Why Does Christianity Exalt the Human Body and Secularism Seek to Destroy It?: Nancy Pearcey (Interview)
Arguably no subject divides Americans more passionately than what it means to be a human being, especially when it comes to sexuality, identity, and the body.
What lies beneath the bitter cultural squabbles over physician assisted suicide, abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism is a secularist ideology that wages war against the human body, argues Nancy Pearcey, a former agnostic who teaches at Houston Baptist University in her book, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions About Life and Sexuality, which was released last month.
"We live in a moral wasteland where human beings are desperately seeking answers to hard questions about life and sexuality, "Pearcey, who The Economist describes as "America's pre-eminent evangelical Protestant female intellectual," stresses in the book's Introduction.
"But there is hope. In the wasteland we can cultivate a garden. We can discover a reality-based morality that expresses a positive, life-affirming view of the human person — one that is more inspiring, more appealing, and more liberating than the secular worldview."
Pearcey's book has received acclaim from some of the leading Christian intellectuals who have been at the forefront of the major cultural battles in society.
The following is a lightly edited transcript of The Christian Post's interview with Pearcey.
CP: Why did you choose the title Love Thy Body and what does it have to do with the subtitle: Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality?
NP: Human life and sexuality have become the watershed moral issues of our age. The daily news cycle bombards us with stories related to sexuality, abortion, assisted suicide, homosexuality, and transgenderism. A secular orthodoxy is being imposed through virtually all the major social institutions: academia, media, public schools, Hollywood, private corporations, and the law.
In Love Thy Body, I move beyond trendy slogans to uncover the worldview that drives the secular ethic. As a former agnostic, I give an insider's road map to postmodern moral theories, showing how they devalue the human being and destroy human rights.
CP: Assisted suicide seems like the compassionate course when someone has lost cognitive or physical capacity through an illness or accident. Explain why you disagree. How might Christians contend against this effectively, without resorting to the "slippery slope" arguments that always seem to be snidely dismissed.
NP: Assisted suicide is a good example of what I mean in saying that secular ethics devalues the human being. Bioethicists defend assisted suicide by proposing a distinction between being biologically human and being a person. If you lose a certain level of cognitive awareness, so the argument goes, then you are no longer a person — even though you are obviously still human.
At that point, you can be unplugged from life-sustaining equipment, your treatment can be withheld, your food and water can be discontinued, your organs harvested.
The implication is that being human no longer guarantees human rights. The call to "love thy body" is a call to counter this drastic devaluation of human life. A biblical view says all humans are persons and are worthy of dignity and rights.
CP: The hookup culture is now being broadly criticized in light of the #MeToo movement. You argue that the hookup culture puts too little meaning on the physical dimension of sex. Do you have hope for a cultural turnaround given everything that has transpired in recent months?
NP: The hookup culture rests on the same devaluation of the body. The assumption is that sex is a purely recreational activity cut off from the whole person — without any hint of love or emotional attachment.
Young people know the script all too well. 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."
The stereotype is that men are happy with the hookup culture. But British singer Sam Smith, in "Stay with Me," sings about the pain and emptiness a guy feels after a one-night stand. The character in the song is begging the other person to "stay with me," longing for human connection that goes beyond just the physical.
The hookup mentality comes out of a Darwinian worldview that treats the human being as nothing but a physical organism driven by physical impulses. No wonder it's creating a trail of wounded people. They are trying to live out a worldview that does not fit who they truly are. There will not be a genuine turnaround unless we address the underlying worldview.
CP: The gay rights movement claims to be about freedom, but again, you assert the body and biology is denigrated. Do you believe the Church has failed to talk about these things because they are too squeamish about sex? Or too ignorant? Given how medically dangerous and risky certain sexual acts are for anyone who practices them, why haven't leaders been more vocal?
NP: Christians don't talk enough about the topic because many are concerned about being seen as negative and judgmental. We need to turn the tables by showing that it's actually the homosexual narrative that is negative and harmful.
After all, no one really denies that on the level of biology, physiology, and anatomy, males and females are counterparts to one another. That's the way the human sexual and reproductive system is designed. So when someone adopts a same-sex identity, they are contradicting their own biological design. Implicitly they are saying, "Why should my body inform my psychological identity? Why should my biological sex as male or female have any say in my moral choices?"
This is a profoundly disrespectful view of the body. It creates inner conflict between a person's physiology and their psychological identity, leading to fragmentation and self-alienation.
In the book I tell several stories of real people, like Jean Lloyd who wore a tuxedo to her high school Christmas dance, then lived as a lesbian for several years. Finally, she said, "I began to trust the One who knew the truth of my identity more than I did, who wrote His image into my being and body as female, and who designed sexuality for my good." To her own surprise, Jean writes, "a flicker of heterosexual desire emerged," and today she is married with two children.
What was the key change? Jean accepted her body as a good gift from God. Our feelings can change, and often do. The most reliable marker of who we are is our embodied identity as male or female. Christian morality is in tune with our biology. It heals the inner conflict and leads to a psychological identity that is in harmony with our body.
