Baptizing Jordan Peterson
Jordan Peterson, God, and Christianity: The Search for a Meaningful Life, by Christopher Kaczor and Matthew Petrusek (Word on Fire Institute: 2021), 240 pages.
Although Jordan Peterson’s star has fallen somewhat from its peak two years ago, what he taught and what he represents still matter greatly to today’s culture. When so many other public intellectuals acquiesced to the insanity of postmodernism and identity politics, Peterson became an international sensation by eloquently rebutting this. He rightly saw these trends as a collective refusal to engage with reality and an underhanded means to institute soft totalitarianism.
However, Peterson’s aims were never explicitly political. His discipline was psychology, and so his concern with leftist ideology mostly related to its pernicious effect on people’s hearts and minds. Instead of adopting these bad ideas and consequently making themselves miserable, people were much better off learning from the wisdom of the past. This message resonated with audiences and made him unusually popular.
For those hoping to spread a message, advocate a lifestyle, or revive the Western intellectual tradition in some small way, they can obviously learn from Peterson. He somehow succeeded without softening his message or dumbing it down. He showed respect to audiences, and he was authentic. He tapped into something deep and really spoke to people’s consciences.
One person who has taken interest in the Peterson phenomenon is Bishop Robert Barron. Recognizing that among the Catholic Church’s greatest tools in evangelization are its highly developed apologetics and theology, he and his team of writers at the Word on Fire Institute see in Peterson a person who seems to make many of the same claims from the secular point of view. Indeed, Peterson teaches people to take responsibility for themselves and their communities, show due deference to ancient religion and philosophy, humble themselves before a higher authority, and seek meaning, or “Being,” over mere pleasure.
However, there’s a large obstacle to reframing Peterson’s arguments in this explicitly Catholic context: Jordan Peterson is not Catholic. While his themes harmonize with Catholic teachings and make sense to Catholic audiences, Peterson has never taken the final step of converting to Catholicism.
Reconciling the difference in Peterson’s preaching and practice makes for interesting reading, if not always coherent. In their book, Jordan Peterson, God, and Christianity, Catholic philosophers Christopher Kaczor and Matthew Petrusek attempt to analyze, explicate, and pay homage to Peterson and his most popular texts and lectures while simultaneously critiquing and supplementing them—and, if this isn’t enough, they also regularly foray into Catholic exegesis, classics in Western literature, and Thomistic philosophy.
They hold all this together by organizing the book into two larger sections that each analyze Jordan Peterson’s series of lectures on reading the Bible and his bestselling book, Twelve Rules for Life, with a shorter section that responds to Peterson’s latest book, Beyond Order. For good measure, the book concludes with a lengthy interview between Bishop Barron and Jordan Peterson.
In the first section, Kaczor dives into Peterson’s popular lectures on the book of Genesis. As Kaczor notes from the outset, “The most influential interpreter in the world today is not a pastor, a scripture scholar, or a bishop. He’s a Canadian clinical psychologist with no formal training in biblical studies and no church membership.” Nevertheless, Peterson’s approach to biblical reading is often more thoughtful, more reverent, more compelling—and better aligned with the Catholic treatment of the Bible—than that of most contemporary Christian scholars.
Kaczor divides Peterson’s account of Genesis into the three chapters: “Creation,” “The Fall,” and “Chaos, Utopia, and Divine Call to Adventure.” Respectively, these chapters cover the Creation story, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel, and God’s command to Abraham to enter the Promised Land.
Peterson reads these stories with a moral lens, deriving life lessons from each of them rather than parsing through their literal meanings. The creation of the universe offers a lesson about the primacy of logos, the underlying rationality and logic of creation. Adam and Eve experience of the consequence of sin and failing to take responsibility for it: “To deny personal responsibility is, in many ways, to reject the only way out of a bad situation.” Cain is what happens when a man fails to develop self-reliance. Noah’s flood and the fall of Babel are the tragedies all people experience—“There are floods coming. You can bloody well be sure of that,” as Peterson puts it. And Abraham’s story is that of mankind meeting its destiny.
While these interpretations are fascinating and relevant, Kaczor explains how they are still incomplete. Invoking the great Catholic thinkers of the past, he explains how a whole system of metaphysics permeates Scripture. Because Peterson is unwilling to commit himself to the spiritual life, the deepest level of reading for him can only be a moral one. Important as this is, it fails to include the allegorical and anagogical senses of Scripture stories, which indicate God’s plan for humanity and His relationship to all creation.
