In her new best-selling book "Love Thy Body," Nancy Pearcey argues that modern culture commits one huge fallacy--denigrating the value of the body. This mistake lies at the heart of how our secular culture thinks about some of the most common ethical issues of today, such as euthanasia, abortion, and transgenderism. Scott and Sean interview Pearcey about how the church can offer a humanizing worldview that embraces the value and dignity of the body.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell- Professor of Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: And I'm your co-host, Scott Rae, Dean of faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics, also at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: Today we're here with a guest that we have been looking forward to having on for some time. Probably most of our listeners, if not all of our listeners, will recognize the name Nancy Pearcey, she's a speaker, a prolific writer of a number of books such as; Total Truth, Saving Leonardo, and her most recent book that we want to discuss today, Love Thy Body. Nancy, thanks so much for coming on.
Nancy Pearcey: Thanks for having me, Sean.
Sean McDowell: For listeners who may be unaware, and I suspect there's gonna be very few, tell us a little bit about your background, how you came to faith, and your training, and just your passion for worldview education in the church.
Nancy Pearcey: Right. The reason I do have such a passion for Worldview education and Apologetics is because it was such a huge part of my own conversion. I was raised in a Christian home, but I walked away very intentionally about halfway through high school. The reason I walked away was not because I wanted to party more, I often get people thinking that, but because I just was asking, "How do we know that Christianity is true?" I was going to a public high school. All my professors were secular, all my textbooks were secular, I had no Christian friends, and I thought, "How do I know that Christianity is true?" That's it.
Unfortunately, Apologetics was not very widespread back then, and my parents and my pastor didn't have any answers. No answers at all. In fact, I'll give you a sense of the kind of answers I got. I asked a Christian college professor, "Why are you a Christian?" And he said, "Works for me." [crosstalk 00:02:05]
Sean McDowell: Oh my goodness.
Nancy Pearcey: That's it? And you're a college professor? And I had a chance to talk to a seminary Dean, and I thought I'd get something more substantial from him, and all he said was, "Don't worry, we all have doubts sometimes."
Sean McDowell: Waw.
Scott Rae: Yikes.
Nancy Pearcey: As though it was psychological ... It sounded like he was dismissing it as a psychological phase I would just outgrow. So when that was the level of the answers that I got, I decided that Christianity must not have any answers. And if you don't have good reasons for something, then you should not say you believe it, whether it's Christianity or anything else. And so I decided I would have to ... have to, out of a sense of intellectual honesty, that's really how I thought of it at the time. I would have to separate myself from my Christian background, and try to look objectively at all of the religions and philosophies that are out there. Which is a pretty big task for a 16 year old. But I literally started going to the library of the public high school I attended, and pulling books off the Philosophy shelf. Cuz I thought, "If I can't get any adults to talk to me about these things, maybe these dead guys, these dead white guys, are the ones who'll talk to me, who'll..."
After all isn't philosophy about questions like, what is truth? How do we know it? Is there any meaning to life? Is there a foundation for ethics, or is it all just relative and what's true for me is true for you? And I slid pretty rapidly, I have to tell you, into relativism and skepticism. Because I did realize, having had a Christian background, it was very clear to me that if there was no God, then there really was no basis for ethics, there was no basis for knowledge even. The way I thought of it at the time was, If all I had was my puny little brain in the vast scope of time, and space, and history. Then to think that my brain could have access to any kind of universal, absolute, transcendent truth is ridiculous. It seemed to be obviously ridiculous.
And so I slid into all of the secular-isms, and with my science background, Determinism as well. And it was several years later, I was going to school in Europe, we had lived in Europe when I was a kid, and so I had gone back. And some unplanned circumstances, I ended up at L'Abri in Switzerland, which is the ministry of Francis and Edith Schaeffer. And that was the first place I had ever encountered Apologetics. I was just blown away. I had never known that you could make rational arguments for Christianity. That you could make arguments based on evidence and reason.
