Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson, improbable cultural “rock star,” has been on a tear, and the Christianosphere is talking. Heck, the Babylon Bee even got into it.

There is no neutral standpoint, so it is legitimate to ask “where’s Jordan Peterson coming from?”

The consensus is that he’s not Christian, and I suspect that he’s on record to that effect. That’s not to say that Jordanism is altogether incompatible with Christianity. I don’t think it is, but you’ll soon see that there’s dissent on that.

An uncontroversial description of Peterson, so far as I’ve seen, is “Jungian.” A more controversial one is “stoic.”

One Charlie Clark, Writing at Mere Orthodoxy (which is thoughtful, reformed-leaning Evangelicals, not Orthodox — I know; it’s confusing) says Peterson is stoic, and it

is too bad then that the backbone of his whole program is what C.S. Lewis called “the Great Sin.” Peterson is, in fact, precisely the character that Lewis describes in Mere Christianity, one of those teachers who,

“appeal to a boy’s Pride, or, as they call it, his self-respect, to make him behave decently: many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper by learning to think that they are beneath his dignity—that is, by Pride.”

For Lewis, “to beat down the simpler vices” by means of Pride is a cure far worse than the disease. And this is precisely Peterson’s strategy throughout 12 Rules for Life.

Clark also sees Peterson as effectively “Pelagian” when translated into Christianese:

Theologically, the expression of Pride is Pelagianism, the belief that you can save yourself without relying on God’s grace. This is precisely what we find in Peterson’s work. Consider what Peterson says Rule 2 (“Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.”):

Heaven, after all, will not arrive of its own accord. We will have to work to bring it about, and strengthen ourselves, so that we can withstand the deadly angels and flaming sword of judgment that God used to bar its entrance…. Once having understood Hell, researched it, so to speak—particularly your own individual Hell—you could decide against going there or creating that. You could aim elsewhere. You could, in fact, devote your life to this…. That would justify your miserable existence. That would atone for your sinful nature, and replace your shame and self-consciousness with the natural pride and forthright confidence of someone who has learned once again to walk with God in the Garden.

Of course, Peterson, not being a Christian (nor perhaps even a theist), does not intend any of these statements in their theological sense. Nevertheless, the posture he is advocating excludes grace. As Peterson would have it, no one has come to rescue you and no help is on the way.

I like the lads at Mere Orthodoxy. I really do. And caution about any cultural “rock star” is warranted.

But I think the balance lies in another direction, described by an Anthony Bradley article that Clark linked. I’d encourage you to read it for yourself, but I’m going to try soaring up to 30,000 feet to give a meta-summary, including a concept the author doesn’t directly mention: So profoundly has the Augustinian idea of original sin, of people guilty and hell-bound from the moment of conception (perhaps this is later Calvinist gloss), shaped western Christendom, that Christianity as winsome toward feminism has for 50 years or so been savage toward men, and young men have known nothing but shaming as a consequence. To shamed and beaten-down young men, Peterson is a prophet.

Is he a false prophet? Where Evangelical Clark sees Pelagianism, Orthodox Tipsy hears echoes of synergism, with which Orthodox Christianity, rightly so-called, is comfortable to that point that we’re often mistaken for Pelagians. (I’m not about to claim Peterson for Orthodox Christianity, but I know he has at least slight familiarity with it from his interactions with iconographer Jonathan Pageau, for instance here and here.)

So, young Evangelical man, let me prescribe this:

  1. Go ahead and listen  to Jordan Peterson, inspired and lifted by his words.
  2. Remember that he’s not coming from a Christian place and there is no neutral place. Be careful. It’s a jungle out there and the enemy of your enemy may not ultimately be the friend you need.
  3. Be aware that the Sunday morning place that continues the beatings you get during the week is a sect (Evangelicalism) of a schism (the Protestant Reformation) from a schism (the Patriarch of Rome breaking from the other four Patriarchs of the first-millennium Church) — and that Augustine and Original Sin are not part of Christian consensus world-wide, even if they dominate in the world Catholicism built.
  4. Get Thee to an Orthodox Church to put Peterson’s message in historic Christian context. Unless the Priest is a convert with original sin notions still lingering, the beatings should cease. Even if the priest is still crypto-Protestant, the Liturgy knows better. God is gracious and loves mankind, you’ll hear again and again and again.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

The Catholic Integralist/Liberal Revanchist straddle

 

From Jake Meador’s long and helpful article, Indexing Political Theologies: Six Christianity and Culture Strategies:

[L]et’s consider the six most common strategies that Christians seem to be embracing. They are:

  • Catholic Integralism
  • Post-Liberal Protestantism
  • Post-Liberal Retreatists
  • Radical Anabaptists
  • Liberal Protestantism
  • Liberal Revanchists

I also want to note that I have ordered them in a particular way. The first four approaches are all variations that reject modern liberalism. The first two approaches, Catholic Integralism and Post-Liberal Protestantism, retain a fairly robust idea of civil society and the polis while the third and fourth strategies, Post-Liberal Retreatism and Radical Anabaptist, would offer a similarly stinging critique of liberalism but are much less hopeful about the possibility of reinvigorating civil society and are often even skeptical as to whether such a work is necessary or desirable, although that is a contested point within these groups.

