The Postmodernists Are at It Again! A Critical Review of Love Thy Body (2018)

9780801075728Pearcey, Nancy R. Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018. $22.99

Celebrated evangelical apologist Nancy Pearcey published Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality in 2018. The book is a sustained critique of contemporary ethical discourse, which purportedly disvalues the material body in favor of one’s immaterial consciousness. Pearcey offers a “teleological view of nature,” (21) in which nature is built in such a manner that the “teloi” or ends or goals of nature (humanity included) inhere in the material world. They belong, ontologically, to beings as such, which entails that individuals are not free to create their own “ends” but must rather submit to those already constraining them by virtue of their existence in the world.

Lest we get muddled from here, let’s be perfectly clear. This book is not good. Despite the plethora of reviews to the contraryLove Thy Body is sloppy and poorly argued. As a work of Philosophy–that is, as a work that critically reviews, evaluates, and appraises other philosophical ideas–it’s sophomoric. (Her treatment of Kant [162 – 165] is especially heinous. The analysis would not have stood in my 3000-level Ethics course.) She pulls critique-worthy articles from SalonThe Huffington Post, and even Daily Kos, while not even registering the difficulty of citing Breitbart and The Blaze because of their problematic pieces. And so, Pearcey’s scales seem weighted in favor of one side rather than the other, which, for all her talk of “objectivity” and “scientific facts” (195) over against “subjective and arbitrary” (56) determinations, strains the reader’s credulity.

Pearcey’s Personhood Theory

Part and parcel to Pearcey’s problem of sourcing is the way in which she develops her view of the “personhood theory”–the foil for her whole project. Pearcey devotes each chapter of Love Thy Body to analyzing and critiquing a particular manifestation of “personhood theory.” And so, she moves from “I Hate Me,” which functions as an introduction to the theory, to “The Joy of Death,” in which she addresses questions of euthanasia and abortion. From there, “Dear Valued Constituent” touches on all manner of political problems raised and “Schizoid Sex” is geared toward the obvious. “The Body Impolitic” and “Transgender, Transreality” both focus on gender theory, especially in Judith Butler. Her conclusion, “The Goddess of Choice is Dead,” offers a few final thoughts and a brief positive vision:  the church must cultivate and proclaim a healthy vision of bodies and of organic communities, i.e. families and the like.

Value vs. Fact

To get at what motivates the contemporary person, Pearcey says, “we must dig down to the underlying worldview” (18). We’ll address her worldview-talk below, but for now we’ll attend to her construction of the “personhood theory.” Pearcey diagnoses the modern vision as one which, per Schaeffer’s “two-story” account, divides the human being into two substances:  the modern “lower story” of material and “facts” and the postmodern “upper story” of consciousness and “values.” Insofar as “personhood” is concerned, Pearcey contends that an individual today merely “values” the upper story, the one in which we impose our designs on the world. Worth does not, then, belong to the lower story, the “given” in the world. Rather than integrating the two spheres, they remain disparate. According to Pearcey, the postmodernist will say that a living being, with the genetic and physical characteristics belonging to the human species, may not yet “earn the status of personhood by achieving a certain level of cognitive functioning” (25)–that is, consciousness. Contrary to this, Pearcey asserts, “A biblical ethic is incarnational. We are made in God’s image to reflect God’s character, both in our minds and in our bodily actions. There is no division, no alienation. We are embodied beings” (35).

The problem, of course, is that Pearcey doesn’t have somebody to point towards to say, “This person articulates personhood theory in the way I’m describing.” Her personhood theory amounts to an imposition of Schaeffer’s heuristic model on the world. She can’t work with a tangible, concrete articulation of this theory. As a result, Pearcey can whale away at a so-called personhood theory, but there’s no more substance to the theory than to the shadow in shadow-boxing.

The Schaefferian analysis reaches its limit in this regard, because it reveals itself to be an imposition. For the same reason that capitalists don’t find Marxist analyses of the world persuasive, a liberal will object to Pearcey’s diagnosis of the problem–precisely because the diagnosis is not framed in a manner consistent with the person’s own expression of their position. In other words, Pearcey’s critique speaks, at best, adjacently to the problem she’s unconvered, but her refusal to cite liberal theory-builders in this project exacerbates the injury to her argument. Rather than attacking an idea which has been formulated and expressed and carefully delineated, she’s constructed her own version of the liberal project, pointed out the weak spots as she’s understood them, and lit into them, as though they comprised a straw-man.

