“What is the point or purpose of human sexuality? How are we supposed to think about it? This has been a question for philosophers. Tell me one movie you’ve seen in which love interest isn’t somehow central to it.”
The litany of romance-obsessed movies proves Professor of Philosophy and Religion Nathan Schlueter’s point: from classics like “Casablanca,” to action films like “The Lord of the Rings,” or even cultural favorites like “Harry Potter,” love is all around us.
Hillsdale is notorious for its commitment to the higher things, but few professors have deigned to approach a subject as complicated as love. Schlueter is the exception.
His course “Philosophy of Love, Sex, and Marriage” reflects “the College’s commitment to teaching ‘timeless truths about the human condition’ along ‘such moral and social instruction as will best develop the minds and improve the hearts of its pupils,’” according to the course’s catalogue description. And although love, sex, and marriage are topics we’re all familiar with, Schlueter dives into the mysterious nature of all three.
“There is no longer a script in our culture for how to find and choose a mate, and then keep it,” Schlueter said. “The script is gone. And you see the confusion that people don’t know what the process is, the cultural norms, practices, rights, or rituals that used to be there to help guide our reason and judgment: They’re just gone.”
Sophomore Matthias Rhein has observed the gradual loss of the “dating” script in newer generations.
“As far as I understand, ever since the breakdown of the calling system, there’s not been a set in stone structure, or a script for young people to find a spouse,” Rhein said. “It’s all improv. There’s no regularized standard for how people should act in romantic relationships, so that means that every person has to live up to a standard that doesn’t exist.”
The invisible standard creates questions that Schlueter’s class aims to answer, like: What is erotic love? What is sexual desire? Is there something distinctively human in it, or is it merely an “animal appetite”? What are the moral norms governing sexual desire? What is the best way to find and win the right person for marriage?
“A vast portion of our lives are preoccupied with these questions. They should be at the very center of our curriculum given their centrality. We all come from families, we come from marriages, and we go forth to those,” Schlueter said.
Obviously, these aren’t easy questions to answer — and they’re more difficult for college-aged students. But in these years of formation, Schlueter said, these are subjects students need to learn.
“One part of a liberal arts education is self-knowledge,” Schlueter said. “This aspect of ourselves is not accidental. God made sexuality to be one of the most central aspects of our own identity and self understanding. It’s central to who we are and so it demands a lot of reflection.”
Luckily, students who took Schlueter’s class last fall are further along writing that script than most.
“Good dating is knowing what you want in a relationship before you go into one,” Rhein said. “You should definitely talk it out with the other person, but you should know the values and expectations you have so you can be up front about them, rather than sort of discovering them as you go. That seems very unreliable because people can come in with very mixed expectations.”
Sophomore John Paul Schlueter had personal ties to the course — and not just because his uncle is teaching it.
“When my dad was in seminary, by studying theology of the body, he discovered his vocation. When he met my mom, my mom was obsessed with Pope John Paul II and ‘Theology of the Body,’” John Paul said. “They got married and wanted my name to be John Paul. I knew about ‘Theology of the Body’ and the basics, but as I was reading it, I realized that without this, I wouldn’t be here.”
But John Paul’s journey of self-discovery went further than the theoretical ideas he learned. For him, it was an insight into the practical application of how to better love God’s creation.
“I realized even more that we are not made for mediocre relationships, but that because we’re made in the image and likeness of God, our relationships are meant to be things that reflect that,” John Paul said. “In that class, you’re able to study what that means and what it means to cherish another person as a person and not just as somebody you’re interested in. Realizing the value of somebody, and what it means to protect that and cherish that and lay it on the line for that in such a way that you’re giving glory to God and not just yourself.”
It’s understanding those human relationships that’s made Schlueter’s course so successful — and students are grateful.
“I get letters, I get emails, I get wedding invitations from students from a whole variety of different religious faiths and perspectives who express gratitude for the course,” Schlueter said.
Even more important is the audience who have been helped by Schlueter’s course. Understanding sexuality can be embarrassing, awkward, and shameful. The beauty of the course, however, is how it pushes students to accept parts of themselves they otherwise might not have.
“In truth, I get students that are struggling with various things, but their vulnerability has been great,” Schlueter said. “Brock Lutz and I work together to deal with a lot of those things, whether it be porn addiction, same-sex attraction, all kinds of things. If we’re going to truly care about people, we need to have a way in which people can deal with those things, and not be simply so ashamed of them that they never want to deal with them.”
A topic like sexuality is a source of shame for many. Junior Aidan Cyrus said that growing up, he didn’t consider sexuality to be an inherent good.
“I grew up with an almost puritanical mindset, with an Augustinian view of sex, where it’s always perverted by lust even in marriage because of sin,” Cyrus said. “There is a mystery to it in that it’s not something you can understand, but something you can seek to understand.”
With age, Catholicism, and general growth, Cyrus changed his perspective. But it was Schlueter’s class that allowed him to grasp the true significance of human sexuality.
“Through the class, you can make these sort of things intelligible, you’re able to at least, hopefully, start to practice directing your own sexuality toward the good things that we talk about, like toward total goodwill to others, whether you’re in a relationship or just towards your friends,” Cyrus said. “You end up seeing them as goods, in and of themselves, and wanting what’s best for them.”
Senior Natalie Kent has been in a successful relationship for eight years. Although both Kent and her partner were raised in the Catholic faith and had an understanding of the importance of sexuality, Schueter’s course helped them understand why.
“The best part of the class was learning and coming to understand more deeply why I believe what I believe,” Kent said. “A lot of the information that we encountered throughout the class wasn’t necessarily unfamiliar, but it was such a gift to learn more about the core principles of the Catholic faith and particularly, how important it is to always prioritize the dignity of the human person.”
For Kent, the course took Hillsdale’s mission to the next level of education.
“At Hillsdale, we talk all about becoming a lifelong learner. Becoming a lifelong learner doesn’t always have to begin with a new principle,” Kent said. “Oftentimes, the most redemptive part of being a lifelong learner is understanding the core principles of what has impacted people’s lives. The biggest takeaway for me was that at the end of the day, it all comes back to admiration and recognition of the respect that each person is due because of their human nature.”
Schlueter isn’t trying to fix the world’s problems, be the next Hillsdale matchmaker, or completely revolutionize the dating scene; he’s trying to push students to understand, recognize, and embrace their sexuality as a force for good.
“Some of what we read allows you to see that you can have some confidence that God made this part of us to be good, even if it’s wounded by sin, it’s mysterious and it’s funny — it’s part of the adventure of life to sort of live it and deal with it. There’s a kind of joy in that,” he said.
Schlueter plans to teach the course every fall semester. As of now, he said he will open two sections, each with 25 students, for the 2021 fall semester.
“I’m not trying to indoctrinate students into some sort of narrow conception of these things. I certainly think there are truths to be taught and embraced, then we go through those in the arguments, and I certainly want them to be equipped,” Schlueter said. “When they leave Hillsdale to deal with the confusion that’s out of the culture they need to be ready for this. But I also think they need to not be afraid of it.”
Ultimately, the focus of the class is God: God is love. And hopefully, students who take the class learn that love actually does exist — but that it’s much richer, beautiful, and more meaningful when you understand why.