The fifth group, the Liberal Protestants, are the first of the two groups that are much more at peace with modern liberalism. What separates them from the Post-Liberal Protestants is that they are more hopeful about the possibility of a just society existing within our current social order. What separates them from the sixth group is that they are also quite skeptical of any sort of “God-and-country nationalism” or other similar rhetoric from the religious right. Finally, the sixth group, the Liberal Revanchists, are those who see the American experiment as being compatible with a just society but who think that we need to take back large swathes of society in order to achieve such a goal. On the evangelical side of things, this is the old Religious Right plus many Trump-supporting evangelicals. Amongst Catholics, this is the John Courtney Murray wing of American Catholicism.

One reason I have made this option sixth and placed Catholic Integralism first is that the current editor of First Things, Dr. R. R. Reno, strikes me as someone straddling the line between the first and sixth options in a “so far left he’s almost right” sort of way. He also seems to be a transitional figure in the history of First Things. Richard John Neuhaus, the founding editor of the magazine, clearly belongs to the sixth school. Younger editors like Matthew Schmitz and Elliot Milco (himself a founder of The Josias) are clearly part of the first school. So Reno is a major figure here both because he seems to represent a transition chronologically and because he seems to be the only prominent Catholic thinker in the US right now trying to blend some of the Integralist insights with the more pro-American ethos of writers like his predecessor Neuhaus as well as George Weigel.

I added the emphasis to show why I thought Reno’s recent salvo was really a big deal. It seems to me that Reno no longer has one foot planted in Liberal Revanchism. Whether that foot is suspended in mid-air, or planted in Catholic Integralism (or somewhere else) remains, as they say, to be seen,

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“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Running a white flag up the pole?

James K.A. Smith published a challenge to the recent use of “orthodox Christian” in polemics. He did so in a blog he describes as “my space for ‘thinking out loud,’ an arena for practice at writing quickly and off-the-cuff.” Comments are not an option, and I had no immediate response to his challenge anyway.

But I’m now ready to respond to this sort of thing:

Historically, the measure of “orthodox” Christianity has been conciliar; that is, orthodoxy was rooted in, and measured by, the ecumenical councils and creeds of the church (Nicea, Chalcedon) which were understood to have distilled the grammar of “right belief” (ortho, doxa) in the Scriptures.  As such, orthodoxy centers around the nature of God (Triune), the Incarnation, the means of our salvation, the church, and the life to come.  The markers of orthodoxy are tied to the affirmations of, say, the Nicene Creed: the creatorhood of God; the divine/human nature of the Incarnate Son; the virgin birth; the historicity of Jesus’ life and death; the affirmation of his bodily resurrection and ascension; the hope of the second coming; the triune affirmation of Father, Son, and Spirit; the affirmation of “one holy catholic and apostolic church”; one baptism; and the hope of our own bodily resurrection.

Contrast this with most invocations of “orthodox Christianity” today. In some contexts, the use of the word “orthodox” seems to have nothing to do with these historic markers of Christian faith.  Indeed, in many cases “orthodox Christianity” means only one thing: a particular view of sexuality and marriage ….

You probably can imagine where the off-the-cuff comments go from there. Smith allows that the “particular view of sexuality and marriage” is “traditional,” but not orthodox, properly speaking.

My own response is two-fold:

First, the use of “orthodox” that Smith complains of is not inappropriate.

Smith’s conception of orthodoxy is unduly narrow. On this, he “had me going for a minute” because of my love of the creed and its importance.

But the Creed is not a comprehensive expression of orthodoxy, and was never meant to be. It (as tweaked at Chalcedon) was first and foremost a repudiation of fourth-century Christological heresies. It is silent on things that were not at serious issue.

But the view of sexuality and marriage in question is “orthodox” because it is within the scope of the Vincentian Canon, that “all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywherealways, by all.” (I cringe when I hear someone say things like sexual morality is “at the heart of the faith,” but that’s a different matter.)

I do thank Smith, however, for giving me at least this one opportunity to feel smarter than him about something, to-wit: the purpose of the Creed, and indeed of the Councils in general.

