Who Wants to Be a Heretic?

I have been struggling for some time with whether and how to write this post, but not writing it is making me feel weak, so, following Our Father Jordan’s advice, I’m going to say it.

Jordan Peterson is a heretic.

His Orthodox friend Jonathan Pageau would say all of us Latin Christians are heretics, of course.

The question is whether it matters.

It does.

My burden is to help you see why.

I know from the Facebook groups I belong to that many of his followers take Jordan as a kind of spiritual advisor, some would say guru. They spend thread after thread discussing how to live out his sayings.

Which would be fine.

If not for the fact that some of his sayings go directly contrary to the tradition in which he purports to be speaking.

I know, I fell for it, too. In Jordan’s powerful words:
Don’t underestimate the power of your speech! Now, Western culture is phallogocentric. Let’s say it... It is predicated on the idea of the Logos. The Logos is the sacred element of Western culture. What does that mean? It means that your capacity for speech is divine. It is the thing that generates order from chaos. And then sometimes turns pathological order into chaos when it has to. 
Don’t underestimate the power of truth. There is nothing more powerful [than the truth]. Now in order to speak what you might regard as the truth, you have to let go of the outcome. You have to think, alright, I’m going to say what I think. Stupid as I am. Biased as I am. Ignorant as I am. I am going to state what I think as clearly as I can, and I am going to live with the consequences no matter what they are. 
Now the reason that you think that, that’s an element of faith. The idea is that nothing brings a better world into being than the stated truth. You might have to pay a price for that. But that’s fine. You’re going to pay a price for every bloody thing you do. And everything you don’t do. You don’t get to choose to not pay a price. You get to choose which poison you’re going to take. That’s it. So if you’re going to stand up for something, stand up for your truth.
Have you ever heard anything more riveting? The Logos described—by a university professor, no less—as “the sacred element of Western culture”? Our capacity for speech articulated not just as quintessentially human—waves at Professor Pinker— but as divine? Truth invoked as something powerful, worth paying a price for? If there is a cult of Professor Jordan B. Peterson, sign me up!

No, sorry, don’t. Because the response to Jordan’s speaking is veering close to cult—and that is a problem.

Even he said so, when he saw this stage set-up for one of his lectures in England:


In his words:
We [he and his wife] asked about that. That’s not me. This was also one of those places where the literal and the metaphorical stacked, and when that happens, I watch. The first thing was, I didn’t know I was in the Emmanuel Centre. 
Which is a church, obviously… 
Right, and it’s a huge circle. So, I’m in the Emmanuel Centre in London, isn’t that interesting? And then I walked out there, and there was this Wizard of Oz thing and there was a halo, and I thought, “Jesus Christ, what the hell is up with this, man? There is something going on here.” So I said, “Look, Tam, I need to figure out how this happened, because I need to know.”
I can tell him. He is trying to be God.

I’m serious.

No, I don’t think that Jordan has a Messiah complex. But I do think that he thinks that he is capable on the strength of his own will of saving the world. It is why he spends so much time speaking.

Because he believes that through his speech he can save himself—and that by speaking in the way that he does, he can save everyone.

Sure, Jordan uses Christian vocabulary, but he does not think like a Christian, nor does he claim to.* Rather, Jordan thinks like Nietzsche, as he shows clearly in his book.

Resentment can be revelatory, Jordan argues. Like Nietzsche, Jordan resents Christianity. You can sense the resentment simmering underneath almost everything he says, like an underground current, perceptible but difficult to trace. Every so often, however, it bursts forth, like a geyser, burning everything it touches.

It is clearest in chapter 7: “Pursue What Is Meaningful (Not What Is Expedient),” in a section entitled “Christianity and its Problems.”

Jordan has been talking about the good that Christianity was able to accomplish—“at least [post-pagan] Christian society recognized that feeding slaves to ravenous lions for the entertainment of the populace was wrong”—but even as it solved certain problems, it left others in its wake.

Above all, according to Nietzsche, cited approvingly by Jordan (emphasis his), “Christianity meant accepting the proposition that Christ’s sacrifice, and only that sacrifice, had redeemed humanity,” in the end leaving “nothing too important...for all-too-fallen individuals [to do].”

