This June, Jordan Peterson made an appearance at the USCCB. His is not a face one might expect to see in the context of so many black collars; still, Bishop Robert Barron thought him worthy of mention during his presentation on reaching the mass of young Catholics who are flooding out of the Church. These young “nones,” he notes, have an appetite for compelling voices to follow on media platforms like YouTube and Reddit, and finding them lacking in the Church, have flocked happily to other pastures, Jordan Peterson’s growing fan club included. Even more relevantly, Barron and Peterson, provoked by the demands of their respective (and often mutual) fans, joined forces on June 25th when Bishop Barron appeared as a guest on Peterson’s podcast in an episode titled “Catholicism and the Modern Age.”
Barron’s primary fascination with Peterson, a psychologist from the University of Toronto, is his knack for calmly and coherently unravelling the dogmas of progressivism as well as raising crucial religious questions by explicating, in his own way, the stories that are central to Catholicism. As Barron has frequently pointed out, including during the duo’s conversation on “The Jordan Peterson Podcast,” Peterson’s psycho-scientific approach to Biblical interpretation is successfully creating pathways for young people back into religion, re-opening for them the fundamental religious question—a task for which the Church itself sometimes appears tragically unequipped in a post-modern, largely atheistic society. Boasting millions of views on even his most unpolished YouTube videos, Peterson demonstrates that teens and twenty-somethings aren’t fully bought in to mainstream progressive ideology and can be won to another view of the world, if a compelling alternative is on offer.
The problem, of course, is that Peterson’s interpretation of religious texts is often framed up in terms of primordial myth and the subconscious need of the human community to deal with those pesky questions regarding God, creation, the soul, death and the afterlife, and good and evil. Dealing with the Christian Scriptures in this way scratches the religious itch, but it also appeals to a modern humanist tendency. Furthermore, it ignores the fundamentally held Christian belief that God’s act of self-revelation is a historical event. We do not look on Christ as a myth, as the archetype of humanity, or as representative of the ongoing cycle of suffering, death, and new life. He is none of these; rather, He is a real person, who “dwelt among us.”
And so the main critique of Jordan Peterson’s attempts at Biblical scholarship come down to a fear of Peterson’s influence in mainstream Western culture—particularly over young people. These millennials, many of them “nones,” are flocking to Jordan Peterson’s YouTube page, captivated by his debonair (if sometimes cocky and irreverent) persona. One might say they are ripe for conversions to the fullness of the faith, but by and large the Church isn’t reaching them; instead, Jordan Peterson is—and he knows it. He is out to seek and save the lost, and has, in many respects, become a religious figure for the modern age, and it’s ticking some folks off in the Church.
But Peterson, while an unlikely dialogue partner for the 21st century Church, is also a marvelous and timely one. For one, he throws into high relief the desperate need of prophetic voices in Western Catholicism. While many of our seminaries remain desperate for young men to step forward, Peterson has attracted hoards of them, which can perhaps be attributed to his unwavering intellectual integrity, the manful strength of his convictions, and his refusal to be intimidated or silenced by the woke militia. In his dialogue with Bishop Barron, he respectfully pointed out a disastrous lack of strong leadership in the Church and challenged an all-too-common “pastorally sensitive” approach that only seeks to affirm and coddle the faithful (“God is love, you’re okay, we’re all okay”). Moral authority in the Church, Peterson suggests to his listeners, has been devastated by our unwillingness to point out sin.
In this case, it is much less because people are easily seduced by bad teaching than it is because people are quite sick of being told they are doing fine when they know the opposite to be true. Perhaps it is because we have lost sight of the fact that sin, for all its seductive power, causes suffering, misery, and ultimately death, and, forgetting this key feature of sin, have ceased to love our fellow man enough to lead him out of the darkness. Peterson, on the other hand, has enjoyed a meteoric ascent to fame and influence precisely because he is willing to do just that. Compassion for those who have never been shown a path to virtue compels him to denounce that prolonged adolescence that is endemic to our age and to suggest that men and women begin to take responsibility for themselves, their families, and the world around them.
In short, if Jordan Peterson makes us within the Church uncomfortable, maybe that has less to do with what he gets wrong, and more to do with what we are getting wrong.
Peterson is intellectually razor-sharp; he is traditional in many of his practical conclusions without being naive about other points of view; he appeals to young people and especially young men, and his message inspires not only respect but action. Now, what if that also described all our Catholic priests and bishops? What if it described a whole generation of Catholic evangelists, teachers, scholars, and politicians? What if it described Catholic business owners? What if it described Catholic fathers and mothers?
Maybe then we wouldn’t feel threatened by Jordan Peterson showing up on the scene. Maybe, instead, we would continue to let the voice of Christ in His Church ring out all the stronger, attracting hearts with the convincing power that belongs to God alone, and simply recognize in a figure like Peterson an anointing that only God knows how to yield to its full potential.
Listen to the Peterson/Barron interview here: