Jordan Peterson, marriage and discipleship

Every once in a while, someone asks me what I think of Jordan Peterson, usually on the grounds that I’m Canadian. Or that I studied at the University of Toronto. This is akin to people asking me what I think of Pope Francis since I study ‘popes’. I dunno. Don’t really know enough, to be honest. Of course, not knowing enough about the man hasn’t stopped any of Peterson’s critics yet, has it?

In February, I was chatting with some fellow Christians who were interested in Peterson and reading his book Twelve Rules for Life. They spoke highly of the book, saying that, although Peterson is not a Christian, he talks about the Bible and a lot of the things he says are in agreement with Christian teaching.

I’ve been mulling this over, especially after a fellow catholic Anglican called the book ‘insipid’. I’ve also read a few articles on the man, usually via Mark Galli (editor-in-chief of Christianity Today) in his weekly e-mail or First Things. Galli himself is not a commentator on Peterson, he simply links to articles. First Things is careful of Peterson, I would say, delicately critical of him at times but also ready to point out the folly of many of the man’s critics. Anyway, thinking this over, my initial reaction to Christians who see Peterson as an ally remains:

Ally in what?

I don’t want to be holier-than-thou in what follows. I believe that gender, sexuality, men’s issues, etc., etc. are important, and that our culture and civilisation are washing these things away precipitously, in such a way that, in my grimmer moments, I suspect that western culture, despite the good it has brought to the world, is going to commit suicide (much like the Roman Empire is said to have done).

But I also think that our first priority vis a vis western culture — as with Chinese culture, Arabian culture, Sudanese culture — is the making of disciples.

Peterson may support many of the same values of ‘family’ and share much of the traditional Christian worldview on ‘gender’, but do not mistake this for the heart of the church militant here on earth. Our goal is to love our neighbours and help them find their way to the feet of Jesus our Master as His disciples to become citizens of heaven.

Let us consider marriage as a case study, based entirely on hearsay about Peterson.

According to hearsay, Peterson believes that the aimless, drifting, frustrated, infantile, juvenile young men of America would benefit from the stability provided by an early, committed, faithful marriage. This is no doubt true. Indeed, I suspect that white Anglophone society is having a bit of a male crisis that needs to be resolved, and part of that crisis is a refusal to grow up. I once heard a fellow on approach to middle age (if he’s middle aged, then I’m closer than I’d like) remarking that calling his partner his ‘girlfriend’ seems so childish. I’m too nice in person to say, ‘Grow up, commit, and marry her.’

I have two thoughts about this proposal, one about discipleship, the other about marriage.

First, as Christians, we should know that this is but one prescription for but one symptom of a deeper malady afflicting our society and every society of all of history. The real cure for our social ills isn’t marriage. If we want men to grow up and take charge of their lives, while most of us in a very normal way will do this through marriage and fatherhood, this answer is not necessarily that of the Bible.

Becoming disciples of Jesus is the real cure. I know, how old-fashioned of me! I sound like a Bible-thumping Baptist evangelist from the Deep South or something, not the sort of person who just today was praying the Jesus Prayer before the tomb of the Venerable St Bede and has a theology degree!

Awkward as it is, Jesus is the answer.

And when I say this, I mean Jesus the Christ, the risen, ascended saviour, God the Word who became incarnate as a man. The Master of the Universe Crucified for us. One of the Most Holy Trinity was crucified and died for us. To quote Peter the Fuller (not Peter Furler):

Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, who was crucified for us, have mercy upon us.

I write this as a married man and a father, but as one who has single friends who lead full, rich lives that do not lack direction. For many of them, this direction comes from Christ. One of my single familiars is changing careers to become a missionary. Another one has found the encounter with Christ in the liturgy and the community of his church to be the great comfort in his life. (And his cat.) Other single friends have found a rootedness in Jesus that they express in art and live out in community.

If we promote Peterson’s solution, we will be telling these brothers and sisters that they are part of the problem, whereas in reality they already found the solution.