It gets worse, according to Jordan (again, his emphasis):
Dogmatic belief in the central axioms of Christianity (that Christ’s crucifixion redeemed the world; that salvation was reserved for the hereafter; that salvation could not be achieved through works) had three mutually reinforcing consequences: First, devaluation of the significance of earthly life, as only the hereafter mattered. This also meant that it had become acceptable to overlook and shirk responsibility for the suffering that existed in the here-and-now; Second, passive acceptance of the status quo, because salvation could not be earned in any case through effort in this life (a consequence that Marx also derided, with his proposition that religion was the opiate of the masses); and, finally, third, the right of the believer to reject any real moral burden (outside of the stated belief in salvation through Christ), because the Son of God had already done all the important work.
Jordan prides himself on precision in his speech, but every one of these claims is a straw man. Marx may have believed that religion was useless in motivating reform in the present life, but that was only because he was blindly sitting at his desk in the British Library rather than paying any attention whatsoever to the reforms that Parliament was busy instituting in his day.

The great humanitarian reforms of the nineteenth century (which even Professor Pinker acknowledges) were more often than not stimulated by Christian concerns for widows, orphans, and the poor, not to mention concerns for animals and the environment. Child labor laws, maximum work weeks, extension of the franchise, efforts to provide for the education of children: all were instituted over the course of the nineteenth century in England while Marx and Engels brooded over how much the bourgeoisie did not care.

To be sure, there were failures and missteps, but as often as not it was Christians like Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, who were leading the way. Far from believing that because Christ had died for his sins there was nothing left for him to do, Lord Shaftesbury believed that it was his responsibility to act—and act soon—because he also believed that Christ would be returning to soon to call him to account. Without Christianity, we might still have children working in the mines.

There is more resentment. In Jordan’s words (my emphasis):
The Christian church described by the Grand Inquisitor [in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov] is the same church pilloried by Nietzsche. Childish, sanctimonious, patriarchal, servant of the state, that church is everything rotten still objected to by modern critics of Christianity.
“God is dead,” Nietzsche famously exclaimed. Jordan would concur (his emphasis):
The dogma of the Church was undermined by the spirit of truth strongly developed by the Church itself. That undermining culminated in the death of God. But the dogmatic structure of the Church was a necessary disciplinary structure. A long period of unfreedom—adherence to a singular interpretive structure—is necessary for the development of a free mind. Christian dogma [about which Jordan seems to know very little, just saying] provided that unfreedom. But the dogma is dead, at least to the modern Western mind. It perished along with God. What has emerged from behind its corpse, however—and this is an issue of central importance—is something even more dead; something that was never alive, even in the past: nihilism, as well as an equally dangerous susceptibility to new, totalizing, utopian ideas.
Utopian ideas, Jordan goes on to point out, like Communism and Fascism, against which he has staked his truth-telling speech.

What does Jordan propose we put in Christianity’s place? If you have been following his lectures, you know the answer already: ourselves. We must be the architects of our own meaning by speaking order into the world. By making the proper sacrifices of our present to our future, we—on the basis of our own human strength of will—can, like Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag, decide to save ourselves.

There is an ancient name for this heresy. It is called Pelagianism. Pelagius (d. 418) was a contemporary of the great North African bishop Augustine of Hippo (d. 430). Whether Pelagius in fact argued what Augustine accused him of, his name has come down in history as a cautionary tale for all those who would insist that human beings can choose between good and evil solely on the strength of their own will, without divine aid.

How do you know when you are a Pelagian? You say things like this:
You can know that something is wrong or right without knowing why. Your entire Being can tell you something that you can neither explain nor articulate. Every person is too complex to know themselves completely, and we all contain wisdom that we cannot comprehend. 
So, simply stop, when you apprehend, however dimly, that you should stop. Stop acting in that particular, despicable manner. Stop saying those things that make you weak and ashamed. Say only those things that make you strong. Do only those things that you could speak of with honour.
The Professor has spoken. Now I shall.