Choose Your Level

It is curious, of course, that, for all Pearcey’s concerns about personhood theory doing violence to the “lower level” of the material world and for her interest in maintaining the integrity of both levels simultaneously, her project ends up collapsing the two levels into each other. Rather than showing deference to the upper level of values, as the postmodernist does, Pearcey derives the whole of one’s purpose from the lower level, such that any difference between the two are resolved in obeisance to the material. Would it be too far of a stretch to point out that this pattern of deference moves in exactly the opposite direction that the apostle describes in Rom. 7 and especially 7.23? Paul seems to contradict Pearcey’s contention when she writes, “You cannot be a whole person when your emotions are at war with your physiology” (173).

Pearcey’s strict differentiation between consciousness and the body fails to account for the ways in which “the body” is itself the mediation of our consciousness. She pays lip service to the idea, to be sure (34), but Pearcey seems to conceive of our consciousness as some kind of ethereal presence that dwells within our body, like a nut in its shell, but without a necessary relationship between the two. She refers to us as “embodied souls” (21) but never as “psychosomatic unities,”[1] which is more apt when we are discussing the differences between the material and immaterial aspects of existence. (She comes closest when she writes that we are a “psychosexual unity” [32], but this is insufficient.) Were Pearcey to pay more careful attention to the “embodied” nature of our consciousness, i.e. its location somewhere along our neural pathways, she may be more circumspect about denigrating consciousness at the expense of the body. The two are inseparable–essentially so.

Nevertheless, more to the heart of Pearcey’s conception of the human’s two-level existence is the question of the extensivity of sin. I touched on the issue briefly here concerning Aaron Hernandez and with reference to Karl Rahner here, but it will be good to briefly revisit the idea. When Paul writes that the creation has been subject to futility (cf. Ro. 8.20-23), we rightly understand that to mean that natural disasters aren’t in fact “natural”; they’re a product of our alienation from god. Illness, injury, and death are likewise the result of creation’s bondage to sin. However, I frequently read commentators who elide over this passage while failing to discern the degree to which this bondage seeps into our bodies on a microscopic level. It’s as though the entire world has been set against itself, and, like Paul, we witness different components of our bodies making war against others. If we were to accept the radical subversion of the created order due to the original sin, would that not at the least give us pause before blithely conceding that manifest biological appearance trumps the so-called subjective feelings, which themselves come from the biologically-rooted consciousness of the individual? Even Pearcey acquiesces that our “feelings” may have some genetic cause (196). The embodied soul, in this case, may fight a losing battle against its instantiation in the world of sin, but, if the soul is “gendered” in a manner discommensurate with its presentation, it would be difficult to name such a battle vicious.

Liberals, Progressives, and Postmoderns, oh my!

She exhibits a number of authorial traits that are more annoying than anything else, but they are also illuminative, because they give an idea of her intended audience. Although Love Thy Body appears to be an evenhanded treatment of “somatic ethics” (my term) in the contemporary world, Pearcey “tips her hand” and reveals the polemical substructure of her work. She frequently resorts to the not quite insults of “liberals” and “progressives” (93), as well as “the media” (33), each of which are to be seen as contrasted with “Christians” and “conservatives”–all while occasionally lambasting “politically correct sexual orthodoxy” (123, 130-1). Unblinking, she cites both The Federalist (212), Matt Walsh (68), and Breitbart (151). She even references Planned Parenthood’s black market for organs (51). Her biggest target may be the State (84, 251-6) or “the nanny state” (243), although she does have an abiding confidence in “the family [as] a bulwark protecting the unalienable rights recognized in the Declaration of Independence” (253; cf. 60, where Pearcey references the “transcendent source” of those enumerated rights).

Were you not to recognize the characteristics above, she would fall quite neatly into the consistent GOP-voting Christian demographic, which, as far as my sphere of influence is concerned, is fairly uninteresting. This kind of person exists everywhere in my world, and they’re frequently lovely people–no less so than normal, at least. But, were Pearcey’s aim to convince, say, a typical liberal of her arguments, casually tossing “liberal” and “progressive” as, functionally, “people you should not wish to be” is not the way to go. It’s more insulting than necessary, and Pearcey doesn’t have the argumentative purchase to afford losing readers to petty name-calling. That is to say, her arguments just aren’t strong enough to assume that the reader will tolerate her casually dismissing their ideology or themselves. And, further, her writing just isn’t clever enough to maintain attention even in the face of polemical insult, unlike Christopher Hitchens’ noted prose.

