Jordan Peterson, Oren Harman, and God

Jordan Peterson (Gage Skidmore)
The Canadian professor aims to address our crisis of meaning, but he avoids the most important question of all.

When the harsh light of reason burns off the gentle mist of faith, with what shall man feed his soul?

That question is the foremost worry in popular philosophy today. Atheists and agnostics, motivated by science’s insights and unmaskings, have jettisoned religion as an explanation of the universe but find themselves unpleasantly deprived of its comfort. They know that the world is governed by mathematical laws and physical necessities, but they feel that such a place is cold and uninspiring.

Christopher Hitchens will tell you that if you feel this way, have a look through the Hubble Telescope and see if you aren’t awestruck by the beauty of the galaxies. Sam Harris will tell you to try meditation and psychedelic drugs.

Oren Harman, a professor of the history of science, instead advises us to revive the mythological sense that gave rise to religion in the first place. This is the project of his new book, Evolutions: Fifteen Myths That Explain Our World. He aims to fashion modern scientific ideas such as the multiverse and natural selection into stories that can “help us live more comfortably with the uncertainty of wonder.”

If you suspected that this enterprise would turn out fatuous and lame, you were correct. The so-called myths are an irritating mixture of anthropomorphism and oversimplification. The prose style is intolerable, chiefly for compulsive overuse of the melodramatic terse-sentence-as-its-own-paragraph. Stories that are supposed to be replacing Virgil and the Psalms ought to demonstrate more literary merit than an infomercial for a blender. That such sophisticates as Professor Stephen Greenblatt, the world’s leading Shakespeare scholar, can call Evolutions a “revelatory restoration of wonder” is downright disturbing, unless he means something along the lines of “I wonder what else this publisher will buy.”

But the myths themselves — the main effect of which was to confirm my suspicion that whoever devised the idea of the multiverse is off his rocker — are not the book’s important feature. The real meat is in the introduction and the conclusion, where Harman tries to explain why human beings need myths to live. Quoting Sallustius, a fourth-century Roman philosopher, he says that the contents of myths “were never, and are always.” Broader than morality and religion, “mythology is the penultimate truth — penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words.” This reminds me of today’s most distinguished popular intellectual, Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto.

The pivotal role of Christianity in the history of the West demands that moderns understand its insights about the nature of man, especially since alternative ways of ordering society have in the past century led to murderous ideology on a horrific scale.

Before I proceed, controversy obliges me to make a small preamble. Peterson is the object of such wildly diverging opinions that it is almost impossible to believe that his critics and fans are talking about the same person. He is called variously the custodian of the patriarchy and the reviver of the conservative tradition; the men’s-rights darling and the last gentleman; an anti-Semite enabler and a hero. Most of his critics on the left do not attack him so much as torch a straw man, finding enormities where none exist. His opinions, while idiosyncratic, are properly classified as moderate and mildly right-wing, insofar as respect for ancient ideas is a right-wing habit. The assertion that he is an alt-right extremist is simply alien to the facts, and its origin is the Left’s fondness for conflating “faintly undesirable” and “eschatologically despicable.”

Now we can continue. Peterson is known for Jungian analysis of mythology and religion, especially Christianity, as a way of understanding human archetypes and psychological necessities. His immensely popular lecture series on the Bible repeatedly insists that modern secularism does itself a great disservice by ignoring the book’s human wisdom, which exists regardless of its literal veracity. The pivotal role of Christianity in the history of the West demands that moderns understand its insights about the nature of man, especially since alternative ways of ordering society have in the past century led to murderous ideology on a horrific scale.

Peterson’s fascination with religion rests on the possibility that “truth” has more than one meaning. There is, as we all know, scientific truth: glycolysis in chemistry, the Coanda effect in physics. These are the facts of reality, empirically verifiable. But there is also psychological truth, deep principles indicating how we ought to behave and make sense of life. This type of truth consists of patterns in the human psyche, and the ancient authors of the Bible were more perceptive about them than most of today’s enlightened scholars. Ignoring the Bible’s wisdom therefore leads to an often destructive conflict with man’s profoundest nature.

This is what Sallustius meant by “these things were never, and are always.” To use an example of Peterson’s, Christ may not actually have died and risen, but there is nonetheless an important message: Whenever you are overcoming a crisis, you must “die” in letting go of your old way of thinking and acting, allowing you to emerge as an improved, transformed person. This is a painful process, but it is necessary if you want to overcome problems. People who ignore this by thinking that scientific progress conquers all fail to understand that becoming a better person is not an academic exercise. It is a revolution.

