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Purpose and the human person: A review of Nancy Pearcey’s book “Love Thy Body”

August 23, 2018

Editor’s Note: Colin Smothers interviewed Nancy Pearcey about her book Love Thy Body on CBMW’s podcast, Danvers Audio. You can listen to the interview here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Other than being among the watershed moral issues of our day, what do abortion, euthanasia, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, and transgenderism have in common? In her new book, Love Thy Body, Nancy Pearcey makes the compelling argument that a fundamental philosophical error lies at the root of each one of these issues currently championed by today’s reigning secular morality. The error? A personhood theory that “entails a two-level dualism that sets the body against the person, as though they were two separate things merely stuck together” (21).

It turns out when we view the human person as a kind of two-story being with a sharp bifurcation between physicality and psychology, between body and person, we undermine human dignity and subvert God’s creational design.

The Two-Story Human?

Pearcey, who is a bestselling author, speaker, and professor of apologetics and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, uses this two-story metaphor to explain just what has gone wrong in a world that heartily cheers everything from the killing of infants in the womb and the disabled to the amputation of healthy organs in the pursuit of a biological pipe dream. Pearcey’s two-story metaphor is intellectually satisfying and a useful heuristic to explain modernity’s anthropological ills.

If “personhood” is not an ontological reality true of all human life, but instead something that can be gained and lost through age or cognitive development, then abortion and euthanasia can be justified.

If the body is a separate entity from the person, “then what you do with your body sexually need not have any connection to who you are as a whole person” (27). Casual sex can be purely physical, with no psychological or spiritual implications.

If the body has nothing meaningful to say about one’s sexuality, if it has no built-in telos, or purpose, then the reality of male-female sexual complementarity need not inform one’s sexual acts or identities.

If, instead of the biological fact of one’s sex, what truly matters is a person’s inner feelings or sense of self-identity — who they feel they are as male, female, or something altogether different — then gender identity is “not something we derive from the body” but “something we impose on the body. It is a social construction” (31).

What God Hath Joined Together, Let Not Man Put Asunder

Pearcey self-consciously adapts her two-story metaphor from one put forward by theologian Francis Schaeffer, whom she knew personally when she was a teenager visiting L’Abri in the Swiss Alps (261–62). Schaeffer originally used the two-story metaphor to explain the current division between the discipline of science, which is held to be objectively true and testable, and the disciplines of morality and theology, which are considered private, subjective, and relative (12).

This strict dichotomy, Pearcey points out, has parallels in several adjacent fields, including philosophy (Enlightenment/Modernism vs. Romanticism/Postmodernism), ethics (Facts vs. Values), and religion (Sacred vs. Secular), as well as in the thought of highly influential thinkers such as Descartes (Mind vs. Body), Kant (Noumena vs. Phenomena), and Foucault and Butler (Gender vs. Sex).

Addressing this proliferation of dichotomies may sound Hegelian: joining together again what God never intended to be apart requires synthesis, cooperation, and mutual-information. But, contra Hegel, this rejoining must take place logically prior to the breaking apart — a necessary kind of pre-modern simplification of our view of the world and the interconnectedness of the created order. The way forward is the biblical way: theologically informed and moral science (knowledge), subjectively realized objectivity, fact-based values, the secular made sacred, and the human person known to be a psychosomatic unity. Nothing short of this kind of radical recovery of viewing and being in the world can counter the reigning secular morality, and this is exactly what Pearcey’s book moves us toward. What is more, her book shows us where we can start: by loving our bodies out of a love for the Creator who made them.

Pearcey’s book is a faithful guide to helping Christians resist putting asunder what God has joined together. And she makes a convincing case that this sort of theological integrity has to come through a recovery of natural law theology and, specifically, the Bible’s teleological view of the psychosomatic human person.

“If nature is teleological,” Pearcey writes, “and the human body is part of nature, then it is likewise teleological. It has a built-in purpose, part of which is expressed as the moral law.” Because of this, both natural and moral law should form the way we interact with ourselves and others. “We are morally obligated to treat people in a way that helps them fulfill their purpose. This explains why biblical morality is not arbitrary. Morality is the guidebook to fulfilling God’s original purpose for humanity, the instruction manual for becoming the kind of person God intends us to be, the road map for reaching the human telos” (23). In this way, Christian ethics should be rooted in natural law.

According to natural law, nature is imbued with a purpose. Teleology and natural law are two sides of the same coin, and both must undergird a Christian anthropology. “In this purpose-driven view,” Pearcey argues, “there is no dichotomy between body and person. The two together form an integrated psycho-physical unity. We respect and honor our bodies as part of the revelation of God’s purpose for our lives. It is part of the created order that ‘is declaring the glory of God’” (23).

