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."

Making the case for a great Christmas comet over Bethlehem

It's hard to imagine Christmas without images of a giant star in the night sky over Bethlehem, with one supernaturally bright beam pointing toward a stable.

For carolers, the key words are in "We Three Kings of Orient Are" where everyone sings: "Star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright. Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light."

"The Christmas carols are surprisingly accurate when it comes to the details of what we know" from scripture, said New Testament scholar Colin Nicholl of Coleraine, Northern Ireland. "In many cases where they fill gaps in the biblical narratives, they end up including material that is pretty sound -- at least based on my research."

The problem is that this heavenly object simply does not behave like a star. Thus, in his new book "The Great Christ Comet: Revealing the True Star of Bethlehem," Nicholl blends material from history and science to argue that this phenomenon can best be explained by charting the path of what he calls "undeniably the single greatest comet in recorded history."

The language familiar to most readers is found in Matthew's Gospel, which states: "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he that is born King of the Jews?' for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him."

College campus holy wars

Anyone who explores academic hallways on American campuses will find lots of cartoons posted on professors' office doors and bulletin boards. But what if the cartoons included the Prophet Muhammad?

In one famous case, a professor at Century College in Minnesota dared to post the Muhammad cartoons that were published in a Danish newspaper. Facing fierce criticism, she put the images behind a curtain so that anyone passing her bulletin board would not see them unless they chose to do so. Administrators quickly created a policy requiring advance approval of all posted items.

It's easy to find hot religion buttons on campuses. What if a club tried to screen Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and administrators banned it, citing its R-rating and controversial content? What if the same administrators allowed a play on campus in which a character pretended to perform a sex act on an image of Jesus?

What if a Jewish group sponsored a campus lecture by an Israeli official and it had to be cancelled due to heckling by Palestinian students? What if a professor urged students to destroy a campus-approved display of tiny crosses, created by pro-life students, that symbolically represented their opposition to abortion?

These cases are real and there are hundreds more.

Passions are boiling over on many campuses," stressed attorney William Creeley, who directs legal teams for the secular Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "Students and professors and administrators are fighting about all kinds of things, but the surface issues are often proxies for the real issue -- which is religion. ...

"The garb in which these clashes are clothed may be student rights or campus fees, but they are usually about religion, morality and sex."

A recent survey by the foundation, he said, found that 71 percent of America's campuses try to enforce codes that in some way clash with the First Amendment. Meanwhile, many private schools -- which can create covenants that limit many freedoms -- are failing to warn students, faculty and staff about the contents of the documents they sign when entering these voluntary associations.

Catholic educators at Georgetown University had a legal right to ask the abortion-rights group "Hoyas for Choice" to operate under the name "H*yas for Choice" and to deny it some campus benefits. DePaul University had a right to deny equal treatment to a group called "Students for Cannabis Policy Reform." The issue, said Creeley, is whether private-school leaders explicitly warn students and parents -- before they enroll -- about "what they are getting into."

Scratch the surface and it's easy to find religion in other campus conflicts. For example, "conservatives" often claim they face discrimination when seeking faculty promotions or jobs in prestigious schools, especially in science and political science departments. Programs that discuss Islam, or deal with Israel and the Middle East in general, continue to generate heat. Can faculty who dissect the Bible do similar textual criticism of the Koran?

However, any FIRE review of recent campus fights, said Creeley, would have to discuss whether or not religious groups on state campuses can insist that their leaders support their foundational beliefs. In other words, can a Jewish group insist that its leaders support the right of Israel to exist? Can a pro-life group insist that its leadership be limited to those who oppose abortion? Can an evangelical group require that all members of its leadership believe in the Resurrection of Jesus?

Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court -- in another 5-4 decision -- ruled that the Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco could require its Christian Legal Society chapter to use an "all comers" policy for members and leaders or lose its status as a campus organization. The case pivoted on the group's affirmation that sex outside of marriage -- the union of husband and wife -- is sinful.

FIRE has tracked 40 or more disputes of this kind, noted Creeley, and there are sure to be more.

"I cannot think of anything less 'liberal' than what we are seeing on many campuses," he said. While most educators "pride themselves on offering a 'liberal education,' " many are now promoting "an orthodoxy that tempts them to edit the First Amendment. ... You end up driving certain points of view off campus and silencing the religious voices that trouble you. That's dangerous -- period."

God and the intellect

It's hard to laugh about religion in Northern Ireland, but Oxford theologian Alister McGrath likes to tell the following joke that hints at the challenges he faced as a young skeptic in that troubled land.

While visiting Belfast, an Englishman was cornered by three thugs. The leader asked one question: "Are you a Protestant or are you a Catholic?"

After a diplomatic pause, the Englishman said: "I am an atheist."

Confused, his attacker asked: "Are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?"

The tough religion questions continued when McGrath entered Oxford University, where he became the rare student who traded his Marxist atheism for Christianity while studying science. He would eventually earn two doctorates -- in molecular biology and theology.

Today, McGrath teaches at his alma mater and is admired by academic leaders around the world who are tired of being cornered and asked: Are you a Christian or are you an intellectual?

This was a big question during the 1960s when most secular educators believed that "religion was evil" and "on the way out," said McGrath, speaking last week in Grapevine, Texas, at a global forum sponsored by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

According to the "received wisdom" of that era, a "new secular age was about to dawn," he said. "The future was all about a godless culture and the church would just have to adapt to it and that was that."

