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Professor Mark Jordan speaks at “Why theology should think again about sex” lecture


Mark D. Jordan, Ph.D., who is a Harvard University Divinity School professor and scholar of Christian theology, European philosophy, and gender studies, addressed the Loyola community on Thursday, Feb. 11, in a lecture entitled, “Why Theology Must Think Again About Sex.”

While Professor Jordan teaches many theologically based courses at Harvard, such as the western traditions of Christian theology and the relations of religion to art and culture, he made it clear at the beginning of his discussion that he would present to the audience “[his] secular self on the topic of sex.”

With that being said, Professor Jordan began his lecture by outlining the questions that he says often get lost in our culture’s discussion of sexual ethics, including the ideas of cases, case borders, case scales, sexual identity and natural law.

As an introduction to his topic of cases, Professor Jordan read an example of a case from a Title IX training involving two individuals, Lee and Alex. In the hypothetical, the individuals go to Lee’s room during a study break where Lee initiated sexual activity with Alex, after Alex said that it may be a bad idea and proceeded to cry. Professor Jordan explained that the reason why cases like these make readers and listeners uncomfortable is because of the underlying sexual ethic issues that these cases represent.

Professor Jordan suggested that cases such as these that are often used by universities and corporations and purposefully use gender-neutral names and do not give explicit details on individuals’ relationships, marital statuses, or use of contraceptives because what the organization is really interested in is the issue of consent. He proceeded to ask, “how might this case change if we introduced theological principles?” He also said that he was interested in examining what theology may learn from current secular conversations.

With this in mind, Professor Jordan began discussing the idea of cases that are used to define and describe instances of sexual activity. He started with the idea of case borders, or the decisions that are made as to where the beginning and the end of a case should lie. This, Professor Jordan said, “shows what is ethically relevant to the case.” He explained that information that is intentionally omitted or that allows us to make assumptions also contributes to the ethical relevancy of the case. In response, Professor Jordan challenged Loyola community members to try to write their own minimum requirements for a case of sexual ethics, including a time frame.

Professor Jordan also discussed scales—the frames, or lenses, through which we look at sex. He discussed three scales in particular: the scale of the bedroom, the scale of the current social system, and the scale of epochs of power, as well as their importance in cases of sexual ethics. The scale of the bedroom, Professor Jordan said, is the most limited scale because it limits sexual ethics to the act of two bodies. He explained that the broader scale of the current social system is built on the idea that the scale of the bedroom, according to many theorists, needs to be much larger and encompass a “societal level.” Still broader is the scale of epochs of power, which Professor Jordan said refers to the ability to find the basis of current ideas of sexual ethics in the epochs of power of the past. Professor Jordan suggested that those who support the scale of epochs of power believe that our current views on sex can be traced to roots in important historical movements throughout the world.

Following this discussion, Professor Jordan addressed the idea of the “set of rules” that he said many Christians and non-Christians perceive theology to have set regarding sexual ethics. He said that God regulates sexual behavior “because sexual acts affect one’s relation with God.”

Professor Jordan then explained that the thing that makes sex “especially problematic” is the idea of sexual identity, which he said is “imperative in talking about sex.”

“I don’t believe that God creates identities,” said Professor Jordan. “I believe that God creates human beings…who have identities assigned to them.” In relation to this affirmation, Professor Jordan posed the question, “then what does God create in relation to sex?” To which he responded that we don’t yet have an adequate theological explanation. Professor Jordan then introduced his second exercise for the audience to attempt at home: writing what they think God created when He made what we call “human sexuality.”

Professor Jordan then referred back to his previous remarks on the notion of rules that dictate human sexuality, saying that the way theology looks at sex should not be based on rules, but rather on the life of Jesus throughout the gospels. He then asked, “What combination of story and sacrament do we have for sex?”

Professor Jordan also touched on natural law—the ethical code of conduct that, according to theology, logically emerges from the nature and wisdom that the Creator gave to human beings. He explained that he does not agree with the notion that we should be able to reach conclusions on sexual ethics through reasoning and natural law because natural law “fails as moral instruction.” “God has to reveal truth because our reason is so flawed by sin,” said Professor Jordan.

Professor Jordan concluded his lecture with the idea that “the problem with our thinking on sex is that it begins much too late.” Sexual ethics education must begin with childhood, and the way the individuals in a case became the people they are. In this way, Professor Jordan said, sexual ethics must “provide hope for transformation,” because “sex is never only about sex.” Professor Jordan left the audience with one final challenge: to reflect on how each individual’s thinking about sex had been formed; how he or she wished it had been formed; and what he or she desired.

Following his discussion, Professor Jordan allowed time for a question-and-answer portion of the evening, where he clarified and covered topics ranging from his notion of transformation in relation to sex, the ideas and roles of adultery and lust, and his notion that God did not create identity.


Photo from Loyola University Maryland (Facebook).

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Professor Mark Jordan speaks at “Why theology should think again about sex” lecture