Last night, along with a few online friends, I watched this debate on the meaning of life between William Lane Craig, Rebecca Goldstein, and Jordan Peterson, hosted by Wycliffe College. While watching it, and reflecting upon Peterson’s work more generally (about which I’ve written in the past), I was struck by some of the lessons that preachers can learn from Peterson. Several of the people I was watching with gave thoughts of their own, some of which I have incorporated into this post.
1. People are longing to hear true and weighty words. Peterson is someone who takes truth extremely seriously, treating it as a matter of the deepest existential significance. Telling lies will lead you to perdition. He first came to international attention through his resistance to Canada’s Bill C-16 and his opposition to compelled speech in relation to the pronouns used for transgender persons. What animated Peterson on this issue was not opposition to some supposed transgender agenda so much as the more general principle of truthful and uncoerced speech.
Listening to Peterson speak (the video above being an example), one of the most striking things to observe is how carefully he weighs his words, the way he manifests his core conviction that words matter and that the truth matters. People hang on his words, because they know that he is committed to telling the truth and to speaking words by which a person can live and die. The existential horizons of life and death are foregrounded when someone speaks in such a manner.
We live in a society that is cluttered with airy words, with glib evasions, with facile answers, with bullshitting, with self-serving lies, with obliging falsehoods, and with dishonest and careless construals of the world that merely serve to further our partisan agendas (‘truth’ merely becoming something that allows us to ‘destroy’ or ‘wipe the floor with’ our opponents in the culture). In such a context, a man committed to and burdened with the weight of truth and who speaks accordingly will grab people’s attention.
Christian pastors should be renowned for such truth-telling, for their commitment to speaking as if their words really mattered and for the courage to say what needs to be said, even when it is unpopular. This requires taking great care over one’s words. Weighty words are harder to speak. It also requires refusing to speak on many issues. When you weigh your words more carefully, you realize that you do not have weighty words to speak on many matters. The more easily you are drawn into unconsidered or careless speech (social media affording many traps here), the less value people will put on your words. The more seriously you take the truth, the more cautious you will be in your speech.
Even when Christians do speak the truth, we so often speak it glibly and lightly, as those who aren’t putting weight on our words. We have polished answers to objections, platitudinous counsel, and tidy theological frameworks, but possess no gravitas because our hearers regard our words as little more than a showy yet hollow façade. Declarations of the profoundest doctrines trip off our lips as if they weighed nothing at all. We can become more exercised about a recent piece of pop culture than about Christian truths by which we can live and die. Our speech is superficial and shallow, conveying no recognition of the seriousness of handling the truths of God and our responsibility for the lives of our hearers. Much of what Peterson is saying is not new at all, but is familiar to anyone who has been around for a while. The difference is that Peterson is declaring these things as if they really mattered, as if in his speech he is actually reckoning with reality in all of its power, scariness, and danger. This wakes people up.
2. People need to hear voices of authority. As I argued in a recent post, when someone speaks with authority, people sit up and pay attention. Our society has tended to shrink back from authoritative words, as such words threaten people’s autonomy (‘who am I to tell you what to do, man?’). Speaking authoritatively seems to shame, judge, and make claims upon people, all of which are anathema to contemporary individualistic society. However, carefully spoken words of authority can be life-giving. They can give direction and meaning to people who are lost, hope to those in despair, light to those in darkness, and clarity to those in doubt. People desperately need to hear wise and loving words of authority from people who know what they are talking about, rather than being left without authority or harangued by leaders without the depth of character to speak the words they utter.
Peterson is, for a great many young men in particular, the father they never had. He is someone prepared to speak into their situation with a compassionate authority. His authority is not an attempt to control them or to secure his own power over them, but functions to direct them towards life. He isn’t wagging his finger at them, but is helping lost young people to find their way. People instinctively respond to such authority. Such a fatherly authority is rare in our society, but many people are longing for it. This is the sort of authority that pastors can exemplify and by which they can give life and health to the lives committed to their care.
3. People need both compassion and firmness. It is striking how, almost every time that Peterson starts talking about the struggles of young men, he tears up. This recent radio interview is a great example:
Peterson’s deep concern for the well-being of young men is transparently obvious. Where hardly anyone else seems to care for them, and they are constantly pathologized and stifled by the ascendant orthodoxies of the culture, Peterson is drawn out in compassion towards them. He observes that such young men in particular have been starved of compassion, encouragement, and support. There is a hunger there that the Church should be addressing.
However, Peterson’s compassion is not the flaccid empathy that pervades in our culture. He does not render young men a new victimhood class, feeding them a narrative of rights and ressentiment. Rather, he seeks to encourage struggling young people—to give them courage. He tells them that their effort matters; their rising to their full stature is something that the world needs. He helps them to establish their own agency and to find meaning in their labour.
People notice when others care about them and respond to them. However, far too often our empathy has left people weak and has allowed the weakness and dysfunctionality of wounded and stunted people to set the terms for the rest of society. Peterson represents a different approach: the compassionate authority of mature and wise persons can shepherd weak and lost persons towards strength, healthy selfhood, and meaning. Pastors can learn much from this.
