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Peterson, Newman, and the Cross

March 13, 2019


Those following the Jordan Peterson phenomenon know that one of the central themes of the psychology professor turned intellectual superstar is the cross. In fact, the cross is arguably the symbolic center of his whole program. “The centre is occupied by the individual,” he writes in his best-selling 12 Rules for Life. “The centre is marked by the cross, as X marks the spot.”

For Peterson, the cross—an instrument of torture and execution in ancient Rome—conveys two great existential truths: first, that that your life will inevitably involve great suffering and malevolence; and second, that the best response to that suffering and malevolence is an imitation of Christ. In other words, accept the suffering and malevolence, hoist it onto your shoulders, and “struggle impossibly upward toward the Kingdom of God,” transforming your own life and the lives of those around you for the better. This cross, and your own willingness or unwillingness to take on its burden, is the archetypal heart of every person’s story.

All of this is deeply rooted in the New Testament (Matthew 10:38, Matthew 16:24, Luke 9:23, Mark 8:34), so not surprisingly, many Christians have responded positively to Peterson. But when reflecting on the overlap between his own message and Christianity, Peterson makes a striking denominational distinction: he thinks his view of the cross is much more aligned with the Orthodox view than with Catholicism or Protestantism.

About sixty-five minutes into a two-hour conversation with Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro (which now has 2.5 million views), Shapiro argues that Peterson’s program is “fundamentally un-Christian,” because the core claim of Christianity is that Christ already did the work for us; he accepted the suffering of the cross to save us from our own malevolence. Peterson responds: “That perspective is more explicitly Protestant. And then I would put the Catholics next to that. But then I would put the Orthodox types fairly far away from that…Their sense is that it’s the imitation that’s of primary importance.” In another video, he acknowledges that imitation does appear in Protestantism and Catholicism too, but that it’s “given more secondary, more implicit emphasis,” and that faith is more about believing a set of facts about Christ than staking your life on following him.

Now, it probably makes a great number of Protestants uncomfortable to have Catholics placed so close to them on this “faith-works” spectrum. And the feeling is mutual—not because the Catholic Church doesn’t emphasize faith in the saving cross of Christ (it does), but because it also joins the Orthodox—and Peterson—in emphasizing our obligation to pick it up and carry it. In Catholicism, faith in Christ and imitation of Christ go hand-in-hand.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

“The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes: ‘He who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end. He never stops desiring what he already knows’ (St. Gregory of Nyssa).”

This teaching is reflected in the writings of countless figures of the Catholic tradition, from the letters of St. Paul (“love bears all things,” “rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings,” “endure trials for the sake of discipline”) to spiritual masters like Thomas à Kempis (The Imitation of Christ) and St. John of the Cross (“in the evening of life we will be judged on love alone”), to St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote that the cross is both “a remedy for sin” and “an example of how to act”: “Whoever wishes to live perfectly should do nothing but disdain what Christ disdained on the cross and desire what he desired, for the cross exemplifies every virtue.”

For a more contemporary example, read “The Cross of Christ the Measure of the World,” a powerful sermon by the soon-to-be canonized John Henry Newman. He explains why the cross is not just an object for our belief but our very experience of the world itself—and a “rule of life” to be “lived upon”:

“It is but a superficial view of things to say that this life is made for pleasure and happiness. To those who look under the surface, it tells a very different tale. The doctrine of the Cross does but teach, though infinitely more forcibly, still after all it does but teach the very same lesson which this world teaches to those who live long in it, who have much experience in it, who know it. The world is sweet to the lips, but bitter to the taste. It pleases at first, but not at last. It looks gay on the outside, but evil and misery lie concealed within. When a man has passed a certain number of years in it, he cries out with the Preacher, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’ Nay, if he has not religion for his guide, he will be forced to go further, and say, ‘All is vanity and vexation of spirit;’ all is disappointment; all is sorrow; all is pain. The sore judgments of God upon sin are concealed within it, and force a man to grieve whether he will or no. Therefore the doctrine of the Cross of Christ does but anticipate for us our experience of the world….

The sacred doctrine of the Atoning Sacrifice is not one to be talked of, but to be lived upon; not to be put forth irreverently, but to be adored secretly; not to be used as a necessary instrument in the conversion of the ungodly, or for the satisfaction of reasoners of this world, but to be unfolded to the docile and obedient; to young children, whom the world has not corrupted; to the sorrowful, who need comfort; to the sincere and earnest, who need a rule of life; to the innocent, who need warning; and to the established, who have earned the knowledge of it.”

Of course, the whole point of Peterson’s program is that you don’t just talk about carrying the cross; you get yourself together and do it. But look again at the Catholic tradition, and you’ll find countless saints who did, many not only taking up their own cross but also the crosses of others—sometimes total strangers. St. Teresa of Calcutta comes most readily to most people’s minds, and as Bishop Barron notes, “this saint of darkness” showed us that Christian life means undergoing “the agony of the crucifixion in all of its dimensions.” But there are also countless other examples of heroic virtue and suffering love, from St. Agnes and St. Lucy to St. Damien of Molokai and St. Charles Lwanga to St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Edith Stein.

The way of the cross is, in fact, central to Catholicism. But in Peterson’s defense, this understanding of the cross has also been dramatically obscured in Catholic life in recent decades—and it’s easy to see how an outsider trying to resolve this question observationally might come to a wrongheaded conclusion.

Do we as Catholics take up our cross daily? Do we talk about or even understand what this means, and what it costs? Do we confess our sins and firmly resolve to change our lives? Do we unite our personal sacrifices to the sacrifice of the Mass? Do homilies on suffering and evil echo out from our pulpits? Do our choir lofts ever thunder with bitter lamentations? Do our churches offer the Stations of the Cross, mapping our minds and bodies to the patterns of crossbearing? Do we model our lives on the self-sacrifice of the saints, inviting others to do the same? Are crucifixes displayed prominently in our homes? Do we observe Lent with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving? Do we aspire to acts of ascetism, service, and other forms of self-denial throughout the year?

Or have we imagined costly grace to be all too cheap, and our cruciform faith to be, as Flannery O’Connor put it, a big electric blanket?

The Peterson program does pose serious problems for Catholics: a Pelagianism that exalts human effort over divine grace, a narrow psychological reading of Scripture, and most importantly, the metaphysical bracketing of the divinity of Christ and the very existence of God. But Jordan Peterson is reminding the world of something that far too many Catholics seem to have forgotten altogether: that the cross belongs at the center of human life.

“Pick up the cross of your tragedy and betrayal,” he challenges his listeners. “Accept its terrible weight….We are all fallen creatures—and we all know it. We are all separated from what should be and thrown into the world of death and despair. We are all brutally crucified on the cross that is the reality of life itself….And the Christian command? To act out the proposition that courage and truth and love are more powerful than death and despair.”

People—especially young people, and especially young men—are responding like mad to this challenge to imitate Christ. The great irony, and tragedy, is that many of them were probably never offered anything like it before from Christians.