As we put another Holy Week in the history books and prepare for what is often the lowest-attended Sunday of the church year—the week after Easter—it’s a good time to assess the state of American Christianity. I don’t know what other clergy have experienced, but I’m in a military environment and have worked in campus ministry, both realms of the young, and in my experience the decline of the church’s influence is palpably real.
It’s not that faith is non-existent. They all have some personal spin on spirituality—usually some amalgam of Christianity, Neo-gnosticism, conspiracy theories, and whatever idea they’ve concocted after diving into some internet rabbit hole—but the notion that faith can be framed by an external institution or formed by its rites doesn’t even register.
The story is old. Millennials and younger people are dropping out of institutions. All the trends are toward replacement of community groups and churches with faux communities like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Or, as many people have commented on, young people are gravitating toward the secular religion that is politics.
Enter Jordan Peterson. Peterson is the flavor of the day right now, enjoying success for his non-institutional brand of Judeo-Christian ethics. Christians of all denominations are trying to claim him, hoping his popularity can help invigorate their struggling institutions. They’re like sophomore girls desperate for the affections of the new bad boy. In one interview with a Roman Catholic fanboy, the interviewer actually suggested his name “Peterson” forecast his eventual status as a son of Rome, where St. Peter is seen as the first pope.
But like every bad boy, he refuses to be “boxed in.” He claims no church and insists his mission is to critique existing boxes from the outside. This suits the role he’s assumed, as well as the anti-institutional Zeitgeist. He’s a “not boxed in” leader of a “not boxed in” generation operating in the context of a “not boxed in” media. He’s head pastor of a mega-flock at First Church YouTube.
Christians need to consider how essential Peterson’s non-institutionalism is to his program, and pair it with how essential the institution of the church is to Christianity. Christians hoping Peterson will offer an assist to an ailing western church are like a married couple looking to porn to reinvigorate their marriage. Peterson is brain porn for Christians disenchanted with the institutional church, when they should be working on their churches instead.
Christians need to make a concerted defense of the institution—yes, the institution—of the Christian church. It is essential to the gospel, confessed as an article of faith in both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. The alternative is to hand the faith over to the “I believe in Christianity but not Churchianity” neo-gnostics, among whom Peterson nicely lines up.
The Myth of the ‘Non-Boxed In’ Thinker
Let’s first deal with this pretense of “not being boxed in.” Part of Peterson’s charm is he gives the affect of a guy just asking questions and seeing where they go. But he sets all sorts of axiomatic presumptions in stone before pursuing his questions. He accepts Frederick Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity, the many blind spots of Darwinism, and, most significantly, the psychoanalysis of Carl Jung.
In one of his lectures, Peterson commits the categorical error that is the Achille’s Heel of all secularist thinkers and helps explain why Gnosticism is the default spiritual posture of our day. My ten-year-old son recognized it while we were listening to a YouTube lecture. Peterson was discussing the Jungian concept that our ideas emerge from a dream world that we know very little about. My son asked, “Did all his ideas come from his dream world?”
Bingo! I explained to him the Liar’s Paradox. If a Cretan says “All Cretans are liars,” is that Cretan to be believed? Peterson says our ideas come from the dream world. Did his and Jung’s ideas come from the dream world? Well, in Jung’s case they did. He had an active dream life and believed he was visited by the ghost of an ancient Gnostic in his dreams. But clearly both he and Peterson ultimately are claiming an empiricism that lifts them out of the dream world to have an understanding what’s going on behind the scenes.
Such thinkers—as any thinker who sets up a system eventually must—actually do believe they have a heightened awareness, a gnosis, about the way things really are. They believe they are Cretans who’ve transcended the axioms that limit everyone else. Like Giordano Bruno peeking out of the cosmic realm, they see the mechanics of things “as they really are.”
They give the illusion of “just asking questions,” or just being seekers of the truth. But because they’re presumed through gnosis to be the right questions along with the right answers they give, these questions end up looking an awful lot like dogma.
Count how many times Peterson says “that’s for sure” in his lectures. It’s his “verily.” You don’t write a book entitled “12 Rules for Life” if you don’t have a few answers you believe are transcendent. That certainty arises from some hefty walls around some clearly defined spaces that look an awful lot like a box.
So enough of the “I refuse to be boxed in” nonsense. Peterson absolutely has a box. But unlike the boxes he rejects, it’s a box of one, himself. This would be solipsism without his Jungianism, which introduces the idea of the Collective Unconscious, something all people share, an idea Jung derived from Gnosticism. The idea is those with gnosis—artists, poets, dramatists, thinkers like Peterson—tap into archetypal patterns birthed from the Collective Unconscious and grace us with their revelations, like the prophets of old.
That, my friends, is a box. And it’s labeled “Gnosticism.”
Gnosticism Inevitably Leads to Institutional Entrenchment
I’m in the middle of a second round of analyzing Peterson’s content. (See the first here.) I’m struck with how often he veers into ground I covered in my book on rising Gnosticism in America. Nietzsche and Jung are the obvious examples, but he’s also sounded Hegelian in his idea of “emerging and evolving consciousness,” as if God emerges through human evolution.