4. People are inspired by courage and a genuine openness to reality. Peterson exemplifies existential struggling with and openness to a real and weighty reality. By contrast, cowardice, acedia, a shrinking back from reality into the safety and comfort of our ideological cocoons, and a preoccupation with shallow theoretical games are largely characteristic of the existential posture of both the society and our churches. You won’t have real experience without courage and openness to a real reality, yet so much of our lives involve childish squabbling and ironic posturing about a reality in which we have little deep personal investment.
Pastors need to display such courage and openness to reality, as these traits beget the experience that will give their words weight. The example of such a pastor will also lead people into true life, rather than just sealing them off from struggling with suffering, sin, questions, and reality more generally. If you lack courage and openness to reality, your teaching will often also serve to close people off from reality, to dull their questioning, to soundproof their lives against the voices that might challenge or unsettle them, to rationalize and facilitate their shrinking from the world. Too many pastors are concerned to reinforce a pen in which they secure their flocks, rather than to protect and minister to them as they undertake their perilous pilgrimage through the vale of shadow.
We should also consider the relationship between preachers and congregations here too. We often lack manly and courageous preachers because we ourselves are so cowardly. We don’t want to be unsettled and challenged. We want messages that are reassuring, comforting, pleasing, and convenient, rather than messages that call us to action, effort, responsibility, or present us with difficulty. There are many with a hunger for courageous engagement with reality and truth and a disgust with people who shrink back from it into palliating falsehoods. Unfortunately, when they look at the Church, they mostly see the latter.
5. Being a student of human nature matters. Peterson stands out from many scholars in the humanities and social sciences because he is attentive to people. Far too much scholarship in the humanities and social sciences treats human beings primarily as conceptual constructs or as lab rats. Particularly in the social sciences, one witnesses an over-reliance upon scientific methods for understanding and measuring human beings. However, Peterson reveals that there is no substitute for understanding human natureand that, in attempting to understand human nature, there is no substitute for paying close attention to many people. Much social science attempts to understand human nature as if from without, while a wise student of human nature will exhibit a knowledge of human nature from within.
Something that makes Peterson stand out from many of his critics is that Peterson has countless hours of attentive listening to and engagement with clients in practice and is expert at noticing. Through such clinical engagement, Peterson has been attentive to human nature as it functions from within. He has learned much about what makes human beings tick, how they find meaning, how things can go wrong in their lives, and how people can be restored to well-being. As a practitioner, he notices things that reigning ideologies train us not to notice, not least the differences between the ways that men and women tick. As an attentive student of human nature and experience, Peterson is well able to speak into people’s experience with a wisdom, insight, and authority that those who merely devote themselves to books, theories, and experiments lack.
Once again, pastors have much to learn from this. Many pastors are narrowly focused upon Scripture and theology. However, the pastor is responsible for human lives and he must be a diligent student of them. Pastoral visitation and counselling is not only an important part of a pastor’s general duty, but is also a necessary part of his preparation for preaching. In approaching such visitation and counselling, the pastor shouldn’t merely be concerned to dispense his wisdom and advice, but must also be concerned to grow in his own knowledge, to learn new lessons for himself. As pastors devote themselves to learning about human nature and experience, they will be better able to speak powerfully and truthfully into it. The opportunity and responsibility to learn from close and sustained attention to human nature and experience are afforded to a pastor to a rare degree. If a pastor will dedicate himself to this, he will become much more effective and powerful in his teaching.
6. A compelling presentation of truth is enough to get people’s attention. Peterson doesn’t speak as an entertainer. He doesn’t use flashy audio-visuals. He isn’t relentlessly up-beat. He doesn’t give people a comfortable and affirming message. He isn’t young and hip. He often speaks at great length and makes heavy demands upon his listeners’ attention spans. He tells people about their responsibilities, and downplays messages about their rights. He says a lot of things that challenge and discomfort his audiences. And yet people still flock to hear him and have their lives turned around by what he has to say.
Many contemporary churches have carefully diluted the Christian message to make it more palatable to prevailing cultural tastes. Pastors speak like entertainers, salesmen, and self-help gurus. Yet Peterson is a self-help teacher who speaks like a preacher! There is a great deal more actual engagement with Scripture in many Peterson lectures than there is in the average Joel Osteen sermon. Even though he is far from an orthodox Christian, Peterson’s lectures are full of references to Christ, to God, to hell, to evil, to redemption, and to other themes that display the power of the Christian message to illuminate the meaningfulness of the world. Peterson speaks with a genuine urgency and passionate intensity, displaying his conviction that the lives of his audiences depend upon his presentation of the truth.
In this Peterson provides a salutary reminder to the Church that preaching need not be considered a dying medium. Done well, preaching can speak into people’s lives with a force that few other forms of speech can achieve. Yet in seeking to recover the importance of preaching, preachers could also learn much from Peterson’s attention to humanity, his compassion, his gravitas, his concern for truth, his care over his words, his courage, and his authority. If Peterson can so powerfully resonate with certain fragments of Christian truth, how powerfully could a full-bodied presentation of Christian truth speak into the disorientation of contemporary society?
Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham) is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged. This post was originally posted on his blog.