Peterson celebrates faith and responsibility, at the risk of losing love and response.
Jordan Peterson has been in London and making speeches with which, I think, there is a lot to agree.
The heart of his message is a link between faith and responsibility, as he puts it. Human beings need faith that an horizon of what’s good lies ahead of us, in the future. It is then our responsibility to give of ourselves for that good.
Moreover, therein, we find our true identity, purpose and meaning – and a direction for the exercise of our freedom and will. The widespread lack of that sense in the modern world contributes greatly to the feeling that identity is vulnerable, for the reason that we human beings need a sense of ourselves that exceeds us – that draws us.
We are the finite creature with an awareness of the infinite. Secularise that and you get runaway consumption, culture wars and pandemic levels of dissatisfaction.
It’s a powerful vision combining faith, responsibility, will, identity, meaning and sacrifice. And it resonates. Which parent who has sacrificed much for their child regrets it when they see their offspring flourish and grow?
Moreover, that domestic sacrifice and suffering can become a virtuous spiral that reaches out from the domestic, to the social, the civic, the societal, and to the civilisational level. Indeed, it reaches to what, Peterson says, is traditionally called God – the supreme good.
Meaning, then, is found when known to be in relation to the whole, not as an isolated, atomised pursuit.
I, myself, am half inspired by Peterson – his charisma and evident passion are hard to resist – or rather, are inclined to provoke responses of heartfelt embrace or heartfelt rejection. The performance of his thoughts, when he’s on form, tends to do that. It divides.
So as I mused on what he said, I tried to pay attention to my own sense of discomfort as well as enthusiasm. And I think it leads to a critique, in the spirit of dialogue, that goes something like this.
The trouble with Peterson is that he is almost Christian, but not quite. The imperative to sacrifice and suffer for others, in the quest for the good, and thereby finding meaning for oneself, is presented as an ethical imperative. It translates into a highly moral pattern for the individual and society – which is, of course, not of itself bad. Only it is not enough.
For when Christianity is secularised in this way, no doubt in a genuine attempt to make it palatable for as wide an audience as possible, it risks becoming a dogmatic creed. Hence the spirit of division. Christianity itself can generate an ethical response, of course, but of itself it is pre-ethical and actually personal.
It is about a response to a call, experienced as from God to humanity. “I am in you and you are in me, mutual in love divine” said William Blake. Or as the early church fathers summarised it, “God became as we are so that we might become as he is.”
To put it another way, the fire at the heart of Christianity is not a fire of responsibility but of love. Our yearning for meaning, purpose and more, is met by God’s love, which is what actually seeds all that desire in the first place.
You might add that the core energy is not from the human will but is received after human judgement – our judgement of what’s good, and so our opening to its energy and demands.
This is crucial because when ethical demands and moral law alone are stressed, something crucial to the gospel is forgotten, namely forgiveness. Indeed, if there were one feature that distinguishes the teaching of Jesus, it is forgiveness, which is not found in pre-Christian philosophies.
So rather than faith and responsibility, Christianity puts first, love and response. And that is more forgiving of inevitable mistakes and also disagreements about what it might all mean in practice. There will be disagreements, of course. But at least in principle, there is also a higher vision, of God’s love for us, which offers a unity that can make space for differences, because everyone stands before that love, regards of how they choose to respond.
Love and response also relativises the importance of any social and political response. As Jesus put it, the task is to be in the world but not of the world – instead holding out for the fulfilment of the vision, not in time, but in eternity; not in the city of men, but the city of God.
This eschatology is crucial because without that transcendent horizon firmly in view, Christianity risks stoking social and political dispute and conflict, as testified by its bloody history. I’m sure Peterson is fully aware of the history of wars of religion in Europe. They start when people try to turn Christianity into a manifesto or rallying cry for political action. Don’t confuse rending to Caesar and rending to God.
Heaven is not a place on earth, you might say. Which is why death and dying are also central to the Christian vision. Divine love works by the power of allure, not coercion. It is willing to die, not so as to cajole, but so as to reveal powers higher than human powers alone.
Again, Christian history has not lived up to this. But that only stands as a testament to how religion is routinely and so easily hid in war.
A related issue is the theme of hierarchies, which feature in Peterson’s thoughts, too. I think I’m right in saying that he is inclined to see them as a kind of bottom-up, or emergent feature of faith and responsibility – a virtuous spiral that moves from the domestic to the civic to the civilisational.
The trouble with bottom-up, emergent hierarchies is that they are very inclined to lead to elites – those who are higher up, more right or advanced, placing themselves over others. You see this risk in emergent forms of integral psychology and cosmology, too.
In Christianity theology, though, hierarchies are not pictured as rigid structures but as flexible flows of love and grace, from the divine source, through the angelic beings, to reach across all creation. As Dante sees, they spin and swirl as they convey and connect. There is order but it is the order of beauty and truth, shaped by a concern for the particular and personal – not fixed laws shaped by a concern for the abstract or general.
When they are taken as that, they are inclined to oppress rather than protect the freedom to respond to God’s love and receive grace.
This will make some feel nervous, as if Christian liberty to respond to God’s love is really a sanctioning of libertarianism – which, again, it can become, particularly in a secular world shaped by Christian ideas, after the metaphysics has gone.
So alongside the insistence on God’s call, it is also worth emphasising that divine love is not a feeling. It is this power of allure – the ultimately irresistible call of what’s good, beautiful and true – which is why, in the tradition, what’s bad and evil is, at base, a forgetting and perversion of the desire for the good. The passion of response, then, exists without knowledge of what it is responding to, and that is often disastrous.
All in all, there is much to consider in Peterson’s latest passionate suggestions. I think he is right to present a vision of the human good coming from the future, thereby calling us and shaping a meaningful life now. The human self needs a sense of itself that exceeds an otherwise atomised, lonely individualism.
However, he has also clarified for me why the full Christian vision matters, and the inclination to secularise is risky. Distortions inevitably appear. Love and response is reduced to faith and responsibility. Judgment is replaced by an exertion of will. Forgiveness is sidelined. And grace becomes the assertion of moral order.
It’s often said that Peterson is on a journey. I hope he continues along the Christian path.