Christian writer Gavin Ashenden was one of a group of nine people who was invited to meet Jordan Peterson in Cambridge earlier this month
Meeting Jordan Peterson for the first time in the flesh was a moving and invigorating experience.
He was taller than I expected. His skin was the shade of someone who had been really quite ill, and he had an intense and purposeful energy about him.
Having seen him weep with empathic compassion as he retold stories of redemption from his clients and followers, and having seen him bear the heavy weight of being catastrophically ill, I expected more vulnerability.
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But he had arrived in Cambridge for this day-long private seminar, in full existential armour; tough, seasoned, fully informed and very sharp. He was very well protected, not only intellectually, but existentially. He had come through the vale of the shadow of sickness and vulnerability, and was back out the other side.
I was hoping to talk to him about the faith, and in a careful and delicate way, there were moments during the day when we did. But I was already aware that his wife, who had been at death’s door with cancer, attributes the recovery of her health to a miracle and has begun to pray the Rosary every day. “It helped her maintain peace while she was facing death,” Peterson explained to Bishop Barron in a Youtube conversation he made public.
If Peterson was going to succumb to what the poet Francis Thompson called ‘the Hound of Heaven’, it was more likely to be through the trusted influence of his wife and daughter than a stranger.
Surprisingly (or perhaps not) at the same time Michaela Peterson, his daughter, has had an evangelical encounter with God which she too has talked about in a recent podcast on Youtube:
“I found God, which I hadn’t before. I’m pretty new at this and what I have been doing since a month ago is reading the Bible and praying, in a way that I guess is more like Protestant probably. The amount of peace I had, I had not had before. It’s absurd, I can’t believe it.”
Peterson himself continues as a Jungian agnostic.
In the day-long seminar, to which nine academics had been invited, he interrogated the atheistic materialism of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and the claims of Foucauld’s legacy of post-modernism.
In the evening he spoke at the Cambridge Union and confronted the cultural and intellectual onslaught from the Left that contained so much nihilism, despair and control at its centre.
The main significance of his appearance in Cambridge was that it was cancelling his cancellation.
In 2019, Peterson had been offered a fellowship. He was photographed standing next to an admirer with execrable taste in T-shirts, and the woke in Cambridge agitated hysterically for his cancellation by virtue of guilt by association, and to the alarm of all supporters of free speech, they succeeded.
In the morning discussions Peterson offered an analysis: “the same malaise, in some sense, affects the West everywhere.”
“There are local differences, but … the issues have become globalised in some sense. And I do think that a fair bit of this has to do with the post-modern conundrum. It has created a problem of perception. We don’t know how we reduce the infinite number of things we could perceive to those things that we do perceive.”
Science provided a description of the terrain we were faced with; post-modernism reduced everything to either nihilism or ‘will to power’, but what was needed were “maps of and for meaning”.
Three of the nine academics were agnostics and the other six were orthodox Christians. Much of the discussion came back frequently to a sifting of the arguments between relativism and absolutism. Was humanity capable of realizing the full human and social potential on its own through intelligence and effort? Or did the Biblical texts constitute a breaking in of an objective deity communicating absolute values who offered to save us? Was Jesus archetype alone, or archetype and saviour?
In brief this was the struggle between Jung’s idealizing the Self (as a form of unrealized divinity) and classical Christianity which holds that the Self is divinely imaged by gift, but is fatally flawed and needs rescuing.
Peterson looks at Jesus through the eyes of Carl Gustav Jung and concludes with Pelagius that humanity can better itself if it tries more conscientiously and intelligently.
In the evening Peterson’s speech acted as a form of mass group therapy from a skillful agony uncle. His audience was eager, hungry and expectant as he explored the weight of individual meaninglessness.
“Meaning,” he promised, “is the antidote to suffering. The question is: where is it to be found? You have to look in your own life and see where meaning glimmers.”
The pain of this existential question that so many people, including many of Peterson’s clients wrestle with, is a perennial aspect of the human task. So many of his clients, as well as many in the audience, experienced emotional and often physical suffering, robbing them of a sense of the worth in their everyday deeds and actions. They sunk into a deep state where ‘in the greater scheme of things’, all their ‘earthly’ tasks were perceived by them to be futile and unworthy of the slightest effort – but they are wrong.
“If you are adopting a timeframe that makes what you are doing appear trivial,” explained Peterson, “the problem isn’t necessarily what you are doing … the problem is that your mind has picked a timeframe inappropriate for the task,” with a passing nod towards climate apocalypticism.
He returned often to two of his core values – “tell the truth and value freedom”. He insisted that truth is more powerful than deceit and that love is more powerful than hate – “by a large margin”.
“It is possible for us to rise above the resentment of our suffering, and extend a hand to our enemies – truth is the handmaiden of love”, and “that is something everyone can practise at every moment”. Do your best to not lie and “see what happens”, he concluded, adding that “what happens are wonderful things”.
During our private conversation earlier in the day, I asked him how his own theological map of existential suffering had functioned. We had been discussing in the seminar what the best meta narrative might be. He had posited that it was the battle of good and evil set within the framework of chaos and order. He had experienced darkness and despair during his illness and period of pain. I asked him if his understanding of shadow and evil had developed during this time.
I suggested that Jung’s concept of the shadow was his weakest point, and masked the objective reality of evil, in particular as St John narrated it.
We discussed why I had retreated from full blown Jungianism back – or forward – into orthodox Christianity. But experiences of the demonic were off his map of meaning at this point. “That’s where it gets too Manichean for me,” he said.
I have been in the game long enough to recognise that ‘Manichean’ is a code word for ‘I am uncomfortable discussing the reality of evil even in a Johannine context’, and we talked about Auschwitz instead.
Peterson said he had spent a long time wondering who it was that commissioned the black joke “Arbeit Macht Frei” above the camp gate. “What would they have to be like as a human being to make the blackest of jokes at Auschwitz, that blackest of places?”
If you can understand that you might manage to conceive the opposite.
Indeed, we suddenly found ourselves in agreement that a grasp of the scope and identity of evil might be the key to understanding the permissive will that unveiled the loving heart of a Father who loved the world so much that He sent His son to bear our sins.
And in that lies the difference between our maps. An archetype can heal the fracture that lies between conscious and unconscious, but only a saviour can bear sins on our behalf and take the moral burden of our flaws and failures from our backs.
One question the Peterson phenomenon poses to the Christian community that presses hard as so many churches sit empty in the face of a society whose maps hold no meaning is: how is it that an agnostic psychologist with a penchant for Pelagianism can hold the attention of the young in their scores of thousands, so that you can hear a pin drop as he explores the psychological depths and authenticity of the books of Genesis and Exodus, and yet the clergy cannot?
He suggests that it’s because he finds the texts compellingly true existentially, because they do indeed constitute such excellent maps of psychological meaning.
The question that is left hanging in the air is whether the clergy understand their spiritual validity as clearly as he understands their psychological authority.