Monday, June 25, 2018

What is “Revelation” for Jordan Peterson?

A few quick comments on Anna Marchese’s interview with Jordan Peterson for the Jesuit review America. The interview, published in April, garnered attention because Peterson discussed one of his own experiences of God, sparked in the presence of a sculpture he’d completed. Here I want to address more general issues. And so: the interview as a touchstone for giving my own (tentative) Christian take on Peterson.

In this interview, I think Peterson’s off the mark in a few formulations, but in general he gets it: he gets the deep structure that makes the West what it is; he gets that this is not merely a cultural detail of our Western past, but a fundamental element of the West that is non-negotiable, as the presence of water is non-negotiable if one wants to call something a “lake”.

Also, as Peterson sees, the West’s understanding of the Logos is a realization vis-a-vis Being that means the West is onto something: which is to say that losing the trail will also mean losing whatever else works about Western civilization, which is now (in my view and I think Peterson’s too) running on fumes left over from previous centuries.

I think Peterson is off, however, on various things. In this interview, he’s off when 1) he speculates about what preachers believe or don’t believe. Sure, there are pastors and priests that fit his description, but these are certainly not all pastors and priests. When it happens, it’s mainly a matter of three things: a weak formation; a lack of drive; a lack of intellectual acumen. Which is to say that there are plenty of pastors who haven’t grasped truths Peterson himself has grasped. Is that any surprise?

He’s also off when 2) he speculates on why so many churches are nearly empty. It’s not that the churches aren’t “modernized”, but rather that Western societies are still too much under the spell of Enlightenment scientism. I suspect that spell may be starting to wear off, though I may be wrong. Post-Enlightenment science has made the West strong; simultaneously, post-Enlightenment scientism has weakened it. We need to jettison the scientism while continuing to practice the science.

Typical for a North American, Peterson also 3) puts too much stress on preaching as the essential thing that happens in churches, while ignoring the centrality of ritual and sacrament. That’s an unfortunate result of dominant Protestantism.

In more general terms, I believe Peterson’s biggest problem is that he takes Jung’s archetype theory too seriously and doesn’t take the possibility of revelation seriously enough. Yes, he uses the term revelation, but I suspect he doesn’t mean by it what orthodox Christians do: namely, that it is the Triune God that reveals, not a process of archetypal instantiation. Peterson, if I’m correct, still seems uncertain how this revealing God would be distinct from something in the Self. Oddly, for me, he keeps repeating that “the West is right”, but seems to think this is a matter of a certain learning process the West successfully went through, or a certain serendipitous instantiation of archetypes in the West’s stories that led to an intellectual leap. Of course, in my mind, if “the West is right”, it is because of more than just a lucky instantiation.

At least one of my learned friends thinks I’m misinterpreting Peterson, and insists his thinking is closer to mine that I realize. That may be so. In any case, I do think we’re very lucky to have Peterson. Has there been a secular public intellectual in living memory who can speak so compellingly on certain Christian fundamentals? Yes, it’s only certain Christian fundamentals, but Peterson’s ability to hit these truths home so clearly is a gift to us. I pray for a gift of grace to him that may convert him to the fuller Christian vision. Perhaps, if my friend is right, Peterson has a fuller Christian vision than I realize. In fact I have great respect for his project, and admiration for his tenacity and political insights, but have my doubts on this latter point. I will keep following his work and encouraging others to do so.

Check out my Idiocy, Ltd. and begin the long, hard reckoning.

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