In her latest book, “Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality,” Nancy Pearcey argues that, “Human life and sexuality have become the watershed moral issues of our age.” It’s impossible, Pearcey says, to escape the relentless news of the “advance of a secular moral revolution in areas such as sexuality, abortion, assisted suicide, homosexuality, and transgenderism.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the news and latest controversies, she says. But the real action happens below the surface, at the level of worldviews. Where many people treat morality as a list of rules, Pearcey argues that every moral system rests on a worldview. To be effective, then, we must address what people believe “about the nature and significance of life itself.” We must engage their worldview.
ByFaith editor Richard Doster asked Pearcey about a few of the book’s key points.
Q Let’s start with personhood theory — the concept that “to be biologically human is a scientific fact, but to be a person is an ethical concept, defined by what we value.” Can you talk about what that means and why it’s important for us to understand?
Personhood theory is the key assumption in bioethics today, but its roots go back to the fact/value split. After the rise of modern science, many people decided that the only reliable form of knowledge is empirical facts. Things like morality and theology cannot be stuffed into a test tube or studied under a microscope, so they were reduced to private, subjective preferences — which is what secular people mean by the term “values.” We can visualize the fact/value split using the image of two stories in a building: In the lower story are objective facts; in the upper story are subjective values.
Being human no longer guarantees human rights. You have to earn the right to legal personhood by achieving an arbitrary level of cortical functioning.
The fact/value split is one of the greatest barriers to presenting Christian truth today, and it’s the topic of my earlier book “Total Truth.” But a split in the concept of truth inevitably affects everything. In my new book, “Love Thy Body,” I show how it shapes the secular view on issues like abortion, assisted suicide, homosexuality, transgenderism, and the hookup culture.
Let’s make it concrete with the example of abortion. Virtually all professional bioethicists today agree that human life begins at conception. The evidence from genetics and DNA is too strong to deny it. Yet many of the same bioethicists support abortion. They argue that although the fetus is human, it is not a legal person. It becomes a person only later when it develops a certain level of cognitive functioning, self-awareness, and so on.
The implication is that as long as the fetus is “merely” human, it is just a piece of matter that can be killed for any reason or no reason. It can be used for research, tinkered with genetically, harvested for organs, then disposed of with the other medical waste.
In short, being human no longer guarantees human rights. You have to earn the right to legal personhood by achieving an arbitrary level of cortical functioning. Thus, arguments for abortion assume a fragmented view of the human being — a body/person dualism. You can see how it is an outworking of the fact/value split: Using the two-story metaphor, we could say that to be biologically human is in the lower story, while personhood is in the upper story.
The problem is that once personhood is detached from simply being human, there is no objective way to define it. Every bioethicist defines it according to his or her own private values. The concept of personhood has become private, subjective, and arbitrary.
By contrast, if we start with biology, then we have an objective, empirically testable, universally detectable standard — something we can identify scientifically. To be pro-science is to be pro-life. A Christian ethic treats the human being as a psycho-physical unity. Every human is also a person.
Q A second fundamental concept is teleology. What is that, and how does it shape our thinking about sexuality?
Every ethic depends on a view of nature. When someone accepts the notion that nature is a product of blind material forces, logically they will end up with a low view of the body. For the implication is that the body has no intrinsic purpose, and therefore the mind can use it for its own purposes.
The outspoken lesbian Camille Paglia defends homosexuality in just those terms. She acknowledges that nature made humans a sexually reproducing species, but then asks, why not “defy” nature? “Fate, not God, has given us this flesh. We have absolute claim to our bodies and may do with them as we see fit.”
In other words, if our bodies are products of undirected material forces, they convey no moral message, they give no clue to our identity.
To counter the secular ethic, we must recover a teleological view of nature, which comes from the Greek word telos, meaning goal or purpose. It is evident that living things are structured for a purpose — that eyes are for seeing, ears are for hearing, fins are for swimming, and wings are for flying. The organism’s entire development is directed by a built-in genetic plan or blueprint.
