Monica Doumit: Why is Jordan Peterson popular?

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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

“You don’t know much, really.” “You don’t perceive much and you don’t know if what you’re perceiving is the information you need.” “You have problems, everyone does. And you’re going to suffer.”

Who – in their right mind – would spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Sydney sitting inside listening to someone who is pretty much calling them stupid and telling them that there is no way to escape suffering in life?

Well, maybe none of the thousands of us who lined up to see Jordan Peterson on Saturday were in our right mind, but he already knew that.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with him, but for those who are not, Peterson is a clinical psychologist and university lecturer from Canada.

He had been writing and lecturing and making videos about everything from neuroscience to the Bible for years, but came to public attention after saying that he would not comply with a law that sought to force him and others to address people with their preferred pronouns, because it would be an impermissible on freedom.

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His book, 12 Rules for Life, has sold more than three million copies worldwide, even though the wisdom contained in it is not much more than your mother would tell you: stand up straight with your shoulders back, make your bed in the morning, don’t lie.

But by simply telling people some simple truths, Peterson pretty much became a household name. And a cult hero, particularly among young men.

One of the questions that is sometimes discussed amongst Catholics and other Christians is whether Peterson is good or bad for the Church. He has produced a video series on the Bible and uses the Christian approach to suffering in his talks on psychology, but there is still something missing.

Because Peterson speaks of religion not so much as truth, but probably more as a psychological tool. What does that mean for us?

By drawing people to the idea of Christianity without feeling the need to draw people to Christ, is he on our side or against us? Part of the reason I went to see him live is to find out.

What surprised me most about Peterson was that he does not cut the imposing figure I am used to online. He is not combative in his presentation style.

Adam and Eve by Marcantonio Franceschini, Circa 1680. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Peterson named Genesis 1:27 as the most important phrase ever written: “In the image of God, He created them. Male and female, He created them.” Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

If anything, you are left with the impression that this is someone who is not seeking stardom, but because he honestly wants the best for the people in front of him.

He believes that sharing his ideas is the best way he can contribute to his audience and, through them, to the betterment of humanity. If he was prone to talk about his work in religious terms – and he is not – then the touring would definitely be described as ‘vocational.’

After talking for a long time about neuropsychology and the ordering of polite society, he then segued, quite seamlessly, into Sacred Scripture.

Peterson named Genesis 1:27 as the most important phrase ever written: “In the image of God, He created them. Male and female, He created them.”

If human beings are made in the image and likeness of a creative God, he said, then they too can create. The message of the creation story, at least according to Peterson, is: “If you confront potential with truth and courage, then what you produce is good”.

Knowing our ability to do good if we face the chaos of our lives with truth and courage, Peterson told us, is how we find meaning in our lives. It is sufficient to aim each day to leave the world slightly better than it was when the day began or, at the very least, hold the line so the world is less worse than it could be.

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Putting it another way, Peterson says that the meaning of life is to bring humanity a little further away from hell and a little closer to heaven. “That’s a good enough goal,” he said, barely being able to finish his words through tears.

I must confess, the creation story has never moved me to tears, nor has it been the motivation for me to get out of bed in the morning, but Peterson’s reflection had everyone on the edge of their seat in a way that would make any homilist jealous.

Plus, his explanations make Christian thought appealing, or at least reasonable, to many people who would otherwise dismiss it as having no relevance to society today.

I am certain that in time, Peterson will be received into the Catholic Church, because it is where his search for truth will ultimately lead.

In the meantime, I am content to know that those who are listening to him are being invited to explore Christianity by someone they respect, and I hope that God will use that invitation to bring many of them to Himself.

Who knows? Peterson could end up being a better evangelist than many of those who have evangelism as their vocation, and I am very grateful for that. God speed, Professor.