An Open Letter to Jordan Peterson

  • Jordan Peterson, black and white
    Image credit Daniel Ehrenworth, used by permission

[Note: I have forayed into the world of Jordan Peterson think-pieces once before, here, but his work and the cultural phenomenon in his wake deserve more careful attention than a think-piece can capture. I hope to share more thoughts on it in this space. I encourage other Christians to engage him with the vigor, generosity and candor he deserves, between the Scylla of fawning admiration and the Charybdis of paranoid dismissal. Such opportunities and such men come perhaps once in a generation. Pass it by if you choose. It will be your loss. Herewith, my personal message to the man himself, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson.]

Dear Dr. Peterson,

I hope this letter finds you well. Many people would bristle at being told their names are remembered in prayer. I trust you are not one of them. So I trust it is some comfort to know that wherever your steps may turn, the prayers of righteous men follow after.

Once upon a time, there was a poet who knew too much. Perhaps, when you were a younger man, you would have recognized him as a kindred spirit. Like him, you found yourself “sitting on catastrophe’s knee…expecting Armageddon to come.” Like him, you woke from your dream in a sweat, with the knowledge of evil and good.

For you, it was Alexander Solzhenitsyn. For me, it was Whittaker Chambers. You sent me digging through my journals to find the entry where I analyzed my first encounter with Witness. I pick this out, in an 11-year-old’s labored, loopy cursive: “From it…I can draw several conclusions. One, man is involved in a terrible struggle in which he may either conquer, or be conquered, the struggle of his soul. There are only two options.”

Already, I had grasped what Terry Malloy puts far more succinctly: “Conscience. That stuff can drive you nuts.”

Today, inasmuch as I speak for the Church, I send you her best regards and honest thanks for those souls who once struggled beyond our reach. It’s a curious thing, how you have carried broken men to our doorstep. I don’t pretend to understand it. Yet here they are. And here you are. So, from one humanist to another: Hail, and well met. Will you not stay? The fire is warm, and we have much to discuss.

You have, as I think, something to offer us, some three decades in the making. Something you believe we might need more than we know. How does the story go? Tell me if I’ve got it right: First, there was Christianity. Then, there was empirical science. That was when the foundation began to shake. But we would not believe it. Upon this shifting rock we stood, we could do no other. For if it should crumble, what would become of the moral edifice constructed thereon?

But you come to praise Christianity, not to bury it. And you come to assure us that we need not fear. For though the foundation should crumble, you offer us a new vision, a new lens through which we might look and see that the edifice, improbably, stands.

I applaud the valiance of your labors. I acknowledge the spirit of good will in which this offer is made, even as I must decline it. Still, as Pascal put it, you make good men wish Christianity were true. That is no small thing.

You say you are a religious man, but you are also a man of science. As such, you ask what many men like yourself have asked before you: How shall the twain meet? How could the assertion that man ascended from primordial slime be anything but brute fact, you wonder?

I realize you move in circles where the word “creationist” cannot be uttered unless it drips contempt in the uttering. I realize I cannot blame you for thinking that Ken Ham is all “creationists,” and all “creationists” are Ken Ham. When once a word has been stolen, perhaps it is too late to steal it back. But let us, for a moment, be precise in our speech: If by “creationist” we mean “one who willingly entertains the possibility of a Creator” (however long He took about the matter, for our purposes let us say it matters not) then you might be pleasantly surprised to meet a few real men of science who have pitched camp outside the echo chamber—men like David Berlinski, or Steve Meyer, or Douglas Axe. Perhaps you would discover some kindred spirits. Perhaps they know something you don’t know.

Meanwhile, we can begin at a closer point in space-time: the strange case of Jesus of Nazareth. On the fact of his existence, you once said there is “debate.” I suppose this is true, in the same sense that there is “debate” on the fact of the Holocaust. We have the man, all right. But what shall we do with him? And who do we say that he is?

You will recall that insistently mundane line in the middle of the creed, “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” The French doctor Paul Louis-Couchoud was known to say in snide fashion that “All the Creed is true, except under Pontius Pilate.” I must demur: While no line of the creed has lesser value, certainly none has greater.

Ecce homo. Who do you say that he is? You are an honest man, so you will tell me that you do not know. He is all we should be, and are not. He is the one to whom kings bow down in your dreams. Beyond this, who can say?

When he returned to Jerusalem after escaping from his enemies, knowing he was a marked man, they say you could have heard his doubting disciple rally the others in wry fashion: “Let us also go that we may die with him.” Let’s all pick up our crosses and walk up the God-damned hill then, for Christ’s sake.

