Is Jordan Peterson almost there?
Steven Wedgeworth | Understanding his promotion of Christianity for young men
Jordan Peterson released a video last week in which he encouraged Christian churches to invite young men into their congregations and expect surprising growth. Peterson restated his familiar message that young men are currently alienated from mainstream culture. Then he explained why churches are in a perfect position to reclaim lost boys from the world. This isn’t the first time Peterson has raised eyebrows through a nearly Christian apologetic, but it’s still fascinating. Is Peterson a Christian? And is he right about young men and the church?
Peterson explains that leading worldly philosophies are particularly opposed to masculine aspirations and virtue. Disordered notions of social justice blame hierarchy and power for society’s main problems. Extreme environmentalism names human cultural activities as the world’s enemy. On both accounts, men are villains. They are effectively told that the way to solve the problem is to stop being what they are. They should transform or disappear. Unsurprisingly, they walk away.
This part of Peterson’s message is not new. It’s what makes him a sort of folk hero among many. It’s also what makes him hated. But the latest twist is Peterson’s overt promotion of Christianity: “The Christian Church is there to remind people, young men included, and perhaps even first and foremost, that they have a woman to find, a garden to walk in, a family to nurture, an ark to build, a land to conquer, a ladder to heaven to build, and the utter terrible catastrophe of life to face stalwartly in truth, devoted to love, and without fear.”
Peterson thinks Christianity has what young men are looking for. It promotes vocation and dominion, the fulfillment of male ambition and desire. It gives purpose and order to chaos. It sets goals and offers a reward.
He challenges churches to “invite the young men back.” He tells them to say, “Young men are welcome here.” Put up a billboard with that message, he suggests. Tell them they can come in and they will.
Peterson wants churches to set high expectations for men. “Ask more, not less, of those you are inviting,” he says. “Ask more of them than anyone ever has. Remind them who they are, in the deepest sense, and help them become that.”
It’s obvious who won’t like what Peterson has to say. To those who strongly support social justice or environmentalism, Peterson is just another right-wing hack (even if he is a classical liberal). But there’s another group. Everyday Christians who aren’t perennially online will wonder what in the world is going on. Is it OK for Christians to listen to a non-believer like Peterson? And are we allowed to make a pitch like his to young men?
To understand what Peterson is doing, we need to understand him on his terms. He is not a Christian—at least not yet. He is a philosopher of natural law, a sort of psychological realist, and a promoter of certain common religious values and ideals. For Peterson, the great conflict is between chaos and order. He believes that man conquers chaos in and through a union with the divine, but a divine that is already immanent. Christianity is the religion best positioned to offer this to people in the West, and, even if he is not (yet) himself a Christian, Peterson wants to see Christianity succeed. He is, to echo Winston Churchill, not so much a pillar of the church as a flying buttress.
From a Christian perspective, particularly an Augustinian one, we can say that Peterson is right about nature. Christianity does offer the way to bring order to chaos. It allows us to harmonize the discord between our spirit and our flesh. It restores the lost creation and shows us the way to felicity. It illuminates our vocations and holds out our reward. It fills the hole within our hearts.
But Christianity never does this simply through natural laws. It does not merely return us to Eden and tell us to slay the dragon. It does not, contrary to Peterson, tell us that we have to build a ladder to heaven. Rather, it does it through grace. God, The Transcendent Reality, has become that ladder in Christ. God has killed the chaos dragon by plunging the cross of Christ into its skull. We don’t rescue our dead father. Instead, our loving Father meets us in the field, embraces us in His love, and welcomes us into the big house.
Only after grace will we be able to marry and garden and build and conquer. But we will be able! Once God reorders us through the atonement of Jesus Christ, then we are free to become our true selves, pursue vocation, and even gain glory.
This is still good news to men. Young men are welcome here. And Peterson is too. But he is welcome, not to build the ladder to heaven, but to see it come down from heaven to earth. He is welcome to kneel at Christ’s feet. He is welcome to come and worship.
Keep going, Jordan Peterson. Keep pursuing. Follow the truth. And keep being restless. Be restless until you find your rest in Christ.
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