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?


The Silent Ecumenism of the Mystical Tradition

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum
Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

In his 2006 article for First Things, ‘Europe and Its Discontents’, Pope Benedict XVI lists those things that united mediaeval Europe, East and West — Christianity, a belief in being successors of Rome, and monasticism. Of the last he writes:

The last factor I would mention is monasticism, which throughout the great upheavals of history continued to be the indispensable bearer not only of cultural continuity but above all of fundamental religious and moral values, of the ultimate guidance of humankind. As a pre-political and supra-political force, monasticism was also the bringer of ever-welcome and necessary rebirths of culture and civilization.

Benedict is writing here from the perspective of society and culture, of course. And I cannot deny the major importance that the monastic and ascetic movement has had and still has across Europe. This paragraph makes me also think, however, of a phrase Diarmaid MacCulloch used in one of the lectures of his ‘History of Silence’: The silent (or quiet?) ecumenism of mysticism (or asceticism?).

As you can see, I don’t quite remember the quotation exactly (I’m notorious for that). Nonetheless, the point comes across.

Whatever differences may exist between power structures of western and eastern Christianity, whatever variations amongst our respective liturgical inheritances, whatever divergences in dogma and formal, confessional teaching of doctrine, the ascetic and mystical tradition of Christianity finds its common source in the Prophet Elijah and St John the Baptist as well as the wellsprings of the Egyptian, Syrian, and Judaean deserts — and its different streams taste remarkably similar.

It is my experience, at least, that the main differences between the Eastern Orthodox/Byzantine/Russian spiritual writers and those from the west (primarily Catholic or Mediaeval) are of emphasis, but they are united in their experience of God. They are also united in their promotion of the disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, contemplation — while steering us clear of illuminism. The goal of all of this, this entry into the Interior Castle (to borrow the term from St Teresa of Ávila), is to encounter the Giver, not His gifts.

And all of them (much to the chagrin of the Reformed) will speak in terms that are best understood by the word synergy. That the encounter with God, the quest for purity and the contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity requires everything of us, requires much effort and labour on our part. Yet it comes, in the end, only because of the grace God. It is wholly dependent on God, yet we are required to seek to purify ourselves so that God will purify us. We are told to seek His face so that He will show it. I am thinking here of St Theophan the Recluse and St John Cassian, one at the end of the Russian tradition, the other at the beginning of the western.

Perhaps, then, Christians should spend more time praying together and more time praying alone. And then, having encountered the Most Holy Trinity Who is Himselves a Communion of Persons, we can find greater communion with each other.

The End of Knee-jerk Anti-Roman Catholicism: What I think Leithart was aiming at

A little over a week ago, as I learned at Apologia and the Occident, Peter J Leithart published a piece over at First Things entitled ‘The End of Protestantism.’ Various people have since reacted and responded. R. Scott Clark’s response, ‘Contra Leithart: No, The Reformation Isn’t Over‘ seems to have missed the point of this individual article, caught up in intradenominational crises of the PCA; his piece stumbled over what a lot of people have been saying: Leithart redefines the word Protestant to suit the purposes of the current piece, thus confusing the issue. It struck me that Leithart’s ‘Reformational Catholicism’ wasn’t opposed to the Reformation and certainly doesn’t think the the Church of Rome is all hunky-dorey now.

The bigger issue with the piece was highlighted by Fred Sanders in his piece ‘Glad Protestantism‘ — people in the wider non-PCA audience of Leithart’s piece who already agree with its thesis may feel buoyed up by it, but the people Leithart should be trying to sway will be offended by Leithart’s rhetorical deployment and very probable use of a straw man or two.

And people who already agree sometimes try to convince Leithart to give up being Presbyterian (something, I think, some within the PCA wouldn’t mind).

So what is it that I think Leithart was trying to get across?

The time for knee-jerk, anti-Roman Catholic forms of Protestantism and similar Protestant ideas is past. Simply because something is done by Roman Catholics does not make it bad. Simply because someone is a Roman Catholic does not make him or her damned. Simply because a saint is revered by Roman Catholics does not mean that we cannot learn from and admire him or her.

This sort of anti-Catholic Christianity can be spiritually impoverishing. Rather than seeing the riches of a long, wide, broad Christian heritage that spans millennia and transcends national boundaries, many people have a vision of church history that has an enormous gap from the Apostles to Martin Luther or John Calvin or Menno Simons or George Fox. Or a smaller gap from Chalcedon to Luther. Or perhaps they fly from the Apostles with a touchdown on St Augustine of Hippo and then on to the Reformers or their own denominational founders — sometimes a detour to early mediaeval Ireland is involved. Anyway, I think you get the picture.

Why is such a view spiritual impoverishing? Such a view is spiritually impoverishing because of the beauty and truth and holiness expressed by Christians throughout all of those ‘dark’, ‘Catholic’ centuries in the middle. Rather than seeing the grace of God working in human lives for salvation everywhere, even when the institution of the Church was at its most corrupt, we see a belief that verges on people believing that all Christians of the ‘Dark Ages’ (that is, mediaeval era) are burning in Hell because they believed in saints and transubstantiation and hadn’t figured out Luther’s justification by faith formula ahead of time.

What Leithart envisages is a Christianity that embraces the glorious riches of those ancient and mediaeval centuries alongside the Reformers and modern heroes — although the Reformers, et al., get sidelined in the piece, he does mention them as being important for us today.

Opposed to knee-jerk anti-Catholicism, such a Christian vision would allow us to revel in God’s truth and God’s word as expounded in word and deed not only by St Augustine of Hippo (often the only Father known to many Protestants) but also by Sts Ambrose and Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, Sts Leo and Gregory the Great, St Maximus the Confessor, the Venerable Bede, John Scotus Eriugena, Anselm, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, and more, right up to Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Hooker — but also John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, for the Most Holy Trinity has not abandoned the Roman Church, for all its error.

He also calls for a return to more liturgical forms of worship, or at least an acknowledgement that they are not simply empty ritual. A friend of mine who recognises the importance for a simpler worship in the 1500s thinks that perhaps Protestants — and not just Lutherans and Anglicans — are ready for expressing themselves with more ritual and liturgical expression. I don’t think your local Baptist church should suddenly blast out the incense and tinkle a few bells. But I do like the PCA church I’ve heard of where they have done some responsive, liturgy-lite using the creeds as well as the Shorter Catechism. Why not?

The riches of Christian history — of liturgy, theology, exegesis, private prayer, ethical exhortation, etc — should not be kept hidden or avoided simply because they are used by the Church of Rome or come from the pen of those she has canonised ‘saints’. To do so is to forget where we’ve come from and who we are, to lose the transhistorical reality of the God Who dramatically entered history in the person of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.