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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

What Is A Human And Who Is A Person?

Published Tuesday, May 14, 2019 By Nancy Pearcey

Every day, the twenty-four hour news cycle chronicles the advance of a secular moral revolution in areas such as sexuality, abortion, homosexuality, and transgenderism.  It’s easy to get caught up in the latest controversy, but current events are merely surface effects, like waves on the ocean.  The real action happens below the surface, at the level of worldviews.  To be strategically effective, then, we must address what people believe about the nature and significance of life itself.  Issues of life and sexuality are not merely theoretical; they affect virtually everyone in a personal way.  To respond to today’s secular moral revolution, we must dig down to the underlying worldview that drives it.

Secular morality rests on a deep division that runs through all of Western thought and culture—one that blows apart the connection between scientific and moral knowledge.  In the past, most civilizations held that reality consists of both a natural order and a moral order, integrated into an overall unity.  Therefore, our knowledge of reality was likewise thought to be a single, unified system of truth.

In the modern age, however, many people came to think that reliable knowledge is possible only of the natural order—of empirically testable scientific facts.  Since moral truth cannot be stuffed into a test tube or studied under a microscope, many people concluded that morality does not qualify as objective truth.  It consists of merely personal feelings and preferences. The unified concept of truth has been exploded, split into two separate domains.  The first contains empirical science, which is held to be objectively true and testable—this is the realm of public truths; things that everyone is expected to accept, regardless of their private beliefs.  The second contains the realm of morality and theology, which are treated as private, subjective, and relative; the place where we hear people say, “That can be true for you, but not for me.”  The first domain began with the scientific revolution, giving rise to the Enlightenment tradition. Composed of philosophers who claimed to build upon science, they treated the fact realm (the first domain) as the primary reality—‘isms’ such as empiricism, rationalism, materialism and naturalism.  However, there was a reaction against the Enlightenment, called the Romantic movement.  It was composed of thinkers who sought to keep alive the value realm (the second domain).  They focused on questions of justice, freedom, morals, and meaning, proposing ‘isms’ such as idealism, Marxism, existentialism, and postmodernism.  Today, these two traditions are loosely summarized under the headings of modernism versus post-modernism, and they remain at loggerheads.  Modernists claim that the lower story is the primary or sole reality—facts and science.  Postmodernists claim that the upper story is primary—that even facts and science are merely mental constructs.

Because philosophy is so foundational, this divide affects every other subject area, including morality.  When we ask, “What is the right way to treat people?” our answer depends on what we think people are—on what it means to be human. The key to understanding all the controversial issues of our day is that the concept of the human being has likewise been fragmented into an upper and lower story.  Secular thought assumes a body/person split, with the body defined in the ‘fact’ realm by empirical science (first domain) and the person defined in the ‘values’ realm as the basis for rights (second domain).  This dualism has created a fractured, fragmented view of the human being, in which the body is treated as separate from the authentic self.

The Human Non-Human

To understand this dualism, we need to ask where it came from and how it developed.  The word ‘dualism’ is simply the claim that reality consists of two kinds of substances instead of only one. In that traditional sense, Christianity is dualistic because it holds that there exists both body and soul, matter and spirit.  These two substances can causally interact with one another, but neither one can be reduced to the other.  Body and soul together form an integrated unity—that the human being is an embodied soul. By contrast, personhood theory—the idea that a human is a human in the sense that it is a biological organism knowable by the empirical methods of science, but it only becomes a person (and thereby entitled to certain moral and legal rights) when it attains a certain level of cognitive functioning, consciousness and self-awareness—entails a two-level dualism that sets the body against the person, as though they were two separate things merely stuck together.  It demeans the body as extrinsic to the person—something inferior that can be used for purely pragmatic purposes.

How did such a negative view of the body develop?

Because the body is part of nature, the answer lies in the way people have thought about nature.  For centuries, Western culture was permeated by a Christian heritage that regarded nature as God’s handiwork, reflecting his purposes.  Nature is an expression of God’s purposes and a revelation of his character (Ps.19:1, Rom. 1:20).  Even though the world is fallen and broken by sin, it still speaks of its Creator—we can ‘read’ signs of God’s existence and purposes in creation.  This is called a teleological view of nature, from the Greek word telos, which means purpose or goal.  It is evident that living things are structured for a purpose: eyes for seeing, ears for hearing, fins for swimming, and wings for flying.  Each part of an organ is exquisitely adapted to the others, and all interact in a coordinated, goal-directed fashion to achieve the purpose of the whole.  His kind of integrated structure is the hallmark of design—plan, will, intention.

Scientists have discovered evidence for teleology not only in living things, however, but also in the physical universe.  They have found that its fundamental physical constants are exquisitely coordinated to support life.  Harvard astrophysicist Howard Smith writes:

“The laws of the universe include fundamental numbers like the strengths of the four forces, the speed of light, Planck’s constant, the masses of electrons or protons, and others….If those values were slightly different, even by a few percent, we would not be here….Life, much less intelligent life, could not exist.”

This is called the fine-tuning problem, and what it means is that even the physical world exhibits the hallmark of design.

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.  In this purpose-driven view, there is no dichotomy between body and person.  The two together form an integrated psycho-physical unity.  We respect and honor our bodies as part of the revelation of God’s purpose for our lives.  It is part of the created order that is ‘declaring the glory of God’.  The implication is that the physical structure of our bodies reveals clues to our personal identity, and the way they function provides rational grounds for our moral decisions.  That’s why a Christian ethic 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).

Matter Without Meaning

What changes this purpose-driven view of nature?  How did the West lose its positive view of the body?

In the modern age, the most important turning point was Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in 1859.  Darwin could not deny that nature appears to be designed, but having embraced the philosophy of materialism, he wanted to reduce that appearance to an illusion.  He hoped to show that although living structures seem to be teleological, they are actually the result of blind, undirected forces.  Although they seem to be products of intention, they are actually products of a purposeless material process.  The two main elements in his theory—random variations and natural selection—were both proposed expressly to eliminate plan or purpose.

On a Richter scale of thinkers, Darwin’s theory caused an earthquake that ranks well above 9.0.  Its seismic waves were not limited to science—it caused severe aftershocks in moral thought.  If nature was not the handiwork of God—if it no longer bore signs of God’s good purposes—then it no longer provided a basis for moral truths.  It was just a machine, churning along by blind, material forces.  If nature does not reveal God’s will, then it is a morally neutral realms where humans may impose their will.  There is nothing in nature that humans are morally obligated to respect.  Nature becomes the realm of value-neutral facts, available to serve whatever values humans may choose.  And because the human body is part of nature, it too is demoted to the level of an amoral mechanism, subject to the will of the autonomous self. If the body has no intrinsic purpose, built in by God, then all that matters are human purposes.  The body is reduced to a collection of atoms and molecules, not essentially different from any other chance configuration of matter.  It is raw material to be manipulated and controlled to serve the human agenda, like any other natural resources.

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, ironically, in reality it places a low value on the material world as purely particles in motion with no higher purpose or meaning.

Nancy Pearcey is professor of apologetics and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, a fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, and editor at large of The Pearcey Report.  She is the author of multiple books, including Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions About Life and Sexuality (Baker Books, 2018) and Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From Its Cultural Captivity (Crossway, 2008).  The above excerpt is adapted from Love Thy Body and is used by the kind permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group (2018). 

  • Nancy Pearcey

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