Jordan Flows through Barron Land

At the time of this writing, over a half million people have since watched the podcast discussion between Bishop Robert Barron and Jordan Peterson. Curious over the questions Peterson would ask as someone outside the fold, there were a number of missed opportunities for Peterson to be led where he needs to go. Peterson is evidently on a genuine search, and so he actually soft-pitches some thoughtful questions to the Bishop, but Peterson never gets challenged about why he needs to ask God for help to make an act of supernatural faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Could Peterson be a modern example of the Ethiopian man sitting upon his chariot reading Scripture, unknowingly waiting for (and needing) an Apostle to show up and open his eyes? (cf. Acts 8:28-29) God would bring St. Phillip to that man and secure his baptism. Since a bishop, as a successor of the Apostles, falls under the direct mandate from Christ to be a witness to the Resurrection, there is no telling what grace is being reserved for Peterson if one pointedly confronts him as to why he ought to believe in it.

Early in the discussion, Barron talks about the overall crisis-level failure of the Catholic Church to attract and retain the youth in our modern day. Conscious of Christ’s command to evangelize, the Church at large seems ill-prepared or horribly inept to deal with the challenge, or perhaps too scared to use the tools at her disposal in the fear of losing a misplaced sense of “relevance.” (As Christ has demonstrated, though, numbers are not to be equated with relevance when it comes to the Faith; He would have turned the stones into bread if that was the case.)

To his credit, Barron is critical of this. He mentions how the subject of religion was not considered seriously when he attended Catholic school in the 1970’s, finding it ranked among physical education or other electives rather than the “more important” and compulsory subjects like science or math (a trend which has continued for decades). The teaching of the Faith was “dumbed down” in order to make it “relevant,” and time-honored ritual and practices, considered to be barriers to evangelization, were dropped so as to attract people.

The Bishop frankly admits that the attempt to “hug” people back into the Faith is a failure; riding the practice of the Faith on emotions is unsustainable, and so people must be led by compelling and passionate arguments and example to be convinced of the veracity of the Faith.

This is all intriguing to Peterson, who is quite sensitive and committed to helping people find true meaning for their lives, evident from the nearly four million subscribers to his channel; he is aware of the influence he has and the responsibility that carries, so his own journey is hardly an isolated one.

Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Peterson can arguably be included in the company of an Augustine or Newman as he publicly fights through and tries to make sense of the philosophical quandaries facing modern man.  Hence why he informs himself and tackles the hot-button issues of socialism, the so-called “gender wars,” racism, freedom and responsibility, religion and suffering, among others. He is not afraid to respectfully call people out on their inconsistencies if they are willing and able to have a thoughtful conversation.

Acknowledging this great public hunger for serious conversation, Peterson invites critical discussion about religion because, as a competent psychologist, he understands how every human being is fundamentally religious, in that we are hard-wired to worship something and base our actions and morality off of that. This is not to say that religion is a subset of psychology – just the opposite. Psychology, within its proper limits, can be a useful tool in understanding how people may approach religion, because ultimately religion is necessary to answer (or attempt to adequately answer) the deepest of existential questions: Why am I here? Is my existence chanced or is it intentional? And if intentional, then what is its meaning? Why is there suffering?

This seems to be why Peterson focuses much on archetypes in his observations on Sacred Scripture and other writings both ancient and modern. Christ would be included among them, especially on account of His confrontation with evil. While Peterson conceives archetypes as products of an historical distillation process that, by the combined experience over thousands of years has edited the impurities or inconsistencies, yield an “ideal” we now have (something which is actually beyond the ability of flawed men), he rightfully asserts that commitment towards some ideal that the archetypes present, and making aspects of it manifest in the here and now, is what motivates people to act.

After all, Peterson does assert that a higher calling is necessary for the good of people and advancement of society. He understands well how this is the fatal flaw of any atheistic system, which always promises a materialistic utopia but never delivers. Draining all adventure out of life, all human drive (given our damaged nature) to improve for the good of oneself and one’s neighbor, atheism is at the root of the despair characteristic of a materialistic society.  Hence he cites Dostoevsky’s observation that if people actually could have everything they needed with nothing higher to do, they would get destructive in order to create some adventure.