Any Christian worth his salt (or any salt retaining its flavor) will immediately object to this reading of the Resurrection as impious and superficial. It reminds one of “The Bible as Literature” courses taught in universities. After all, doesn’t St. Paul tell the Corinthians that if Christ did not rise, their faith was in vain?

Hence the deluge of Peterson-criticism from the Right: huckster of comparative religion, unwitting postmodernist, psychoanalytic relativist, glorified self-help dealer. Some of this is correct, but it fails to take the Peterson phenomenon seriously. There is no doubt that his message hits strongly home in young men who feel unmoored and purposeless in modern society. They are drawn to him because they find Christianity — the traditional anchor and guide of the West — incredible, but they find scientific secularism incapable of giving significance to life. The dismissals of Peterson by some religious conservatives appear stodgy and banal to his main demographic. For these young men (and the rest of his wide-ranging, diverse audience), Peterson provides solutions to the key struggle: Now that faith is impossible, where do we find meaning?

This is where most discussions of Peterson end. The problem is that the crucial question is ignored.

Why is faith impossible?

Having, I hope, demonstrated fairness on the subject of Jordan Peterson, I wish to make a few observations neither stodgy nor banal. Peterson enters the conversation in medias res: taking as a given the incredibility of religion, he proceeds to deal with the consequences. Of course, all intellectuals must take many things as givens, and academic division of labor frees them from needing to know everything about everything. Nonetheless, since Peterson takes as his main subject the crisis of meaning in the West, we can reasonably expect him to analyze the flaws of the old source of meaning, Christianity.

But Peterson is remarkably loath to do this. He has said that he dislikes being asked whether he believes in God because he doesn’t want to be put in a box and because he almost certainly doesn’t share the inquirer’s definitions of “believe” and “God.” On the question of the divinity of Christ, he admits that “the Logos is of ultimate transcendent value,” but no more. In interviews over the past two years, he has given various answers to the question of whether he is a Christian. Meanwhile, as in the case of Einstein, a cottage industry has emerged on the Internet for arguing about whether Peterson is an atheist.

I entirely understand Peterson’s reluctance to declare himself either believing or unbelieving. The Internet is overrun with people who have little desire for deep thought and who would like to claim Peterson as an exponent of their “side” without engaging with his ideas. By avoiding firm classification, he encourages people to listen to what he says rather than presuppose his ideas from a label.

Calling the Bible super-literature is not a step on the way to calling it the word of God; it is a different road altogether.

Even this legitimate concern, however, does not absolve him from the intellectual duty to account for his fundamental premise, which is that traditional religion is no longer an option. While he gives several answers as to whether he believes in God, he gives no answers as to why. Perhaps he considers that beyond the scope of his current project, combatting nihilism and meaninglessness. On the contrary, it is essential. His Bible lectures are clearly not a long-term effort to returning people to religion by first getting them to let down their anti-religious guard. Once you have been taught to see something as useful fiction, it is very hard later to see it as fact. Calling the Bible super-literature is not a step on the way to calling it the word of God; it is a different road altogether.

I do not attribute his evasions to deceit or shallowness. It is hard to doubt the sincerity of a man who while lecturing is routinely moved to tears over the suffering he observes in the world. He sees problems and he wants to help, even if he doesn’t have everything figured out for himself. Nor can anyone reasonably say that Peterson has never thought about arguments for and against the existence of God. He is probably consumed by them. Maybe he prefers to work out this issue in private before he says anything in public.

Whatever the cause, though, the effect is that the intellectual idol of millions of people is punting on the most important question in the world. No doubt the matter of God is poetic, but more significantly it is philosophical. It is a question of literal, metaphysical truth before it is a question of psychology. Peterson has said that he behaves “as if God exists,” but he lectures as if He doesn’t. It would be helpful to his fans and himself if he addressed the heart of the West’s crisis in meaning: God, yes or no?

I don’t demand a final answer. I ask only that he acknowledge that he can’t put off the question indefinitely. He spends countless hours on stage and in studio discussing all subjects with Sam Harris, Dave Rubin, and other stars of the “intellectual dark Web.” Perhaps he could find one hour to talk with Edward Feser, the author of Five Proofs of the Existence of God. Peterson is caring for a world where faith is dead. But just to be sure, he should check for a pulse.

Liam Warner — Liam Warner is an editorial intern at National Review.

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