CP: Trans activists say they are discovering their truest selves, yet a growing number have come to regret how they have damaged their bodies with surgery and hormones. Do you think our individualistic culture of selfie-taking allowed them to gain so much ground so quickly? Or something else?
NP: The reason the transgender movement has gained ground so quickly is sheer logic: It is the logical extension of the same secular worldview with its denigration of the body.
The transgender narrative insists that gender has nothing to do with biological sex. As a BBC documentary puts it, at the heart of the debate is the idea that your mind can be "at war with your body." Kids down to kindergarten are being taught that their psychological identity has no connection to their body.
This is incredibly demeaning to the body.
The solution is to recover a higher view of the body. A 14-year-old girl who lived as a boy for three years, then reclaimed her identity as a girl, wrote an article saying the turning point came when she realized it's OK "to learn to love your body."
The article came out after I had already titled my book Love Thy Body, and my goal is to show that a biblical ethic can be presented in positive terms. We can reach out to people with a message of the value and dignity of the body and the possibility of internal harmony.
CP: Perhaps the most common objection we hear is, "Why not just let people live the way they want? They're not hurting anyone else." How should Christians respond?
NP: A free society is possible only if it recognizes some rights as pre-political. That means the state does not create them. Many pre-political rights are based on biology — and when we dismiss biology, we lose those rights.
The right to life itself used to be a pre-political right, something you have just because you're biologically 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 persons with a right to legal protection. The state has claimed the authority to decide who has a right to live — based not on biology but only on its own legal fiat.
Marriage likewise used to be a pre-political right, based on the biological fact of reproduction. But the only way the state could 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 state has claimed the authority to define which emotional relationships qualify as marriage — based not on biology but on its own say-so.
It used to be that gender followed metaphysically on your biological sex. But the only way the law can treat a trans woman (born male) the same as a biological woman is to redefine gender without regard to biology. That's why laws and policies are being imposed telling us whom we must call "he" or "she."
In every case, the state is taking dismissing biological realities and substituting legal fiat. And what the state gives, it can take away. The secular ethic is setting us up for control by an all-powerful political state.
CP: Spiritually speaking, what is ultimately the driving force behind this rampant hatred of the body and utter disregard for biology in our society?
NP: Ultimately our view of the body rests on our view of nature. The secular worldview starts with a Darwinian assumption that nature is the product of blind, undirected forces. We tend to think of materialism as a philosophy that places high value on the material world, because it claims that matter is all that exists. Yet in reality it places a low value on the material world as purely particles in motion with no higher purpose or meaning.
Listen to how the lesbian feminist Camille Paglia defends homosexuality. She acknowledges that nature made us male and female — that humans are a sexually reproducing species. But she asks, why not "defy" nature? After all, "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 blind, undirected forces, then they convey no moral message, give no clue to our identity, have no inherent purpose that we are obligated to respect.
By contrast, a Christian ethic respects nature as a good gift from God. That's why it 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).
CP: It's commonly thought that the Christian faith places little worth on our physical existence in this world — that it values only the spiritual realm. Many might be surprised by your claim that Christianity has a high view of the body. Why is that?
NP: It is true that some Christian traditions have placed low value on life in this world, but they are out of step with Scripture. For a clearer view, let's go back to early Christianity. When the Church was starting out, it was surrounded by philosophies that treated matter as evil and denounced the body as a "prison" — philosophies like Platonism, Manicheism, and Gnosticism. Gnosticism even taught that there are many levels of spiritual beings and it was the lowest-level deity, an evil deity, who created the material world.
In this cultural context, the claims of Christianity were revolutionary. For it teaches that matter was created not by an evil sub-deity but by the ultimate God, the Supreme Deity — and the material world is therefore intrinsically good. In Genesis, the created world is repeatedly affirmed to be good.
An even greater scandal, historically, was the incarnation — the idea that God Himself entered into the material realm and took on a human body. The incarnation is the ultimate affirmation of the dignity of the body.
And at the end of time, there will be a resurrection of the body, as the Apostle's creed affirms, along with a new Heavens and a new Earth. This is an astonishingly high view of the physical world. There is nothing else like it in any other philosophy or religion. Christians need to recover their own heritage.
CP: How might orthodox Christians get beyond the moralistic responses when it comes to matters of sex? While the moral and ethical dimensions are important, moral arguments increasingly fall on deaf ears. How can churches invite people into the biblical, and ultimately better vision for sexuality?
NP: The reason the Church's message sometimes comes across as mostly negative is that to some degree, the early Christians absorbed elements of the surrounding philosophies, and we are still dealing with the consequences. We even have a label for it: We call it the sacred/secular divide — the idea that spiritual realm is good and important, while the secular realm is a necessary evil.
One thing that has surprised me when I hear from readers of Love Thy Body or read customer reviews on Amazon is how many are saying something like this: I picked up your book hoping to learn handy arguments for current issues. But what I discovered is that it is transforming me. It is showing me that my own views of the body were less than biblical — that I was more trapped in the sacred/secular divide than I realized.
To craft an effective message for the secular world today, Christians themselves need to discover that the biblical view of the body is actually more appealing, more attractive, more affirming, than the secular ethic.