Jordan Peterson’s two-and-a-half hour lecture entitled “Introduction to the Idea of God” has been viewed nearly 1.6 million times in the nine months it has been online. That’s more than three times as many views as the most popular video by the Church’s biggest Anglophone social media star, Bishop Robert Barron—and that clip is a bite-sized nine minutes and was published six years ago. How is a devotee of anti-Christian thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Jung outdrawing Catholic prelates in the media marketplace for Christian theology?
While Peterson’s political views have dominated the media narrative about him, his meandering explorations of Christian theology remain among his most popular lectures. These two areas of inquiry cannot be separated, though: Peterson’s idiosyncratic but sympathetic views on Christianity appear to be outgrowths of his ultimately incoherent views about human societies, blending brash political incorrectness with a love of tradition and an enthusiasm for individualism. For modern Christians frustrated by their loss of standing in liberal societies, this makes Peterson, like a stiff cocktail, potent, delicious, and, if enjoyed carelessly or in the wrong context, dangerous.
Listening to a Jordan Peterson lecture or conversation is a bracing experience. He speaks with a breezy self-assurance, but at the same time he takes serpentine routes to his conclusions – so much so that it’s not always clear even he knows where he’s going until, with a splash, he arrives and all seems to have been made clear. This sense of being on a journey with an unknown destination is heightened by the idiosyncratic nature of his arguments. It’s just weird to get to principled conservatism and appreciation of Scripture from Nietzsche and Jung, and so he commands one’s attention in a way that those following more well blazed intellectual trails do not.
But the appeal of a Peterson video is about more than a scenic excursion of the mind; it’s about luxuriating in the thrill of the politically incorrect assertions he makes along the way. In a lecture on the failure of postmodernism, he spends 10 minutes “debunking” white privilege. In a webcam video about assertiveness, he casually uses the term “beta male” – an insult popular among the new wave of right-wing internet-native “masculinists”. And in otherwise measured television interviews he will confidently compare transgender activism to Maoism.
What makes Peterson’s boldness truly good, however, is not the extent to which his arguments are politically incorrect, but the extent to which they are true. Contrary to prevailing assumptions among contemporary conservatives, truth and political incorrectness are not coextensive. To value political incorrectness as such is not to destroy PC, but rather to more firmly establish it as the North Star of our political discourse, replacing the objectivity of truth and goodness.
And so we must approach the Peterson phenomenon with care, recognising that some – and perhaps a great deal – of what is attracting millions of largely young male viewers to him is not laudable and should not be thoughtlessly applauded by Catholics. Strident denunciations of feminism and anti-racism are not what is missing from our apologetics; to the extent such appeals might draw disaffected young men to the Church, it would diminish the Body of Christ to a mechanism to satisfy their personal and political grievances.
The lesson of Jordan Peterson is not that we need to be more politically incorrect, but that we need to be more authentically Catholic. Jesus Christ is neither politically correct nor incorrect; He is love and light and truth, and He is in every tabernacle in every Catholic church in the world. And we should say this to the world through every available medium, not with slick graphics and “accessible” language but with reverence and enthusiasm.
Peterson is at his best and most magnetic when he is almost stammering in awe of the human condition – our nature, our tradition, our minds. This is why believers and non-believers alike are letting an agnostic psychologist teach them about Jesus, and this is part of what we can learn from his celebrity.
When I hear Peterson speak about God, I think of the late French-American philosopher René Girard. Both thinkers specialise in academic disciplines deeply antagonistic to faith – Girard in French literary theory, Peterson in Jungian psychology – and both are fascinated by the person of Jesus Christ as an exemplar of their own theories – Girard’s scapegoat mechanism and Peterson’s civilisation-forming myth. Girard eventually entered the Catholic Church, though in his work, according to scholar Andrew McKenna, he treated Scripture more as a peculiarly illuminating piece of literature than as the inspired Word of God – more revealing than revealed.
It would not surprise me at all if Peterson followed the same path, but, like Girard, he would have to do much more than simply accept the reality of Jesus Christ to become an orthodox believer. Of course he would have to acknowledge that the faith is more than a lowercase “t” tradition that gives meaning and structure to our lives; it is the life-saving truth. He would also have to abandon some of the views that have made him famous.
Peterson’s strategy to bring meaning and success to the lives of deracinated young men is an essentially amoral training in interpersonal dominance founded in an uncritical acceptance of the radical individualism that has dominated Western civilisation for the past few centuries.
For instance, he argues that the credible threat of violence is essential for earning respect in conversations with men; in one lecture he asserts with his distinctive fatherliness: “If you are not capable of cruelty you are absolutely a victim to anyone who is.” Peterson rightly sees our prevailing individualism as a descendant of Christianity (though he does not yet understand that it is an illegitimate child). This is part of the reason he is so sympathetic to the Christian tradition.
He does not see, however, how it is precisely Enlightenment individualism that has dissolved the bonds of charity, solidarity and authority that made Christianity a living tradition.
It is true that our present crisis of meaning is related to the inability of many young men to compete effectively in the marketplace, which is for us the primary giver of significance, and it is therefore true that these men need the training Peterson is offering in order to be able to wrestle that meaning from the market – and from others. Yet the promise of Jesus Christ is not a job, but eternal life. And the role of the Church is not to prop up a secular civilisation that has reduced meaning and identity to paychecks and sports teams, but to offer a more beautiful and comprehensive alternative.
If the Church is to baptise “Jordan Peterson the internet sensation”, it must be for his reputation as an authentic and awe-filled truth-seeker, not as a politically incorrect provocateur. His sincere reverence for the awesome reality of the human person is a potent antidote for a civilisation whose spirit has been oppressed by secularism and nihilism.
And if, God willing, the Church is to baptise Jordan Peterson the man, let us pray that the grace of the sacrament washes away his commitment to individualism and replaces it with an integrated view of the human person, striving not for the greatness of alpha status in a world of brutes but for the greatness of communion with the God who is love.
Brandon McGinley is a writer, editor and speaker