In sitting down to write this reflection for the Second Sunday in Easter, sometimes referred to as “Doubting Thomas” Sunday (poor Thomas, will he ever live it down? – and he lives eternally in the company of the Saints!), the Canadian academic, Jordan Peterson, came to mind.
A few years ago, I was asked about this controversial and, in some quarters celebrated, clinical psychologist and University of Toronto professor (if you don’t know who he is, search him online, there’s lots). There were several parishioners, men for the most part, inquiring as to his “orthodoxy,” that is, was it alright to listen and derive wisdom from what he said and wrote? And, “by the way,” they asked if I thought he might be a Christian and a believer?
At that moment, I couldn’t answer the questions. As a general rule, we can draw good things from non-Christian thinkers, writers, philosophers, etc. The Church looks upon individuals like Aristotle as worthy of study and teaches that true wisdom is found in the thought of many philosophies and religions aside from Catholic Christianity, provided that it all accords with the Apostolic faith. At the time, I didn’t know a lot about Peterson aside from snippets from the news media, but we are fortunate in the internet as a research tool and so it was easy enough to look up more substantive sources.
I am disinclined to evaluate anyone’s thought on the basis of media reports, but much prefer what we call primary sources, that is, things the person has written, speeches given, books and essays published. Professor Peterson has been posting to the internet, to YouTube, and so on, for years. I remember hunting up some of those online lectures and watching them.
In listening to him and reading some of his briefer (and free!) works available on the web, the latter question of his belief actually came to the fore. So, putting aside his life philosophy, it’s his “belief” that intrigues me. I looked up some of those lectures again, a Hart House talk he gave in 2010, in particular. I could see how someone might take what they perceive Peterson to believe and mistake it for Christian faith.
The first thing that will strike one when listening to him is that he is very bright, and broadly and deeply educated and experienced in his field. What people detect as a sympathy for Christianity comes from the obvious influence Carl Jung has had upon him.
Jung, an associate of Sigmund Freud, but with whom he eventually broke, had a fascination with myth, the stories humanity has told itself from the very dawn of its coming to consciousness. These tales, fables, etc., are highly symbolic and are rich in meanings that point to profound truths about human psychology. We know the Christian story to be one that exhibits such wealth of meaning in tremendous abundance. Jesus Christ resonates with so many, and quite powerfully with those who contemplate the depth and breadth of significance of His story, because of the signs and symbolism encountered both consciously and sub-consciously in “the greatest story ever told.”
However, fascination with the story, intellectual stimulation derived from an encounter with the Christian narrative, is not the same as believing in Christ. Even where we can see Peterson, or other academics and philosophers commending the Christian ethos as likely the best of human belief systems for the ethical ordering of society and moral guidance for individuals, this doesn’t equal “belief” as the Church understands it.
And Peterson, to the best of my knowledge and in my recent investigation, has never confessed publicly his faith in Christ, but rather offered a lesser “confession” of belief in the reality of absolute and immutable truth. That is, he is a man of science, not faith. He needs evidence, just as he offers evidence to back his own assertions about human psychology and its many consistent, often troubling, and immutable qualities.
Among his talks he often references the modern intellectual disability that makes it well-nigh impossible to actually believe in God. So steeped are we in the militant atheism of modern science (in contrast to medieval science, or even the science of the “Enlightenment” – think of the deism of Isaac Newton’s physics!) that religious believers in our western civilization are more apt to simply compartmentalize faith apart from science rather than do the work of reconciling them. In the common mentality, science and faith become two solitudes with nothing to mediate or connect them, and our culture in no way encourages anyone to do this serious work. While moderns ridicule the medievals for their deference to Church authority, moderns are equal in their credulity with regard to the latest pronouncements of science—the latest “study” is too readily accepted and incorporated into our thinking about the reality of things, even as it is more than likely to be contradicted in a few months’ or years’ time (think about generations’ worth of nutritional advice regarding fats and carbohydrates that have been completely overturned in recent years, after decades of devastating consequences for the health of millions in the form of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc.).
