“I’ve thought…I suppose it’s a form of comedy that Catholicism is as sane as people get…it’s gothic, it’s dark, it has the same aesthetic in some sense as a horror film, and I’m not being…I’m not saying something denigrating by that; it is part of its strange mystery, and all that strangeness is necessary because people would be much more insane without it than they are with it.”
I imagine that most readers are at least tacitly familiar with the Canadian psychologist Dr. Jordan B. Peterson. He rose to worldwide fame in a strange way for his principled stance against the encroachment of postmodernist ideology in Canadian universities. This all happened in 2016, and he went from a locally well-known, yet globally obscure professor to an international celebrity, filling theaters, arenas, and garnering hundreds of millions of views on YouTube and network television.
What was remarkable about his meteoric rise was that he did not espouse opinions that were in any way part of the mainstream narrative. Instead, he put forth all sorts of politically incorrect ideas. Among many controversial topics, he called into question whether men and women should work together in offices; he expressed that birth control has been a net-negative for civilization; he reaffirmed the biological reality of men and women being created as such; and he routinely dismantled the futility of atheism and nihilist thinking. Needless to say, his rise to fame was a curious thing to watch, as he was somehow on the ‘inside’ of the culture, but challenged every pillar or thought that our fallen culture rests on.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Perhaps he was able to do so while still being taken seriously because he never really committed to being a Christian. For all the lectures he gave on the psychology of the Bible, or all the times he was quoted exalting the narrative of the story of Christ, he could never commit to saying that he was a believer all the way through. When asked about whether or not he believed in God, he would always skirt around the question. “I can’t commit to a yes or not because I am not certain what you mean by that,” he would say. Or, “I do not like being put in a box where you will disregard what I have to say if you can pin me down.” It was fascinating to watch him joust with interlocutors, but he surely was not putting forth an orthodox Catholic belief. And, to be fair to those who criticize him, many of his ideas are not much more than gnostic or strange heretical claims if looked at from the bosom of the Church. I am not recommending him as anyone’s theologian.
That being said, I must tell a quick story about why I have been so fascinated with him over the years. In 2015, I was still essentially a liberal. I was reading “Catholic” articles from priests and theologians that would make my blood boil today. But I was trying. Suffice it to say, I was lost in a world of secular nonsense; but I could not help but feel the prick of my baptismal grace as I tried to work through my flawed ideas. In early 2015, I went on a mission trip to Mexico City, and my life was forever changed through a series of experiences, culminating with a visit to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I cannot fully explain what happened there, but needless to say it was a soul-shattering encounter with grace that reformed me into a wholly different man.
Soon after this, I discovered two intellectuals: Saint Augustine and Jordan Peterson. Am I conflating these two men? Of course not. Well, maybe I am a bit. You see, Augustine of Hippo was a gnostic, and you might even say he was in a cult before his conversion. This might sound harsh, but it cannot be forgotten that he was a disciple of Manes, the man who started the ideology of the Manicheans. For the uninitiated, this philosophy was a gnostic-inspired dualist cult that professed that matter was evil and spirit was good. There are a whole host of strange things that could be said about its doctrines, but suffice it to say that when this ugly belief system reemerged centuries later, it was called Albigensianism. Albigensianism was so reprehensible that an intra-European Crusade was called in order to rid the world of this madness. Saint Augustine, the Doctor of Grace, was an adherent of this failed philosophy. But, he was also a giant of intellect, and he sought ultimate truth.
After my conversion, I picked up a copy of Augustine’s Confessions and also started to watch Jordan Peterson lectures. This was before Peterson was famous, and I listened to a series of his recorded classroom lectures from the University of Toronto. Reading Augustine and listening to Peterson was a strange moment of providence, as Peterson brought up a host of interesting questions about reality and religion; but where he failed to give the Christian answer in the truest sense, Augustine filled in the gap. It dawned on me that, unlike the other secular intellectuals who are a bit controversial, Peterson was asking real questions that he wanted real answers to, rather than simply calling into question the ideas of our age while laying his own doctrines on top.
After a while, I had been fully remade into an orthodox Catholic, thus I had little time for Peterson, as entertaining as video-montages of him destroying feminism and global warming narratives may have been. I was glad for the role of providence in putting him in my life, as this was uniquely important for me in a particular time in my life, but I had moved onto bigger and better things.
As Peterson’s fame continued to grow, various Christian groups took notice, and he spoke with Orthodox, Catholics, and Evangelicals alike. At a certain point, he made it known that he had to fully investigate the Resurrection and see if it was actually true in history, and not just a truthful story in the mythological sense. Soon after this, he fell from the limelight when he became seriously ill to the point of almost dying and requiring obscure treatments. Still to this day, he lives in a state of constant pain.
He has since reemerged, and for those who have followed him for some time, he seems a different man, in the way that a man changes when he has encountered God. This is not just my own personal musing but more an observation of how he now speaks about Christ, as compared to how he spoke of Him before. In that recent podcast mentioned at the beginning of this article, he says to an Orthodox friend of his in conversation:
C.S. Lewis pointed this out that the difference between Christ and the mythological gods was that there is a representation, a historical representation of Christ as well…you can debate whether or not this is genuine…there is still a historical story, an actual Person who actually lived…the problem is I probably believe that, but I don’t know, I am amazed at my own belief, and I don’t understand it…. I believe it is undeniable, the objective world and the narrative world touch, and I have seen this many times…. And the ultimate example of that is supposed to be Christ, and that seems to me oddly plausible. I still don’t know what to make of it, partly because it is too terrifying a reality to fully believe; I don’t know what would happen to you if you believed it.
It should be noted that as he spoke of the terrifying reality of Christ, he was on the cusp of weeping and had to work hard to keep his emotions together.
I do not mean to over-sensationalize a podcast into an admittance of a full coming to Christ, but I have seen this sort of thing happen to men like him before—his genuine perplexity at his own willingness to believe something he never thought he could. He wouldn’t be the first intellectual to go from a modernist academic world to the bosom of Holy Mother Church. In the past century or so, we have seen a host of intellectuals go from skepticism, gnosticism, and atheism to complete adherence to the One True Faith. G.K. Chesterton was raised a Unitarian and was a Fabian socialist in his youth. Malcolm Muggeridge was a British socialist politician who eventually found God and went around to Canadian university campuses telling them that atheism was insane and that the theory of evolution was a nonsensical belief. Marshall McLuhan—the man who coined the phrase ‘The medium is the message’—went from agnostic despair to Rome, ironically after reading Chesterton.
When men like Peterson seem on the cusp of converting to Christ, we are quick to think of what they might offer to the Church in her efforts to convert the world. This is understandable, but perhaps we should look at this another way; let us not think of what Peterson could offer the Church, but instead what the Church could offer him—the salvation of his soul. Would God do that Jordan Peterson embraces Christ in all his glory and becomes a son of the Church that the Son of God left to Peter.
[Photo Credit: Chris Williamson/Getty Images]