2021 is a markedly different year from 2016.
As has been announced throughout the year, with the advent of the Biden-Harris administration, a new pro-choice agenda will be unleashed upon the American population along with a revamped attack on traditional marriage.
The Church herself is wounded and scarred by corruption and confusion.
All of this pessimism is a pronounced contrast to the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election when Donald Trump seemed about to restore the life and health of not only the United States, but the entire Western world.
As has oft been remarked, Trump’s 2016 campaign was bigger than Trump; it was a “meta-political” campaign that opened the prospect for a radical shift in the Zeitgeist of the West as well as the wide world. A new, post-liberal way of being appeared on the horizon. The key question was: what sort of new Western subjectivity and Western politics?
Would it be a form of racialism under the aegis of the Alt-Right? Would it be a Steven Bannon-esque form of civic nationalism?
Or would Christendom once again, in the memorable phrase of Fr. Aidan Nichols, OP, “awake”?
Ironically, all of these movements (and more) surged before, during, and after the Trump campaign, but were met with startling resistance and, in the case of the Alt-Right, practical obliteration.
One movement, however, has continued to thrive even into the emerging long winter of the Biden-Harris era: the so-called “intellectual dark web.”
This movement, consisting of a curious mixture of figures, includes former MMA announcer turned podcaster, Joe Rogan; conservative English political commentator, Douglas Murray; and, of course, University of Toronto psychology professor turned self-help YouTube guru Jordan Peterson.
Peterson, the most accomplished and credentialed intellectual among the group, began his foray into the pugilistic world of internet intellectual combat in 2016 with a series of lectures protesting Canadian Bill C-16, which sought to criminalize discrimination against persons who identify as transgendered.
Peterson’s protest and subsequent free speech debates and interviews launched the mild-mannered Canadian professor onto the international stage just in time for the raucous 2016 elections in both the United States and Europe.
With his expansive knowledge of world religions, mythology, and clinical psychoanalysis, as well as his ability to lecture with clarity and pathos, Peterson quickly became a de facto spiritual advisor to millions of people who felt disenchanted and discouraged living in the ruins of postmodernity (a common comment underneath Jordan Peterson’s videos is “Dr. Peterson, the father/teacher I never had”).
Peterson’s first major foray into the mass market publishing world was his 2018 book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which has served as an Ariadne’s thread for those wandering through the minotaur-haunted labyrinth of the twenty-first century.
Peterson’s new book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, recently drew criticism from employees at the book’s publishing house Penguin Press, due to its allegedly reactionary and dangerous ideas (to the delight of his fans, Peterson has been releasing YouTube videos unveiling the rules over the past few weeks).
However, contrary to his critics—and, ironically, to Peterson’s own critique of what he calls “postmodernity”—Peterson’s ideas are not only modern but eminently post-modern. And therein is precisely why Catholics should exercise some caution.
Drawing from Buddhism, Christianity, as well as Confucian adages and, above all, the work of Swiss psychoanalyst and mythographer Karl Gustav Jung (two of Peterson’s most popular videos are Jungian analyses of The Lion King and Pinocchio), Peterson preaches a Gospel of discipline and constructive resistance to chaos and suffering in the world. Although his followers come from every ethnicity and religion in the world, Peterson’s principle audience consists of young white men—many of whom are on the post-millennial psychological borderland between Christian post-Christian thinking and who appear to be tenuously holding onto their faith amidst an ocean of darkness and doubt.
Peterson does have many positive things to say about the Bible, the story of Jesus Christ, and Christianity at large; in fact, Peterson’s defense of Christianity, the West in general, and what Christians call the “natural law” has prompted criticism from quick-tempered denizens of the woke left.
However, it is within this defense of Christianity that small but important elements of danger in Peterson’s thought reside.
For Peterson, Christianity is the most potent myth in the West; it is the culmination of not only Near Eastern but all of European mythology. However, for Peterson, Christianity is just that: a myth. It is a myth that has enabled the West to not only survive, but to flourish and to dominate the entire globe. Christianity, for Peterson, is just a magnificent and powerful story that is like other stories that humans have told in order to form and shape society.
It is, fittingly, in his analysis of the Bible that the limits of Peterson’s analysis of Christianity are made manifest. The stories of Cain and Abel, Noah and his family, and Christ and the disciples are not, as Peterson posits, stories about individual sacrifice for personal and collective benefit; rather, they are stories of the movement of God throughout history. They are stories of a living and transcendent God, who desires the salvation of the human person—body, soul, spirit, mind—and who become incarnate, lived among men and woman, suffered, and then died to redeem mankind.
As the Church has always taught, God is not limited to human reasoning. He is not the character in a myth or a mechanism for social formation; he is the living and true God, who has made himself manifest in Sacred Scripture, the book of nature, and in the holy sacraments of the Church. There is only one rabbi, teacher, and guru who will save us: Our Lord Jesus Christ, who became flesh and dwelt among us, and then suffered, died, and rose again.
Jordan Peterson does, in fact, have much to offer young (and old) people struggling to shape, as Peterson himself would call them, “maps of meaning” in a tumultuous world. However, Peterson’s work should be selectively read as being instrumental to the recovery of mental health and the right formation of our social order.
Related at CWR:
• “The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon” (Feb 27, 2018) by Bishop Robert Barron
• “Jordan Peterson’s Jungian best-seller is banal, superficial, and insidious” (Apr 3, 2018) by Adam A. J. DeVille
• “Jordan Peterson is a prophet—and a problem for progressives (Jan 30, 2018) by Anne Hendershott
• “Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is a call to clarity in an age of chaos” (Feb 11, 2018) by Dorothy Cummings McLean
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