Peterson is a man who has come across truth. There are things that are simply true, and seem to be deeply embedded in what appears to be the design of human beings in particular, and the universe more generally; and he is prepared to accept this, but stops, or rather intellectually stalls, at asking why it should be so. He finds ample evidence in the religious “myths” of civilizations past and present that what he has lately discovered was well known by our ancestors; and apparently, finds it quite completely in historic Christianity today best exemplified in Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
St. Thomas, as I wrote at the outset of this, suffers a horrible reputation in the minds of many. Not that we think less of him for it. He is a doubter who comes to faith, and that is something most of us have in common with him; but in the story of the gospel it is often overlooked that, unlike the rest of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, he accepts Jesus’ foretelling of His coming Passion in the days and weeks before the final showdown in Jerusalem at Passover; and he agrees to our Lord’s plan. And I daresay, he does so not simply because Jesus says this is going to happen, but because he has common sense and can read the signs of the times. Going back a few weeks to the latter part of Lent, when Jesus tells the disciples he will go to Bethany to see Martha and Mary who have sent news that Lazarus their brother was gravely ill, these loyal lieutenants beg him not to go because of how close it will bring Him to Jerusalem and the risk of arrest. Thomas is the only one who supports Jesus, even if we sense some sad resignation in his words, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16) But be attentive to these words! There is no talk of resurrection. Rather, Thomas is the willing and devoted follower of Christ who has come to accept the necessity of suffering and death in the mission of the Messiah, but not the Resurrection.
Listening to Peterson, but also to the many of our present day society who have drifted from the Church, or any institution or community that offers a systematic and comprehensive theological understanding of the human condition, one notes the resignation to the essential tragedy of human life: we’re all going to die. Moreover, life is going to be awfully hard for the overwhelming majority of us, and our lives will come and go with little notice taken, either by humanity on Earth, or what consciousness might exist in the cold expanse of the cosmos. And if you’ve caught any presentation by Peterson, you’ll know that he emphasizes a simple truth: that we can exercise almost no control over the circumstances of our finite existence; but you can take responsibility for your own life. That is best exemplified in Peterson’s philosophy by his primary edict of, “clean your room.” Put your own life in order before you presume to fix the world around you. Indeed, the impulse to correct others is usually nothing more than the deflection of self-criticism out onto others (the speck in the eye of another is seen while the log in your own is ignored).
These folks, of whom Peterson is an eminent example, live their lives with a tragic faith. They believe there are simply things that are right and wrong, good and evil; and that consequences arise from flouting this, even as they find themselves cooperating with a political and cultural regime hellbent on ignoring the cautions and warnings of our ancestors, encoded in scripture, myth, and tradition. Powerless, they cast ballots despairing of their choices, and try to sift through the muck of the entertainment and information industry for something that actually offers them some help in figuring out the world and their respective places in it.
As for something that offers, and delivers, real hope, there is nothing.
Yes, there is a church on every corner, a synagogue in every town, a temple, a mosque, an assembly room, something of a sanctuary in just about every place where more than a few human beings make habitation. We know these are ignored by the majority. Like Thomas in the aftermath of the crucifixion, they aren’t in these “upper rooms” of spiritual seclusion. And how curious is Thomas’ absence? We read and hear how the few remaining disciples scurried back there to hide from the hostile world, and cowered there in fear. Yet Thomas went out? ( John 20:24).
Well, we go back to his words on the road to Bethany, “let us also go, that we may die with Him.” So, he’s out there on the streets of Jerusalem in the midst of a civil and religious crisis with an attitude of “if they get me, they get me.” He has accepted partially what it means to be a follower of Christ, a believer in the Word made Flesh, the Logos incarnate in the world. It is to share in the fate of the prophets whom Israel killed, to be a Cassandra among the pagans doomed to proclaim a truth that will be disbelieved, and so to suffer the destruction of society along with everyone else, but with the addition of being maddeningly vexed.
Thomas chooses to exercise his personal agency. Victor Frankl, another eminent psychologist, but of the last century, spoke in similar tones and themes as Peterson. Frankl’s experiences of the death camps of National Socialist Germany in the late stages of the Second World War pretty much knocked any faith in God right out of him. In the absence of ultimate meaning that we understand to be manifest in God, he counselled people to assert their personal will to create meaningfulness for themselves in at least one way: to choose to die well. Somehow, this final act would reverberate, create a tremor that would ripple through the fabric of the universe; the resonance of our will would be woven into the eternal harmonies of the universe. What we do, then matters, even if the overall context is tragic and our fate annihilation. We can leave something behind, even if it is not readily perceived by the mass of humanity that remains to die later, or those yet born.
