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Jordan Peterson's secular approach to the soul and the sacred (Part II)

Jordan Peterson's secular approach to the soul and the sacred (Part II)

It isn't every day that a University of Toronto psychology professor is asked to perform 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 it."

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."

Jordan Peterson: The Devil's in the details of all those YouTube debates (Part I)

Jordan Peterson: The Devil's in the details of all those YouTube debates (Part I)

The YouTube seekers are out there, hundreds of thousands of them, clicking on links to philosophical and even theological debates that would shock those who believe cyberspace is about Donald Trump, cat videos and that's that.

These videos feature real people -- some famous and some only Internet-famous. The superstars can sell out civic auditoriums while discussing theism and atheism, the search for absolute truth and what it means to be a mature person living in a world awash in information, opinion, beauty and noise.

At the center of lots of these debates sits University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, whose career built on hundreds of academic papers has veered into the digital marketplace of ideas. That happens when a professor's latest book, "12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos" sells 2 million copies, while he has 922,000 Twitter followers and 1.5 million subscribers to his YouTube channel.

Critics are sure to ask faith questions when a professor constantly discusses how troubled souls -- especially Millennial generation men -- can make decisions that change their lives, noted Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and a popular Catholic online apologist.

Peterson is a "depth psychologist," not a theologian, stressed Barron, and he has sent complex, mixed signals about the Bible and Christianity.

Nevertheless, it's impossible to avoid the moral content of his work. Consider this pithy Peterson advice: "Start to stop doing, right now, what you know to be wrong."

"He is, somewhat, assuming the mantle of spiritual father and he's speaking, especially, to younger people about -- you know -- rules. Life is not just a matter of self-expression and I make it up as I go along," said Barron, in an online video commentary about Peterson's work. "There are these rules that are grounded in our psychological and physical structure that you can see, up and down the centuries of tradition. Peterson kind of moves boldly into that space of spiritual teacher."

Preaching to a tempting choir

The YouTube era has produced a few Catholic stars, priests whose performances have inspired scores of web surfers to pass along emails full of grief or glee.

Who can forget "The Barney Blessing," with the priest who traded his vestments for a purple dinosaur suit before the final prayer of a Halloween Mass? Then there was the trendy priest whose loopy dance to the altar, accompanied by trumpets and drums, inspired comparisons to Prince Ali's arrival in the Disney classic "Aladdin."

But these were tiny tremors compared with the online earthquake that followed Father Michael Pfleger's sermon in which he pretended to be Hillary Clinton, sobbing because of her losses to Sen. Barack Obama.

"She just always thought that, 'This is mine. I'm Bill's wife. I'm white,' " said the priest, speaking at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. "Then out of nowhere came, 'Hey, I'm Barack Obama.' And she said, 'Oh damn, where did you come from? I'm white. I'm entitled. There's a black man stealing my show.' ''

It's natural to watch these cyber spectacles while muttering, "What were they thinking?" The answer is quite simple, according to Father John F. Kavanaugh of St. Louis University. Like many preachers before them, they fell for the temptation to "preach to the choir," their listeners who already agreed with them.

"You're supposed to be a messenger. You're supposed to be the person who brings people the Good News," said the Jesuit, author of "Following Christ in a Consumer Culture" and other books on faith and ethics. "But instead of being the mediator, you can end up putting the focus on yourself. You can become the message and, before you know it, people can start basing their faith on you instead of God."

Catholic priests, of course, are not alone in this temptation. There are plenty of other preachers, in this media-saturated age, who act like stand-up comedians or performers in their own faith-based reality shows. Many big churches have been known to tremble when a skilled communicator leaves the pulpit.

The Pfleger case, said Kavanaugh, is particularly sad after his decades of service at St. Sabina's on Chicago's South Side.

The sandy-haired, blue-eyed priest has helped build a thriving, predominately black parish and parochial school. Pfleger has clashed with gang leaders as well as bishops, while adopting two African-American sons and leading campaigns against alcohol, cocaine, cigarettes and other addictions. He has been hailed as a spectacular preacher, especially on the sin of racism, in an era in which Catholics are not known for their pulpit skills.

The problem is that success leads to unique temptations.

Father Pfleger and clergy who make similar mistakes are not "crazy persons. But they do have problems of their own," stressed Kavanaugh, writing in America, a Catholic weekly. "They are the problems of the preacher. ... I know there are few moments to compare with the affection and approval of parishioners after Mass, especially if you have been helpful in strengthening their faith. But the most distressing moment for me was the one homily I gave that evoked applause. Of course, it was gratifying; but it was disturbing. What was the applause for?"

It's easy for preachers to keep telling the faithful what they want to hear, he said. Preachers must be self-critical and become aware of when they avoid some tough subjects or choose to soften a message, in order not to offend. The flip side of this is when preachers decide to pound away on popular subjects and easy targets, seeking to please people who are already in the pews.

One way for priests to regain perspective, said the Jesuit, would be reading -- in the pulpit -- classic sermons by the saints or popular Christian writers that focus on timeless issues. Another way to keep from "defanging the Gospel" is to confront a congregation with the undiluted words of a sermon by Jesus, as written in scripture.

"Whether you are preaching to liberals or conservatives, it's hard to tell people truths that they don't want to hear," said Kavanaugh. "It's hard to tell people to love their enemies. It's hard to tell people to repent of their sins and to forgive others. ... If your people are smiling and applauding all of the time -- all of the time -- that's when warning flags need to go up."