This was just totally new to me. I was so surprised and so impressed. And of course I was impressed as well because Francis Schaeffer was very much in support of the arts. Urging Christians to be involved in the arts. And I was actually attending ... at the time I was attending the music conservatory in Heidelberg, Germany, because I play the violin. And so his emphasis on the arts gave a very interesting balance. It was not just a cognitive exercise in Apologetics, but he also included the arts. Which is why his form of Apologetics is often called Cultural Apologetics. Because he was looking not just at abstract arguments, but he was looking at how do these arguments and ideas percolate down through cultural forms like books, and movies, and music, and even advertising? How do ideas percolate down and influence us?
And so it was impressive, in fact I was so impressed that I left. I was there only a month the first time that I visited L'Abri because it was so impressive, I was afraid I might be drawn in emotionally. And I didn't wanna do that. Christianity had already let me down once before. And so I was not going to go back unless I was absolutely convinced intellectually that it was true. So through L'Abri, I had learned that there was such a thing as Apologetics, I'd learned about people, not only Schaeffer himself, but people like C.S. Lewis and G.K Chesterton, and so on. And so just through my own reading, I eventually decided I was intellectually convinced that it was true.
And then I said, "Okay, well where do I find other Christians then?" Cuz I was not in a church. I was not connected to any Christians at the time, this was just my own private reading. I thought, where do I find other Christians? Well, I knew some back at L'Abri in Switzerland. So I went back to L'Abri a year and a half later, and that's where I really got grounded in Christian worldview and Apologetics. And so that explains why that has been a focus of my life ever since. I have such a heart for young people going through those kinds of questions that I had when I was in high school.
Sean McDowell: Well praise the Lord for Francis Schaeffers ministry just being echoed into you and your writing, and your speaking, and your passion today. I've often said that you're a modern day Francis Schaeffer, and that's not to take away from your voice, but just his influence has clearly been echoed through you. And you see it in the most recent book you've written, Love Thy Body. Will you tell us two things, number one, just sum up what's the heart of that book, and why write this book now? What motivated you to write, Love Thy Body?
Nancy Pearcey: Well it certainly covers the topics that are on the front burner today. They are the water shed moral issues of our day. The book is about abortion, assisted suicide, homosexuality, transgenderism, and so on. And these are the headline issues of our day. I find that more people want to know answers to these questions than just about any other. And you know Sean, you're interested in Apologetics, what I've found is the questions have shifted. People are no longer asking, "Is Christianity true?" What they're asking is, "Why are Christians such bigots?" And so, these are the questions we need to get through before we can even address questions of truth, with many people today.
What I do in Love Thy Body, the heart of it is, we tend to deal with these issues individually, assisted suicide, homosexuality, transgenderism and so on, one by one. And you find that we will be much more effective if we get behind the details of each one, and it turns out they all share a common underlying worldview. And if we address that worldview, then we will be much more effective and we'll be much more persuasive in talking about these things, both with Christians who have questions and with non-Christians.
Scott Rae: Nancy, I know this could probably take the rest of the podcast to address this in depth. But if you could give us a twitter version of this, give us a little bit of a sense of how the body has been viewed so historically in Western culture, and then in the church as well. Cuz it sounds to me from reading the book, you're trying to correct a defective view of the body that has really deep roots, culturally and in the life of the church.
Nancy Pearcey: Right. It has such deep roots, that I find its easier if I just start with an example. So if you take something like abortion, what most people don't realize is that your view of abortion rests on your view of the body. I would say most Bioethicists today, most professional Bioethicists agree that the fetus is human from conception. The data from DNA and genetics is just too strong to deny it anymore. But what they say is that the fetus is not yet a person until it attains a certain level of cognitive awareness, cognitive functioning, and so on.
Well what does it mean to be human then? If it's human, but not a person, as long as its just human, it's just a disposable piece of matter. It can be killed for any reason, or no reason. It can be used for research, it can be tainted with genetically, it can be picked through for sellable body parts, like planned parenthood does, harvested for organs, and then disposed of with the other medical waste. So what that means is that merely being human is no longer a basis for human right. This is a very low view of what it means to be human.
And when we help people recognize that all of secular ethics really rests on a low view of humanity, and so as Christians we are arguing for a much higher view of the value and significance of the value and significance of the human being, of the human body, as we might say. In abortion, the idea is as long as its still just a body and not a person, it has no value. And so this is the core of all of these modern issues that we're facing today, is that they all rest on a low view of the body.
