Imagine we’re writing the current chapter in a history of human relationships to government and God. This 2020 installment comprises a pandemic, social polarization, tragedies of life and livelihood, political paralysis, tragic urban violence, and countless souls in turmoil. The short-term solutions we forge from ad hoc policies and practices could lead to greater crises and disputes. We Catholics should be glad that we are “cast” and that a loving God is actually overseeing the real plot line.
Can we prepare well for an era of grueling public discourse desperate to solve practical problems coupled with profound spiritual challenges? Our world uses lots of right-vs.-wrong language these days, but it’s often based on individual points of view unmoored from any consensus about religious values or the common good. Our combination of moralism and relativism has not proven promising.
Jordan Peterson: ‘You need a noble goal in life’
Allow me to use this chapter to introduce a new character into the script and our discussion. I pray he will be dialoguing with Catholics even more than he has in the past, just as he has inspired countless college students and opinion-shapers via numerous media.
His name is Jordan B. Peterson, Ph.D., a Canadian psychologist, author, and public intellectual whose fame has transcended academia. (I speak of praying for him because this year brought distressing news about his health, including a complicated battle against drug dependency.)
I suspect many of you who already have discovered him share my hope that this controversial, real-life “character,” who aspires to noble character traits, will continue to promote transformative public discourse. One of this truth-seeker’s areas of inquiry—a subject appropriate to the Catholic story line we’re discerning—is whether he believes in God. Alas, archives of his videos suggest he has not been ready to answer in the affirmative.
But, when Peterson interviewed Bishop Robert Barron on a podcast last summer, the distinguished Church leader from the Word on Fire ministries lauded him as a sort of evangelist. “I think you’ve opened a lot of doors for people to religion in an era when the new atheists are very influential with young people,” Bishop Barron said; Peterson, despite his scientific viewpoint or perhaps because of it, maps a path whereby many people who crave a sense of meaning—in their lives and in the world—can “at least reconsider religion” as a rational alternative.
Watch the podcast to see Peterson’s urgent call to transcend sloppy secularism, acknowledging mankind’s “metaphysical” ability to create hellish chaos through malevolence and hunger for “material happiness.” He tells Barron that Catholicism should proclaim bolder mandates for personal excellence. We should instruct each other, “You need a noble goal in life to buttress yourself against its catastrophe.” Through his science-centric lens, he perceives a “structure” by which humans can generate order amid suffering by becoming their best selves.
Peterson and the Four Levels of Happiness
Here’s my interpretation: Peterson zealously wants himself and everyone to stand in the gap between levels two and three as defined in Fr. Spitzer’s outline of the four levels of happiness. He has realized the level-two ethos of comparative advantage will lead only to hollow, fleeting happiness. He points his audiences toward the level-three contributive stance; if we strive to become individual antidotes to our toxified human ecology, we can make the world better.
The podcast discussants don’t engage with the four-levels schema, but Bishop Barron does salute Peterson as architect of a kind of happiness bridge. For secular audiences in the ego traps at Fr. Spitzer’s first and second levels, it appears the Canadian’s “rules for life” do provide a religion-friendly push toward awareness of our suffering cell-mates. Summoning up our curative talents, he virtually shouts to the worldly, “Do something!” He explains, “The critical element of belief is action.”
However, I see Barron less than satisfied by this stoic prescription, even though it enhances our story line. It leaves God out of the picture. In a separate Word on Fire video, the bishop suggests Peterson’s fans could aim higher. They have nobly begun a hero’s journey, but we need to provide motivation for further “baby steps” toward a loving God with whom the secular world can wholeheartedly participate.
Without God, there can be therapy for our souls’ emptiness, but we atomistic antibodies will never generate a transformative happiness and rift-healing communion. Barron implicitly reminds Peterson not to try to answer the need for God; he explicitly but gently says he prefers to present “a hundred ways into the question of God” (emphases added). These nudges of wonderment include worship of the true hero. They include acts of love spread among all of us in the supporting cast as we pursue and share in the incarnated, eternally unitive source of happiness found at level four.
The quartet of levels illuminates a key synergy for the history we hope will end well. Peterson’s creditable desire for self-empowering disciplines to replace insecure ennui can launch us beyond the plateau of ego comparison where so many people are trapped. But Barron’s explorations on a higher trajectory lead toward even more panoramic imagination and communion with God—a hero’s journey alongside Love, the star, who’s on the way. The psychoanalyst finds level three through responsibility. The bishop finds level four through response-ability.
From self-gain to self-gift
So where does this leave today’s chapter in our story? I foresee a secular society confronting policy problems with short-term solutions, perhaps drawn from levels one and two. This character named Peterson contributes conciliatory approaches and rules that successfully elevate our attention from self-gain to self-gift. Applaud him for offering good answers.
Over the longer term, we Catholics and our fellow travelers must evangelize more robustly, keeping hope-filled religion in the public debates. Conversation and community-building curiosity remain our instruments--but based on God, history’s irreplaceable, omnipresent character. Christ’s own action provides the ultimate plot twists if we humbly seek Him. We can help people rediscover Him—and level-four happiness—guided by many compelling voices of faith, such as Bishop Barron. Applaud him for offering great questions.
Cover image credit: Gage Skidmore
Bill Schmitt is an independent journalist/broadcaster, media consultant and author with experience in specialized publications and Catholic education. His biography and his blog--focusing on news, social polarization and faith-based values--are found at OnWord.net. He is active in the Knights of Columbus and as a lifetime-professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order.