These days, even the most skeptical of scholars admit that traditional forms of religion are on the rise and that millions of spiritually hungry students are questioning the chilly, strictly rational creeds of secular modernity. Faith is making a comeback and the high priests of mainstream academia cannot understand why, said McGrath. Thus, many are getting angry and, on occasion, shrill.

These tensions are even beginning to affect the bottom line.

A small wave of mainstream news reports have noted that enrollments are up 70.6 percent during the past 14 years at the 102 schools in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, the mostly evangelical Protestant network in which I teach journalism. Over the same period of time, enrollments rose 28 percent at secular private colleges and 12.8 percent at public colleges and universities.

Meanwhile, a national survey conducted by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute found that four in five students said they are interested in spiritual issues and 75 percent said they are searching for the meaning or purpose of life.

In this environment, said McGrath, it is crucial for leaders of religious colleges to know that they have two objectives instead of one. They must help students grow in their faith while also growing intellectually.

Failure on either side of this equation is failure in the whole process. This is tricky, because many educators believe that any affirmation of orthodoxy equals fundamentalism. Meanwhile, parents often question efforts to debate religious issues.

The goal, said McGrath, is to help young roots go deeper. Christian educators have a God-given responsibility to help the plants grow.

"We are not simply reassuring students that their faith is right, that it makes sense, ... that it connects up with reality," he told the forum. "One of the big distinctives between a more secular education and what you offer is the mirroring of this love of God for every individual, of helping them to dream dreams, to see visions of where they might be, of what God might do in them and through them."

This means that professors must accept that Christianity has, over the centuries, built up an unavoidable tradition of history, art, philosophy, ethics and theology that has implications all of life. Thus, McGrath stressed that education affects both the head and the heart and that it is unwise to create two zones on campus -- one spiritual and one academic.

In other words, the Christian faith has intellectual content that cannot be locked inside the chapel.

"We need a generation of economists, of lawyers, of politicians who intentionally set out to connect their faith and what they will be doing in the world, not doing it by accident or an afterthought, but rather seeing this as a God-given calling," said McGrath. Professors want their students to ask, "If I were to enter politics, how could my values and beliefs be reflected in what I say and do? And likewise with chemistry, biology, psychology, you name it."

Phillip E. Johnson, rabbi

Call them the Evangelical Alpha Males.

There's Chuck Colson and James Dobson, James Kennedy and Robert Schuller, and Paul Crouch and Pat Robertson. There are many more. They are 60 years old or much older, but they still command the spotlight.

"During this decade the American Church will experience a massive turnover in ... leadership," note researchers George Barna and Mark Hatch, in their book, "Boiling Point." If history is a guide, "the impact of many of the personality-driven ministries will fade as the primary personality departs the scene."

Celebrities are hard to replace. That's why a provocative thinker named Phillip E. Johnson -- patriarch of the "Intelligent Design" movement -- has taken a different path.

It's not that he is terribly modest. But Johnson wants to win and he is convinced that aiming the spotlight at others is good strategy. He wants his cause to thrive after he is gone.

"One of the things that the Christian world is notorious for is a celebrity style of dealing with issues," Johnson said, speaking at a conference at Palm Beach Atlantic College (which is also where I teach). "That puts a big burden on one person. ... I never wanted a movement like that."

So Johnson writes his own books, while promoting those written by his colleagues. And he keeps yielding the stage to biochemist Michael Behe, philosopher Stephen Meyer, mathematician William Dembski, worldview specialist Nancy Pearcey and a host others.

Johnson would rather be a rabbi than an Alpha Male. This is not normal.

Then again, Johnson has not lived a normal, garden-variety Christian life. He is a graduate of both Harvard University and the University of Chicago School of Law and served as clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren. Then he joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley -- a great home base for a left-of-center agnostic.

However, a personal crisis rocked Johnson's life and he became a Christian believer, of a bookish Presbyterian stripe. Years later, he read Michael Denton's "Evolution: A Theory in Crisis" and was hooked. Johnson became convinced that the legal rhetoric being used to silence critics of Darwinian philosophy was, in fact, a secular fundamentalism.

Acting as fierce, but jolly, academic samurai, Johnson set out to slice up the scientific establishment. The result was "Darwin on Trial" in 1991, followed by numerous other books that have inspired and infuriated readers. Last summer, Johnson suffered a major stroke. He responded by writing yet another book, the upcoming "The Right Questions."

Johnson thrives in secular settings. When he does agree to talk theology, rather than science, he refuses to march straight through the landmines in the first chapters of Genesis. Instead, he starts with the prelude to the Gospel of John, which states: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made."

After reading this, Johnson asks: "Is that true or false?"

Then he turns this scripture inside out and creates a credo for use in sanctuaries aligned with the National Center for Science Education. It sounds like this: "In the beginning were the particles and the particles somehow became complex, living stuff. And the stuff imagined god."

After reading this, Johnson again asks: "Is that true or false?"

The movement Johnson calls "the Wedge" argues that today's debates over science, creation and morality are, literally, clashes between people who believe there is scientific evidence that God created man and those who believe there is scientific evidence that man created God.

This debate will not be settled overnight, which is why Johnson is convinced he must not fight alone. He believes the stakes are high and getting higher.

"If there is no Creator who has a purpose for your life, then there is no such thing as sin," he said. "Sin would mean that you are in a wrong relationship to your Creator. Well, you can't be in the wrong relationship with the particles. They don't care. So you don't need a Savior, to save you from the consequences of your wrong relationship with the particles. ...

"When you give away creation, you have given away everything."