Second, then, marriage is not the be-all and end-all of the human state. Our single Saviour never married. St Paul lived in a celibate state. From what I can tell, so did some of the prophets. Marriage can be life-affirming, beautiful, powerful, healthy, and transformative. The asceticism, or the martyrdom (to borrow from Fr John Behr), of marriage can shape us into the likeness of Christ. Theosis can be achieved in the married state. Marriage provides certain circumstances for our growth as disciples.

But the Bible and the tradition are not necessarily that into marriage, are they? I mean, from the cult of marriage in evangelicalism and contemporary Roman Catholic stuff, you’d think that marriage was the best thing ever. In the long Christian and biblical tradition, marriage and sex are approved of, and seen as part of the God-ordained natural order. But Jesus talks about those who are made eunuchs for the Kingdom of the Heavens, and St Paul thinks it would be better if everyone could be celibate without burning with lust.

Tradition is unsure what to do with marriage, probably partly because in most pre-modern societies marriage is very much of this world — a social contract, an economic arrangement, a political alliance.

Without attempting a full theology of marriage and sexuality, it is perhaps enough to note that Scripture and tradition approve of both marriage and the single life. The disciple is to sit at the feet of Jesus in either estate.

But that means that marriage can’t be the answer, doesn’t it?

Indeed, once again, a Christian view of marriage just brings us back to Jesus as the answer. We need to look into Him, plug into Him, and live as His faithful disciples if we’re ever going to see western culture re-evangelised. That’s what society needs, not merely more married couples. How will a growing number of married unbelievers save the soul of western society?

So: Jordan Peterson? I don’t know enough to say. I think he’s probably not wrong on a lot of things, but Christians need to remember that the Kingdom of the Heavens is bigger and stranger than psychology and the things of this world.


If you are interested in thought-provoking Orthodox essays on sexuality, gender, marriage, etc., may I recommend the current issue of The Wheel?

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Saint of the Week: Queen Margaret of Scotland

St Margaret in her Chapel, Edinburgh

Tomorrow, 16 November, is the feast of Queen St Margaret of Scotland (1045-1093). St Margaret is kind of a big deal around here. Edinburgh’s oldest building is a wee, 12th-century chapel dedicated to her up at Edinburgh Castle (when Thomas Randolph demolished the Castle in 1314, he left the chapel intact out of respect). Just to the West of the city is South Queensferry (named after Queen Margaret) — this takes you to North Queensferry in Fife. Edinburgh also has a Queen Margaret University. The Church of Scotland, the Scottish Episcopalians, and the Roman Catholics all have churches named for her. Dunfermline has the foundations of her old mediaeval shrine.

My first contact with Queen Margaret was her chapel up at the Castle — a lovely bit of Romanesque. I then encountered her at the Christian Heritage centre at the church I attend — she is remembered there for her piety and acts of charity towards the poor of Edinburgh. Indeed, her biographer, Bishop Turgot of St Andrew’s, was a big fan Queen Margaret’s acts of mercy.

Queen St Margaret is also one of the last Aethelings! This alone makes her pretty cool. She is a direct descendant of King Alfred the Great and granddaughter to Edmund Ironside. When the Danes made good their bid for the English throne, the Aethelings took refuge on the Continent. Margaret was born in Hungary. In 1057, however, Margaret was back on English soil. And when the Normans made good their bid for the English throne in 1066 (recorded by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the French being God’s punishment on the English for their sins), Margaret’s young brother Edgar was, in fact, a source of resistance against the William the Bastard (to no avail, obviously).

Edinburgh Castle
My photo of her chapel

Margaret wisely fled the Normans who weren’t overfond of English nobility, and the Aetheling ship landed in Fife on the Firth of Forth at St Margaret’s Hope (not its name at the time!), where they were met by King Malcolm III ‘Canmore’ (yes, from Shakespeare’s Scottish play). In 1070, Margaret and Malcolm were wed.

