Jordan Peterson’s two-and-a-half hour lecture entitled “Introduction to the Idea of God” has been viewed nearly 1.6 million times in the nine months it has been online. That’s more than three times as many views as the most popular video by the Church’s biggest Anglophone social media star, Bishop Robert Barron—and that clip is a bite-sized nine minutes and was published six years ago. How is a devotee of anti-Christian thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Jung outdrawing Catholic prelates in the media marketplace for Christian theology?
While Peterson’s political views have dominated the media narrative about him, his meandering explorations of Christian theology remain among his most popular lectures. These two areas of inquiry cannot be separated, though: Peterson’s idiosyncratic but sympathetic views on Christianity appear to be outgrowths of his ultimately incoherent views about human societies, blending brash political incorrectness with a love of tradition and an enthusiasm for individualism. For modern Christians frustrated by their loss of standing in liberal societies, this makes Peterson, like a stiff cocktail, potent, delicious, and, if enjoyed carelessly or in the wrong context, dangerous.
Listening to a Jordan Peterson lecture or conversation is a bracing experience. He speaks with a breezy self-assurance, but at the same time he takes serpentine routes to his conclusions – so much so that it’s not always clear even he knows where he’s going until, with a splash, he arrives and all seems to have been made clear. This sense of being on a journey with an unknown destination is heightened by the idiosyncratic nature of his arguments. It’s just weird to get to principled conservatism and appreciation of Scripture from Nietzsche and Jung, and so he commands one’s attention in a way that those following more well blazed intellectual trails do not.
But the appeal of a Peterson video is about more than a scenic excursion of the mind; it’s about luxuriating in the thrill of the politically incorrect assertions he makes along the way. In a lecture on the failure of postmodernism, he spends 10 minutes “debunking” white privilege. In a webcam video about assertiveness, he casually uses the term “beta male” – an insult popular among the new wave of right-wing internet-native “masculinists”. And in otherwise measured television interviews he will confidently compare transgender activism to Maoism.
What makes Peterson’s boldness truly good, however, is not the extent to which his arguments are politically incorrect, but the extent to which they are true. Contrary to prevailing assumptions among contemporary conservatives, truth and political incorrectness are not coextensive. To value political incorrectness as such is not to destroy PC, but rather to more firmly establish it as the North Star of our political discourse, replacing the objectivity of truth and goodness.
And so we must approach the Peterson phenomenon with care, recognising that some – and perhaps a great deal – of what is attracting millions of largely young male viewers to him is not laudable and should not be thoughtlessly applauded by Catholics. Strident denunciations of feminism and anti-racism are not what is missing from our apologetics; to the extent such appeals might draw disaffected young men to the Church, it would diminish the Body of Christ to a mechanism to satisfy their personal and political grievances.
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