Our bodies are not raw material that we may use “as we see fit.” Nature has an order, a plan, a purpose, a design. And we are happier and healthier when we live in accord with that design — when our gender identity and sexual desire are in harmony with our biological sex.
Q In your discussion of hookup culture, you state that some people think sexual hedonism gives sex too much importance, but that in reality it gives sex too little importance. For Christians, what’s so important about sex?
Young adults know the rules of the hookup culture all too well: no love, no relationship, no commitment. In “Love Thy Body,” I include poignant quotes from college students, like Alicia, who says, “Hookups are very scripted. … You learn to turn everything off except your body and make yourself emotionally invulnerable.” A senior named Stephanie chimes in: “It’s body first, personality second.”
Our bodies are not raw material that we may use “as we see fit.” Nature has an order, a plan, a purpose, a design. And we are happier and healthier when we live in accord with that design.
Researcher Donna Freitas interviewed hundreds of college students who admitted they are disappointed with their meaningless sexual encounters. They feel hurt and lonely. They wish they knew how to create a genuine relationship where they are known and loved. They are trying to live out a worldview that does not fit who they really are.
The hookup mentality comes out of a materialist Darwinian worldview that treats the human being as nothing but a physical organism driven by physical impulses, with no higher purpose. No wonder it is leaving behind a trail of wounded people. One young man told Rolling Stone magazine that sex is just “a piece of body touching another piece of body”; it is “existentially meaningless.”
The Bible teaches that we are body-person unities, which means we cannot separate sex from who we are as whole persons. And science is backing up that view. Scientists were amazed when they first discovered that bonding hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin are released during sexual intercourse. Thus, the desire to attach to the other person when we have sex is not only an emotion but also part of our chemistry. As one sex therapist puts it, when we have intercourse, we create “an involuntary chemical commitment.”
The upshot is that even if you think you are having a no-strings-attached hookup, you are in reality creating a chemical bond — whether you mean to or not. An advice columnist for Glamour magazine warns that because of hormones, “we often get prematurely attached.” Even when you intend to just have casual sex, “biology might trump your intentions.”
A UCLA psychiatrist observes, “You might say we are designed to bond.”
That may be why Paul said, “Whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18). Sex involves our bodies down to the level of our biochemistry.
Q When you deal with transgenderism, you talk about the culture’s idea of “assigned” sex. It is, you say, as though “a person’s sex at birth is arbitrary instead of a biological fact,” and that such a worldview “disparages the physical body as inconsequential, insignificant, and irrelevant to who we are.” What’s the connection between the body and our identity?
The fragmented view body/person dualism is especially easy to see in the transgender narrative. According to a BBC documentary, at the heart of the debate is the idea that your mind can be “at war with your body.”
And in that war, it’s the mind that wins. What counts is not your biological sex but solely your feelings, desires, and sense of self. Kids down to kindergarten are being estranged from their own body. The inner conflict between body and mind has a self-alienating, self-estranging impact on the human personality.
But why accept such a demeaning view of the body? The solution is to recover a higher view. A 14-year-old girl who lived as a trans boy for three years, then de-transitioned to reclaim her identity as a girl, explained in an interview that the turning point was when she discovered that it’s okay “to learn to love your body.”
In “Love Thy Body,” I show how to move beyond a negative message — the “Thou shalt nots” — and reach out to people with a positive message. The biblical ethic overcomes the dichotomy separating body from person. It heals self-alienation and creates internal harmony and wholeness.
Of course, humans are much more than biological beings, but Scripture presents the created differentiation of male and female as a good thing. The question is: Do we accept that created structure or do we reject it? Do we affirm the goodness of creation or deny it?