According to Turgot, Margaret wasn’t all that fussed about getting hitched and procreating and all that sort of thing. Nonetheless, she did her duty as a wife, but tried her best to spend more of her time praying and reading the Bible than being tied down by the worldly cares of her man. I sometimes wonder if this isn’t Turgot feeling awkward at the obvious sanctity of a non-virgin mother of several children who seemed to have a happy marriage — few mediaeval saints are married, after all, and virginity/celibacy was regarded as a higher way of life by many Christians since Late Antiquity. On the other hand, maybe these thoughts had infiltrated Margaret as well as Turgot, so she felt compelled to express her feminine piety in non-marriage-related ways, extolling the virtues of virginity? Who knows.

Anyway, Malcolm and Margaret seem to have ruled well together. Margaret did not convert the court into a semi-monastic world as some pious mediaeval monarchs seem to have attempted. Neither did she indulge in the sort of lavish lifestyle many a mediaeval aristocrat would have enjoyed. Since she believed in duty and decorum, for example, she made sure that the people at court were well decked out.

As mentioned above, Queen St Margaret is famous for her acts of mercy. She would wash the feet and feed the poor herself. She gave alms regularly and encourage Malcolm Canmore to do likewise. She established the ferry at Queensferry for the many pilgrims headed for St Andrews.

St Luke from Margaret’s Gospel Book

Her piety is also known from her love of books and of the Scriptures. She spent many hours reading, and we still have her own Gospel Book, now in the possession of the Bodleian Library. It is a fine specimen of eleventh-century English/Insular manuscript production.

When St Margaret was not engaged in acts of mercy or reading the Scriptures, she could often be found at prayer. In Lent she had a particularly rigorous personal round of prayers every morning. According to Turgot, she recited the entirety of the Psalter. Twice.

Really, this love of Scripture and Psalm-singing makes her sound quite Presbyterian. 😉

St Margaret’s personal piety also involved the visiting of hermits and other holy men throughout Scotland, whose wisdom and way of life she greatly admired. She sought the counsel of Turgot, both when he was in Dunfermline, and later as Bishop of St Andrew’s. She fasted and ate and drank with moderation, although this seems to have adversely affected her health.

As a monarch, Queen Margaret’s pious activity had much influence on the church of her day. She and Malcolm founded the Church of the Holy Trinity in Dunfermline where they had been married, now Dunfermline Abbey, with a palace nearby. She requested that Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury and her spiritual father, to send up Benedictines. Dunfermline Abbey thus became Scotland’s first Benedictine Abbey. The present building dates to David I (of course) and is a fine Romanesque structure:

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Margaret also requested that Lanfranc send up some clerics from England who were well versed in the canons and ways of the Roman faith. Thus was hosted a synod where the Scottish church was regularised to be in greater conformity to existent Roman practice, such as starting Lent on Ash Wednesday instead of Clean Monday (because Sundays do not count to the forty days in western canonical practice, so four extra days are to be hunted down), receiving Holy Communion on Easter, and not working on Sundays.

There was also at this synod a move to regularise the celebration of the Eucharist in some parts of Scotland that was at the time being performed ‘according to some sort of strange rite, contrary to the usage of the whole Church.’ (Turgot, Life of St Margaret II.20) What this entails, we do not know. My little booklet from St Margaret’s chapel claims the use of Gaelic, but Turgot does not say that. It is some sort of rite, not the language thereof. In the notes to his translation, William Forbes-Leith says that this was probably the rite of the Cele De (those who have devoted themselves to the service of God), who seem to be a particular variety of secular canon that was established in the Scottish church in the ninth century, and the name sometimes refers to unmarried laymen who lived together in community. Their rite both before and after St Margaret differed from the general practice of the rest of the Scotland. Presumably it is something was developed for themselves by themselves much like the offices of the different religious orders in later centuries.

What I’m digging at, then, is not that there was some widespread, homegrown, anti-Rome ‘Celtic’ liturgy being practised everywhere before St Margaret and that it was in Gaelic. What I think is going is rather that certain groups in certain parts of Scotland had developed their own, homegrown, personal liturgies that had nothing to do with our romanticised conceptualisations of ‘Celtic’ and ‘Roman’ Christianity.

Moving on.