Kaczor’s section on Peterson’s Bible series is followed by a section by Matthew Petrusek in which he comments on Peterson’s bestselling book, 12 Rules for Life. Unlike the Bible series, which doubles as exegesis, in 12 Rules Peterson’s primary purpose is to provide a guide for living. Nevertheless, he goes far deeper than the typical self-help manual, giving material for a philosopher like Petrusek to analyze.
Petrusek groups Peterson’s 12 rules into four larger “problems”: the pursuit of meaning, pride and its antidote, true love, and creation and redemption. One might think that organizing Peterson’s principles along these lines would help clarify the predominating values underneath, but mainly they complicate Peterson’s thought tremendously. These chapters are easily the toughest of the book as Petrusek separates the objective and subjective in Peterson’s claims.
Like Kaczor, Petrusek argues that Peterson’s lack of pronounced faith detracts from his otherwise important message. Essentially, Peterson recommends that his readers live and think as Christians without explicitly endorsing a Christian confession of faith. As Petrusek maintains in each of his chapters, “Objectivity exists formally in [Peterson’s] model but can have no substantive content, which, in effect, makes it a form of functional relativism. It would thus destroy Peterson’s rule as well.” Sure, these rules work, but they would work even better and tell people more about themselves if they were grounded in Catholic orthodoxy.
This point is repeated once again in the final section where both Kaczor and Petrusek comment on Peterson’s most recent book, Beyond Order. In it, Peterson recounts his intense struggle with depression, addiction to antidepressants, and double pneumonia as he explores the meaning of suffering, the role of chaos, and the insufficiency of materialism. In Kaczor and Petrusek’s view, Peterson is a modern-day Job, a man fated to suffer greatly, but also to experience a personal relationship with God.
In Peterson’s defense, he is speaking as a psychologist, not a theologian or philosopher. As such, it’s only natural that he would be a pragmatist and avoid the thickets of scriptural interpretation and classical virtue ethics, as philosophers Kaczor and Petrusek are eager to do. Peterson wants to reach a large audience and give them life advice. The Bible and various Christian-inspired texts just happen to be helpful resources.
The book finally ends with a dialogue between Bishop Robert Barron and Peterson, two public intellectuals with devoted followings. At first, the conversation is somewhat stilted with each giving their well-known arguments.
As the discussion continues, though, there is a more natural exchange with Barron and Peterson discussing movies, Russian novels, the New Atheists, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. Towards the end of the discussion, Barron becomes more outspoken about how the Catholic Church has failed where Peterson has succeeded: “There’s no energy, there’s no directionality, there’s no sense of purpose, there’s no spiritual struggle.” Both men agree that challenging people to confront their sins and live responsibly is the way forward.
What becomes apparent by end of the interview, and the book as a whole, is a certain awkwardness that arises from the mixed purposes of Kaczor, Petrusek, and Bishop Barron. They obviously want to praise Peterson’s work and capitalize on his popularity, but they take issue with his reluctance to declare his faith. Yet they still want to baptize his thought and supplement it with Catholic thinking. Only a reader deeply invested in these topics and the conversations they produce would likely take a strong interest in the book. Others may wonder what these writers are getting at and eventually lose patience.
Aside from this weakness, the book is incredibly rich and well written. Kaczor, Petrusek, and Bishop Barron are all brilliant and eloquent writers. For readers who admire Peterson, they will find what’s best in his work and much more in the Catholic faith. For most Catholics who may not give too much thought to their own intellectual heritage, they may be surprised to see such a wealth of scholarship and art devoted to living a happy and meaningful life.
With all that said, Jordan Peterson, God, and Christianity is an enjoyable read that speaks to many of today’s great issues. It is illuminating, well-organized, and surprisingly accessible. True to its subject, it will challenge readers to become more introspective, more receptive to the wisdom of Christianity, and better versed in the deeper themes that define the human condition.
Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher in the Dallas area. He holds an MA in Humanities and an MEd in Educational Leadership. He is the senior editor of The Everyman and has written essays for the Federalist, the American Thinker, Crisis magazine, The American Conservative, and the Imaginative Conservative, as well as the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.