A Man of the Church but Not in the Church
Jordan Peterson, God, and Christianity: The Search for a Meaningful Life
By Christopher Kaczor and Matthew Petrusek
Publisher: Word on Fire Institute
Review Author: Barbara E. Rose
Canadian psychologist and public intellectual Jordan B. Peterson produced a series of lectures on the Book of Genesis that drew, and continues to draw, massive online attention. His YouTube videos, of which the Biblical Series is but a part, have been viewed 285 million times and listened to millions more via audio podcasts. A portion of Peterson’s audience overlaps with that of Bishop Robert Barron’s, and so it seemed inevitable that their paths would eventually cross. In 2019 Barron appeared on Peterson’s podcast to discuss religion, and the bishop was a worthy and winsome emissary of the Church. Aside from the Biblical Series, Peterson is known for defending traditional liberal principles and for warning about dangerous “woke” ideology. Barron is savvy enough to treat the “mild-mannered, soft-spoken psychology professor” as an ally in ushering intellectually and spiritually starved young people away from the toxic pits of our rapidly secularizing anti-culture.
Peterson became famous for protesting a 2017 Canadian bill that compels citizens to address each other according to their “preferred pronouns.” He took a countercultural public stand and gained widespread attention — and street cred in the eyes of many, especially young men. Shortly after landing in the spotlight, Peterson published an international bestseller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018), and was attracting tens of thousands to his speaking engagements. He has often expressed surprise at his popularity, as his lectures — which are part university course, part weighty counsel — aren’t exactly what you would call typical entertainment fare. A short synopsis of his overall message: The best way to fix the world is to fix yourself. He makes clear that life’s meaning lies in taking on a burden of responsibility. His 12 rules — such as “Stand up straight with your shoulders back,” “Tell the truth,” and “Be precise in your speech” — appear basic, but his explication of their importance is complex. The rapt attention he commands at live lectures has given him the impression that young adults scarcely hear such old-school counsel. Peterson’s manner combines learnedness and humility, courage and heartfelt concern. You can’t help but listen to him.
Peterson says the modern tendency to write off ancient religions is rooted in sloppy thinking that fails to approach old texts with humility and seriousness. The fact that he claims no church membership lends him an aura of objectivity on this. His popular Biblical Series videos on the Book of Genesis were driven by his desire to mine its age-old stories for truths about human existence. Judging from audience feedback, the 15-part, 40-hour series has inspired countless fans to rethink belief in God and to revisit Christian teachings they had long ago put aside. (On this account, Peterson has been likened to the Persian king Cyrus, who directed the Israelites to go home and rebuild their Temple.) In addition to giving Christianity fresh appeal, the series directs the eyes of a mis-educated generation to behold anew the magnificent edifice we call Western civilization. Peterson the psychologist is very good at making hearers understand how old-fashioned ideas and traditions apply to them, at this time.
Bishop Barron, on Peterson’s podcast, rhetorically asked why someone outside the Church is doing a better job than bishops and priests at generating interest in Christianity and the Bible. (The unspoken context here being the Church’s pastoral failure to attract and retain her young.) When Barron and Peterson discuss the Church’s shrinkage in the West, Peterson offers his diagnosis: “I don’t think that you guys ask enough of your people.” The outsider accurately sees what faithful insiders know in their bones: that 50 years of vague “God is love, and love is nice” catechesis (or, rather, messaging) has been an utter failure. Peterson believes the Church should — but doesn’t — teach young people to “have a noble goal.” He rejects any sort of “follow your bliss” message. He says that “the pathway to redemption is through recognition of error, not through bliss,” and “the fundamental call is a call to adventure, not to ease or to happiness.” This echoes an oft-cited quote of Pope Benedict XVI: “The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.”
Faithful Catholics may wonder how Peterson’s lectures fit with Church teaching. Christopher Kaczor and Matthew R. Petrusek, two professors at Loyola Marymount University — and both fellows at Bishop Barron’s Word on Fire Institute — provide an answer. Kaczor and Petrusek’s Jordan Peterson, God, and Christianity offers a summary of “points of contact between Peterson’s work and the Christian faith.” They echo Barron’s assessment that Peterson, to use Petrusek’s words, “may not be in the Church…but it’s fair to say he’s somewhere in the vicinity.” Kaczor and Petrusek show that Peterson walks territory already surveyed by Augustine, Aquinas, and others. They drive home the point that the rich, complex Christian tradition “includes Peterson’s approach, but goes beyond it,” and they encourage Peterson’s massive audience to look deeper into traditional Catholic theology.
Kaczor considers Peterson’s lecture series on Genesis and places it within the rich context of Christian teaching. He says Peterson “reinvents the interpretive wheel” of earlier eras “in a way that incorporates contemporary science, literature, and philosophy.” Proceeding line by line through Genesis, Peterson analyzes each story by drawing in diverse subjects such as evolutionary biology and Babylonian mythology, and thinkers such as “Milton, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Dostoyevsky, and especially Carl Jung to offer a multidimensional understanding of the text.” Kaczor says such a wide-ranging exposition — that treats Scripture “as rich and deep beyond our imagining” — would not surprise the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Indeed, in many ways, Peterson’s analysis invites tie-ins to the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Peterson’s aim is practical: He is concerned with how to live, how to set priorities, how to behave. His reasonable and useful interpretation of Scripture, Kaczor might say, fits well with Aquinas’s commonsensical and reality-based philosophy.
