Remember those decoder glasses that you played with as a kid? They were just cheap cardboard glasses with colored cellophane lenses, but when paired with certain images they were able to make otherwise unseen images or words magically appear.
Reading Nancy Pearcey always gives me the feeling of wearing these glasses as I’m trying to make sense of the very chaotic world I’m living in. Ephesians 1:17 has become one of my favorite passages. In it Paul prays (among other things) that the Ephesian Christians would be filled with the Spirit of revelation. “Revelation” in this case means discernment or disclosure. He’s praying that these Christians would be given the ability to make sense of the culture they live in with discernment and understanding – that they would have decoder glasses as they look at their world. In Pearcey’s latest book, Love Thy Body, this is exactly the kind of help she provides us as we try to understand and engage our own culture.
Love Thy Body is a good book worth purchasing and reading. It’s written in a style that can be well grasped by most any reader even if you’re not well acquainted with philosophical terms. If you are a Christian leader – particularly one who deals with youth – put this on your “to-read” list. Throughout the book, Pearcey offers us pictures from the academy, from popular culture, and from individual testimonies. Her strength as a writer is her ability to bring these different pictures into focus and demonstrate how they are really manifestations of a particular worldview that is both ancient and contemporary.
That Pearcey is a disciple of Francis Schaeffer is no secret. It comes through very clearly in most of her books. Schaeffer’s major contribution in Christian thought was in articulating, illustrating, and critiquing what is often called the “fact/value” split. It was his observation (although not original to him) that in the West we are living with the consequences of a “two-story” world. The lower story is the realm of facts. The lower story is the home of the physical, the rational, the objective, the scientific, and the secular. The upper story represents values and opinions. It is the home of the subjective, the spiritual, and the moral. The problem with this dualistic understanding of the world is that inevitably one “story” comes to be regarded as more real than the other story. One story is treated with greater gravity and consequence than the other. Eventually one story comes to dominate and take over the other.
For a relatively brief period of history, the bottom story reigned supreme. What matters is science, reason, facts, and secularism. The upper story of religion, values, and morality are not publicly relevant, so you should keep them private – out of the public eye. To those committed to a bottom story understanding of the world, the upper story seems silly and perhaps irrational. Many people in the world today still fall into this category. Certainly most of the atheists that I’ve talked to are still living firmly on the bottom story. But Pearcey argues in this book that we’re actually living through a remarkable shift in thinking. If you look carefully at certain trends in western culture – particularly in regards to sexuality, gender, personhood, and family, you will see that we have lost all connection to the bottom story and are living firmly in the top story.
So how did we get here? There are at least five moves that have helped to pave the way for our current moment.
- The dualism of modernity – Dualism was not born in modernity, but it did reach its full maturity in modernity. Descartes famously argued for mind-body dualism. The mind and the body are two completely different substances that somewhat mysteriously interact with each other. A dualistic understanding of human nature can be defended from a biblical perspective, but a biblical worldview insists that both body and soul integrated together are what makes a full person. In modernity, this integration was lost. The effect was a fracture between the physical and the spiritual or immaterial not just in human nature but in how we understand all reality.
- Darwinian loss of teleology – Darwin further added to this fracture by removing teleology from biological species. Teleology refers to the purpose for something. For instance, the teleology of a bike is that it provide self-propelled transport. So, what is the teleology of a human body? The implication of Darwin’s theory is that human bodies (or any bodies for that matter) don’t really have a teleology. We came about through unguided processes to unplanned ends. And the bodies we have today are not final products but are only the current product of a long line of evolutionary development that leads from the distant past into the unguided future. So, Descartes said “I think, therefore I am” placing the mind at the center. Darwin pushed the body further to the margins (although I doubt he realized it at the time) by making the claim that our bodies have no predetermined purpose or design. Apparently the only thing we can know about is our minds which leads to the next point.
- The romanticism of late modernity – One of the hallmarks of late modernity, or postmodernity, is a deep suspicion of truth objectively perceived. The extreme skeptics would go so far as to say that we are locked in to our unique, socially constructed perspective on the world. The split between the immaterial and the material, between the mental and the physical became even more pronounced. There is no truth “out there” that isn’t perceived from my own perspective “in here.” There is a certain romanticism that has come to characterize late modernity. Late modernity is the era of expressive individualism, personal autonomy and freedom from the constraints of old institutions and conventions. In short, we have been freed to define our own reality.
- The new teleology – Along with this, technological innovation and bureaucratic control have made it possible for us to redefine and reshape our physical teleology to fit our subjective desires. For instance, marriage is not based on biological teleology (man and woman physically designed for each other). Instead, marriage is now based on individual autonomy backed by bureaucratic control. The state defines marriage not biology. And the lack of capacity for procreation is no longer a problem because of reproductive technology that render basic biological constraints irrelevant. Marriage is no longer about physical realities and boundaries. It is now about self-actualization. As another example, if I am experiencing dysphoria between my subjective understanding of my gender and my biological sex (often the word “assigned” is used here as a way of communicating just how arbitrary the physical body is), the technology now exists for me to reshape my body to fit my mental state at younger and younger ages. It is clear that what matters is not the physical, but the mental. Pearcey also mentions the problem of personhood. When does a human being become a person? When does a human cease being a person? Human personhood is no longer defined in biological terms. Instead, personhood is defined in subjective and slippery terms. Technology and bureaucracy have now empowered this subjective perception of personhood (under the guise of “personal choice”) to take biological life when it is found convenient through the twin mechanisms of abortion and euthanasia. This chapter was particularly chilling. As a final example, Pearcey talks about the cheap sex of hook-up culture. Because of the split between the mind and the body, many young people have come to regard sex as merely a physical activity with no deeper, soulish connections. The result is a profound loneliness even in the intimacy of sex. It is no longer assumed that there ought to be a personal connection in sex. It is only about the orgasm.
- Cultural hegemony – The final step is what I’m calling cultural hegemony. These ways of thinking have become ingrained in our culture. Things that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago are now taught as gospel truth to kindergartners. Heretics are shouted down and publicly shamed for being suddenly on the wrong side of history. Laws are drafted to punish those who don’t comply. “Freedom of speech” is put in scare quotes and is regarded as a dog whistle for bigots. I think it was Tillich who warned that a culture based on individual autonomy will not stand for long. It will eventually cast its vote for a new “heteronomy” – a society governed not so much by popular consent but by the dictates of a loud and influential minority. Kevin Vanhoozer puts it this way:
Hegemony works by getting people to think and feel for themselves that certain values and practices (e.g., same-sex marriage) are simply “common sense” or “natural” (even when they are not). An ideology has achieved hegemony when its way of looking at and behaving in the world pervades society. There is no need to fight a culture war if one side unknowingly acquiesces.
Pearcey’s book isn’t perfect (what book is), but my purpose in this blog isn’t to pick at nits. I think that she has performed a valuable service in helping us to better make sense of our times. But the book is also far from being a cold diagnosis of cultural trends. She punctuates each chapter with a pastor’s heart for hurting people at times going so far as to chastise the church to be better representatives of the gospel of grace and truth in our confused world.