Many Catholics, myself included, are drawn to the work of Dr. Jordan Peterson; and it’s easy to understand why. Simply put, the man has a way with words rivaled by few in our day. It’s fascinating to see a prominent intellectual wrestle with the important questions at the core of every human heart. There is something beautiful about his struggle, and one finds it difficult to look away.
I was recently listening to an excellent lecture by Dr. Peterson, a talk he gave on the footsteps of the library at Ephesus, in modern-day Turkey. The subject was the Logos. While listening to Peterson wax poetically about objective truth, this portrait of a man conflicted crystalized, as I listened to him repeat the same four-word phrase ad nauseum throughout the lecture.
“In some real sense.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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If you carefully listen to the recent content from Peterson in the last year, he repeats this same phrase over and over. In some real sense. Go ahead, go back and listen to any recent series, video, or lecture. It’s something you cannot unhear once you hear it. It is a qualifying phrase, and the words “some” and “sense” are his chosen modifiers when qualifying something he is not quite ready to say with full confidence.
In the Ephesus lecture, when his subject matter turned to the Logos itself, the insufficiency of this phrase was laid bare. The lecture primarily focused on the Greek philosophical tradition of the Logos, the idea that there is universal and unchanging truth that transcends reality and interacts with the divine. And, as Catholics, this is something we can applaud. It is a piece of our tradition.
But he also concluded the lecture with a reflection on the Passion of Jesus Christ. First, let me just say, it was a beautiful few minutes. I strongly encourage anyone reading this to go listen to it. He spoke about the injustice of a truly innocent man put to death at the hands of a tyrant while his mother looks on helplessly. He spoke about how each one of us must confront suffering and confront the gates of Hell, in some real sense. Peterson was moved to tears by the end of the soliloquy, and his beautiful words contained so much truth. Truly worthy of applause.
But after hefty applause, it is important for us to acknowledge that, while Peterson’s words are representative of a man on his way to deeper understanding, his current state of “some real sense” is ultimately insufficient.
While it is fascinating and edifying to watch a man contemplate the highest goods with the full weight of an impressive intellect, time and again, he holds back from truly embracing universal truth. In some real sense. For Peterson, Christ’s Passion is the ultimate example of what each one of us must struggle with in our own individual search for truth. Which is true! But it is not the fullness of the truth.
Why is it important to highlight this insufficiency? After all, this is a man willing to admit that, in some real sense, the Logos transcends everything in our world. Objective truth is real and we must center our entire existence around it.
But, to the Catholic, there is a distinction that makes all the difference. We know that our reality is grounded in the incarnate Logos, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. This Word is not merely something to be read, something to carry in our hearts, or something (as in Peterson’s case) to wax philosophical about as a means to tether us to reality. It is not “some sense.”
No, the truth of the matter is far more real: Jesus Christ, the Logos, is the incarnate reality that we consume in the Eucharist. We are united to Him physically in the sacraments, through which we partake more and more in His divine life, which is reality itself.
If you listen to the lecture on the Logos, this is the idea that Peterson is flirting with. He has grasped on to the shadow of the understanding that there is something external, a universal truth, that orients our life and pulls us out of chaos (sin) and up into order (union with God). But the insufficiency of just a shadow is ultimately important.
C.S Lewis, in his important work The Great Divorce, paints a picture of a holy mountain that must be continually ascended, and in doing so we become part of the divine life of God. He famously penned, “Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?”
This is the ultimate question for Dr. Peterson. And, to me, he clearly understands this and is wrestling with the concept. Will he move from mere philosophizing and begin the journey upward into reality itself? Wrestling with God is beautiful, wrestling is important. But ultimately, wrestling is insufficient.
The danger I see is that Peterson, as a public figure, has the ears of hundreds of thousands of young men and women who are wrestling along with him. These souls must understand that some real sense of the Logos is insufficient in the end. Our goal and destination, both body and soul, is objective truth itself: Jesus Christ.
Dr. Peterson is on a journey, and we are privileged to watch and glean what we can. As faithful Catholics, we should be mindful to pray that this man, who is wrestling with God, may eventually encounter him fully—body, blood, soul, and divinity—on his way up the holy mountain into union with the Logos.
[Image Credit: Jordan Peterson YouTube video screenshot]