August 5, 2009

Religion, Sex and Money

A new course offered by the Rev. David O’Leary covers all the hot topics with a cool eye

By Helene Ragovin

The title of the Rev. David O’Leary’s newest course offering says it all: “Religions, Sex and Money.”

“The only thing missing is rock-n-roll,” jokes O’Leary, university chaplain and a senior lecturer in religion in the School of Arts and Sciences.

“I try to teach my kids that you can’t just take one line from sacred scripture or sacred text and say that ends the discussion,” says the Rev. David O’Leary. “That’s just the beginning of the discussion.” Photo: Alonso Nichols

O’Leary taught the course for the first time during summer session, and will offer it again in the spring 2010 semester. The class examines how five of the major faith traditions—Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism—tackle sexual ethics, the human body, money and economic justice. It’s a synthesis of two of his earlier courses, “World Religions and Sexual Ethics” and “World Religions and Economic Justice.” Demand was high for the summer course, and O’Leary says that interest in religion courses has been growing steadily over the past few years.

Tufts Journal: Sex is a sensitive topic in religion: how are the five religions similar and different in their approaches?

O’Leary: Hinduism and Judaism come out the most positive about the human body. That’s a nice thing to keep coming back to: Hinduism and Judaism have a very, very, healthy outlook about sexuality, the person and the body. Whereas, sadly, the other three, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, for many years saw the body as being “bad”—they had this dichotomy, this split, about “mind-good; body-bad.” And they’re slowly recovering from that split. It’s taken a while for the other three faiths to catch up, to take a positive look at the body.

It’s interesting that it’s not just a split between Eastern and Western religions. Why do you think that is?

Out of all the world faiths and spiritual traditions both Hinduism and Judaism are the oldest; Hinduism in the East and Judaism as the oldest of the monotheistic traditions. Because of this, both have had the time to see, to learn that the human person should be about holiness and wholeness. Building the foundation for good family life and making the world a better place for the next generation and repairing the world can only happen if there is a positive view of the human person, body and spirit. Thus wholeness and holiness are seen as the goal.

And how do the different religions view economic issues?

All the faith paths have struggled with similar questions: how do we live in the world if the world is market-based? Do we charge interest on a loan? With what do we support ourselves—what’s a ‘right livelihood’?

Buddhism comes out the best in this regard, talking about right career paths, about right livelihood. Buddhism has a lot to teach about economic justice, and some of the other faith paths are just catching up in that area. In the ’70s, different Christian religious groups started asking some profound questions: “Where are our pensions invested? What’s in our stock portfolios?” Religious communities of men and women started to raise those simple questions, and that eventually changed financial investing. Now we have green investment strategies, non-armament investment strategies. There are all sorts of ways that people can live their faith and consistently invest properly.

How are sacred texts incorporated into the course?

We do a lot of investigating, reading the sacred texts from a historical, critical perspective. And after we have that as a foundation, we look at sexuality and how we use the terms. For instance, if any sacred text talks about man and woman, how are we translating that? We do have to pause. When it was written, we did not have the idea of post-Freudian personhood. We have much different baggage when we use those terms today. The same is true when we’re talking about sexual practices: What was true back then and what do we do now? We have to balance that.

That’s where the sacred tradition always wins out over the sacred text. Tradition is always reinterpreting the text.

So there are differences between text and tradition?

Yes, and at some point, we just have to acknowledge the inconsistency. For a believer of a faith path or tradition, it probably makes sense, but that’s the faith element. For an outsider, you’re just left with a big question mark. And then as a teacher of religion, I just label it as an inconsistency—so I don’t try to call any faith path wrong or bad. I just say for believers that’s how they live it or practice it.

What happens when students discover things in the texts that conflict with today’s  social or ethical norms?

For one, we have to be very careful when we use a very technical term. What did the word “homosexuality” mean in Jewish scripture? What does the word mean in Christian scriptures? Or in Hindu or Buddhist scriptures? And what does the practice mean in Islam? We have to be very careful of what the original meaning was, and what the reality is today. For most of the faith paths, the reason they were against homosexuality, for example, was regarding temple prostitution. It had nothing to do with homosexuality. Sometimes that gets missing in the text.

That’s just one example. You can take each sexual question and go right through. What’s the definition of premarital sex? What’s the definition of contraception? What’s the definition of divorce and remarriage? You can take every issue—and they’re all hot-button, red-flag issues—and ask what did the text mean, what has tradition done with that question and how are we living it today?

I try to teach my kids that you can’t just take one line from sacred scripture or sacred text and say that ends the discussion. That’s just the beginning of the discussion.

That complexity seems to be the theme for this class.

That’s the glory of studying religion: you are at least able to say there’s more than one way to read the text. Then I point out that, over the centuries, believers themselves have lived this differently. Let’s remember that.

I think that’s what we need to reclaim with Islam. Granted, the Arab and Muslim cultures have given us much. But if we go back to the beginning of Islam, people were able to think for themselves, and we lost that. So the big word I always try to teach my kids is ijtihad—independent thinking—that’s the big word in Islam. You were meant to think for yourself.

Here’s another great quote, from Salman Rushdie: “Fundamentalism is never about religion, but always about power.” Whenever anyone says they want to go back to the beginning, what they’re really saying is, “let’s do it my way.”

I’m just trying to raise the point that there’s more than one way of reading a text and living a faith path.

Do undergraduate students come into these classes with a significant background in religion?

No, they come in very cold. That’s why we have to start with an overview. I have to explain what the faith paths even stand for. How do you teach Hinduism in 75 minutes? There’s a challenge.

Yet in today’s world, people know they need to know more about religion since it’s in every other headline we see. World issues are being dominated by either religious or spiritual realities, and students recognize that they need to at least be exposed to this. The glory of the Tufts religion department is that we don’t teach faith; we teach from a historical, critical perspective. You can believe whatever you want—or don’t want—but you’re going to learn from a historical and critical perspective about all of the faith paths and start to have the tools to have a further discussion.

Someone needs to have a handle on all of the faiths. Just because you study religion doesn’t mean you will become ordained or become an academic. Last spring, in my course “World Religions and International Relations,” we used the Madeleine Albright book, The Mighty and the Almighty. In that book, she recalls how as secretary of state, she had the power to call up any number of people in the State Department who were experts on nuclear proliferation, business, economics. She asked for one religion expert, and the State Department did not have any. How sad.

Helene Ragovin can be reached at


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