Internet chatter about Jordan Peterson continues unabated. I was hoping to write a slow and leisurely commentary on the phenomenon of his appearance, but I’m not sure one has that luxury. So I am going to jump in a say what I find hopeful about his ideas and the response to those ideas, and then offer some critiques of the same. Afterward, I may take the time to unpack the different themes in his writing and lecturing, particularly in the ways in which his approach and startling insights can help those of us tasked with spreading the Gospel.
Et Incarnatus Est – The Prior’s Blog
Yesterday, I received an email from Jon Elfner, a friend of mine. The email read, in part:
A less-than-favorable review of Dr. Peterson’s recent book Twelve Rules for Life called it a “self-help book from a culture warrior.” Were this an accurate summary, I doubt that I would have finished chapter one, much less the entire book. This description is inaccurate in two ways, both of which expose the corrosive cultural narrative (one that, I think, the Right and Left hold, for the most part, in common) that distorts what Peterson is saying. Let me deal with the idea of a “culture war” first. I propose to do this by comparing Dr. Peterson to one of the West’s most influential authors whom you’ve (probably) never read, Peter Lombard. This comparison will illuminate the reasons why I consider Dr. Peterson’s appearance on the scene to be mainly a hopeful development.
Recently I gave a talk for Theology on Tap on the phenomenon of Jordan Peterson. Peterson is a clinical psychologist and University of Toronto professor. He recently published his second book, a kind of self-help book for millennials, especially millennial men. Hundreds of thousands of people watch his Bible study videos, in spite of the fact that he is not a typical believer. I found out about him through a Catholic friend about a year ago, and I immediately recognized his appeal to young men. Let me explain some of that in today’s blog post, which will be the first installment of an expanded version of my talk.
[The following is from the program notes from our last celebration of Solemn Vespers.]
The Sixth Sunday of Easter is not the flashiest of liturgical events. We’re a good ways out from the euphoria of Easter, but not quite at the Ascension yet. It seems like a good time to step back at think about the liturgy in general.
Poetry tills and harvests in the fields of metaphor.
When Shakespeare’s Romeo muses, “Juliet is the sun,” he is not making a statement that is literally true. But it is true. How so? Oddly enough, answering this question involves us in more metaphorical speech.
“With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus [Acts 4: 33].”
This power that the apostles had was the gift of the Holy Spirit. Just before the Ascension, our Lord instructed them, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses…to the end of the earth [Acts 1: 8].”
[The following is from the program notes for Solemn Vespers of Saturday, April 7.]
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead was more than a new event within the old, tired world, laboring under sin and death. In fact, it was the end of that world and the inauguration of a new creation. All who are baptized into Christ belong to this new creation, and our lives “are hidden with Christ in God.” As the first creation was made in six days, with God resting on the seventh, the new creation required a new day, the ‘eighth day’, a day outside of the closed cycle of the broken world.
One important symbol of this eighth day is the celebration of an ‘octave’. Each day between Easter Sunday and the Sunday following (now referred to as ‘Divine Mercy Sunday’) is part of the same Easter reality, each day a liturgical solemnity, the eight days of the new cosmos breaking into ‘secular’ time and renewing the old world from within.
Traces of the eighth day motif are already present in Saint John’s gospel. It is on the eighth day that Jesus appears and invites Thomas to touch his hands, feet and side, and Thomas comes to believe. Jesus then pronounces blessed all who believe without having seen, who put their faith in this hidden life in Christ.
