On Religion

It isn’t every day that a University of Toronto psychology professor is asked to officiate a wedding.

Then again, Jordan Peterson has outgrown the role of bookish academic, evolving into a digital-culture guru whose fame is measured in millions of online clicks.

The logical thing to do was hit the internet and get ordained. Within minutes, the author of the bestseller “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” was the “metropolitan” of his own church -- with a one-doctrine creed.

“If you are a member of my church, you cannot follow stupid rules. That’s a good rule, because it’s an anti-rule rule,” said Peterson, during an Orthodox School of Theology forum at Toronto’s Trinity College.

This 2017 event -- “Resurrection of Logos: The Divine, the Individual and Finding Our Bearings in a Postmodern World” -- offered the scholar’s unusual mix of science, art and theology. What matters to online seekers is that it’s on YouTube, where debates about ultimate issues never end.

Not all rules are stupid, stressed Peterson. Consider this one: Don’t tell lies.

“You certainly know when you lie, and you know how to stop doing that. So, I would say ... stop lying. Try it for a year and see what happens,” he said. “It also means that you have to not act in a way that you wouldn’t speak truthfully about.”

Attempting to live a good life, he stressed, will force many people to realize that they are not inherently good.

“You cannot conceive of how good a human being might be until you can conceive how evil a human being can and will be,” he said. “The pathway to paradise is through hell. ... If you don’t go there voluntarily, you’ll go there accidentally. So, it’s better to go there voluntarily, because you can go with hope.”

This is the kind of Peterson language that intrigues many atheists and agnostics, while leaving religious leaders both hopeful and confused, said Jonathan Pageau of Quebec. He is an Eastern Orthodox artist -- carving icons and Christian symbols -- and has worked with Peterson in several dialogues about art, beauty and faith, including the “Logos” forum in Toronto.

“Peterson is using scientific thinking -- starting with biology and evolution -- to say we are built in a manner that we cannot avoid, and that the religious is part of that,” stressed Pageau. “He’s saying that we are built to see the world in a religious way.”

The fact that Peterson is not a Christian -- “He has flirted with that, but pulled back,” said Pageau -- is one reason his work is having a significant impact in the secular marketplace. His audience includes nonbelievers and even “those who hate Christianity.”

Peterson’s style is also unique. While his talks are complex, with many academic references, he shows lots of emotion. He is stern, yet fatherly. He is often moved to tears while discussing the trials faced by many modern young people.

Peterson is not saying everything that “Christian leaders want him to say,” stressed Pageau. “He knows he has more leeway to say what he is saying, because he is outside the church. We have discussed this several times. He also knows that he is forcing people to ask questions that are pulling them into the church.”

In the “Logos” forum, for example, Peterson stressed that it’s normal for people to struggle with their own failures -- for reasons that have no easy scientific explanation.

“You wake up at 3 in the morning and you torture yourself for your inability to bring forth the potential that’s within you, and it haunts your SOUL and it’s hellish. The reason it is hellish is because it IS hellish,” he said, his voice rising.

To reach their ultimate potential, said Peterson, people must be honest -- with themselves and with others.

“When you speak truth, you speak paradise into being, and when you speak falsely, you speak hell into being,” he said. “What that means is that with every decision you make, you decide for yourself and for everyone else whether you are going to tilt the world a little more towards hell or a little bit more towards heaven.

“That’s the burden you bear for your existence and the choices you make as you pass through life.”

(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)

More like On Religion