Second, the people who thus use “orthodox Christianity” are onto something important even if the questioned use of “orthodoxy” were inappropriate or inadvisable. That something is far more important that Smith’s derision allows:

So when people are said to suffer for their “orthodox” beliefs, or when we are told that “orthodox” Christians will be hounded from public life and persecuted in their professions, a closer reading shows that it is not their beliefs in the Trinity, Incarnation, Virgin Birth, or Resurrection that occasion these problems, but rather their beliefs about morality, and sexual morality in particular.  There don’t seem to be any bakers refusing to bake cakes for atheists,* and I’ve yet to hear of Silicon Valley CEOs being fired because they affirm the Incarnation of the Son or the resurrection of the dead.

The important thing they’re onto, that Smith misses or pretends to miss, is related to why Donald Trump is President today.

Smith’s derision suggests that so long as “orthodox Christians” can worship and believe as they wish within their four walls, everything is copacetic. I’m sniffing at least the beginning of a sequel to “keep your rosaries off my ovaries,” and more than a whiff of the cribbed locution “freedom of worship” rather than “free exercise of religion.”

Evangelical voters (and some other religious) knew that the Democrats, at the top levels including President Obama and Hillary Clinton, have taken the unhistoric and subversive “freedom of worship” tack, and opposition to that was a significant factor in electing the non-Democrat narcissist adolescent currently holding forth at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

So even if “orthodox Christian” is inappropriate, something along the lines of “robustly and actively Christian” is surely appropriate — robust and active Christians not being willing to confine their faith to one hour per week and the four walls of a church building.

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So why do I think it’s worth responding to Smith?

Last September, “Richard Swinburne, emeritus professor of philosophy at Oxford University, author of many highly influential books, and among the most eminent of contemporary Christian thinkers,” gave a mild keynote address defending traditional “Christian Moral Teaching on Sex, Family and Life,” to a midwest meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers. That stirred up ugly and even scatalogical controversy because Christian philosophers are wavering before the Zeitgeist.

Philosopher James K.A. Smith’s employer, Calvin College, highly values its reputation for a very strong philosophy department — a reputation recognized not just in Evangelical/Calvinist subculture, but throughout academic philosophy.

But standing up for robustly and actively Christian sexual morality, the morality held ubique, semper et ab omnibus, is becoming worse than unfashionable. It may leave all the cool philosophers saying you’re ugly and your mom dresses you funny, or even stealing your accreditations out of your lunch box as you gape helplessly:

The expansion of the scope of Title IX legislation by the Obama administration makes colleges that hold to traditional Christian moral positions on homosexuality and transgenderism vulnerable to loss of government funding and to damaging legal actions. We might add the related matter of accreditation: Failure to conform to Title IX will be punished with notations and probable loss of accreditation. Perhaps even more deadly than these threats is the role of the NCAA, as schools that are not “friendly” to LGBTQI students will find that they are unable to compete in sporting events. Sadly, while the choice between sport and one’s faith should not merit a second thought, I expect that this will be the point at which many colleges crack.

How Christian colleges respond to all this will be critical. The desire expressed by some to dialogue with their opponents on this matter is not a good sign. At worst, it represents the cynical prelude to capitulation: “We listened, we heard, we changed.” …

I do not trust Calvin College, which I respect, to stand firm. I do not trust Wheaton College, which I have loved, to stand firm. I do not trust any Evangelical college to stand firm, including Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University (on the fundamentalist end of the Evangelical spectrum) inasmuch as Jerry Falwell Jr. has shown himself a man of poor judgment and flexible moral standards in his Bromance with Donald Trump.

And I do not trust James K.A. Smith to stand firm.

I think he knows the context and purpose of the creeds better than he’s letting on. I think he knows that the sexual standards he’s backing away from are “orthodox” in a non-trivial and unequivocal sense.

If not, I hope he reads this. The Comments are moderated, but on.

I can only hope that this really was an off-the-cuff quickie, but I fear it’s a white flag running up the pole, looking for folks to salute it.

I can only pray that many Roman Catholic educational institutions and our few Orthodox institutions will stand firm, even at the cost of accreditation.

UPDATE: After a good night’s sleep, I re-read Smith’s off-the-cuff challenge, word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase, and I now think I was too gentle, giving him too much benefit of the doubt.

UPDATE 2: I’m glad I’m not the only one who has registered and objected to Smith’s trial balloon. Had I been, it’s unlikely I ever would have noticed it, since I don’t follow the blog where it appeared (though I first encountered it somewhere other than a blog praising or objecting to it). Anyway

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* “There don’t seem to be any bakers refusing to bake cakes for atheists” is inapposite to the facts of actual cases where Christian bakers have refused not to serve “homosexuals” but to use their creative skills to help celebrate “same-sex weddings.”

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Fiat justitia ruat caelum

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.