Column Title: Meaningful-Faith: Words, the Word, and a Life of Substance
Column Entry:Crossing Jordan Peterson: How Hard Can It Be?
By Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric, California State University, Sacramento
Crossing Jordan Peterson: How Hard Can It Be?
Jerry Murphy, Michael Leff, and Gerry Mohrmann, three stellar scholars in the world of communication studies, were once involved in a robust discussion after one of them had given a keynote address at a conference. Unfortunately, the audience for that after-dinner speech was so thoroughly inebriated that they never seemed to actually notice the speaker. The next morning, as the three scholars laughed about the event, they proposed—only slightly more than half jesting, evidently—that an addition should be offered to Aristotle’s discussion of the “types of audiences” a speaker might encounter. The addition was “The Incompetent Audience”—that group of souls who have, for whatever reason, rendered themselves incapable of being addressed. The category became a comic stereotype in their university department.
But Mohrmann, more seriously, suggested at one point that such an audience was not small, and that they served as something of a danger to democracy. “Episodic testimony from the real world indicates that these types of unaddressable groups still haunt our society,” Jerry Murphy drily noted, more than a decade ago.
Enter, Jordan Peterson.
But before we go any further, let’s pause for a brief examination of conscience.
We began this essay by noticing a kind of “Incompetent Audience” that is incapable of being addressed. I then mentioned Jordan Peterson. Here is the question to begin our examination of conscience: what was the association we made between those two ideas? Do you think of Peterson as someone who delightfully taunts the members of some Incompetent Audience who have set themselves beyond the reach of reasonable discourse because of their narrow-minded Liberal Fundamantalisms? Or did you think of Peterson himself as a member of that Incompetent Audience, incapable of discourse because of his own narrow-minded Fundamentalisms?
If the goal here is to explore what it means, exactly, to engage in a Christian critique of social phenomena, then our first step must be to realize the Christian vision is formed in dissent, and as an alternative, to the World. The World, in our parlance, is the system of false values, improper priorities, and misdirected loves that define the vast majority of political goals and dominant cultural attitudes. About this, books could be written and have been; the most famous of these books is City of God by Saint Augustine, fifth-century Bishop of Hippo, a character who was writing a Christian critique of Roman Citizenship near the end of the Roman Empire. His most relevant take-home point was this one: Nobody who is becoming an Excellent Credal Christian can ever be more than a slightly below average Roman citizen at best, and nobody who is an Excellent Roman Citizen can be more than a fairly threadbare Christian at best. The values, priorities and loves of these two systems are simply too far apart. Augustine’s second most relevant point was that this rule was so true that it would apply to any political system that could exist in this fallen world.
So, generally, a Christian critique that aligns very well with any current hot topic—political goals, economic theories, or cultural priorities—should be considered suspect. For the Christian, this complicates our citizenship. The Christian can never celebrate everything American, because America is not the City of God. It is broken, and always has been. Neither the Trail of Tears nor Slavery nor Manifest Destiny can be defended. Each of these is, by the standards of Credal Christianity, a sinful failure to love God and our neighbors. Full stop. And just as the past gives no shortage of examples that highlight how the American Way is not the Kingdom of God, the present offers no shortage of failings either.
All this is to say that Credal Christianity is unlikely—almost impossibly unlikely—to find itself well-aligned with any party. If I discover my Christian beliefs are comfortably reflected in the Liberal Political Orthodoxy of the Coastal Cultures, I almost certainly failed to think deeply about either those cultures or Christianity. If my Christianity calls me to side almost always with the Conservative Political Orthodoxy of the day, I understand neither that conservatism nor Christianity very well.
This claim—that Credal Christianity is not on anybody’s side, and very few people are on the side of Credal Christianity—is the first thing to get clear in our minds when we turn to offering Christian critiques of cultural phenomena. What follows from this is simple and easy to understand. Christianity will praise and blame its host culture in equal measure, and almost never (I do not say never) will the praise and blame fall in a way that mirrors our cultural divisions, so that we mostly praise one side and blame the other.
As we turn to something like the Christian Peterson Phenomena then, the Christian critique is unlikely to be an easy process where we get to categorize Peterson as either a “good guy” or a “bad guy.” In some cases, he will say things that are true or good or beautiful, and the Christian will gather these roses among the thorns of other expressions or perspectives that fail one or more of these tests. But if your examination of conscience, above, readily placed Peterson safely into (or safely outside of!) that narrow-minded Incompetent Audience that is beyond the reach of reasonable discourse with good folks like you or me, then we have probably already stopped critiquing him with a Christian view, and we have fallen into the World’s categories. We need to do better than that.
Maybe, in our next installment, we will try to do better than that.
 The comment appears in Jerry Murphy’s remembrance essay in Rhetoric & Public Affairs, vol 13, no. 4, 2010, p. 653-655, shortly after his friend Mike Leff passed away. The quote is found on p. 655.