In the present Roman calendar (of the ‘ordinary form’), only two official octaves remain, those of Christmas and Easter. In the medieval calendar, virtually all major feasts had ‘octaval’ commemorations at the very least. The liturgical reformers around the time of the Second Vatican Council considered these to be cumbersome complications. Perhaps this was so in some cases. It also may be that the traditional language of the eighth day had fallen into desuetude, perhaps as part of the overall weakening of an eschatological theology (a theology of the ‘last things’, as both present and yet to come). The Orthodox churches have tended to retain a robust sense of the octave as theologically central. In the center icon of Christ in glory behind the altar in the monastery church, one sees two interlocking stars of four points each. The combined eight points indicate that Christ’s coming, both now at every liturgy, and fully revealed at the summation of history, happens on the eighth day. As we celebrate the eighth day of Easter, we are overjoyed to join with you to praise God for the victory of His Son and the gift of new life in the Spirit.
One of the implications of a “new creation” is that God’s manifest beauty is, in the memorable words of Saint Augustine, “ever ancient, ever new.” Kevin and I have frequently discussed together the importance of the creation of new liturgical music that reflects the perennial confidence and vigor of the Catholic faith. After making a few attempts to realize a collaborative Renaissance English setting of tonight’s troparion on Psalm 115, we decided that this would be a perfect text for our own collaboration. We took turns setting the verses meant for the Schola as part of an effort to forge a shared style. We hope that all profit from our labors as we meditate upon and celebrate our own Exodus from the world to the Kingdom of God.
Christ is truly risen!
[The following is from the program notes for Solemn Vespers of Saturday, March 3.]
According to St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism and co-patron of Europe, every day in a monk’s life should be as if in Lent. I like to think that this is because every tomorrow for a monk is the Resurrection. We rise early every morning in the hope of Christ’s glorious return, and learn to live in this taut expectation.
The Church’s liturgy offers us a similar perspective, this time on the life of all the faithful. We might say that there are indications that the lives of Christians during Lent should be more ‘monastic’. One interesting indication has to do with the place of the Psalms in the Church’s liturgy for Lent. This can be best seen by looking at the Church’s Divine Office antiphons during Advent and comparing them to Lent.
The antiphons for Sundays in Advent tend to be somewhat free paraphrases of texts from Isaiah and other prophets. This allows for an enjoyable re-interpretation of the typical Psalms sung on Saturday and Sunday evenings and on Sunday morning (Pss. 144b-147, Pss. 109-112, and Pss. 50, 62, 117, and 148-150 respectively). The antiphons color the meaning of the Psalms and encourage us to pray imaginatively.
During Lent, the situation is a bit more plain and even, we might say, ‘chaste’. Now the antiphons for Sunday are taken from the Lauds Psalms and so highlight the Psalm texts themselves, unadorned with the prophetic sense of expectation. Traditionally, the Psalms are to be prayed with the voice of Christ, and in this fashion, we are drawn repeatedly to contemplate the Passion of Christ, His appeal to the Father in ‘reverence [Hebrews 5: 7]’, and His triumph in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, contrary to what we might expect, we are called not so much to a focus on repentance that might become self-involved; rather we are invited to contemplate the One Who walks with us this path to redemption.
We note a similar phenomenon in the liturgy of the Mass. The texts of the communion chants for each weekday of Lent are taken from consecutive Psalms, beginning quite deliberately with Psalm 1. That is to say that Psalm 1 appears as the communion on Ash Wednesday, Psalm 2 on the following Thursday, and so on. This intense focus on the Psalms is quite ‘monastic’, as any monk would be quick to point out. The 150 Psalms shape everything we do at prayer in community, and much of how we think even in private.
The focus on the Person of Christ comports well with the traditional gospels for each Sunday (preserved as the selections for ‘Year A’ in the current lectionary cycle). The First Sunday retells Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, the Second Sunday brings us the foretaste of Christ’s glorification in the story of His Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. And on this third Sunday, we find Him promising the Holy Spirit to the woman at the well.
These indications within the liturgy are a good reminder that the austere life of the monk is not at all meant to be joyless, but provides precisely the atmosphere in which the believer can better assent to the fullness of the Good News of our salvation and sanctification. Lenten fasting and abstinence is far more than a means simply to address deficiencies in our moral characters; they form the context in which we conform ourselves to Christ’s self-emptying [Philippians 2:6-11], so as to receive with greater intensity the indwelling of the divine life given at our baptisms. This we long for as we make our way toward the renewal of our baptisms at the Easter Vigil and on Easter Sunday, the foretaste of our own resurrections in Jesus Christ.
