Updated: Nov 6, 2020
The preface to Maps of Meaning is the book's longest chapter, in which Dr. Peterson provides a general sketch of his development from de facto church kid to socialist activist to concerned Cold War citizen to Jungian psychologist. Through this process, Peterson rejected religion, but ultimately returned to it - in a manner of speaking. Because there is a significant amount of material covered in this section, I will be dividing it into a few posts. This post will primarily focus on Peterson's initial reason for leaving the church and the nature of authentic faith.
There and Back Again
Many of my readers will understand this post's title as a reference to The Hobbit, the tale of mild-mannered Bilbo Baggins, who is thrown into an epic adventure of danger, missteps, treachery, eucatastrophe, and glory that turns Bilbo himself into an epic adventurer. At the end of the story, Bilbo returns to Hobbiton, where he is no longer received by respectable society, for an adventurous spirit is anathema to the cult of comfort. Hobbiton had not changed, but Bilbo had. Because Bilbo changed, Bilbo's world changed. Although he enjoyed the comforts of his home, as he did before, he now enjoyed them anew in light of the desperation of adventure. Although the story seems to end in a similar manner to its beginning, everything is different. Adventures taken cannot be unadventured.
In a similar manner, Peterson abandoned the religion of his youth, quested for something more authentic, and returned to the supportive structure of religion - but willfully, and with an understanding of its significance, rather than with childish innocence. On the surface, it would be easy for a Christian to hear Peterson speak now and claim him as kin, and perhaps this would valid, but Peterson himself is cautious to never make such judgments. On multiple occasions, Peterson has stated that he lives as if God existed, and he praises the pursuit of modeling one's life after Christ, but he believes himself to be unequipped to make a statement such as, "I am a Christian," as he understands the weighty significance of religion in a way that few self-identified Christians do.
To distill the preface into a single sentence: Ideology is the tyranny of order, but authenticity equips the spirit for purposeful and purpose-giving adventure.
Blind Faith in the Light of the World?
"No one really opposed my rebellious efforts, either, in church or at home - in part because those who were deeply religious (or might have wanted to be) had no intellectually acceptable counter-arguments at their disposal" (xii).
To many, both inside and certainly outside the church, Christianity is considered to be naturally opposed to intellectualism. Many years ago, I once had a youth pastor who referred to seminary as "cemetery," as if a reasoned approach to Christianity somehow deadens the vibrancy of Christian spirituality. In a more subtle manner, well-meaning Christians often say that Christianity is a relationship rather than religion - setting aside the fact that Scripture itself speaks of good religion and bad religion. Catchphrases such as this are generally used to emphasize that Christianity is not about doctrines and rules, but something in the heart, as if such things could be separated.
If I were to say that I love my wife so much that I refuse to study her, or else I might learn more about her and then love her less, would you believe that my love is genuine? Of course not. If I viewed my relationship with my wife in this manner, it would be abundantly clear that I did not love her, but that I only loved my idea of her. If even human relationships require the application of mind to truly instantiate love, why would Christians downgrade their desired relationship with God? Furthermore, if we truly believe that in God, "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28) and that Christ is the one in whom "all things hold together" (Col. 1:17), why would we fear setting our minds to any subject whatsoever?
Perhaps the fear is that we will discover something that does not harmonize with our faith-structure. If this is our fear, then I question whether we truly desire God, or if we have succumbed to the cult if ideological comfort.
The fundamentalism of the modern church is deadly. What I propose is not compromise with liberalism, but a return to the vibrancy of the historic Christianity that led the way in philosophy and science for over a millennium. This was made possible as Christians recognized the two books of revelation, i.e. Scripture and nature. Both are infallible sources of truth in their own rights, as both are provided by the infallible One who is Truth, even though both are often mishandled by fallible interpreters. When a conclusion is drawn from one that seems to contradict a conclusion drawn from the other, we should evaluate the methodologies used to see where we went wrong in scientific study, Biblical exegesis, or both. It is the tyranny of ideology that forces us to demonize rather than utilize the anomaly. It is the adventure of authenticity which allows us to doubt and rework our scientific and theological frameworks, thereby leading to the advancement of knowledge and, more importantly, the advancement of understanding.
Christ is the Truth. If this does lead to immense epistemic humility, is it possible that we are serving an ideological social construct, much like the religious crowds of the Gospels that missed the glory of Christ as they looked for a mere politician?
Leaving the Cult of Comfort
Jordan Peterson's father was an agnostic who generally supported Judeo-Christian morality. His mother enrolled him in confirmation classes, but evidently offered no genuine discipleship. His minister couldn't explain basic questions, such as how the Genesis creation account is to be reconciled with modern science. Peterson even notes that the minister seemed to be convinced by the evidence for evolutionary theory, believed this to be contradictory to Genesis, but provided no means of reconciliation. I recall that my AP Biology teacher in (public) high school made a similar statement, explaining that her understanding of science and her Christian faith were incompatible and that her solution to the dilemma was to compartmentalize, so that she would adopt one framework in one setting and the other is another. This sad, entirely untenable tale is all too familiar.
Peterson left the church because, at least based on his testimony, it doesn't seem that he ever knew the church. He writes, "No one really opposed my rebellious efforts, either, in church or at home - in part because those who were deeply religious (or might have wanted to be) had no intellectually acceptable counter-arguments at their disposal" (xii). I greatly appreciate the parenthetical phrase in this statement: "or might have wanted to be." The sentiment of religion without the mind is only the appearance of true religion. It is the sophist's religion. It is the kind of religion that validates Freud, who saw religion as a means of satisfying a Father-need. This is the cult of comfort. This is the cult of "felt needs." This is the cult of self. True religion is willing, like Abraham, to leave home and adventure into unknown lands, recognizing that home is where God is, and that the God who is Truth is where there is no deceit - even deceit pathologically constructed to feel like truth. When we venture out in pursuit of this God, we will find a Father. We will have our deepest needs met.
The problem is that we too often placate our call to adventure by externalizing our lack to the people and events around us so we won't feel a need to go anywhere. We attempt to satisfy our needs through co-dependent relationships, empty religious sentimentalism, and whatever else might numb our genuine sense of the divine.
May we instead recognize that our need is as great as our God and that our God supplies that need as He calls us away from our comfortable squalor unto the adventure of glory that makes us into glorious adventurers.
Next time, I will discuss Peterson's leap from religious ideology to political ideology as he became enamored with socialist utopianism. This will provide a launching pad for discussing the essentially religious nature of humanity.
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