Peter Holmes: Jordan Peterson is good – just not God – that’s all

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

I am frequently sent articles, videos and news items by students and friends who seem to find Jordon Peterson inspiring and particularly good news for Catholics.

I have not been as impressed with him as others seems to be. When The Catholic Weekly published an article on Jordon Peterson’s latest visit to Australia, I posted an offhand response as follows:

“I am concerned that his (quite sensible) opposition to certain tyrannical impositions on personal and academic freedoms is tempting people to see him as a great teacher of Catholics. As Monica [Doumit’s] article points out, his content seems to be made up of something your grandma could tell you, without her good Catholic sense to balance the fluff.

“Peterson’s refusal to bow to tyranny is admirable. His advice has some sense in it, but it isn’t much to write home about. Especially if your Catholic grandma is at home.”

While my comment was an unfairly flippant dismissal of some of the excellent points in the article, I stand by my concern about any Catholics looking to Peterson as a modern guru or champion of Catholic values.

We might admire him for his historical refusal to be cowed by authorities who demanded, even legislated that he must use certain words.

We might thank him for pointing out some inherent problems with identity politics. We might see some common sense in his advice to sort out your personal life before worrying about global problems, if our family upbringing or education somehow failed to include those basic points.

Jordan Peterson’s appearance on last week’s QandA programme was an excellent example.

See related story: Monica Doumit: Why is Jordan Peterson popular?

If the loud applause after each of his answers is any indication, the audience seemed mostly in favour of Peterson, but the friendly questions from the audience seemed to be begging Peterson to stand up against feminists, communists and political correctness in favour of traditional values.

Listening as a Catholic to his responses, Peterson seems to have little of value to offer his audience apart from his stubborn but gentle opposition to some unhealthy forms of political correctness.

I should make it clear that Peterson does not encourage religious followers to see him as their champion.

Peterson is very honest about his credentials. He made it clear that he is a Psychologist and not an authority on metaphysical issues.

Psychology is the study of what goes on in human minds. It is useful in understanding our minds and perhaps correcting some mental problems.

A psychologist is unequipped to deal with the big questions in life, the meaning of life, the existence of God, moral norms, religion etc., and several of his answers demonstrated his ignorance of Catholic teaching (or even non-Christian Philosophers who share and defend some of our values).

He was the only panel member who refused to claim some kind of faith. While he did attempt to quote the Bible, he seemed to think Jesus was from the Old Testament.

Peterson clearly and explicitly denied any claim to be an expert on these matters, on moral matters or on anything other than specific, personal and very general psychological tips-for-life, which seem to be drawn from a mutually contradictory array of philosophies.

See related story: Students urge courage from bishops at Synod

His most useful contribution to the discussion was the suggestion that people should demonstrate their faith practically if they want any credit for being a person of faith, a view he credited to the Old Testament.

Having said all this, the panel discussion revealed some possible reasons that Peterson is considered an ally of Catholics and Christians.

The sneering contempt and obnoxious interruptions of the representative feminist on the panel, combined with the simpering truisms and partisan sniping from the politicians, made Peterson’s rather bland comments look positively glorious in comparison.

Perhaps the reason Peterson is being hailed by some as a breath of fresh air is that most of us are sick and tired of social and political ‘experts’ who are out of touch with the daily struggles of the average person but seem to have the power to tell us all what to do, what to say and even what to think.

People are happy to see someone take these ‘experts’ on and call their bluff.

I suspect the ABC threw Catherine McGregor into the mix because they were trying to bait Peterson regarding the gender pronouns he refused to use back in Canada.

The irony was that McGregor not only supported most of Peterson’s points (at least in part) but also provided the more interesting and nuanced arguments of the evening.

I have nothing against Peterson. I applaud him for standing his ground on personal freedoms and responsibilities. I would very much like to sit down and ask him how he reconciles seemingly contradictory aspects of his advice.

I hope that many more academics refuse to be cowed by the orthodoxy of the day and initiate such debates. But if we are looking for the next public champion for Christians, there is little to see here.