Peterson teaches that profound stories like those in Genesis are truer than reality, in the sense that they apply to everyone always. His analysis builds toward Christ as the embodiment of all things admirable, as the greatest of all heroes. Once Christ enters into it, though, the limit of Peterson’s analysis becomes clear. Kaczor refers to C.S. Lewis, another scholar of myth and story, to show this limit. Lewis, being “an explicitly believing Christian,” goes beyond the psychology of religion — the “landscape of human experience” — where Peterson chooses to remain. Lewis says myth became fact in Christ, rendering the Christian story qualitatively different unto the point of extraordinary effect on those who receive it. Kaczor ends with the suggestion that Peterson is still pondering this.
Petrusek, for his part, looks at 12 Rules for Life, in which Peterson counsels readers to keep chaos at bay by aiming for the highest possible good. This too echoes Aquinas, whose teaching Petrusek summarizes as “Either aim for God and live a meaningful and authentically happy existence or live for something other than God, other than truth and goodness itself, and slip into meaninglessness.” A shorter Aquinas is “God or nothing.” A shorter Peterson is “Highest possible good or nothing.” It’s close. Although Peterson won’t yet cross the boundary into formal religion, he knows that a lack of belief in God wreaks havoc in personal lives and in society.
Petrusek reframes Peterson’s 12 Rules as clustered around modern man’s three great problems: Meaning and Its Pursuit, Pride and Its Antidote, and True Love. A few hundred years’ worth of swapping wisdom and tradition for individualism and hollow consumerism has worsened those problems, and Peterson deploys his vast learning and earnest good will to save whom he can from the void. Petrusek goes where Peterson declares himself unqualified to go, saying Christian orthodoxy accounts for and solves these problems. He urges “non-Christian admirers of Peterson” to consider how the Gospel, Scripture, Tradition, and perennial philosophy abundantly supply the goodness, truth, love, and meaning they seek.
Petrusek asks whether a real Christ, rather than an abstracted archetype, is needed to make Peterson’s arguments work. The answer, of course, is yes. All of Peterson’s wise advice, he writes, “needs a theological foundation and a theological horizon to make it work, both philosophically, in terms of its internal consistency, and psychologically, in terms of its power to persuade and motivate.” Counsel on truth-telling, reason, and the problem of pride “ultimately fall apart” unless they rest on a firm foundation. A meaningful life requires hard choices, and hard choices involve sacrifice. Christ gives men “more than an archetype to live — and die — for.” Church teaching also provides stable definitions of goodness and love, grounded in Trinitarian theology. Absent a link to the Church, Peterson’s teaching ultimately leads people “in the wrong direction: back only to themselves.” We can fix ourselves by ourselves only so much.
Real-world practice as a clinical psychologist and serious reflection on the extent of human cruelty seem to have left their mark on Peterson. This may partly explain why his personal brand of metaphysics treats evil as absolutely real and suffering as an ever-looming threat. In such places where Peterson’s views do not align with Christian tradition, Petrusek provides corrections that, taken together, impress on the reader how bright our earthly path is made by the Gospel. Sure, sin causes suffering, and pain is everywhere, but in the Christian story, from Creation through the Resurrection, Petrusek writes, “pain does not have the last word, because it did not have the first word.”
Peterson holds up Christ as a standard of perfection, the greatest of all heroes. This isn’t incorrect, but it is incomplete. Petrusek retells the climax of what is called the Greatest Story Ever Told: Christ “absorbs death, the sin of the world, into his very body, sucking in every form of cruelty, every form of hatred…into his very self, and he dies death,” and He really dies. Then He really comes back to life, which means that “life, not death, has the final word. Life, not death, is the most fundamental characteristic of existence.” Goodness, truth, and life are freely on offer, but we must choose God; we must choose Christ.
After their book was published, Kaczor and Petrusek were guests on Peterson’s podcast (Dec. 27, 2021). In that episode, Peterson again mentions the Church’s struggle to evangelize her own people. Catholicism, he says, has the dogma, the pattern, and the stories, and “is as sane as people can get.” But instead of communicating “the best answers civilization has come up with,” today’s Church is crippled by spiritual malaise and decadence. To remedy this, Peterson would have Catholics look at what we do, rather than what we say. What are young Catholics trained to do as followers of Christ? In wealthy, formerly Christian nations, our young are primed for financial success and overconsumption — hardly noble goals.
Peterson has put his neck on the line to defend Christendom and the Western liberal tradition. The man practices what he preaches, and he has been repeatedly and mercilessly attacked for speaking the truth from his considerable bully pulpit. After his public lectures, lines form of those who wish to thank him for his courage and effective counsel. When, on occasion, he has been asked about his own faith, Peterson simply replies, “I live as if God exists.” Bishop Barron describes Peterson as “grappling with the reality of God.”
This wrestling, undertaken in public view and to the edification of many, has continued through recent, serious health emergencies Peterson and his wife have both suffered. Kaczor and Petrusek liken this latest chapter of Peterson’s life to the story of Job, who starts as a knower and “righteous respecter of the law,” but after much suffering, becomes a true believer and worshiper. Whether Peterson follows Job’s pattern remains to be seen.
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