Jordan Peterson is one of the most overexposed public intellectuals of our time; his thought is paradoxically both articulate and yet also incredibly vague, if not pedantic. And, as with many public intellectuals, he has made the mistake of assuming that he is an expert on everything. Finding Peterson, the Canadian academic psychologist, making media appearances on the geopolitics of the Russian confrontation with Ukraine is a case in point.
Still, Peterson’s longevity demonstrates that this is the very source of his success. While it can be hard to nail down Peterson, to really determine what you took away from the experience of listening to him, many on the Christian right are eager to vibe with his big-brain energy. His works provides, at least, quasi-intellectual moorings to a wide range of small-c conservative predispositions and policy goals. This is especially the case for younger conservative men who, starved of meaning and direction in liberal homogeneity, find vindication is slaying the woke dragon.
This makes Peterson’s specific relationship with Christianity particularly interesting, drawing attention to the unsustainable relationship that the Right has with matters of religion. Peterson, for example, has confronted many of the religion’s major figures, including the Holy Father himself. Pope Francis’ Twitter account (in typical form) expressed a call for Christians to engage with “social justice,” identified here to mean fights against poverty, inequality, the denial of labor rights, and the “culture that leads to taking away the dignity of others.” Peterson’s response was to deny the social relevance of Christianity, suggesting that “There is nothing Christian about #SocialJustice. Redemptive salvation is a matter of the individual soul”
Perhaps with the exception of some particularly apocalyptic form of hyper-Calvinism, Peterson is very clearly wrong. This can be demonstrated both historically and theologically, the case for which does not need to be made here. We can appeal to, for example, Sohrab Ahmari’s recent review for First Things of the way that a fixation on God’s redemptive action in the world, including the full social, economic, and political implications of that process, has always been a central part of the Christian tradition.
Instead, what matters here is the reason why he is wrong, and what this indicates about the current state of things among Conservatives. Peterson and Christianity’s relationship has thus far been an unclear one. While Peterson’s own faith is a mystery, the fact is that his work is consistent with popular forms of Christianity on a trivial level. He has engaged in several forms of bible commentary, disparaged atheistic nihilism, and pointed to the value of social tradition. 12 Rules for Life is the book of choice for local Conservative Christian pseudo-intellectuals — for every church has one.
Yet, the Pope Francis episode has made it clear the place Christianity has in his cultural matrix. The religion is really just an aesthetic garb, a base of textual, artistic, and behavioral evidence by which Peterson can articulate his real interests: the face of much deeper, and increasingly abstract, symbolic forms, or as a site of rhetorical contention with which to score political points against the woke moralists. It is employed, to put it another way, in the service of much more short-term goals.
And here Peterson reveals a deeper pattern amongst the contemporary Right. The rise of the trads, a reaction to the alleged religious neutrality of the neocons, continues to take shape. Their common insistence, of course, is that politics is about culture and that culture is about religion. They have not only contested the status quo through a RETURVN to “traditionally Christian” ways of life — marriage, family, masculinity, rootedness — but argue that this, to some extent, should factor into the Right’s political objectives. But, for many, this is nothing more than a desirable aesthetic rooted in a deeply reactive form of politics, defined by what it is against. It does not challenge, as much as it continues to entrench, contemporary problems of atomized individualism, spectacle, and nostalgia. Christianity, in this context, is not actually real nor is it personally convicting — it is only signs reflecting signs.
Rival intellectual currents throughout the Right have long recognized this, noting the ways in which such an orientation, developed with short-term goals in mind, will only keep current, trivial forms of political divisions — those very same ones our parents fought over — in place: those who want “progress,” and those who want things to stay the same. If we want to make an impact, to really change the neoliberal status quo, the right needs to go deeper: to uncover the real truths about who the human person is, where they came from, and where they are going. Our relationship to Christianity is therefore black and white or, to put more precisely, contingent on a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. We either take the revealed and totalizing nature of Christianity as our starting point or, alternatively, forge ahead into uncharted cultural and intellectual waters.
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