People notice when others care about them and respond to them. However, far too often our empathy has left people weak and has allowed the weakness and dysfunctionality of wounded and stunted people to set the terms for the rest of society. Peterson represents a different approach: the compassionate authority of mature and wise persons can shepherd weak and lost persons towards strength, healthy selfhood, and meaning. Pastors can learn much from this.
Last night, along with a few online friends, I watched this debate on the meaning of life between William Lane Craig, Rebecca Goldstein, and Jordan Peterson, hosted by Wycliffe College. While watching it, and reflecting upon Peterson’s work more generally (about which I’ve written in the past), I was struck by some of the lessons that preachers can learn from Peterson. Several of the people I was watching with gave thoughts of their own, some of which I have incorporated into this post.
- People are longing to hear true and weighty words.Peterson is someone who takes truth extremely seriously, treating it as a matter of the deepest existential significance. Telling lies will lead you to perdition. He first came to international attention through his resistance to Canada’s Bill C-16 and his opposition to compelled speech in relation to the pronouns used for transgender persons. What animated Peterson on this issue was not opposition to some supposed transgender agenda so much as the more general principle of truthful and uncoerced speech.
Listening to Peterson speak (the video above being an example), one of the most striking things to observe is how carefully he weighs his words, the way he manifests his core conviction that words matter and that the truth matters. People hang on his words, because they know that he is committed to telling the truth and to speaking words by which a person can live and die. The existential horizons of life and death are foregrounded when someone speaks in such a manner.
We live in a society that is cluttered with airy words, with glib evasions, with facile answers, with bullshitting, with self-serving lies, with obliging falsehoods, and with dishonest and careless construals of the world that merely serve to further our partisan agendas (‘truth’ merely becoming something that allows us to ‘destroy’ or ‘wipe the floor with’ our opponents in the culture). In such a context, a man committed to and burdened with the weight of truth and who speaks accordingly will grab people’s attention.
Christian pastors should be renowned for such truth-telling, for their commitment to speaking as if their words really mattered and for the courage to say what needs to be said, even when it is unpopular. This requires taking great care over one’s words. Weighty words are harder to speak. It also requires refusing to speak on many issues. When you weigh your words more carefully, you realize that you do not have weighty words to speak on many matters. The more easily you are drawn into unconsidered or careless speech (social media affording many traps here), the less value people will put on your words. The more seriously you take the truth, the more cautious you will be in your speech.
Even when Christians do speak the truth, we so often speak it glibly and lightly, as those who aren’t putting weight on our words. We have polished answers to objections, platitudinous counsel, and tidy theological frameworks, but possess no gravitas because our hearers regard our words as little more than a showy yet hollow façade. Declarations of the profoundest doctrines trip off our lips as if they weighed nothing at all. We can become more exercised about a recent piece of pop culture than about Christian truths by which we can live and die. Our speech is superficial and shallow, conveying no recognition of the seriousness of handling the truths of God and our responsibility for the lives of our hearers. Much of what Peterson is saying is not new at all, but is familiar to anyone who has been around for a while. The difference is that Peterson is declaring these things as if they really mattered, as if in his speech he is actually reckoning with reality in all of its power, scariness, and danger. This wakes people up.
- People need to hear voices of authority. As I argued in my recent post, when someone speaks with authority, people sit up and pay attention. Our society has tended to shrink back from authoritative words, as such words threaten people’s autonomy (‘who am I to tell you what to do, man?’). Speaking authoritatively seems to shame, judge, and make claims upon people, all of which are anathema to contemporary individualistic society. However, carefully spoken words of authority can be life-giving. They can give direction and meaning to people who are lost, hope to those in despair, light to those in darkness, and clarity to those in doubt. People desperately need to hear wise and loving words of authority from people who know what they are talking about, rather than being left without authority or harangued by leaders without the depth of character to speak the words they utter.
Peterson is, for a great many young men in particular, the father they never had. He is someone prepared to speak into their situation with a compassionate authority. His authority is not an attempt to control them or to secure his own power over them, but functions to direct them towards life. He isn’t wagging his finger at them, but is helping lost young people to find their way. People instinctively respond to such authority. Such a fatherly authority is rare in our society, but many people are longing for it. This is the sort of authority that pastors can exemplify and by which they can give life and health to the lives committed to their care.