The doctrine of human nature, and the denial of human nature, is one of the most fraught issues of our day. The recent conference of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology addressed this issue, with several of its specific topics covered by recent articles. Living out the Christian doctrine of human nature is something many find challenging or undesirable in our day, and was the topic of the final presentation at the conference on June 5.
Donna Freitas of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame discussed the campus life common on American colleges and universities. In particular, she discussed the impact of technology, social media, and the acceptance of promiscuity as normal, or “the hookup culture.”
Freitas identified herself as “a progressive Christian.” Referring to the parable of the Good Samaritan, she said that we should give attention to other people, and to people in trouble, but not approach them with the message “I see something wrong with you.” Her subsequent comments indicated that she believes Christians should approach the contemporary world using the Christian tradition to alleviate suffering that people report.
Freitas asked “what does it mean to cultivate an interior life?” She said people today “grab for the smartphone … whenever they’re alone.” She believes that it may be that people are afraid of cultivating an interior life. In living in the contemporary world, she believes that “the Christian tradition has a lot to offer.” With respect to life and contemporary technology, she asks the questions “is it useful? Is it empowering? Is it problematic?” Things that are “disempowering or disinviting” should be gotten rid of. She finds that the current generation of young adults and those approaching young adulthood are dealing with “incredible alienation and loneliness.” In assessing what can be used from the Christian tradition to help people today, important questions are “is it useful? Is it life-giving?” and “how do we practice it?” The practices chosen help “develop an interior life, but also an exterior life.” Christian practice should inform all of life, including those parts of life that seem far removed from the sacred.
In assessing the current sexual behavior of young adults, she finds the behavior of students coming from Roman Catholic or mainline Protestant backgrounds markedly different than those from Evangelical backgrounds. With the former, she said that with the exception of “a conservative young adult population, which is very, very small” religion is seen as “a problem with regard to their sex lives.” Traditional sexual morality, prescribing abstinence until marriage, is seen as “getting in the way of well-being.” Students commonly complain about prohibitions: “don’t do it, don’t use condoms, and don’t be gay.” They feel that “the tradition offers me nothing.” She believes that for today’s students, the “social justice” aspect of the tradition “can be incredibly practical and useful.” She believes that traditional Christians are wrong to tell struggling young people “let me tell you what you’ve done wrong.” Instead, we should say “I see you, I see where you are, and I’m not going anywhere.” She believes that in the current situation, the church has “walked by and not looked for despair.”
Freitas finds young people yearning for spirituality and community, but have turned their back on the church because of what they consider its too difficult morality. They are nevertheless yearning for a “framework” for life. By attending to the problems that young people report, she believes that some of their problems may be resolved, leading them “to different kinds of choices.”
With respect to technology, she said that in addressing this “the Christian tradition is not so challenged.” Here she said that “universities are teaching students to essentially market themselves.” Students are involved in a project in which “you are the product.” One is “constantly making available your life for consumption.” Three words important in this connection are “craft,” “curate,” and “cultivate.” Students need “spotless online profiles.” High school students are taught to “brand themselves” for fear that they won’t get into college. In college, branding is important to getting a job after college. This is tied to social media, where students may feel, as one student reported, “shattered.” The student claimed that “she knows that everyone is lying online.” Everyone is advertising the good and remarkable things in their lives, their best poses, their most incredible new purchases, etc. Life online amounts to “a happiness competition.” The result is “that when you go online, all you are seeing is all this perfection.” What students today learn is that “the most important thing is the appearance of happiness, because real happiness doesn’t matter.” Also a problem, Freitas said, is that in the current high pressure world in which young people live, they are seeking employment after college, and “one post can make or break your life.”
Students do, however, “love their smartphones,” feeling that life is difficult without them. Another conservation about smartphones, however, is “how much they want to get rid of them.” People who report this feel under compulsion to “keep grabbing it.” They even look for occasions, such as camping trips, where smartphones are not allowed. Some report that they are again able to “think clearly” when smartphones are set aside. Others find it difficult to perform ordinary tasks in life without checking their smartphones. Another feature for some seems to be that people using smartphones “cannot focus … [they] cannot concentrate.” Freitas suggested that the pastors present at the conference tell their people to ‘leave their smartphones in the car” when they come to church. People need “permission” or “help” to escape from smartphones. This, she believes, will lead to “healthier relationships.”
Freitas next asked what the Christian tradition has to help people in the age of smartphones. We should attempt to establish social relationships independent of social media. “The willingness to look in the eyes of someone” is important. This helps overcome “the loss of humanity.” The willingness to see another person at this personal level is the first step to heal this loss. This, she believes, is “the most basic way to practice Christianity” in the contemporary world. She said that “human contact is becoming a luxury good.” But “we need to interrupt the scenario that we’re in.”
This writer would comment that, on the face of it, Freitas’ viewpoint destroys the essence of the gospel, which is that whether people are suffering or not, they are sinners in need of Christ and repentance. While, as noted above, she does believe that by attending to problems in light of the Christian tradition, we can help people make better choices, without a call for repentance in light of Scripture, people are not moved from our natural condition as “children of wrath” to God’s favor. This indeed may not be popular; the narrow gate is difficult and we should not ordinarily expect large numbers of people to follow. But unless there is a call to repentance and faith in Jesus for salvation – and salvation from suffering rather than God’s wrath seems to be the touchstone of “progressive Christianity” – we are failing in our duty of Christian mission. People may or may not find help for their specific problems, but the most basic problem of one’s standing with God remains.
