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?