Why do people hate church but love Jordan Peterson? Pastor Peter Burfeind has been trying to answer this question ever since Peterson burst onto Christianity’s collective radar over a year ago. In a recent follow-up expanding on his first impressions here at The Federalist (where he dubbed Peterson a “high-brow Joel Osteen”), Burfeind attempts to manage the church’s expectations of this mysterious figure. He comes bearing bad news: The church is losing her mojo, but Peterson is not going to help her get it back.
An erstwhile campus minister, Burfeind opens with a report on the decline of church influence in an increasingly disconnected generation of young people. To younger millennials and Gen Z-ers, institutional religion looks like the proverbial salad bar at the Build Your Own Worldview Buffet: anything else appears more appealing. Over the past year-and-a-half, some of the longest lines have sprung up around Peterson, whose relationship with institutional religion can best be summed up as, “It’s complicated.”
In response, evangelicals and Catholics alike have been scrambling for a piece of the action. They reason that the off-beat prof with a cool accent may not be Christian, exactly, but he sounds “Christian-ish.” And he’s gotten the kids to read their Bible, which is more than we were able to do. (The parallels to poor mom vainly telling junior to clean his room have not gone unnoticed.) Now if we can only get his attention, maybe lock him in a room with the right professional Christian for two hours, who knows? It could just be a matter of time before the man is getting catechized (or praying the sinner’s prayer—whoever gets to him first).
Burfeind finds things to like about Peterson, but believes the hype is misplaced. He wants to break it to everyone that this “bad boy” likes them, but not like that. He writes provocatively, “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.” Peterson is “head pastor of First Church YouTube.” Real pastors need to get offline.
Is this a fair assessment? Unlike Burfeind, I am not a pastor, but like Burfeind, I am a conservative Christian who has been following the unfolding “Truman Show” that is the Jordan Peterson phenomenon with great interest. I think that to a point, Burfeind has put his finger on the spot. I also think he’s missed a spot. Or maybe several spots.
Enemy of My Enemy?
Let me begin with what Burfeind gets right: Christians who try to put Peterson in a box of any pre-set Christian shape will be swiftly disappointed. And Peterson’s agnosticism, while sincere, is selective. He may have clashed swords with Sam Harris on stage, but the enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend.
Peterson has been especially emphatic that Christian attempts to read Genesis at odds with evolutionary theory represent everything wrong with the church today. “Creationism is science,” he mimics in one lecture, using air quotes. “Well, no it’s not,” he pronounces, with weary finality.
Not that he’s unsympathetic to “the poor fundamentalists.” The good doctor has diagnosed them with PTSD in Darwin’s wake, still clinging to their Christian ethic while “insisting” that the factual foundation on which they built it “has not been shaken.” Unlike Harris, he takes no pleasure in watching that foundation crumble.
But he and Harris still share an understanding. In their second podcast discussion, Peterson says he follows Nietzsche in judging Christians’ “confusion” of fact and fiction a “dangerous mistake.” He believes Christians are “bound to lose” and “do their own creed a disservice” as long as they keep engendering this confusion.
By contrast, he hopes to ensure that the Bible’s “living truth” is “brought forward and updated and given new sight.” Like Carl Jung before him, he is an alchemist, hoping, as Burfeind writes, to “rarefy what makes Christianity truly special.” Just because none of this stuff happened doesn’t mean it isn’t “true.” It just means that, as he suggests in his opening biblical lecture, “you have to be a little more sophisticated about your ideas about truth, and that’s okay.” Once you have unlocked peak sophistication, you will see that it “eliminates the contradiction” between the “objective” and the “religious.”
Burfeind is not wrong that this promise of reconnecting worlds offers Peterson’s listeners a potent high, nor that the philosophy behind it is patently inch-deep. A survey of all the times Peterson refers to “creationists” suggests he means the Ken Ham variety, who insist on strict Genesis literalism right down to the earth’s age.
This, of course, is a clichéd punt. Even conceding (as I do) that the weight of evidence lies with an old universe, the evolutionary paradigm writ large has the kind of problems that remain intractable even with eons on the clock. Christians accused of conflating fact and fiction might justifiably counter that scientists have a habit of conflating science and probability theory.
Darwin himself shuddered as he considered the intricate elegance of the eye. Such intricacy should make us shudder still as we gaze upon new wonders Darwin never imagined. Indeed, Peterson himself has referred to Francis Crick’s “I’m not saying it’s aliens, but” moment more than once. And here, he shows his students an animation of DNA replication, shaking his head in unsettled awe afterwards and wondering aloud at the multiplicity of “things we don’t understand.”
He is free to call “the poor fundamentalists” naïve, if he chooses. But the disturbingly simple intuition that Someone got here before us will not be lightly waved away, as long as honest men of science have eyes to see and ears to hear what Nature herself is trying to tell them. As Flannery O’Connor would say, she shouts for the nearly deaf, and for the nearly blind she draws large pictures.