Freitas “progressive” viewpoint can easily cause one to overlook the nature of the problems she reports. She reports that contemporary students are yearning for a framework for life, and yet do not want the narrow framework of traditional Christian morality (and very likely, in many cases, orthodox theology as well). Although this means that the true gospel is rejected, simply to address reported problems, which is certainly Freitas’ concern, requires some kind of framework. And the framework she seems to use is giving people happy, satisfying lives in the world that they live in. But the culture of electronic social media and marketing is focused on happiness, and indeed, perfection. Both education and sex are addressed in essentially market terms – universities’ customers are students, students market themselves to the world, sex is treated as a market of bodies independent of personal relationships. And it is causing people problems in controlling their lives and finding satisfaction. A life focused on duty, which means love of God and neighbor, and finding one’s calling in God’ kingdom, will only secondarily be focused on happiness. But one then has the satisfaction of knowing he or she is serving the Lord.
A questioner asked about an article in the Atlantic Monthly concerning why young people are having so little sex. The research for the article showed that pornography and online dating services were replacing sexual relationships. He said that in addition to encouraging young people to make the right choices regarding their sexuality (something Freitas seems to think should be minimized or avoided) young people need to be encouraged to take the risk to develop romantic relationships. Freitas responded that in talking to young people about sexual activity, many seem to have “the most depressing sex ever.” Personal relationships are not developed.
Another questioner spoke of a child who told their grandparent that they could learn everything they were taught in Sunday School online. However, the questioner said that the grandchild could not learn family online. Technology cannot replace the experience of family. There was then a seemingly general question posed as to whether young people today understand what a family is.
In a subsequent panel, a questioner commented that Freitas had emphasized the utility of the Christian tradition at the present time. He said he saw a “red flag” with “the instrumentalizing of the faith.” He said that it is important not “to treat Christianity as an instrument for justice.” He observed as well that “people over the last half century have changed their minds about lots.” He noted that the twentieth century feminist Andrea Dworkin strongly opposed pornography, while today “it has become quite normalized among feminists.” Also, the “trans-exclusionary” feminists assert, contrary to the liberal/left mainstream, that only biological women are in fact women. In light of changes such as these, how are we to know “what’s working and what’s not working?” Freitas, however, seemed to indicate that focusing on usefulness is a good way to relate to young people. Emergency situations provide occasions to focus on what is useful. She understood, however, how the language of usefulness “might resonate in a problematic way.”
Another questioner said that in regard to Freitas’ comments about escaping from smartphones (despite current campus life) the same should apply to approaching students about chastity. He said “we don’t know how to think about chastity now.” He said that the “prohibitions and restrictions” involved in chastity “open up a space that these students perhaps don’t even know that they want.” Freitas responded that students commonly want to be in a different place “with respect to sex and culture” than they are now. “But they don’t yearn for chastity.” She proposes to students that they “press pause” for several days in their sexual activity. Students do “yearn” for that. But another commenter said that chastity is prescribed in Scripture because it is part of love of God and neighbor. If someone says that they are not ready for that, they are saying they do not agree with the gospel. We do not “modify the Ten Commandments or modify the gospel.”
Another commenter observed contrary to what many young people say that they want, “toleration is not a good in itself.” Presumably she meant that in a Christian community, there must be a common morality. Freitas responded that some degree of toleration is needed to “sit at the table” with people one is trying to minister to. She observed that “a lot of young people that I talk to are hurting.” She does, however, seek “long term” change in student’s lives. In response to another question about how we should address sex with young people, Freitas said we need to stop teaching young people that “love and relationships get in the way of your career.” She observed that many college students today feel that they are not allowed to fall in love, because “love gets in the way.” She also feels that the hook-up culture, which prescribes sex without personal relationship, has made it hard for young adults to find love and enter into it.
Another panelist observed that Christians have accepted a cultural dictate that “people need to have their ducks in a row before they get married.” This puts “an enormous burden on young people.” But we also need to discourage young people from engaging in “serial monogamy in their dating, but to think about simply getting to know people of the opposite sex when they are younger.” This “also goes for not delaying families.” It was observed that we need a Christian community that supports “chastity, and therefore supports families.” Although Christians should encourage romantic relationships, a panelist noted that Bonhoeffer said that “love is not the basis for marriage, but marriage is the basis for love.” This was offered with the observation that “every time a man gives thanks for the woman God gave to him, there is a little bit of a reversal of the Fall.”
In response to another question about the answer to the conference’s theme “What’s the good of humanity?” it was held that “the good of humanity is to be united with the triune God.” Panelist Nancy Murphy added that we should not think of what humanity is “good for.” Rather, it is a “good in itself.” The church, however, has a “higher good.” Its good is “to show the glory of God.” She also commented that we have a good in eternity, when we are raised from the dead.
The panel was asked whether grace fulfills nature (a Catholic doctrine) or whether grace overcomes nature (a Protestant doctrine). Is “man something to be overcome (a transhumanist doctrine)?” However, it was asked, isn’t this the doctrine of the apostle Paul? In response, Murphy observed that Eastern Christianity does not make the strong distinction between nature and grace that is made in the Western tradition. An important question here is “what do you mean by nature? That word is very plastic.” It was observed that Paul said that the Gentiles were grafted into a tree in which Jewish believers lived by nature. It was also observed that God’s grace is always present in nature. The distinction of nature and grace makes people think of “two tiers,” namely “what we can do by ourself[ves], and second[ly] what we can do with God’s help.” This, she believes, “is a very self-destructive thought for the Christian.” But to the extent that we are sinners, that does need “to be combated by God’s presence.” Other panelists said that grace is the “enemy of sin,” not in conflict with nature. By nature we have hearts that are directed to see God. But in the new birth, we receive God in us.