And when the shepherd had returned to his scattered sheep, like that disciple you too could have protested when you heard it, not daring to hope, demanding the proof. They say you too could have seen it with your eyes, felt the spear wound with your hand. They say you too could have believed.

I challenge you to consider that the men who bore this record, this witness, were telling the truth—or at least, not lying. It may take three years, as you say. Perhaps that’s not so very long to an honest man, a man who likes a challenge. So seek on. Seek that place where the mind’s deepest understanding touches the heart’s deepest longing. Seek that place where faith and reason are parted no more, but walk hand in hand in the cool of the day.

Seek on. But understand what you are seeking. Once you have allowed the divine foot in the door, it is not so easy to bid the rest of the divine wait politely outside.

You ask, what do I mean by divine? And who am I to say you and the divine do not already have an understanding? True, you have no creed. But what good is a creed mouthed on Sunday and forgotten on Monday? What good is a word with no action suited to it? By this they will know you: That you live not by lies. That you keep your vows. That you rise and weep for the city, and when you have washed your face, you bear up under the heaviest load you can and journey on, a little farther up the hill.

Must Jesus bear the cross alone, and Jordan Peterson go free?

What more does God require? What more, indeed?

Only you can say what you mean by “God.” But I can tell you what I mean, and how I act: I act as if He loved me before the foundations of the world were laid. I act as if my sin has crucified Him. I act as if He loves me still.

Worship, for the only One worthy of it. Love, for Him and for that which He loves. Gratitude, manifested in obedience by word and deed. These things has my God required, who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven—infinite become finite, ineffable become empirical.

These things has He required, He who saw the crowd and saw five thousand lonely souls. He who looked at the rich man and loved him. He who told the Samaritan woman all she ever did. He who said to the paralyzed man, “Your sins are forgiven,” and to that same man, “Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.”

Which is easier to say? Which is easier to say?

He that has ears to hear, let him hear the One who called Lazarus from the grave. Let him hear the One who mourned with those who mourned.

And the Word was made flesh. And the Word laughed. And the Word wept.

I see a man who lost two brothers too young. I see him clinging to his wife as they ease the second brother down, crying openly, “Carl’s gone! He’s gone, and I don’t know where he went!”

Where has Carl gone? Where have the boys of summer gone?

I see a man who lost four daughters in the ocean. I see him crossing the Atlantic to fetch home his wife, saved alone. I see him standing on the deck, passing over the place where the ship went down, words rising in his mind: “And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,/The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;/The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,/Even so, it is well with my soul.”

I see a man in Hell, the Hell of his nightly dreams, where he is dragged down screaming by demons. I see him awake and clutching the pen that will preserve a lucid moment: “When this poor, lisping, stamm’ring tongue/Lies silent in the grave/Then in a nobler, sweeter song/I’ll sing Thy power to save.”

I see a woman who sees more than I, though she is blind and nearly deaf, her face ravaged by a cancerous sore. I see her sit in dark solitude for twenty-five years, her only company those tired of living and scared of dying. I hear a visitor ask her what she thinks about, and I hear a clear answer, from a clear mind: “I think about my Jesus. He’s been awfully good to me, you know.”

And Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”

There’s some utility in that.

Let us see one more shadow. Let us see the shy woman with a dog. You remember her, of course. Like one from whom men hide their face, she was despised, and they esteemed her not. You remember her: curvatus in se in body, but not in spirit. You weren’t the first person she had asked about whether she and her dog might take some wretched asylum inmate for a walk, beyond the gates of abandoned hope. You weren’t the right person to ask either. But you were all the same to her.

Perhaps there was something that whispered in your ear when you saw her, when you smelled her unwashed scent. Something or someone, taunting and tempting: “Look at her! Look at this woman who cannot look at you. What do you see?” Perhaps, from the depths of your immortal soul, you gave reply: “The image of Christ! What did you expect me to see?”

You remember her. You will never forget her. Neither will I.

At the end of your mourning, I wish for you a morning. I wish for you a sunrise fringed with fire, like the sunrise that broke upon an empty tomb, the grave clothes folded within, the woman weeping without. I wish for you the company of a strange gardener, with a strange accent, speaking a single, familiar word.

May you hear the Voice of this calling. May you feel the drawing of this Love, this Love that will not leave you, but prevents you everywhere.

The evening falls fast. Will you not stay?

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