that event, you could repeat their words and give them a chance to hear their own misunderstanding.
Second, we can recognize that we did not make ourselves. Nature gives every appearance of being designed for a purpose. Budziszewski added, “Deep down, we know we are not meaningless and purposeless results of a process that did not have us in mind.” He pointed to how humans think of themselves: not as a “blooming, buzzing confusion” but as an “ordered whole.” If we start to feel disordered, we recognize this as a deficit, a negative change from our actual state. Humans were designed with purpose. Disorder emerges when we deny this. When friends talk about being hurt by unethical relationships, Budziszewski suggests asking, “do you think maybe we’re not made for that?”
The third built-in witness to the natural law is in the details of our human design. Budziszewski gave the example that kids need a mom and a dad. Psychology supports the idea that the mother and father are complementary, and a child needs parents to stick around. Sometimes people recognize the actions necessitated by the details of human design, but they are skeptical about whether they can live that way. If so, a Christian friend can encourage them to believe it is possible to live the way we were made to live.
The fourth evidence of natural law is the natural consequences of our deeds, sometimes called the law of the harvest. Denying sexual ethics comes at a cost, but we often fail to think that through. In these situations, Budziszewski recommends gently pointing out whatever cognitive dissonance emerges in the conversation by asking, “do you think the way you’re living will bring you closer to the life you want to have?”
Several times in his lecture, Budziszewski emphasized the importance of talking with people at the right time. It is loving to ask a thoughtful question in the right moment, and it is loving to hold your tongue at another time. A person who wants to defend sexual ethics must also be trustworthy. Budziszewski says you must be the kind of person who “exudes trustworthiness.” This genuine trustworthiness gives others the sense that they can talk with you about anything because you love them. These conversations will often be challenging, but they should always be marked by love. After all, love is the reason to show others the better path they could walk on.
This lecture happened thanks to Dr. Jeremy Larson and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). Dr. Larson leads a reading group that engages with books on a wide range of topics: art, education, war, and relationships, etc. They finished reading Budziszewski’s book, On the Meaning of Sex, shortly before this lecture—sponsored by ISI—took place. For more information about the reading group, email Dr. Jeremy Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org.