We can understand Jesus’ death in those terms. Indeed, such was the fashion in the latter half of the 20th century. As the Christian community of the West waned, both in its Catholic and Protestant expressions, this tragic sensibility came to the fore in biblical scholarship (former catholic priest, John Dominic Crossan, made a post-presbyteral career out of his proclaiming a sad, tragic revised gospel in which Jesus is not only dead for sure, but never even buried). And once too many accept some version of that, then all we have left is the story as a myth, without any real history to it; and the art, it just becomes the expression of our collective sub-conscience not a proclamation of the Gospel, to be deciphered by scholars such as Peterson.
And why has all this come to pass? The short answer is modernity. The long answer is found in the library stacks of the university, pages and pages of book after book, too many to be read in this lifetime, but I would distill it down to Thomas’ challenge to his fellow disciples:
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side. I will not believe.”
That is why the majority, the four out of five who don’t attend worship, who confine their spiritual life to wistful and often melancholy contemplation of nature’s splendour, why they won’t come near a religious space. They need proof that what is in the tabernacle of a Catholic parish church, what is mediated by the waters of baptism, what underlies the words of absolution at confession, is real. What they do see, hear, and experience, however, is art, music, the reading of a mythic tale and its often-rote interpretation offered by a cleric who has had too little time to prepare his thoughts. They are unconvinced even as they appreciate the beauty of the music, the pictures, the stained glass, and concede the rhetorical power that can be heard and felt in a well-crafted homily.
The true witness that convinces are those who can bring forth their own wounds and say, here, touch, put your hand here, and your fingers here. These scars are real, these wounds no illusion; and I am living now by the power of God and no other. So often, the faithful are reticent in offering that kind of witness: to the adult child who hasn’t baptized the grandchildren, who hasn’t attended a liturgy since the last family funeral, the testimony they received in their youth was couched in a vague language of “faith.” And so, when a faithful person dies, and the family gathers in a pastor’s office to plan the funeral mass, it is not uncommon for many stories of growing up in the parish to be shared, and then we let pass in silence the priest’s realization that childhood was the last time any of them had worshiped with any regularity. They will speak of the great faith of their parent, but struggle to express what that faith consisted of; that a great strength of spirit was exhibited, but from whence it came, they really know not. And sometimes there is a sadness that arises from them for their sense of failure—failing to find the story as convincing as their mother or father did, to find in it the joy, strength, solace, and so on, that their parents found.
It doesn’t come from the story. The faithful are not so simple that a good yarn about a dying and rising God Man fills them with optimism and gratitude. It’s not going to arise from hours of Bible study, or from touring the Vatican museum’s art collection. You can look at all the works of a Titian or a Caravaggio that testify to an experience, but the dobs of paint are not it. However, they are evidence of it.
Faith comes from Christ—crucified, dead and buried; and then rising again. That if someone today wants to touch the wounds, put their hand in the side of Christ, he can come and, for example, see me (but there are others who are better examples). I may say I put it down to faith, but the witness I give is that I was dead, that my life had come to a tortured point of crisis, and that finally, I set aside whatever cleverness I possess and accepted that Christ died for me; but more important, that he rose, and rose for my sake; and that I need Him. How did I know this to be true? I’m here, that’s the proof. There’s no reason I should be. This world was pretty far along in grinding me up into fertilizer, and yet I made it through my own minor passion. This lesser dying gives me insight into my prospects at my eventual physical demise, and I have grown more confident in God’s promises.
The latest news reports of Jordan Peterson have him in rehab for an over-dependence upon anti-anxiety medication. That tells me he is pretty played out and has approached a crisis. Some of this is down to the undeserved hostility shown to him, and the exhausting schedule of lectures he has kept in recent years. His wife has been seriously ill, and that likely has more to do with his current state than anything else. However, he has begun work on a new book, so there is obviously a recovery taking shape. Nonetheless, he is a man who needs prayer: both prayer for him, and by him (no different from the rest of us!). And out of this crucible created by the destructive contradictions of modern philosophies and ideological movements, he may yet emerge and go on, as did Thomas, to an encounter with the living Christ and so be shown evidence of the power, not of the signs and symbols of Christianity, but of the Resurrection as a palpable reality. Perhaps, he will find himself brought back to life by that same power. He is certainly not the only one needing this.
As we now contemplate a further month, at least, apart as a community of faith, we too must be mindful that what we are is not simply a gathering of people who share a common taste in art, music, and life philosophy. We are sons and daughters of the Resurrection, made God’s children by our accepting that Christ has died for us, and has risen so as to take us with Him into the realms of glory.