Scott Rae: Yeah, that's a really good observation Nancy, because we caution oUr students regularly that anytime they hear in bioethical issues and conversation, somebody who separates a human being from a person, that that's an automatic red flag that ought to get our antenna up academically speaking.
Nancy Pearcey: Right, and it's the same thing with euthanasia, or assisted suicide. It's really the same argument, just in reverse. Because Bioethicists, if they defend abortion by arguing that anyone who is not yet a person, has not yet achieved a prescribed level of cognitive awareness, is not yet a person, then they wILL argue for euthanasia by just reversing that. They say if you lose certain cognitive abilities, then you are no longer a person, even though you're obviously still human. And so, at that point you can be unplugged, your treatment withheld, your food and water discontinued, in fact, your organs can be harvested.
So the upshot is the sheer fact of being biologically human no longer guarantees human rights, even The most fundamental one, which is not to be killed. You have to earn the status of personhood by maintaining and arbitrary level of neocortical functioning. So this is a drastic devaluation of what it means to be human.
Scott Rae: Yeah, and I think the worldview component on this is so helpful to identify for our listeners. Because I think that that one worldview component that you've pointed out is largely the reason for the erosion of respect for the dignity of essential human life, particularly at the margins that you've described. Now in your book, you also suggest that this devalued view of the body has also come into the church. Maybe it's too much to say that the church has baptized some of what the culture has said on this, but how has the body ... has this negative view of the body infiltrated the church and our theological thinking?
Nancy Pearcey: Well, I find this a lot with both Christians and secular people. When I say that the secular ethics rest on a low view of the body, their first reaction tends to be, "Wait a minute. The low view of the body in modern culture is not a product of secularism. It's a product of Christianity." And they have some-what of a point. One of my graduate students put it this way, she said, "I was growing up in the church. The theme always was, Spirit good, body bad." And this is what we sometimes call the sacred secular split, right. The sacred thinks the spiritual realm is what's really important, the created order is really not so important.
But what we need to help people to see is, this is not really our own Christian heritage. This is contrary to Christianity. And if you go back to the early church, the early church interestingly enough started out with some similar challenges. They also faced worldviews that had a low view of the created order and the physical world, for different reasons. So the early church was surrounded by philosophies like Platonism, and Manicheism, and Gnosticism. All of which treated the material world as evil and corrupt. They even described the body as a prison. And the goal of salvation was to escape from that prison and ascend back to the spiritual realm.
Gnosticism even taught that there were several levels of spiritual beings, and that it was the low level deity, the lowest God, an evil God in fact, who created the material world. Because no self-respecting God would get his hands dirty mucking about with matter. So in that historical context, Christianity was nothing short of revolutionary. Because it teaches that matter was not created by an evil sub-deity, but by the ultimate deity, the supreme deity. And that the material world is therefore intrinsically good. You see that in Genesis where it says, the text again and again says, "And God saw that it was good."
Historically however, an even greater scandal was the incarnation. Because that said that the supreme God not only made matter, but entered into the material world and took on a physical body. So the incarnation is the ultimate affirmation of the dignity of the body. And when Jesus was executed on a Roman cross, we might say that he did escape the body as Gnosticism said we should aspire to do. But what did he do then? He came back in a physical body, a physical resurrection. To the Greeks at that time this was not spiritual progress, this was spiritual regress. Who would want to come back to the realm of the body. It was foolishness to the Greeks, as Paul puts it.
And then finally, what is the Christian teaching about the end of the world? It says that God is not going to scrap the material world as though he made a mistake the first time. It says he's going to renew it and restore it, and that you and I will live on that restored Earth, a new Heavens and a new Earth. That's why The Apostles Creed from the beginning, affirms the resurrection of the body. What we have to help Christians see, and to recover, is that this is an astonishingly high view of the physical world. There is nothing like it in any other philosophy or religion.
Sean McDowell: Nancy, you say that to assume the body gives no clue to our identity, and to what our sexual choices should be is quote, "profoundly disrespectful." Now this runs right up against the narrative we here in our culture, that our feelings and self identity should trump the body. Yet you say actually the opposite. Could you explain what you mean by that to us?