Peterson alludes to the fact that the Catholic Church is supposed to be able to respond to this, from what he understands the Church to be. He aptly criticizes that if the Church cannot hold numbers, perhaps people are not being challenged with a proper sense of adventure, perhaps they are not sufficiently being urged or convinced to take a higher calling, a “manifestation of an ideal,” seriously.

Interestingly, Barron casually poses the question as to what an archetype would look like if it took flesh, which is evidently the core teaching of Christianity regarding the Incarnation. That is the extremely important question which, if it be true and at the very least, demands a hypothetical answer.  What does it mean for humanity or, better put, what meaning does it give humanity?

So Peterson will describe human history as an unbelievably magnificent drama. If the Catholic Church is in possession of the “story” (as he calls it) of the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, then if this is not being sold, it is not being sold properly. Almost in the prose of St. Anselm, Peterson even goes as far to call it an adventure that “is greater than any adventure you can conceive,” and so he frustratingly poses the question as to whether lack of faith is responsible for sapping the lifeblood out of the story.  What Peterson means in regard to faith or what it entails is unclear so, while Barron has to agree, that would have been a good question to press Peterson on.

For what the Church possesses is far more than the greatest story ever told or the greatest adventure ever conceived. Ironically, although the human attempt to “hug” people back into the Faith is a misguided and failed practice, we cannot get our arms around or love an ideal: only a Person. Only Someone and not something.

The Incarnation of the Son of God not only solves this limitation, but brings everything into the real. The Gospel then must be defended as an historical account: the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith” are identical. God always must be a living Being who is always involved with the affairs of humanity.

The Incarnation is what gives ultimate meaning and purpose to any life, for It applies to us all as individuals as it does to us as a race. So it is noteworthy that Peterson describes love as “a difficult and ugly thing,” because the Crucifixion proves that. The “adventure” of the Faith is what happens in the daily effort to encounter Christ in response to such love, challenging man to assess life and death from the perspective of the Cross and Resurrection, both historical realities as well as objects of faith possessing the credentials and credibility for belief.

The anemic state of affairs afflicting the Church that Peterson laments and Barron attempts to respond are given some perspective by Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Speaking in the 1940’s, he says:

We are at the end of a non-religious civilization, which regarded religion as an addendum to life, a pious extra, a morale-builder for the individual but of no social relevance, an ambulance that took care of the wrecks of the social order until science reached a point where there would be no more wrecks; which called on God only as a defender of national ideals, or as a silent partner, but who had nothing to say about how business should be run.

[…] The conflict of the future is between the absolute Who is God-man and the absolute which is the man-god; the God who became Man and the man who makes himself God; brothers in Christ and comrades in anti-Christ.

No doubt the great public hunger Peterson mentions for serious conversation is comparably matched by a hunger for the clarity and directness of a Fulton Sheen from the Church’s shepherds. May our leaders unashamedly assert the Church’s claim as the only revealed and authorized religion, that Christ’s message is not one among many to choose from, come what may, and then entrust to God how He decides to seed His fields as a result of such efforts. The fields are ripe for the harvest.

Intelligent discussion may lead to intelligent decision; strong supernatural faith breeds supernatural faith. That is how Christ arranged it when He commanded the Apostles to go and preach everything He taught, regardless if it appeared “relevant.”

Which is why it is of particular interest that the discussion concludes with a warning from Peterson. Because he sees the Church as having something of real value to offer (perhaps since he realizes the Church’s historical relationship to Western civilization), she has to be careful about becoming “too relevant.”

He then pitches how ritual should serve as a preventative for that, for ritual is supposed to be a place of safety and of peace, where a person should know what to expect, especially in the volatile times we find ourselves. That is important both for the sake of the unchanging Faith the ritual needs to express, and the psychological benefit for the person who partakes and believes. Barron mentioned the failure of “hugging” people back into the Faith; could the modern attempt to “hug” people into worship through casual and fluid ritual have the same result?

Peterson is owed a word of gratitude for this caution, an unknowing defense of the Church’s more ancient rites and piety.

Along with that, though, Jordan Peterson is also owed our prayers, joined with Bishop Barron’s, that his search for authentic truth and meaning brings him concretely in touch with the Person of Jesus Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, the Way and the Truth.

And maybe a couple million others to boot.

May 3, 2021