In a culture where religion is either too vocal about sex or too silent, the students and faculty that filled up the UC Auditorium on Tuesday night for the "Sex Week" Religion and Sexuality panel wanted more than answers — they wanted discussion.
"They just want to see you all talking about these things," professor Tina Shepardson, moderator of the panel, said as questions flooded in via text message from students in the UC Auditorium.
The panel was comprised of six representative members of various religions and denominations — James Conant, UT math professor and Buddhist; Father Charlie Donahue, Catholic priest at Blessed John XXIII; Abdel Rahman Murphy, Muslim representative; Heather Godsey, pastor at Wesley Foundation and representative of mainline Christianity; Rabbi Alon Ferency, rabbi at Heska Amuna; and Britton Sharp, Director of CRU (Campus Crusade for Christ).
Together, these panelists took on a wide array of questions: at what point does your religion say that sex happens?
What is you religion's perspective on LGBTQ marriage and relationships? What kinds of sex are permissible within a marriage?
In their answers, the panelists referenced their scripture and tradition as well as talked on a more personal level about these issues.
Father Donahue discussed the LGBTQ topic from a Catholic perspective but included a personal example from his own life.
"My sister and her partner wanted me to be the godfather of their child," Donahue said. "I was in Rome studying at the time, and I was like 'yeah, but let me kind of check.' So I consulted a cardinal about the situation. He said, 'Of course you can't, but of course you must.'
"So I have great pictures of myself at the christening, and it's awesome ... and it's wonderful because it's who we are and how we support each other."
As the night went on, the questions and panelists continued to reflect the complexity of the relationship between sex and religion. The panelists were asked questions about the authority of their scripture and how religion adapts to culture over time. For these questions, the answers were less clear-cut and more interpretive.
Rabbi Ferency emphasized that he is not comfortable with everything in his religious tradition and encouraged the audience to struggle with their beliefs.
"It's good to flinch at it," Ferency said. "Be challenged by it, grapple with what your tradition says and then reinterpret and reject. Say it with gritted teeth. Always find something to wrestle with."
At the end of the panel, each person was allowed to address one misconception they thought others had about their religion or denomination. The responses provided insight into the contrast between the reality of these ideas and the stereotypes people project onto religions. From the Islamic perspective, Murphy's misconception dealt with tradition and gender roles.
"People think that a man and a woman have relative value," Murphy said. "I'll ask my congregation, 'What's a man's job?' and they'll say, 'to earn a living, to be a man." So I'll ask what a woman's job is and they'll say, 'to make children and food.'
"And it's sad, because our job is to serve God and serve humanity."
Both Godsey and Father Donahue talked about how a common misconception for them concerned how their religion thinks about sex and the importance of virginity.
"The biggest thing people think is that I care about your sex life," Father Donahue said, eliciting laughter from the crowd. "Even more, that I care about your sex life more than anything else about you."
For the students in attendance, the event was a way for honest, respectful dialogue to be opened up about the role that sex plays in religion. Mary Ann Willis, a junior in history, liked the diversity of opinions the panel had.
"I liked hearing different outlooks, even within the Christian church," Willis said. "I feel like most UT students grew up in a faith that didn't explain and now they are dealing with all these questions and they don't know how to reconcile their beliefs. That's why events like these are so helpful."
The event ended on a light note when it came time for Rabbi Ferency to address misconceptions about Judaism.
"A lot of people think that Jewish men and women are sexual dynamos," Ferency said, trying to keep a straight face.
"It's not all of us, but it's definitely a majority."