Jordan Peterson vs. The Church?
Burfeind sees a direct through-line from Peterson back to gnostic cult figures like Joachim of Fiore. He implies that, so far from standing ready to assist the ailing church, Peterson believes it has outlived its usefulness, that it needs to die. While Peterson certainly has his pride and his blind spots about the church, this implication is simply untrue.
In fact, although Peterson personally has never been able to sit through a church service, he frankly volunteers that this is a fault on his part. He also expresses sincere regret that he never took his kids to church, because there were “a bunch of things they never learned.”
One Patreon questioner asks directly if absorbing the biblical stories can be effectively decoupled from participation in the church. In reply, Peterson laments the church’s waning social influence in a fragmenting West and preaches the necessity of communal religious practice as passionately as Burfeind does. Perhaps, he jokes, his biblical series is a way of atoning for “past sins,” by attempting to rekindle some kind of communal spirit.
Peterson’s most concentrated exposure to the evangelical church in action must surely have been the opening convocation at Liberty University the other month. His response was not mere politeness, but visible emotion. As I wrote, he even checked my mild jadedness when he paused the Q&A and spontaneously praised the student body’s heartfelt enthusiasm.
In a later one-on-one conversation with Senior Vice President of Spiritual Development David Nasser, he reiterated that he had never seen such warmth and effective community-building in a university setting. Burfeind pointedly quotes G. K. Chesterton’s parable of the fence at Peterson, but he is preaching to the choir. Peterson knows quite well what the fence is for.
Even so, Burfeind believes that given the choice to plug into a local church or stay home at First Church YouTube, Peterson’s audience will stick with the cool “pastor.” Again, he’s not entirely wrong. I do encounter Peterson followers who bristle at the suggestion that he is the one who might need to make a paradigm shift, not Christians.
But I also see guys who say they are only attending church today because of Peterson. Lots of them, in fact. I know pastors who know lots of them too. Some are lifelong atheists, others are deconverts. All were walking away from the church until Peterson catalyzed a change. We need to consider why that is, and we need to be prepared for the answer that Peterson might be doing some things better than some churches.
The Unauthorized Exorcist
It suits Burfeind’s thesis to miscast Peterson as YouTube’s Pied Piper, keeping his young audience so entranced with his high-brow “meme-world” of archetypal abstractions that they never put skin in the game of flesh-and-blood community. In actuality, Peterson’s entire project rests on his view of the world as a forum for action. So quit play-acting and start acting, he exhorts. Set your house in order. Put your family together. Make yourself useful in your community. Be someone people can rely on. Set a worthy goal and achieve it.
Contra Burfeind’s first take, Peterson is the anti-Osteen. Osteen will tell you that your best life now is on the way. Peterson will tell you that your worst life now is on the way. Osteen will tell you that you’re just swell the way you are. Peterson will tell you that you’d better start ironing out your soul now, because if you think you’re a pretty good person, think again, sunshine.
This is the voice of the schoolmaster. This is the voice of Law. This is a voice that can reach a bitter 20-something deep in the cesspools of Internet atheism and snap him into the kind of painful self-awareness that leads to the cross. I tell one such true story at the end of this piece. There are many more.
No, Peterson is not a Christian. Yes, Peterson is a typical mainstream academic with typical mainstream academic views about the Bible. All true, but trivially true. Those of us who believe Peterson is offering something fresh and valuable are not expecting him to “assist” the church in the sense of aligning with church doctrine.
We see him assisting like a rescue boat mid-ocean, far out past where the lifeguards on the shore can reach. We see him shining a beam of natural light that can at least begin to point the way for those wandering in the pitch blackness of a post-Christian age.
That natural light, that common grace, can filter into corners of our culture darker than I think Burfeind realizes. For example, I doubt he could have imagined a character like Soph, a pint-sized alt-right YouTube personality who’s won nearly a million subscribers with her savage, foul-mouthed commentaries.
By her own description, the 14-year-old has been raised by the Internet in a religious vacuum. One day, the YouTube algorithm suggested Peterson’s biblical lectures. She didn’t fully understand them but found them “compelling” and is now beginning to think more about “religion.”
Can Peterson “save” Soph and other damaged souls like her? No. Can he replace what a church can offer them? No. But this is not an audience that would be listening to the “Ask John Piper” channel if they weren’t listening to Peterson’s biblical series. We could ask what they would be listening to instead, but we might not want to know the answer.
Of course I want Peterson to get past his philosophical blind spots. Of course I want him to grasp the nettle of the gospel. Of course I want him to encounter Christ. But I submit that the phenomenon around him cannot be so neatly wrapped up with a label and a bow. I submit that the assistance he is rendering in our nihilistic age is more than illusory.
We can recognize what it is not. But we should welcome it for what it is. And we should welcome Peterson for who he is: a noble pagan in our midst, worthy of a better God than Jung.