Nancy Pearcey: Right. I really ... let me take it again, a specific example. Let's take something like homosexuality. On the one hand, no one really denies that on the level of biology, physiology, anatomy, biochemistry, no one denies that males and females are counterparts to one another. That's how the human sexual and reproductive system is designed. When a person engages in same-sex behavior then, implicitly, they're contradicting that design. They are say, "Why should my moral choices be directed by the structure of my body? Why should my body, my identity as male or female have any voice in my moral choices, what I do sexually?" And so, the implication is that, all that counts really is my mind, feelings, and desires.
This is a profoundly disrespectful view of the body. It's basically saying, "My body is not part of my authentic self." And one thing I discuss in Love Thy Body is, people say, "Well where did such a negative view of the body come from?" And this is the ... back to that question about the underlying worldview, every ethics stems from my view of nature. And in this case it's a materialist view that says that nature is a product of blind material forces. That has no intrinsic purpose of its own. The body is just a collection of cells, and organs, and tissues, that the mind can use for its own purposes, like any other natural resource.
In fact, there's a well known outspoken lesbian, I'm sure you know here, Camille Paglia. This is exactly the way she defends homosexuality. She acknowledges that nature has made us male and female, that humans are a sexually reproducing species, and then she asks, "Why not defy nature?" And then she says, "Fate, not God, has given us this flesh. We have absolute claim to our bodies, and may do with them as we see fit." So here's where this negative view of the body is coming from. Our bodies are merely products of blind, material forces. The implication is, they convey no moral message, they give no clue to our identity, they have no inherent purpose that we're obligated to respect.
So what we have to help people to see is that it's not Christianity that has a negative view. People think that sometimes because they say, "Oh, the Christian ethic is so repressive, and so restrictive, and so negative, and so condemning, and so judgemental." We have to come back with them and help them to see, no actually it's the secular view that has a very low view of the boy. It treats the body as irrelevant, insignificant, having no moral purpose, and it's Christianity that actually gives a high view of the body, and says, "Yes you should respect your body, you should consider it an intrinsic part of your identity." Christianity teaches that we are psychophysical unities, and that we can't simply separate our feelings, our mind, our desires, from our body. That we are called to respect it in the moral choices that we make.
Scott Rae: We've heard some suggest, that ... particularly in Christian circles, that human beings are nothing more than souls on a stick, and that the soul is all that matters. This is why I think what you've pointed out in the book about the incarnation, and about the resurrection body, that there's just as much hope for our body in eternity as there is for our soul.
I think that would come as breaking news to a lot of people in the church. Because we've just not emphasized the importance of the body. How would you address the transgender issue within the context of the worldview that you've described here? Because it seems at first glance that the person who wrestles with transgender types of things would be functioning, in a way contrary to the way their body works, and to deal with that you would almost think that they need to transcend their body. How does the transgender discussion fit in to the worldview that you're describing?
Nancy Pearcey: Right. I think that the transgender movement expresses the negative view of the body even more clearly and more obviously. Because the transgender narrative itself says your gender has nothing to do with your biological sex. In fact there are trans websites now that are treating biological sex as a hate term, because it reminds people that they are denying their biological sex when they adopt a trans identity. So today, kids down to kindergarten are being taught that their bodies are completely irrelevant to their identity. And that matter does not matter. That all that matters is your personal feelings, your internal sense of self. To which we should say, "Why accept such a demeaning view of the body?" It's radically dehumanizing,
I was reading a book by a Princeton philosophy Professor ... you know, you read what the professors are saying, because that's what's going to filter down to ordinary people. And so this book was a defense of transgenderism, and to my great surprise, the professor acknowledged that transgenderism involved disconnect, self alienation, self estrangement, that was her other term. And I thought, "Why are you advancing a worldview that tells people they have to live with disconnect, self estrangement and self alienation?"
I was reading an interview with a young woman, she's a teenager, she was 14. And she had transitioned to ... she was a girl who had transitioned to live as a boy at the age of 11, and lived as a boy for three years, and then reclaimed her identity as a girl. And it was fascinating because she said, "The turning point came when I realized it's okay to love your body." And I thought what a wonderful quote. Unfortunately my book was already at the printer, so I couldn't include it. But it was a great quote for a book titled Love Thy Body. That from the mouths of babes, right, this 14 year old girl had recognized that the antidote to transgenderism is to learn to value your body, to love your body.