The jaw-on-the-floor moment was when in one interview he was asked if he belonged to a church, and he joked he had to set up a church of himself in order to marry someone. He called it St. Joachim of Fiore, a huge character in my story of political Gnosticism. Peterson liked Joachim and believed he had good insights.
Joachim of Fiore is the first new age prophet, whom political philosopher Eric Voeglin saw as ground zero for the rise of totalitarian thinking in the West. Joachim believed an Age of the Spirit would replace the Age of the Son. If the Age of the Son was defined by the church—its ministry, sacraments, dogma, and an institution—in the Age of the Spirit each individual would have direct access to God outside of any institutional intermediary. God would manifest directly in and through his elect saints.
One can see why Peterson named his church St. Joachim of Fiore. The Age of the Spirit corresponds nicely with Jung’s idea of the Collective Unconscious, a divine field any individual can have access to through proper enlightenment, or psychoanalysis.
In reality, Joachimism spawned a host of millenarian cults all united by similar traits. (1) A charismatic leader arises, believing he’s in communication with the divine and has a special interpretation of Scripture; (2) he teaches there’s a new age dawning that will help establish a better (or utopian) world; (3) he’s critical of the existing institutional church and social institutions as relics of an old, passing age; (4) those who are enlightened like him will share in his movement; (5) the movement has its day until the realities of the world settle in; (6) the movement becomes entrenched institutionally.
The history of Joachimism flows through various millenarian cults in the Middle Ages, the Anabaptists of the Reformation era, Pietists and Puritans, the revival movements of the 19th century, the New Age movement, and other evangelical movements today. The pietist Hegel took an interesting detour, attempting to demythologize Joachimism and give it scientific credence. This paved the way for the various totalitarian movements, all of which divinize History as a replacement for God.
Peterson’s project, so long as he continues the pretense of being “not boxed in” and outside of institutions, will invariably follow the trajectory of the Joachimist cults. Unlike previous movements, he has the power of YouTube through which he can gather a massive following.
On a more sublime level, YouTube brings out many of Joachimism’s underlying weaknesses in bold relief. A teacher of a bible reduced to its ethical teachings and his following, all outside of any sort of institutional gathering, all through the disembodied medium of YouTube, cuts out, well, the person of the Trinity who took on flesh. It’s truly an Age of the Spirit (or the spirit of the age) moving beyond the institutional church.
Why the Institutional Church Is Better than YouTube
Jung was an alchemist. Alchemy attempts to rarefy vapors from lead and turn them into gold, which is really an allegory of how a golden soul can emerge from the leaden person we’re born with. Or from the leaden deadness of a dying institution, like the church, there can emerge something golden, new, and revolutionary, like Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life.”
This fits the Joachimist project. Rarefy what makes Christianity truly special—the Logos, love, sacrifice, newness of life, its ethical teaching—from its leaden deadness of dogma, formalism, sacraments, and hierarchy, all that stuff from the “Age of the Son.” Then reconstitute them directly in the subject as principles for life without mediation of the institution. The individual can live out Peterson’s principles without any involvement in the church community.
But Jesus places the point of contact with himself and his teaching at the point of the disciple, which grounds the creation of the church. Jesus didn’t say “He who receives the Bible receives me.” He said, “He who receives you [an apostle whom he sent] receives me.”
Where Peterson trumpets a strange sort of paganized Scripture Alone teaching leading to a new sect “following the teachings of the Bible,” Jesus binds himself to flesh-and-blood people, which creates the church: flesh-and-blood people gathering around the flesh and blood of Christ ministered through a flesh-and-blood person Jesus called and sent. Of course, all this rests in faith, and faith is the one major thing missing in Peterson’s system.
If there is a crisis among millennial spirituality, it’s that in withdrawing from faith they’ve also withdrawn from their own flesh. Plugged into an electronic world of memes and narratives and images, their reality increasingly becomes something disconnected from other human beings. Skills needed to operate elbow to elbow with other flesh-and-blood people, like patience, forgiveness, conversation, and socialization, get soft.
Yes, institutions suck. Get two or three people together anywhere and you’ll have politics and problems. But Christ’s entire mission was to connect with us, drawing God to neighbor, and by implication, through the neighbor in the church, us to God. Yes, that may mean grappling with horrendous atrocities. It seems like someone once did that on a cross.
That will mean learning what forgiveness really means, or patience, or grace, like the members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church forgiving the racist who killed nine of her members. Or like Roman Catholics facing the ugly reality of sin among her clergy. The Christian message begins with God taking on human flesh to grapple with the worst of human evil. How can the institution, warts and all, not arise from that action, drawing sinners together to grapple with each other?
Institutions ground the interpretation of reality in something greater than an individual’s idiosyncratic, gnostic musings. In the same way that there’s a reason ancient fences exist, and best to find out those reasons,there’s a reason the institutions of the church exist. A search for that reason will lead to a conversation about something far deeper and more powerful than archetypes, stories, and psychology, and that’s faith.