What are the practical ramifications? According to Pearcey, “The implication is that the physical structure of our bodies reveals clues to our personal identity. The way our bodies function provides rational grounds for our moral decisions. That’s why, as we will see, a Christian ethic always takes into account the facts of biology, whether addressing abortion (the scientific facts about when life begins) or sexuality (the facts about sexual differentiation and reproduction). A Christian ethic respects the teleology of nature and the body” (23).

In this way, teleology and natural law act to confirm God’s revelation in the Scriptures.

Homosexuality, Transgenderism, and Identity

Pearcey’s strong teleological emphasis leads her to some noteworthy conclusions about what a biblical sexuality looks like. These are particularly interesting to this reviewer in light of CBMW’s release of the Nashville Statement and recent controversy surrounding Christianity and the LGBT community.

For example, in one place Pearcey writes, “No one really denies that on the level of biology, physiology, anatomy, and biochemistry, males and females correspond to one another. That’s the way the human sexual and reproductive system is designed. Therefore, to embrace a non-heterosexual identity does cause an inner disruption. It contradicts one’s biological design” (160).

The way we identify ourselves, Pearcey makes clear, reveals the way we view our bodies. “Implicitly, the person is saying: Why should I care about the structure of my body? Why should I let that inform my identity? Why should my sexed body have anything to say about my moral choices? The body is disassociated from who we are as persons, as though it has no intrinsic dignity or purpose that we are morally obligated to respect” (160).

For Pearcey, this view is not a proper apprehension of our design. “This is a very low view of the body. Think of it this way: It is widely accepted today that if a person senses a disjunction between biological sex and sexual desire, the only proper course of action is to accept their psychological state as their true, authentic self. But why? Why assume that feelings are more important than the body?” (160).

Pearcey demonstrates what a teleologically-informed view of the body and sexuality might look like practically when she cites the testimony of Sean Doherty, a man who was once exclusively attracted to men but is now married to a woman. “For me,” Doherty writes, “a far more liberating and helpful discovery was that my sexual identity as a man was already fixed and secure — because sexuality (in the sense of the sexual differences between men and women) is a gift of God to humanity in creation” (161). Doherty’s discovery led to a change in mindset that changed his life. “Without denying or ignoring my sexual feelings, I stopped regarding them as being who I was, sexually, and started regarding my physical body as who I was.” This was a breakthrough for him. “Rather than trying to change my feelings so that I could change my label, I changed my label and my feelings started to follow suit” (156). While Pearcey is careful not to hold up Doherty’s experience as paradigmatic, one wonders if Doherty’s testimony would have purchase in every corner of evangelicalism. If not, we would do well to ask ourselves why. Instead of focusing on feelings, Doherty says a better strategy for him “was to receive or acknowledge what I already had (a male body) as a good gift from God” (161). “In short,” Pearcey concludes, “Doherty learned to trust that the biological identity God gave him was for his good.”

Ultimately, Pearcey argues that our sexual feelings need not be at the center of our identity: “The Bible offers a more compelling script that defines our identity in terms of the image of God, created to reflect his character. We are loved and redeemed children of God. When we center our lives on these truths, then our identity is secure no matter what our sexual feelings are — and whether they change or don’t” (169).

Pearcey’s advice here is not much different for those who experience gender dysphoria. Pearcey encourages these “to anchor [their] psychosexual identity in the objective, scientifically knowable reality of [their] biology as male or female” (198).

Pearcey also exposes the need for all of us to acknowledge the ways in which rigid gender stereotypes can needlessly push boys and girls, men and women, to consider themselves as not male or female, respectively, because of their nonconformity to such strict norms. At the same time, Pearcey cites multiple studies that find “the strongest correlate of both same-sex orientation and transgenderism — far stronger than any genetic link — is childhood gender nonconformity, kids who behave in ways that are stereotypical of the other sex” (223). How the church can encourage healthy gender conformity while not creating extra-biblical or even stereotypical standards of manhood and womanhood, boyhood and girlhood, seems to be one of the tallest orders facing the church today.

Loving God and Neighbor by Loving the Body

While readers could find minor quibbles with some of her asides or sources cited, overall Nancy Pearcey’s book is a tour de force that must not be ignored by academics, pastors, and laypersons in the church who are seeking to navigate the perilous waters of our secular age.

At the conclusion of the first chapter, Pearcey writes, “As we face the social ills of our own day, we must move beyond denunciations that can sound harsh, angry, or judgmental and instead work to show that the biblical ethic is based on a positive view of the body as part of the image of God. The goal is not to win a culture war or to impose our views on others but to love our neighbor, which means working for our neighbor’s good” (46). Toward this goal — love of neighbor that flows out a love for our neighbor’s Creator — Pearcey’s book, Love Thy Body, is a welcome ally as we seek to advocate for a biblical, God-honoring view of the human person.

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