Sean McDowell: I think it's a wonderful title on a number of levels. Let me ask you one last question, you know Ryan Anderson wrote a book called, When Harry became Sally. And the subtitle is, Responding to the Transgender Moment. In other words, he's basically saying that this ideology that separates the body from the person is simply unsustainable, and it's a moment, it's not going to last, especially when it comes to biology. Do you agree with that? Are you hopeful? Where would you sense the church and the wider culture is responding to this transgender moment? Are people waking up to it? Is it gaining ground? What's your sense of where it's at?
Nancy Pearcey: I respectfully disagree with Ryan Anderson on this, and here's why. Once you accept an underlying worldview, it's going to continue to unfold its logical implication. We are rational beings, and if this worldview started with acceptance that nature is blind material forces and that there is no intrinsic purpose. That's a long term worldview assumption that's going to continue, and especially when it becomes embedded in our legal system.
So think of it this way, many of our pre-political rights are based on biology. You can't have a free society unless the state recognizes that some right are pre-political. They precede the state, the state doesn't create them, it merely recognizes them. But what has happened is ... Look at the continuity here between all these issues, in abortion, in the past, the law recognized the right to life as a pre-political right. It's something you have just because you're a member of the human race. The law did not create it, it just recognizes it ... but the only way the state could legalize abortion was to deny the relevance of biology, and declare that some humans are not persons.
So the state claimed the authority to decide arbitrarily which humans qualify as persons, with the right not to be killed. That's a huge power grab by the state. But ... the same thing goes with marriage, it's the same underlying principle. The state used to recognize marriage as a pre-political right, based on that fact that humans are a sexually reproducing species. But the only way the law can treat same-sex couples the same as opposite-sex couples is to deny the relevance of biology, and declare that marriage is just an emotional commitment. Which is what the Supreme Court did in its Obergefell decision.
But we have endless varieties of emotional commitments. So the state has claimed the authority to decide arbitrarily which ones qualify as marriage. The same thing with transgenderism. The only way the law can treat a trans woman, that is someone born male, the same as a biological woman, is to deny the relevance of biology, and to declare gender to be a matter of inner feelings. And that is why states and public schools are passing laws telling us who we must call he, or she, without any regard to their biological sex. So when you look at this ... By the way the next issue is gonna be planned parenthood.
If you're reading the advocates on this, and especially the lawyers, they're telling us that the next thing is going to be parenthood. In the past, the law treated parenthood as a pre-political right, based on your biological connection to your children. But the only way the state can treat same-sex parents the same as opposite sex parents ... because at least one of those parents will not be biologically related to any children that they have, so the only way the state can equalize them is to deny the relevance of biology again, and to base parenthood therefore on some kind of emotional connection to the kids. And again, what does that mean? It's an arbitrary decision by the state, and you will be your child's parent only by permission of the state.
So this is a long term trend based on deep rooted philosophical assumptions, I don't see it turning around just because a few people find that transgenderism is a bit extreme. I don't think it's gonna turn around very quickly, and I think that we all craft a more effective response if we realize how deeply rooted it is.
Sean McDowell: Nancy, this has been a wonderful conversation. I have so many more questions for you, but that's just gonna give us an excuse to have you back for one, and second, to encourage our listeners to get your book. It really is excellent, Love Thy Body. Nancy, so you know I took a group of ten high school students, freshmen and sophomores, through the book, chapter by chapter. And we had fascinating, wonderful conversations. So I hope our listeners will get it for themselves, pass it on to a friend, and consider even taking some young people through this, to help them learn these important ideas. Thanks for your writing, thanks for coming to the podcast, and just being a voice to someone who thinks biblically, with compassion. Thanks so much for coming on Nancy.
Nancy Pearcey: Thanks for having me, I appreciate it.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture, To learn more about us and today's guest, Nancy Pearcey, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically, that's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app, and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening and remember, think biblically, about everything.