Such a posture prompts a secondary problem, however. With Pearcey’s close identification of Christianity and conservatism (which identification is, again, neither remarkable nor particularly interesting) as well as her continued castigation of liberals as such, she loses not only the “secular” or irreligious liberal but also the liberal Christian–one who may even be “left” simply by virtue of not enjoying the “columnist Matt Walsh” (68). “But,” you or she may protest, “a liberal Christian is an oxymoron!” Such may very well be the case, but Pearcey doesn’t prove that; all the reader can tell is that she’s assumed as much. Love Thy Body lacks the winsomeness that ought to attend any work that isn’t pure polemics.

Pearcey’s Worldview Problem

As noted above, Pearcey writes downstream from the patron saint of post-postmodern Evangelical apologetics, Francis Schaeffer (12ff). Her application of Schaeffer’s two-story account of our world is more frequently ham-fisted than illustrative, more a product of reading the world as a Schaefferian than reading to understand. None of which statements should necessarily malign Schaeffer; he belonged to a period of time and was effective. Part of Pearcey’s problem is a failure to amend Schaeffer’s heuristic for the present moment. She quite simply regurgitates Schaeffer’s method and diagnosis, whereas the best devotees know that an effective use of a teacher involves reconfiguring the teacher’s material for today.

One unfortunate feature of Schaeffer’s legacy, which Pearcey reproduces here, is the formal emphasis on one’s “worldview” as the ground for one’s actions in the world. That is to say, Pearcey premises her book on the idea that how the contemporary world does depends on what that world believes. The beliefs of an individual are the ground for their action. She positions herself clearly: “A person’s morality is always derivative. It stems from his or her worldview” (136). According to the model, the fundamental mode of being-in-the-world is cognitive. That is, we are thinking things and the other facets of our humanity are built upon that first foundation; in breve, what we believe determines our actions and our affections.

However, there’s good reason to believe that such a construction puts the cart before the horse. We frequently live and do subconsciously–that is, we don’t rationally justify our actions. We act, rather, according to pre-conscious affections or desires. We want a hamburger more than we want a salad, even though we know that a salad would be better for us, and so we choose the burger despite our understanding. Per Smith, our fundamental mode is not cognitive–although it is neither necessarily non-cognitive–but affective. We love, and we act accordingly. We desire, and we do as a result. Smith writes, “To say that humans are, at root, lovers is to emphasize that we are the sorts of animals for whom things matter in ways that we often don’t (and can’t) articulate” (51). We desire before we can articulate the rationality for the desire, which suggests that the rationality for our desire is more likely a rationalization or post hoc justification for why we act. Worldview-talk, in this case, is not so much a submission to the way things are but more a systematization of the way we would prefer things be.[2]

Rather than assigning fundamental priority in human existence to abstract conceptualization a la worldview and rationality, we would more ground it in the lived experience, in the chosen mode-of-being reflected by one’s actions in the world. The material existence of a person in the world–how it is they encounter and react to the world around them–matters more than their supposed view thereof. Such is why god speaks through the prophet Jeremiah, “Let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord” (Jer. 9.24), and why, continuing, he says, “Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? declares the Lord” (Jer. 22.15b-16). Hitting on a consistent emphasis of mine, what matters is not the rationalization of action or the cognitive scaffolding that attends our actions but the action itself. Such is why faithfulness even in the face of doubt counts, while expressed belief during a life of disobedience does not. We are “loving” or “desiring” people prior to being “thinking” people, and our loves and desires have greater explanatory power for our actions (and our ethics) than the post hoc rationalizations we call “worldview.”

Teleological or Theological Ethics?