In all, St Margaret led a holy lifestyle in the midst of her worldly care. I have no doubt that it was probably easier for the nobility to spend so many hours in prayer than for the labouring class. Nonetheless, the evidence for what goes on throughout the mediaeval world is that few nobility seem to have used their freedom to be religiously disciplined. They used it instead for licence. Indeed, so do most of us when given our own time, forgetting the words of St Paul that we were bought at a price and our life is not our own. How many of us, given an extra half hour, pray or read the Scriptures instead of catching a show on Netflix?

This alone makes Queen Margaret, the pearl of Scotland, a cut above the rest.

And her acts of mercy are the evidence that such prayer and Scripture reading actually had an effect.

Queen Margaret died in 1093 and was buried with her husband in Dunfermline Abbey. You can still see the foundations of her shrine there today. Her head, which was placed in its own reliquary in the Middle Ages, was squirrelled away to France during the Reformation by pious Catholics. Her body and that of Malcolm reside in the Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial, Spain — where I spent a week, unknowing of their royal presences! An opportunity lost.

Anyway, don’t take my word for this! Read Turgot yourself!

Virginity vs Marriage in the Fathers

Today I read Gregory of Nazianzus’ poem 1.2.1, ‘In Praise of Virginity,’ and it brought home to me one of the great difficulties facing us as we read the Fathers,* and this is the fact that a vast number of them were celibate, all but two of them male. All four ‘Doctors’ of the East and all four of the West were celibate.

They have a very strong preference towards celibacy and virginity as being the better path, spelled out very clearly in GregNaz’s poem.

As a married person, I inevitably react against this sort of thing. Why is virginity better than marriage? For GregNaz it seems that the main goal of marriage is child-begetting.

Clearly child-begetting is not a virtue. All it requires is sperm and an egg in one hot night of passion.

I don’t think anyone has ever imagined that simply producing offspring is what makes marriage a great thing, though.

A better perspective is that the raising of children is a great good. Sure, if virgins live together in monastic coenobia, they will learn the virtues of service and love of neighbour and so forth. But those who spend time with very young children learn a very great amount about sacrifice and service. And about the outpouring of love for a fellow human being. And, while you might hope for thanks from your fellow monk, children are frequently being trained to say thank you, sometimes accompanied with a little bow. Infants cannot say thank you, and I don’t think they always even care.

Of course, sometimes they do. This is certain. As I posted elsewhere, the contemplative as well as active virtues and life can be pursued whilst taking care of the very young.

Furthermore, I think marriage can be a great good for those of us who do not have children. Marriage is a school for souls — this is an observation that Charles Williams makes in The Descent of the Dove, where he laments that a high view of marriage was lost early on in the Church and we have never properly recovered a view that sees marriage in spiritual terms.

Outside of celibacy and complete, utter silence, married people can engage in pretty much all of the ascetic labours. We can submit to others as greater than ourselves, pray continuously, serve in meekness and humility, pray the divine hours, fast, regulate our diet when not fasting, engage in holy conversation, and so forth.

Furthermore, if we look at GregNaz’s family background, we should realise that his father (also Gregory) was raised a pagan but converted to Christianity by his wife, Nonna. The marriage of Gregory the Elder and Nonna did not simply produce Gregory and his two siblings, but the spiritual fruit of Gregory the Elder’s salvation and his leadership of the church at Nazianzus. Furthermore, their three children were raised Christianly and virtuously, all of them committing their lives to Christ.

Gregory says that one has no clue whether one’s children will be Judases or Peters. Nonetheless, one can, by God’s grace alone, work towards raising Peters, as Nonna and Gregory the Elder did.

I doubt these concerns would hold much water with a committed celibate like Gregory. However, I think we can spiritualise and Christianise our view of marriage in response to the ascetic downplaying of marriage. Marriage is a good, as many American Evangelicals will tell you. But how is it to be a good? Perhaps we need the monks to help us form a specifically Christian view of marriage, sharpening our positive understanding against their negative one. Perhaps.

*As well as Mediaeval and Byzantine writers.