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What We Need to Learn from Peterson (and What His Followers Need to Learn From Us)

July 5, 2019


Besides admiring Jordan Peterson’s ability to guide and mentor people, especially young men, Bishop Barron, I believe, wishes to address, in a Balthasarian way, Jordan Peterson’s incomplete picture of man. Peterson is indebted to Carl Jung, a famous Swiss psychologist. Based on what I can surmise from his videos, Peterson is especially influenced by Jung’s work on the archetypes. My only familiarity with Jung is from college psychology courses, so I’m not an expert on Jung. However, I could not help but think of him, Peterson, and the reason for Bishop Barron’s engagement with Peterson when I read the following from another Swiss great, Hans Urs von Balthasar, 

The archetype which, in Christ, came forth from God cannot, by definition, be unearthed from the depths of man, not even by the most penetrating analysis, neither the as a “lost image which must be restored” (Plotinus) nor as a “hidden archetype which must be made conscious” (Jung). No matter where such long-buried human ideals are dug up and then displayed in mankind’s museums after having been thoroughly cleansed and restored, in no case will they be the image which the free God has sent out from himself into the world: ‘This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

It seems to me that Peterson tries to understand man from an anthropocentric stance alone, unearthing the depths of man by penetrating analysis. He engages religion but questions the possibility of Revelation and God. In our secular scientific age, this is attractive. But I wouldn’t call Peterson scientistic. At the end of the day he gets theological—at least, he hasn’t amputated reason—but his musings about man and the transcendent need to be worked through. I think he acknowledges this. I see him as standing at the temple portico or as one of the philosophers Paul met at the Aeropagus who was willing to hear out Paul some more on the Resurrection. He just needs someone to open the temple doors and guide him, helping him see the divine glory. I believe Bishop Barron is doing this, in addition to poking some holes in the buffered self we can’t seem to move beyond. Peterson’s anthropocentric stance has met Bishop Barron’s theocentric stance. I think the two can complement each other. 

Some people have frowned upon Bishop Barron for engaging Peterson. But, as I see it, Peterson needs to be engaged, because he already is engaging a segment of the population the Church is losing: young men. I’ll give you some examples. Firstly, as a teacher I heard my male students talk about Peterson all the time. Many of these young men were alienated from the Church. They thought the Church did not have an intellectual tradition. Nevertheless, they were deeply interested in religion, turning to Asian religions and occultism for possibly offering answers to the metaphysical questions they had. They wanted to have a good intellectual debate about matters of ultimate concern. I tried to do my best in introducing them to the intellectual and spiritual traditions of Catholicism, but it would have been helpful to have had the discussion between Peterson and Bishop Barron, showing the students that Catholics can indeed engage the best minds. Heck, we even know who Husserl’s famous student was!

I have another example. While I was in Half Price Books the other day, I overheard three young guys discussing the Peterson/Zizek debate. I didn’t realize Peterson is so popular. They were passionately debating who came out looking better. (Personally, I think Zizek did, but that’s another story.) Peterson can really draw a crowd. Last year, I attended Peterson’s talk in the Chicago Theater. A friend invited me. I did not see one empty seat; not one. And this was a big venue. Also, it was the first time, other than at sporting events, I had to wait in line for the bathroom while there was no line for the women’s restroom. Some people in the media have picked up on this, saying Peterson represents the last flimmer of the patriarchy. They’ve called him every bad name in the book. But what nonsense. All their attempts have backfired, making Peterson look better in the end. Peterson’s following continues to grow, and I’m happy Bishop Barron is engaging him because through him he’ll speak to young men, including my former students. 

Peterson rightly sees the need for spiritual masters. I never thought of my parish priests this way. As was commented about in the video, these priests were always telling me, in a very Rogerian way, “You’re okay.” I knew I wasn’t. I wanted someone to confirm for me that I sinned and give me a roadmap for how to overcome temptation and become virtuous. Perhaps they felt out of place, but wouldn’t any doctor tell me flat up that I’m dying and give me a plan for healing? I didn’t get that. Eastern religion offered something. I read Siddhartha as a freshman in high school, but I was too inflexible to get into a cross-legged pose. Sports offered something. And businesses did. Just not the Church. Eventually, I met a priest who introduced me to the spiritual life, and, boy, did this priest challenge me. He clearly named my problem and told me what I need to do about it. He has been my guide to this day. I think that many young men turn to Peterson because he does the same. For example, the friend who invited me to the Peterson talk is constantly reading the Stoics and soldier memoirs, but he can’t find what he’s looking for in the Church. He has read the Gospels and is blown away by Jesus’ challenge. However, he wants to be personally challenged. Peterson challenges him, and I’ve seen much good come out of this. This goes to show that we need spiritual masters like Peterson, but are we forming them? I don’t think so. We need to get better at proclaiming Christ in the culture. Otherwise, figures like Peterson, who is lacking a full presentation of Christ, will do it for us. 

We should be grateful to Peterson and his critique of how the Church is engaging young men. He’s not perfect, but he offers good advice. And regarding his analysis of man, I believe he’s mostly right but mistaken. He needs Revelation and the bold proclamation of the Church that the ideal is concretely here in the God-Man, Jesus Christ. Christ showed us human nature as it fully is when it is united to God. That is why Christianity is the true humanism; now we have the true measure of man. I find it amazing that Peterson even upholds Mary as the archetype of the woman who answers “Yes” to life voluntarily. She is our true model of what it means to be a human person. (Remember that Christ is not a human person but a divine person who nevertheless has united to himself the fullness of human nature.) Mary is our mother and our model for inviting the Word to become incarnate in us. She is spouse of the Holy Spirit, Queen of all of creation. Of all human persons she is Satan’s greatest enemy, because unlike Satan she magnifies the Lord, brings Christ into the world, and draws people to her Son. She is the one all men should honor, civilizing our brutish way. 

The problem I see with Peterson is that although he rightly sees the archetypes, he leaves the importance of the particular behind. The particular gets absorbed into the universal. This is the problem with most ancient metaphysics as contrasted with modernity, which chucks the universal for the particular, at least in its nominalist strain. Christ unites the two as the Idea made concrete and historical. I could be wrong—he is hard to classify—but Peterson seems like a Neoplatonist, at least in his focus on the archetypes. Perhaps he is like Augustine (a seeker) when he was enthralled by the Neoplatonists. He just needs a figure like St. Paul to come to him and thoughtfully proclaim to him the true Lord, helping not only Peterson but his many followers. This is what I see Bishop Barron doing for Peterson. And he’s not just doing it for Peterson, but all of his followers like my students. I wish more in the Church would do the same. It’s an opportunity not to pass up.