A Catholic's Critique of the Petersonian Perspective
I was a believer in Jordan Peterson. I've read his 12 Rules For Life and I've listened to almost all of his lectures and debates online as many others have done. But as a Catholic and a Christian I have always had my reservations about the esteemed professor. Something is off about him—a lack of conviction maybe. There is a certain amount of criticism one might inflict on oneself from the his quasi-religious following when seeking to critique Petersonian Ideals. But I believe a healthy amount of skepticism is in need.
So can Jordan Peterson be enjoyed by the contemporary Christian mind, or should his work be marked on that list of books that the Church has not added to in quite some time? Are his ideas erroneous? Should we be paying attention to him as Catholics?
The answer is not exactly clear, for Jordan himself fails to be abundantly clear on many of the pivotal points on which he lectures. And though we may want him to have Christian convictions, we should be aware of the soil in which he has planted his tree of knowledge, that of the so-called “Enlightenment”. One might be accused of black and white Catholicism here, but our Faith is one of definition. To paraphrase the words of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, the Church is in love with controversy for it is the catalyst of Truth.
I think if Jordan Peterson’s readers find his conversation gratifying, there are other voices, whose intellectual concerns and goals, they would find more inherently Christian. The path through Peterson is one that will lead you down many a long, winding road. His entrancing narrative makes you forget that we already have a straight and narrow.
When reading any article or work of literature‚—scientific, historical or philosophical—it is a good exercise to check the sources of the author. I believe when it comes to understanding any form of communication that it is important to understand the thoughts that inspired and formed the communicator’s ideas. This will help us frame the question—what is the goal of this work?
Peterson’s sources for interpreting the framework of reality and scripture itself are anything but Christian. He uses our language but he isn't exactly delivering the same message. Repeatedly throughout all of his lectures, he claims, “I am no enemy of the Enlightenment”. And if you don't know why you should be put on guard by that, please reference the “Syllabus of Errors” written by Pope Pius IX circa 1864, which outright condemns the Enlightenment Movement.
Remember, the Enlightenment is the rejection of the Christ-centric way of thought. It was the rejection of ancient thought as outdated, the rejection of the Church and her Authority . The Enlightenment project was an attempt to rebuild our idea of truth and thus birthed thinkers like Nietzsche who so infamously quoted “God is dead”. It allowed a space in which murderous philosophies such as Marxism were founded. The only things that concluded its movement were world wars and genocide.
Early Psychologists were heavily influenced by the Enlightenment thinkers in trying to redefine their understandings of human nature. This is where Modernism was born and Postmodernism from that. All serious intellectuals, Peterson included, admit that Postmodernism is erroneous but, instead of returning to the center of culture which is the Church, they only go as far back as the Enlightenment. And like all Enlightenment thinkers, Jordan Peterson fails even to mention the greater thinkers of the Ancient and Medieval worlds. He talks about the importance of Western civilization and its influence but we never here the names of Hildegard Von Bingen, Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, Augustine, or Plato.
Now the argument (or should I say justification) can be made that Prof. Peterson is simply navigating the current anti-Christian academic framework we live in, in order to make some very good points. But his aim is not clear.
Jordan Peterson is always evasive on answering pivotal questions. Does he believe in God? Well he acts as if God existed. He thinks there is utility in the ideas of the Church, but follows the Enlightenment train of thought—that religion is a system that has no way of updating itself. Dogmatic thinking does not allow for course correction. But believing something is true verse the utility of something is completely different. Religion has a utility. But he doesn't go to church.
The next question to ask is about purpose. Now there is a timeless saying—“never judge a book by its cover”— but when one reads the titles of Jordan Peterson's two published works, Maps of Meaning and 12 Rules to Life: An Antidote to Chaos, one can deduce a simple fact: this is a man trying to find meaning. In a society and time that is almost devoid of meaning with suicide, depression, and drug use at an all-time high, the ideological war is waging hot. This is not a surprising reaction, especially from one of the sons of the Enlightenment.
Peterson himself admits he started on this path in his adolescence with his overarching fear of nuclear annihilation. Let me remind you our parents drilled to hide under desks at schools just in case the Soviets decided to drop a nuke on their heads. So Peterson’s goal is to give direction to the directionless. This desire was born in a time when a third World War seemed apparent, in a time of geo-political chaos. This is a noble cause. But in what direction is he leading them? Is it to Carl Jung, Daoism, rationalism, evolutionary psychology, Christianity, or Judaism? Well I think after a few lectures one would surmise all of those, but that’s a lot of directions to pull oneself in.
Is he using Scripture to prove the veracity of evolution, or evolutionary psychology to prove the veracity of Scripture? This, among others, is an important distinction, and he constantly evades these distinctions.
Peterson talks about Daoism and ancient gods, and he does mention the Church. But to what purpose? He puts Catholic theology on the same level as Daoism and the rest of its intellectual children. He reduces Christianity to the level of Dualism, an error that claims Good and Evil are equally powerful forces that balance each other out. To put that into further context means that Satan is equally as powerful as God. Be you Protestant or Catholic, we know this to be false and illogical. God would not be all-powerful if the devil were as well.
