Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Part 32, A Message to the Christian Churches

We interrupt this series walking through Jordan Peterson's book Maps of Meaning to say a few things about his recently released video "Message to the Christian Churches." Many readers reached out to me when the video landed, wondering about my reaction.

First, if you missed it, here's the video:

In tone, presentation, and style, the video is very "Jordan Peterson." Frankly, I felt the whole thing was comically overwrought. Still, the video has over a million views and has been praised by many, along with attracting the predictable criticism. 

Regarding the content of the video, a few thoughts.

First, over half the video, the first half, is culture war stuff. This is the lamentable part of the message, and of Jordan Peterson as a whole. This is the part of Jordan Peterson that causes many of you to skip these Friday posts and question the amount of time I've devoted to walking through Peterson's Maps of Meaning

Here's why that first half of the video is lamentable. Peterson is arguing that young men are not attracted to the church because of wokeism, critical race theory, social justice activism, political correctness, etc., etc., etc. Let me set aside for the moment any comment regarding the good, the bad, and the ugly of progressive, leftist politics. I mainly want to focus in on Peterson's claim that wokeism is keeping young men from going to church.

To start, Peterson is simply wrong about his diagnosis. The "crisis" of young men going to church isn't due to wokeism. This "crisis" is a longstanding historical trend. "Where have all the men gone?" was a common concern throughout the Protestant Reformation. And the early church was criticized by pagan critics as being too popular among women. In short, Christianity has had a two-thousand year long "issue" regarding male involvement. Contemporary concerns about young men and the church are not new but reflect a longstanding challenge.

Okay, so if wokeism isn't to blame why might this trend exist? 

I'll confess that a proper answer would require a deep sociological analysis that I just haven't done. And I doubt any monocausal "explanation" will prove adequate. But let me dare to share a hunch. 

My suspicion is that a religion that makes kenotic love the preeminent virtue is always going to struggle with highly agentic types (i.e, those prone toward aggression, competition, and dominance). And as Jordan Peterson never tires of reminding us, on Big 5 tests men are, statistically speaking, more agentic than women. (In the “Big Two” personality model of agency/communion, women are higher on communion, traits associated with interpersonal connection.) Simply, I think cruciformity is just a hard message for highly agentic men. Always has been, always will. 

To be clear, I don't think being highly agentic means being "toxic." I'm just saying the Christian ethic of kenotic love is going to experience chronic friction with those who score higher on traits associated with aggression, competition, and dominance. And these people tend to be men.

A related issue concerns church life itself. Historically, church life has been both highly relational and patriarchal. This is a double whammy for highly agentic men. First, all the relational stuff at church holds little appeal to men who want to be off doing something active and competitive. Golfing or fishing will always be more appealing than singing "Oceans" for the millionth time. Plus, standing around on a Sunday doing a lot of small talk seems pointless and makes a lot of highly agentic men feel stupid and awkward. Second, churches have historically been patriarchal and hierarchical. Men have traditionally led churches. Which is great if you're one of the leaders. But if you're an agentic man, wired to chaff at being low on a dominance hierarchy, why would you give two flips about what Pastor Rick has to say? If you're wired to be an "alpha" submitting to authority is just no fun way to spend your time. You avoid it whenever you can. Highly agentic men aren't attracted to "being in submission" to other men.

Feel free to disagree with me about any of this. I'm just suggesting that there are some deeper and longstanding issues regarding men and Christianity that have nothing to do with Jordan Peterson's handwringing about wokeism.

Second, all that said, there is a challenge here. And Peterson is to be commended for drawing attention to the plight of young men. You might have not have a lot of sympathy for the "crisis of masculinity" in the modern world, but many do. Young men are struggling to figure out where they "fit" in the modern world. Many young men are lost. 

So, how to respond to this situation? 

Well, one way is to create an agentic version of Christianity. This was the vision of Mark Driscoll, who wanted to create a "masculine" version of Christianity. Jordan Peterson's message to the Christian churches is Mark Driscoll 2.0, suggesting that churches should offer young men an agentically-inflected Christianity. As Peterson says in the video: 
“The Christian Church is there to remind people — young men included and perhaps even first and foremost — that they have a woman to find, a garden to walk in, a family to nurture, an ark to build, a land to conquer, a ladder to heaven to build, and the utter, terrible catastrophe of life to face stalwartly in truth, devoted to love and without fear.”
Regular readers of this Friday series will know what I think of this passage, especially in light of what I shared above. I appreciate what Peterson is trying to do. I love his compassion for young men. And yet, what Peterson describes above just isn't Christianity. A "ladder to heaven to build" is the Tower of Babel, and the line "a land to conquer" is just evil. Also, as I've shared recently in this series, given Peterson's metaphysics, he preaches stoicism, not Christ. You see that in the line "the utter, terrible catastrophe of life to face stalwartly." To be clear, I'm a huge fan of both existentialism and stoicism. I agree that facing "the utter, terrible catastrophe of life" is a hero quest. It's Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Amen to all that. It's just not the Good News of Christianity.

Lastly, Peterson ends the video on a poignant false dichotomy. Shall the church care about social justice or attend to the souls of young men? To which I ask: And why is this a choice? I don't understand why fighting racism or having a concern about global warming involves turning your back on young men. I think it possible to care about all these things. I think you can care about something like sex trafficking and the crisis of young men at the same time. This seems easy to me, but it appears to have flummoxed Jordan Peterson. 

But does Peterson have a point that the church, by and large, has neglected to attend to the souls of young men? We can debate that. The church is a mixed bag. But it does seem to me that too many young men are lost in video games, porn, gun culture and drug use. And I think the church should care about this just as much as Jordan Peterson does. 

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