Professor Donna Freitas begins her religious studies class by asking her students an unusual theological question: "What do you think of online dating services?" The 21 college juniors and seniors, all but one of them women, collectively wriggle their noses in distaste.
"Do people our age really use those?" one student asks, incredulously. "Aren't they kind of for 30- to 40-year-old desperate types?" Then, noticing a visitor in the room, she adds, "Not to offend anyone."
"Those online dating services don't really apply to us," another woman volunteers. "College is already kind of a dating service."
Freitas is 32, petite and waif-like, with long black hair and a chatty exuberance. Perched cross-legged on her desk and wearing modish glasses, black leather boots and pink corduroy bellbottoms, she could easily be mistaken for one of her students. She changes the subject to a favorite topic of hers, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and starts talking about the spiritual consequences -- within the fictional universe of the TV show -- of its characters, Buffy and Angel, having sex. Freitas asks her students to think about how this view of dating, romance, intimacy and male-female friendships differs from the ones reflected in shows like "Friends," "Dawson's Creek," or "The O.C."
For the next hour or so, the conversation meanders from glamour magazines to instant messaging to self-help dating guides to cinematic shagging. For a while, the class feels like a late-night bull session -- minus the pajamas and popcorn. It's not exactly the theological gravitas you'd expect from an upper level religious-studies class at a Catholic college.
But despite the absence of Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine, this isn't "Cosmopolitan 101" either. These 21 students are enrolled in a new course at St. Michael's College in Colchester called "Dating and Friendship," which is seeking serious spiritual answers to some thorny religious questions. For example, how do young, single men and women develop a spiritual framework for thinking and talking about sex, dating and romance? And, how do they find a place for themselves within organized religions that almost universally condemn as sinful all sex and intimacy outside of marriage?
Even for Freitas, a professor of spirituality with graduate degrees from Georgetown and Catholic University, there are no easy answers, particularly when it comes to sex. "I searched everywhere for a place in a religious tradition that would affirm having sex apart from marriage," she admits. "But I couldn't find anything, other than some wacky mating rituals."
Freitas' course at St. Mike's was born out of a book she co-authored in 2003 with her college friend, Jason King, called Save the Date: A Spirituality of Dating, Love and Dinner, and the Divine. In the process of researching the book, they discovered that on the rare occasion that religion has something to say about dating -- as opposed to courtship, the acceptable precursor to marriage -- it's usually negative. Simply put, most religions view dating as a problem that needs to be fixed, i.e., through marriage.
Freitas, who was raised a Catholic, offers an example. "The phenomenon I see now coming out of the Evangelical movement is the motto, 'Get your kids to the altar ASAP. APAP: as soon as possible, as pure as possible,'" Freitas says. "The message there seems to be that the best preparation for marriage is to have no prior relationships at all. But ask a 30-year-old not to date? That doesn't work, either."
Interestingly, academia also hasn't been very helpful in offering spiritual advice to a generation of young people who are marrying later, if at all. Freitas found that many colleges offer classes on religion and marriage, religion and family, or religion and love -- but none on religion and dating.
The self-help books on dating and spirituality were no better. Freitas discovered that most of them, especially those written from a Christian perspective, subscribe to the "New Celibacy" philosophy, and advise young people to "kiss dating good-bye," "return to modesty," or enlist in the army of abstinence. Those that do condone dating, Freitas discovered, were less interested in exploring how a romantic relationship can augment one's spiritual development than in offering tips for manipulating or controlling a mate, an outlook she describes as "hilarious but disturbing."
"I feel like there's a real disconnect between dating and religion, but there are spiritual resources to help people," Freitas says. "It's just that people aren't making those connections."
A logical starting point, she explains, is with descriptions of sacred love. Although dating is never mentioned in the Bible, love is a common subject. Consider, for example, the Song of Songs, the Bible's most famous depiction of erotic love, or St. Paul's presentation of love in 1 Corinthians 13, in which the apostle describes the many characteristics of love. As Freitas writes, "It is patient, kind, not jealous, not pompous, not inflated, not rude, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things and never fails. It is the greatest of God's gifts."
Where do "Buffy" and "Friends" fit in? As Freitas explains to her students, though popular culture and organized religion often present diametrically opposing views around dating -- rampant promiscuity on one extreme or total abstinence on the other -- they share a common assumption: Both equate dating with sex and assume that you never have one without the other. Both viewpoints are too one-dimensional to have much meaning for today's sophisticated and socially active young people.
In both her book and her class, Frietas encourages students to step outside themselves and reflect on the various forces that are shaping their attitudes and expectations about love, sex and relationships -- books, movies, TV, music, the Internet -- then figure out how they can "knit together" those attitudes with their own spiritual values.
One of her primary teaching tools is journaling. Each week, Freitas' students are required to write about their reading assignments, but they can also include their personal stories, excerpts from fiction, poetry, and their own reflections on heartbreak and hooking up. If it sounds a bit Briget Jones-ish, well, it is. Freitas also wrote Becoming a Goddess of Inner Poise: Spirituality for the Bridget Jones in All of Us. In it, she explains how in many spiritual traditions, the process of confessing one's personal story is itself a sacred act. Hey, it worked for St. Augustine.
But Freitas' goal isn't to challenge the church's stance on premarital sex or to peddle her own sexual mores. In fact, Save the Date was written from a distinctly Christian perspective and offers several nuanced opinions on the subject. King, her co-author, typically voices the more traditional view that, in an ideal world, sex should only take place within the confines of marriage. Freitas' views are more liberal.
Like her books, Freitas' class isn't judgmental. Instead, she talks about how love and romance can be used to learn selfless behavior, to see others as gifts rather than as means to an end. Lovers can be fellow sojourners on a spiritual journey. Though Freitas is critical of the Evangelicals' obsession with female purity, she's not preaching a lifestyle. Rather, she teaches her students that there are many different texts -- from the Song of Songs to "Sex in the City" -- for discovering a spiritual path.
Not surprisingly, "Dating and Friendship" was instantly popular among St. Mike's students; reportedly, the class closed a half-hour after registration began. Freitas admits she would have preferred a better gender balance than 20 to 1. But having taught many courses in gender studies, including "Feminist Theory" and "Women and Spirituality," she's used to classes that are mostly women.
Andrew Falzone, the lone male in the class, had no idea what he was in for, but now loves the course -- though he wishes there were other guys to help round out the discussions. "I'm not the typical guy who goes out on a Friday night looking to get some," says Falzone. "But...I'm really enjoying it... In high school, I had this idea of what college is supposed to be, classes like this."
Junior Maureen Sexton, a psych major, agrees. "It seems like there's nothing else like this here, so when the opportunity arises that's not mainstream, I jumped on it," she says. "I love her to death."
Such endorsements aren't surprising. Several students commented that college life is filled with parties, group outings and casual sex that only occasionally lead to monogamous relationships, but formal dating is still a rarity. As one student remarked, "'I'll meet you at the kegger at 10' isn't dating. That's hooking up."
Orla O'Brien, another junior and a journalism major, says she never even considered the possibility that Catholicism could have anything useful to tell her about her romantic affairs.
"If I had to choose between making my own decisions and my faith, I've always chosen my own decisions. I'd never let the church tell me what to do when it comes to dating or premarital sex or birth control," she says. "But this class has reopened the possibility that maybe I can find a place for myself within my religion."
And, she adds, "Now I feel like I'm going to want more out of a relationship."