Love Thy Body
Just over 50 years ago, abortion was legalised in England, Wales and Scotland and now around 200,000 abortions are performed in Great Britain every year. (For 2017, if abortions are added to the number of people who died, just over 25% of deaths in Great Britain were by abortion).1 Euthanasia and assisted suicide are still illegal in the UK but have been legalised in many countries and there are increasing calls for a change in the law here too, most recently in the legal case of Noel Conway. Sexual ethics have changed dramatically. Many more people are now more accepting of casual sex and one night stands and same-sex couples can now marry in England, Scotland and Wales. Our understanding of gender has also been radically altered. Since 2004, it’s been possible to legally change your gender if you meet certain criteria and there are some who are calling for these criteria to be removed completely. What can explain all these changes? How can things have moved so fast?
In her brilliant and insightful book, Love Thy Body, Nancy Pearcey argues that all moral thinking is driven by underlying worldviews. And underlying secular ethics today is a worldview which sees a radical disconnect between the body and the true self.
Secular thought today assumes a body/person split, with the body defined in the “fact” realm by empirical science and the person defined in the “values” realm as the basis for rights. This dualism has created a fractured, fragmented view of the human being, in which the body is treated as separate from the authentic self (p.14).
In the book, Pearcey shows that the origins of this split can be traced in the Western philosophical tradition and notes that, while many secular people wouldn’t talk in these terms, their opinions and actions show that they subscribe to it. In the subsequent chapters of the book, Pearcey demonstrates how this separation of body and true self can be seen in many of the big ethical issues of our time.
Abortion: We recognise that human persons have a right to life. Therefore, any acceptance of abortion affirms that it is possible for a foetus to be a living human being but not yet a person. When we choose a point after which abortion is not morally acceptable, we are stating that from that point on, and not before, the living human has become a human person with the right to life. Having a body alone does not guarantee that you are a person. The body and the true person are seen as separate from each other.
Euthanasia: If we agree that an individual should have the right to end their own life or to have their life ended, we are agreeing that they are no longer a person whose life ought to be protected.2 This will usually be explained by their being some criteria which have been met (such as unbearable suffering or a loss of autonomy) which automatically makes these criteria the basis for differentiating a person who has rights from just a living human being. Euthanasia affirms that having a living body is not enough to dictate that your life is worth preserving and protecting. The body and true person have been separated.
Hookup culture: Hookup culture celebrates the enjoyment of sexual activity with as little emotional connection as possible. The aim is to enjoy the physical experience of sex while keeping your true self distant from the other party. It therefore assumes a split between the body, which is involved in the sexual act and enjoys the physical pleasure it produces, and the true person, which is (meant to be) left to one side.
Same-sex sexual activity: Male and female bodies are structured to be counterparts to each other. This is most clearly seen in the fact that it always takes the involvement of a male and a female to reproduce. To engage in same-sex sexual activity and to make the experience of same-sex desire the source of personal identity is to say that the body should have no say on who we are as sexual beings. The structure of male and female bodies is separated from the personal identity and sexual practices of the true self.
Transgender: The perspective which encourages those who experience gender dysphoria and who identify as transgender to transition to live according to their internal sense of gender, preferences the internal, true self, over the external evidence of the body. The body and internal true self are separated, with the true self being given the casting vote.
Pearcey observes that the biblical worldview is radically different. The secular perspective sees a sharp separation between the body and the authentic self, and is strongly anti-body, while the Bible views humans as integrated wholes, with the body as a vital element of who we are. What we need, therefore, if we want to present the biblical perspective on these issues and if we want to disciple Christians to withstand the cultural tide, is to embrace, value and teach the biblical view of humans as a holistic union of body and soul. Rather than rejecting the body, we should love the body.
- 1 There were 197,533 abortions in England and Wales and 12,212 in Scotland, a total of 209,745 for Great Britain as a whole. Not including abortions, there were 533,253 deaths in England and Wales and 57,883 in Scotland, giving a total of 591,136 deaths.
- 2 Some I have talked to about this understanding have objected that consenting to someone’s own choice to end their life does not necessarily imply agreement that they no longer qualify as a person, rather it acknowledges their autonomy. This might be true if we thought that anybody should be able to request and receive help to end their life, regardless of who they are. However, the fact that nearly everyone agrees that there should be clear criteria which have to be met when euthanasia is requested and that we instinctively seek to prevent people from committing suicide show that we don’t really believe that anybody who chooses to do so should be free to or helped to end their life. We only believe that if certain criteria are met, and we thereby agree that those criteria mean they are no longer a person whose life is deserving of protection.