Peterson is trying to rebuild the wheel like his Enlightenment ancestors. We are living in the tattered house they built, and that the he seeks to navigate in his first work, Maps of Meaning. This is what happens when the cornerstone of civilization, Christ, is rejected. When we lose our final end, which is God, we lose the Divine Language in which to articulate the world. His symbolic language which we find so satisfying as Christians (this is what pulled me in, all the talk about dragons and descending into bellies of whales) is largely borrowed from Jonathan Pageau, an Eastern Orthodox Icon Carver who takes his language from the Church Fathers.
I would argue some of the only things we find appealing in Peterson besides overwhelmingly common sense, is that he’s a man that talks about the Bible and Science in the same sentences. I think a lot of us are hoping that he is bridging the gap (that the Enlightenment built) between Religion and Science. At best (and ironically), there is a certain utility in his language that one could use apologetically when speaking to an atheist. Much of the language that Peterson uses to illustrate his points is the language of the Church. But the conversation only goes so far, and I frankly lost interest in the seemingly stagnant conversation of Jordan Peterson when I found Jonathan Pageau.
Pageau led me to a Professor Rachel Fulton Brown, a professor of Medieval studies, with a focus on Mariology and prayer. In her writings and interviews I found a narrative different from what Peterson preaches, that is of the Ordering Feminine. Peterson seems to have a very Daoist view of the universe, Yin and Yang, good and evil as balancing forces. The Catholic idea is that all things are good, by nature of their existence, because all things are made by God, and that Evil is the absence of Good—this is an important distinction. Even the Devil himself serves a good, and that is to test the faithful.
Peterson describes Order as gendered Masculine, and Chaos as gendered Feminine. There seems to be a divide in the middle of them and he does not do much to create any resolve between the two in his yet young philosophy. But in Catholicism, we have an interesting twist which Professor Brown points out. It is Mary, that carries the Logos (Christ). It is the Feminine that crushes the head of the Dragon. It is the Church (Feminine in gender) which is the Bride of Christ. It is in the center (or shall we say in the womb) of Churches that the Tabernacle resides! Our Lady is not just the Mother but the place where Order takes root.
These Medieval ideas, which predate the Enlightenment catastrophe, seem to be absent of this eternal conflict of balance between order and chaos that Peterson refers to. Remember, Daoism would set up order and Chaos as two equally opposing forces, but the Thomistic/Catholic view would be that Chaos is but the absence of Order. Once again, these are very important distinctions. I do not hear Jordan speak of the ideas of the communion of Masculine and Feminine at all (except when referring to the process by which the female selects for mating in the evolutionary sense). It is a Medieval idea that the universe is brought into order when the Masculine and the Feminine work in communion. Mary the Mother of the Logos seems to step on the head of Peterson’s dragon.
In conclusion, I'm tired of holding my breath for Professor Jordan Peterson. He is in between, and lukewarm is not a good place to be with regards to the Logos. Maybe it is simply because Jordan Peterson has only read a few books of the Old Testament, which he confirms are thick with meaning—did we need an agnostic (at best) clinical psychologist to tell us this? We knew this, but in our Anti-Christian culture, maybe we felt he made it “okay” to believe a bit more publicly. But honestly it will never be okay to believe a bit more publicly.
Let us not delude ourselves to think society will ever count us among its intellectual equals. The world is against us. It has divorced itself from Truth, and though we might find shelter temporarily in the words of Peterson, his voice becomes a tinkling cymbal when compared to the writings of the Ancients. His conclusions (or lack thereof) are still stained with the errors of the Enlightenment, and dwarfed by that of Pageau and Brown. He can’t take the last step forward. He will never truly embody the Logos as we do in the Eucharist. He can't resolve the abstract he sees God as, with the reality that is Christ.
We do not deal in abstracts when we talk about the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We deal in realities. We do not deal in abstracts when discussing The Immaculate Conception and the Word Incarnate. We deal in the most sublime of realities. It reminds me of a line from T.S. Eliot's famous play, Murder In The Cathedral, when the Archbishop St. Thomas Becket is visited by four demons and tempted. The 4th temptation is the most devious and famously put in the lines
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
Peterson’s next book is ironically and tentatively labeled: 12 More Rules For Life, Beyond Mere Order. Will this book lead to another 12 rules to life, and 12 more after that? Admittedly, I might read it to see if he comes to any new conclusions. Maybe he will discover the Divine Order that is above “Mere Order”. His fifth rule in his new list of 12 is to “abandon ideology”. Does this mean we will need to abandon our Catholic and Christian ideologies, and subscribe to the pluralism that so many of his followers have adopted? But we already have the Truth. It is up to us as Catholics to engage seriously and intellectually in our faith.
Jordan Peterson is at least a reminder that we need to think, and think deeply about what it means to be Christ-like, and how we as Catholics are part of that Mystical Body of Christ. I wouldn't recommend his writing without a bit of education into the errors of the Enlightenment movement. And if you find his words attractive, you will find the conclusions and topics of Jonathan Pageau and Professor Rachel Fulton Brown far more appealing and fruitful. For what doth it profit a man to make his bed, ascend the competence hierarchy, slay the dragon, and save his father from the belly of the whale, but lose his soul?