[The following is from the program notes for Solemn Vespers of Friday, February 2.]
The Feast of the Presentation is one so expansively rich, it is not easy to know where to begin a short reflection such as this. At the center of the many images surrounding our Lord’s first visit to the temple in the flesh is the temple itself, and a bit of scriptural archaeology perhaps can unearth certain foundations for us. The temple is the meeting place between God and man, but—importantly, if uncomfortably—it is also the place of sacrifice.
Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple in obedience to a commandment found in the book of Exodus: “The first-born of your sons you shall give to me [Ex. 22: 29]. As Jewish scholar Jon D. Levenson has conclusively demonstrated, this would have been understand by ancient peoples as requiring human sacrifice. However, we know from plentiful other commandments of the Lord that, unlike the bloodthirsty gods of neighboring peoples, God in fact abhors human sacrifice. Much as he asks a last-minute replacement for Isaac, just as Abraham raises the knife to slaughter his son, in Exodus, God also provides a ’redemption’ for the first-born sons of the Israelites. Parents are not only permitted, but required to “buy back” from God the little child with an animal sacrifice, a substitute for the real thing.
So far, so good; but what perhaps is still a bit unsettling is the whole idea of the ritual sacrifice of a child in the first place. The word “sacrifice” is derived from a Latin compound using “sacer” and “facio,” and it means to “make holy.” The sacrifice of any item is meant to translate the object from the profane realm into the realm of the holy. This was typically done by slaughtering an animal and burning the portion meant for God. In the case of human sacrifice, the people who practiced this (and we know that it was a constant temptation for Israel as well) understood themselves to be giving the person to God, as a servant. It was the greatest gift one could make. The prophet Micah, speaking on behalf of the people who had sinned against God, asks what a fitting gift would be to reconcile with God, as a sign of heart-felt repentance. The prophet asks rhetorically, “With what shall I come before the Lord?…will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? [Micah 6: 6a, 7]” After this rhetorical question, in which the gift of the son comes last in a series, demonstrating that it is the highest gift Micah’s hearers can imagine, Micah makes a stunning statement, dulled to our ears by out-of-context repetition. What is the great gift? “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justive, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God [v. 8]?”
So God, as a good teacher, honors the good intention behind the wrongful action, and directs, but the laws of redemption, a practice initially pagan, driven in no small part by fear and superstition, toward the liberating and enlightened truths of revelation. This change of perspective is, already in the Old Testament, a foreshadowing the great enlightenment that Jesus Christ was to bring. And He brings this light not only to the chosen people of Israel, but to all peoples. Sacrifices of all kinds, as well as substitute political rituals like public executions (including crucifixion) have slowly been disappearing ever since the Christ appeared in the flesh as the one, true sacrifice, the one fitting offering that we can make to God.
Now, to acknowledge that we are still impelled to offer something when we come before the Lord is to acknowledge that in order to fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament and to reveal sacrifice for what it is, Jesus had to assume our mortal flesh and submit to death. In this statement we see how today’s feast points in two directions, forming a hinge between Christmas and Easter: in order to make the one sacrifice to end all sacrifice, Christ needed to become man. As the letter to the Hebrews says it, “Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body you have prepared for me. [10: 5].” But Christ also needed to be offered, and today in the temple, the offering of our human nature upon the Cross is foreshadowed in the mysterious fulfillment of the law. God and man are reconciled by the supreme gift of Christ’s human nature to the Father, and His divine nature to us.
May our gratitude for this overwhelming gift cheer our hearts in these dark and cold days of February, and spur us to a fervent celebration of Lent, that we may again proclaim the Light of Christ at the Easter Vigil.