Q Throughout, you describe how, in matters of sexuality and family structure, we’ve seen the elevation of choice over biology. You point out that as biological bonds are downplayed in favor of choice, we end up forfeiting choice to the state. “Demanding freedom from natural relationships,” you argue, “means losing freedom to the state.” How so? And why do we need to be aware of this?
A free society is possible only if it recognizes some rights as pre-political. That means the state does not create them; it merely recognizes them. Many pre-political rights are based on biology — and when we dismiss biology, we lose those rights.
Start with abortion. The right to life itself is a pre-political right, something you have just because you’re a member of the human race. But the only way the state could legalize abortion was to rule that some humans do not qualify as legal persons. That means the state has claimed the authority to decide which humans have a right to live — based not on biology but only on its own legal fiat.
Marriage is also a pre-political right, based on the fact that humans are a sexually reproducing species. But the only way the state can treat same-sex couples the same as opposite-sex couples is to redefine marriage as a purely emotional commitment — which is what the Supreme Court did in its Obergefell decision. The problem is that we have lots of emotional commitments, so the state has claimed the authority to define which of them qualify as marriage — based not on biology but on its own say-so.
Most people still think gender follows metaphysically on your biological sex. But the only way the law can treat a trans woman (someone born male) the same as a biological woman is to redefine gender as separate from biology. That’s why laws and policies are being imposed telling us whom we must call “he” or “she,” regardless of their biological sex.
Same-sex advocates say the next step is parenthood. In a same-sex couple, at least one parent is not biologically related to any children they have. So the only way the state can treat same-sex parents the same as opposite-sex parents is to redefine parenthood without regard to biology. The state will decide what kind of emotional attachment qualifies you to be a parent. Put bluntly, you will be your child’s parents only by permission of the state.
In every case, the state is dismissing biological realities and substituting legal fiat. And what the state gives, it can take away. Human rights are no longer unalienable.
Perhaps the most common objection we hear is, “Why not just let people live the way they want? They’re not hurting anyone else.” The answer is that when the laws are changed, that affects everyone.
Q As we take these principles into specific issues, you argue that the core question in abortion is the “status of the human body. Is it an integral part of the person, sharing in its dignity? Or is it extrinsic to the person — a piece of matter that we can control?” As Christians, how do we talk about the dignity of the body?
Many Christians have lost touch with their own heritage. As one of my students put it, “Growing up in the church, I was always taught ‘spirit = good, body = bad.’”
We need to go back to the church’s beginning. The early Christians faced a culture that placed a low value on the material world, just as modern materialism does — though for different reasons. The church was surrounded by philosophies like Platonism, Manicheism, and Gnosticism that treated the world as a place of evil and corruption. They denounced the body as a “prison” and defined salvation as escape from the physical realm.
Gnosticism even taught that there are many levels of spiritual beings, and that it was the lowest-level deity, an evil deity, who created the material world. After all, no self-respecting god would get his hands dirty mucking about with matter.
In this context, the claims of Christianity were nothing short of revolutionary. For it teaches that matter was created not by an evil subdeity but by the ultimate God, the Supreme Deity — and therefore it is intrinsically good. As Genesis says repeatedly, “God saw that it was good.”
An even greater scandal, historically, was the incarnation — the idea that the Supreme Deity entered into the material realm and took on a human body. The incarnation is the ultimate affirmation of the dignity of the body.
When Jesus was executed on a Roman cross, we might say that he did “escape” the physical realm, as Gnosticism says we should aspire to do. But what did he do then? He came back. In a physical body. To the Greeks, this was not spiritual progress; it was regress. The concept of a physical resurrection was utter “foolishness to the Greeks,” as Paul says in 1 Corinthians.
Finally, at the end of time, God is not going to scrap the material world as though he made a mistake the first time. Instead he is going to restore and renew it, creating a new heaven and a new earth. The Apostle’s Creed affirms “the resurrection of the body.”
Christians need to realize that the Bible gives an astonishingly high view of the physical world. There is nothing else like it in any other philosophy or religion.
Photography by Brian Goldman