Christian Stephens: Ask more, not less of those who seek the face of God

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Canada’s best intellectual export? Jordan Peterson, the man people either love or hate. Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Canada’s best intellectual export? Jordan Peterson, the man people either love or hate. Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

By Christian Stephens

When Jesus fed the 4000 in the desert, Matthew recounts how the Pharisees and Sadducees came asking for a sign from heaven. The irony cannot be lost on the reader: Jesus hadn’t stopped performing signs, but his questioners weren’t looking. They didn’t like where the miracles were taking place. They wanted miracles on their own terms and conditions. In response, Jesus pointed out their inability to read “the signs of the times.”

Sadly, over the past few years, in the design, lead up and execution of the Plenary Council, we’ve seen a similar problem unfold. For some reason, it was decided that it would be effective to convince everyone, regardless of their spiritual, intellectual or moral condition, that they have some unique prophetic insight that will save the Church and tell us how to move forward.

The scene was set for “Signs of the Times Inc.” to step in and try to save the Church from herself. According to this group, militant secularism, family breakdown, unprecedented rates of religious illiteracy and disaffiliation, and a tidal wave of propaganda endorsing sexual dysfunction would be overcome by promoting aboriginal spirituality, mandating the third-rite of reconciliation, and creating as many oversight bodies and forums as possible, to be staffed by as many women as possible. After years of promotion to the people in the pews, the Council ended up coming and going, with virtually nothing of any interest or inspiration to those engaged in their daily battle seeking to carry their crosses.

“We live in a culture of soft nihilism and post-modernism. It is ‘anti-truth’: at its heart is … something constructed with a conscious opposition to our philosophical and theological heritage.”

But here’s a point of comparison. Just a week or two back, Professor Jordan Peterson released a video he entitled, ‘A message to the Christian Churches.’ Within 24 hours it had 650,000 views. 54,000 people had ‘liked’ the clip. To ‘like’ a clip is a key metric in social media success. In the same period it garnered 10,000 comments from around the world. The comments are filled with personal testimonies by laity and clergy alike, non-believers going to Church for the first time, and believers waking up from periods of lukewarmness. After reading comments for an hour, I encountered none that were negative. What was Peterson, a non-Catholic, saying to people that resonated so strongly?

Peterson’s key points are simple to summarise:

We live in a culture of soft nihilism and post-modernism. It is ‘anti-truth’: at its heart is not an innocent error in calculation, but rather something constructed with a conscious opposition to our philosophical and theological heritage.

There is an attempt in our culture to both create and/or weaponise guilt in people for being inheritors of western civilisation, and in particular Christianity.

Young men are not mere apes, there to be tamed and sterilised so as to be made co-operative and predictable. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Young men are not mere apes, there to be tamed and sterilised so as to be made co-operative and predictable. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Young men in particular are the targets of such propaganda, and are most disdained by its proponents. They are seen as people to be tamed and sterilised so as to be made co-operative and predictable. (If you think this is untrue, ask members of “Signs of the Times Inc” what they think of the young priests of the diocese, and how many vocations of young priests they’ve contributed to and fostered. Ask how many young men (lay or ordained) were at the Plenary (virtually none), and compare this to the group who are such a minority, and so oppressed, that not only could they secure a significant voting block on a Plenary Council, but could then hold up the entire proceedings by openly defying the bishops.

Peterson insists that young men need to be reminded they have “a woman to find, a garden to walk in, a family to nurture, an ark to build, a land to conquer, a ladder to heaven to build, and… the catastrophe of life to face stalwartly in truth, devoted to love, and without fear.”

He finishes with a message to young men in particular:

“Join us; we’ll help fix you up, and you can help fix us up. And together we’ll aim up. Here’s a message to those… skeptical about such things: What else do you have?! You can abandon the churches in your cynicism and disbelief; you can say to yourself, narcissistically and solipsistically, ‘The Church does not express what I believe properly.” Who cares what you believe? Why is this about you? Do you even want it to be about you? What if it was about others…”

“If we want to see what the Spirit is doing, we need to open our eyes and look – not sit in rooms talking about our feelings.”

He ends on this note:

“To the churches … Ask more, not less, of those you’re inviting. Ask more of them than anyone ever has! Remind them who they are – in the deepest sense. And help them become that. You’re churches for God’s sake. Quit fighting for social justice. Quit saving the bloody planet. Attend to some souls. That’s what you’re supposed to do – that’s your holy duty! Do it now! Before its too late. The hour is nigh.”

Jordan Peterson is apparently saying what, according to “Sign of the Times Inc”, you cannot say if you want to bring people back. Yet look at those numbers again and let them sink in. If we want to see what the Spirit is doing, we need to open our eyes and look – not sit in rooms talking about our feelings.

On Peterson’s point about the neglect and absence of young men, consider the desirability of a ‘listening session.’ Try organising a ‘listening session’ with the men in your own extended family, then wonder why anyone would think they could pull this off for the whole Church in Australia.

Plenary members follow business during the Second Assembly of the Council in Sydney held from 3-9 July. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Plenary members follow business during the Second Assembly of the Council in Sydney held from 3-9 July. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Now try and organise a day of paintball with the same group, or pulling down a house, followed by a BBQ, and see the difference. The men will talk and listen to each other: They’re not rock apes. But they don’t want to sit around with tea and biscuits while the proverbial ‘Susan from the Parish Council’ tells them there’s no wrong answer and everyone’s feelings are valid. If that’s true, what’s the whole point of this exercise? Therapy? The methodology that was created for this Council amounted to, effectively ‘stacking the deck. We simply ended up with what we started with.

Many who were at the helm of the Plenary Council would undoubtedly disregard Peterson’s message and the figures it has garnered – figures that will be tripled by the end of the year. They would categorise him as some form of extremist; a trouble-maker, perhaps ‘a corruptor of the youth’? Some would demand his credentials: “On what authority do you say this?” They sit back in quiet resentment, believing they are the ones who ought to be listened to. But they don’t publicly criticise him, “for fear of the multitudes who considered him a prophet.”

“Without a doubt. [Jordan Peterson] did a 15-session commentary on the book of Genesis, and each session has between three and ten million views. The Holy Spirit is working.”

Is Peterson perfect? Is everything he says true? No. But is he saying something that is touching people’s hearts and effectively encouraging them to abandon vice, pursue virtue, go back to Church, and read the scriptures? Without a doubt. He did a 15-session commentary on the book of Genesis, and each session has between three and ten million views. The three interviews he did with Bishop Robert Barron are profound and inspiring, and his interview with the President of Franciscan University no less. The Holy Spirit is working. But some of the modern-day scribes and Pharisees just don’t like where those signs are taking place, and who is working them. So they will keep looking elsewhere in vain.

It will be a tragedy if one ten-minute video manages to lead more people to repent and return to Church than the entire Council. The testimonies for Peterson’s approach are there to be publicly read by anyone interested. How many people will attribute their repentance from sin or growth in the spiritual life to the teachings and motions of this Council? To be fair, we don’t know yet – but the “signs” aren’t promising.

Christian Stephens is a lecturer in the School of Philosophy and Theology, University of Notre Dame, Sydney