Jordan Peterson Speaks of God - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Jordan Peterson Speaks of God

In his past few podcasts, Jordan Peterson has picked up with greater vigor a theme that has been increasingly among his favorites: the inescapable role of God in life and meaning.

This would not be so noteworthy were Peterson a cleric of some sort. Preachers of every stripe and style regularly speak to their congregants or students, and it usually doesn’t interest anyone beyond a parochial group.

Peterson, however, is a public intellectual. His main field of study was not theology but psychology, which he taught at Harvard University and the University of Toronto. He has become a master of long-form dialogues with a variety of thinkers.

On YouTube and podcasts, as well as before live audiences, he can be seen and heard engaging deeply with religious leaders such as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Jonathan Pageau, missionary atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, scientists like Nobel laureate physicist Roger Penrose, politicians of various stripes, free-speech advocates in academia, actors, artists, and more.

His thought emerges with a clarity and power that compels the listener to think again about any topic he raises.

He requires a lot of himself and others. His dialogues are a verbal equivalent to the improvisatory music performed by Charlie Parker or the Grateful Dead — it is unscripted and without a net. The risk involved filters out cliches and brings a taut excitement to the exchanges, which usually extend for 90 minutes or so. The listener hears the process of honest thought as it develops through active give and take, a model oh so rare in this age of heads that talk but don’t listen.

When Peterson takes up the subject of God, it is with the same sense of vibrance. He speaks from psychological knowledge gained from his extensive study and years of clinical practice. His vision is also honed by his passionate reading of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche; he does not duck the challenge posed so sharply by these thinkers. Another major influence on his thought stems from his immersion in the study of totalitarianism and, in particular, the searing moral criticism of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

From these wide interests and his willingness to engage with people who think differently than he does, his thought emerges with a clarity and power that compels the listener to think again about any topic he raises.

When it comes to talk about God, this is emphatically true. Through his able guidance, one sees afresh the idea of a universal hierarchy rather than seeing it as some dusty idea of a more ignorant time. This is our response when we are made aware of the limits of our ability to pay attention.

As infants, our full attention is required in order to master the rudiments of life. As we grow, those basics become routinized, seen quickly as a whole and able to run on their own. This is seen in the task of talking, for instance. We cannot remember how we first learned to make the sounds that opened up communication, but we do see how, as we master our language better and better, the smaller tasks are subsumed under the larger and deeper task of communicating ever more meaningfully.

In like manner, in every aspect of life, we see patterns that allow us to grasp things more quickly. This opens the possibility of using our consciousness to focus more deeply in order to bring our lives, families, and world into a state of greater and greater coherence.

Under everything is the miracle of consciousness. It is over all, integrating every aspect of existence, life, and knowledge; it is the majesty of the One.

What is deepest of all is that which makes all the other processes possible. It is what is present in all of them but not exhausted by any of them. It is fundamentally meaningful not simply as a proposition or formula to be proven or disproven, but as the condition that makes such proof or disproof possible and important.

This is, in short form, a key way that Peterson speaks of God.

God does not figure in his conversation as a theorem to be defended, nor does he treat those who disagree with him as heretics. In Peterson’s dialogues, there is the bracing feeling that one is dealing with reality, not abstractions or special pleading. He tests his own thought as he tests the thought of his guest and his listeners, constantly seeking greater depth, a larger synthesis, and a more responsive articulation.

It is exciting to listen to and it is as welcoming as it is challenging. The dialogue pulls us to join the dance and gives us the chance to engage because the adventure is worth the risk. And what an adventure — to find that the force that brings coherence to the universe is exactly that which is at work when we are doing our best thinking, talking, and acting.

I did my doctoral work in medieval Jewish philosophy. I admire the orderly world that appears in the works of the great thinkers of that time. Whether one reads Maimonides, Aquinas, or Averroes, one sees the structure of a great cathedral, a stable and far-reaching vision that orders within it every aspect of knowledge and experience as much as any human structure.

Under everything is the miracle of consciousness. It is over all, integrating every aspect of existence, life, and knowledge; it is the majesty of the One.

In the language of Maimonides, “The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of all knowledge is to know that there is a First Existent, who brings all existents into being.”

The medieval mindset proved less permanent than the great houses of worship of that age. A century of religious warfare in Western Europe was followed by the rapid growth of science and philosophy that no longer was integrated into the structure of organized religion. Spinoza, Voltaire, Hume, and others assaulted the truth claims of religions while establishing the credibility of their own skeptical way of looking at things.

Auguste Comte formulated the end of this particular trend: “Religion is an illusion of childhood, outgrown under proper education.” It’s a small step from there to Marx’s “Religion is the opiate of the people.” And by a series of small steps, as wokeism has made abundantly clear, this mindset has become powerful, if not dominant, in education and the Western intellect.

But Peterson is passionately convinced by his clinical work and the response to his lecturing that the ascendance of this mindset has had catastrophic human consequences.

This mindset closes down human thought by shutting down the exchange of ideas. This is because the underlying belief of atheism is that there is no meaning in the universe, and, therefore, one must enforce an artificial order, as that is the only kind possible. Totalitarianism inevitably results because there is no internal reason to put any limit on one’s power.

Religion is meant to touch all with the reality of the Supreme Existence that is more mysterious and transcendent than our deepest abstraction.

But the presence of the Deepest requires us at every level and in every situation to temper every assertion of power with a sense of responsibility to the truth that is the source of our power. This results in listening to others and in making ourselves members of a community that can pool its thoughts and its consciousness.

A living culture results that calls on us to listen and grow. That culture provides living examples of how listening makes it possible for us to be listened to. It shows how we ourselves gravitate toward those who nurture listening and realization in ourselves, and we aspire to give to others as we have been given to.

If only a spark or two of Peterson’s energy is transmitted through these few words, it will be worthwhile. His work is essential. Religion is meant to touch all with the reality of the Supreme Existence that is at once more mysterious and transcendent than our deepest abstraction, simultaneously as familiar as the core of our own self, and as devoutly desired as the most profound love we have ever felt or wished for.

This should be what we all talk about. Peterson shows us a way to translate the “should be” into what is. He’s worth listening to and worth emulating.

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