Pearcey envisions her project as fundamentally a work of “teleological ethics,” built on a “teleological view of nature” (21). She makes the connection to natural law a few pages later, when she writes,

If nature is teleological, and the human body is part of nature, then it is likewise teleological. It has a built-in purpose, part of which is expressed as the moral law. We are morally obligated to treat people in a way that helps them fulfill their purpose. This explains why biblical morality is not arbitrary. Morality is the guidebook to fulfilling God’s original purpose for humanity, the instruction manual for becoming the kind of person God intends us to be, the road map for reaching the human telos. This is sometimes called natural law ethics because it tells us how to fulfill our true nature, how to become fully human. (23)

For Pearcey, the perfection or goal of human flourishing can be achieved by acting according to the rules that already inhere within nature. Pearcey equivocates, making a poor version of the watchmaker analogy (a species of the teleological argument) (22), and argues that the creative mind responsible for the world also created the norms by which we ought to structure our lives. She argues, per her teleological ethic, “If the body has no intrinsic purpose, built in by God, then all that matters are human purposes” (24), meaning, of course, that the “givenness” of our material experience is the locus of god’s purpose for us. The upper story, in short, cannot be allowed to impose its order on the lower.

Pearcey’s teleological ethics assumes purposive elements in god’s creative act. But, as noted above, her account fails to do justice to the Christian doctrine of sin (and its radical reach) and to the Christian doctrine of restoration. In other words, her teleological ethics could have just easily been written by a deist, because all it requires is the existence of an apparently structured world. In the absence of an immanent god, how does the ethical account presented here change in the least? The structures still exist. There’s no need to account for their distortion due to sin. The lived experience doesn’t require the hope of eschatological fulfillment. All that is necessary is submitting to the presented material form.

The ethics, therefore, aren’t robustly Christian. They may be a robust account of natural law or even stubbornly conservative (as natural law ethics typically are), but they aren’t unadulteratedly Christian. Her account of sin’s extensivity is lacking, and the moral vision, which colors the Christian ethical imagination, lacks the hoping-for-which intrinsic to Christian being-in-the-world. A theological ethics finds the source of its energy in god’s work among his people, not in the abstract structuring of creation prior to the fall.

All of which is, quite frankly, disappointing as far as Pearcey’s project goes. I had picked up the work on the basis of its hype among Christian intelligentsia and because, in large measure, I agree with the arc of the project. There is something to one’s givenness in the world, and, for all its talk of the resurrection, most contemporary theology does not make enough of the body. But, Pearcey’s work was too reactionary and too polemical to advance the conversation. It’s a new articulation of natural law and teleology, but it doesn’t do much beyond this. We need an ethics of the body that centers itself on the incarnation, resurrection, and crucifixion; on the body of Christ; and on the New Jerusalem.

[1] “Psychosomatic unity” gets to the heart of human existence in a better way than describing a person as an “embodied soul” or, worse, as the apocryphal attribution to Lewis puts it, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” To be human is to live as one “formed from the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2.7), in which our corporeality is as necessary to our being as is our immaterial soul. We are not “embodied” in the sense that we could also be in a “disembodied” state and retain our full humanity. The Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead forces our two spheres of being into a permanent embrace, such that our soul and our body belong to each other.

“Psychosomatic unity” also best describes the way in which we experience the world. Our bodies are the necessary manifestations and mediations of our will such that the body itself channels and nudges the will toward one end or another. It’s not as though our soul stands over our body as a cowboy over a bronco, hoping to corral its behavior. The soul and the body are mutually interdependent. Such is part of Jamie Smith’s contention in Desiring the Kingdom when he writes,

To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are. Our (ultimate) love is constitutive of our identity. … We are talking about ultimate loves–that to which we are fundamentally oriented, what ultimately governs our vision of the good life, what shapes and molds our being-in-the-world–in other words, what we desire above all else, the ultimate desire that shapes and positions and makes sense of all our penultimate desires and actions. (51)

And when he continues, “The rhythms and rituals of Christian worship are not the ‘expression of’ a Christian worldview, but are themselves an ‘understanding’ implicit in practice–an understanding that cannot be had apart from the practices” (69). Our practices, frequently undertaken apart from conscious volition, themselves shape our conscious volition.

[2] This, I would contend, is also the nature of “natural law” talk, of which Pearcey makes use as well. Natural law derives the ought from the is while at the same time maintaining the modern modes of being. That is to say, “natural law” functions essentially as a conservative ethical impositions on the supposedly inherent structures of the world; the world, therefore, reflects the already existing norms of society. Where the natural order actually departs from the mandated norms, though, they are subtly ignored or tucked away as an exception to the rule. Briefly, the appeal to “natural law” is an appeal to authority masquerading as philosophy.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255