This is the Devil speaking. It is the Devil who claims that God wants us weak and ashamed. It is the Devil who tells us that the only reality is suffering. It is the Devil who pretends that if only we ate of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil we could be like gods, capable on our own strength of fixing the world. It is the Devil who tempts us to believe that things are so simple. And it is this same kind of thinking that made the twentieth century hell.**

You are not Christ.

You are not capable of “[changing] the structure of reality in your favour”—because it already is.

The Church does not teach, as Jordan claims, that the material world is damned, nor did the great dreamers like Newton come to the insights that they did about the material world in spite of Christianity. Newton, like Galileo and Copernicus and almost all the great scientists of the early modern scientific revolution, was Christian, encouraged to inquire into the workings of creation because he believed that God had made heaven and earth and saw that it was good.

The point of the crucifixion is not that we are each individually to suffer like Christ, bearing on our own bodies the salvation of the world, but that because Christ has borne our sufferings, it is possible for us to be saved. Christians are called not to be Christ, but to imitate Christ. We are called to take up our cross and follow him not in order to save the world, but because it is already saved.

Friedrich Ohly, another inhabitant of the Soviet work camps, understood this truth better than Solzhenitsyn—at least, better than Solzhenitsyn as described by Jordan.

Ohly was a German professor of medieval literature who was sent to the camps as a prisoner of war in 1944.

He was there for nine years.

He survived not—as Jordan describes Solzhenitsyn—by “taking himself apart, piece by piece, [letting] what was unnecessary and harmful die, and [resurrecting] himself,” but by making a collection of poetry, as his obituary in the journal of the Medieval Academy puts it,
from Homer to Wilhelm Busch written out from the memories of many inmates on the paper from cement sacks. Their cement sack anthology was copied by others onto cigarette paper (with poppy-seed pencils), bound in remnants of the prison clothes of released comrades, and formed into little volumes, hand-size, that circulated and remained in demand. Eventually he translated poems of Pushkin and Lermontov into German, also writing them out onto cigarette paper. He credited the poetry with keeping him alive in an atmosphere in which the will to live was as important to survival as food, shelter, and freedom from attack.... “Happiness” was in poems; it was also in his work in a quarry splitting stones with wedge and sledgehammer. The two together—mind work and handwork—brewed an “elixir of life.”
In later years, suffering with cancer, he found happiness in editing and commenting on a medieval German commentary on the Song of Songs, God’s great love song to the soul. Poetry—beauty—saved him, not force of will.

*

I get it. Much of what Jordan says is inspiring. Man up. Clean your room. Sort yourself out. But what kept me going this time last year, when the whole world was coming for Milo and I got caught in the storm with him was not the thought that I was able by speaking the truth to give shape to reality, but the faith that reality was not dependent on me, but on Him. 

What kept me going was the knowledge that whatever I was going through, He had suffered worse. The betrayal of his closest friends. The ridicule of his followers. The injustice of being accused of the worst imaginable crimes. The despite of all when he was innocent. The fear of being forsaken even by God. 

What hubris to imagine that it was somehow up to me to fix everything! That anything I could do on my own strength would bring order to the world, even in my own soul. The best I could do was to be willing to suffer—and trust—that He loved me and cared for me, and to be willing to learn what it was that He was trying to teach me by giving me the courage to stand firm. 

Jordan, again:
The Word that produces order from Chaos sacrifices everything, even itself, to God. That single sentence, wise beyond comprehension, sums up Christianity. 
No, Jordan, it doesn’t. This one does:
For God so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting. — John 3:16
Jordan wants us to embody the Logos and rule on earth. Christ came not to rule, but to serve—that we might live with him in heaven.


*In the above linked interview, the interviewer asks Jordan explicitly, “You call yourself a Christian? “I don’t; other people do.”  “Do you object to that?” “I don’t object to it, but it’s complicated.”
**Warning signs: You insist on the scientific status of your moral instruction. You propose making lists of enemies to be purged. You talk in terms of species consciousness rather than souls. You argue that Christianity failed because it did not promise that the Kingdom of Heaven could be realized on earth.

Sources

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2018).

Paul Meyvaert, Siegfried Wenzel, and C. Stephen Jaeger, “Friedrich Ohly,” Speculum 72.3 (July 1997): 941-43.

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