Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Part 34, To Love all of God's Children

Just a reminder from last week's post that I'm away from my copy of Maps of Meaning, so we're in a bit of a holding pattern. This week I'd like to revisit Jordan Peterson's "Message to the Christian Churches" which I wrote about two weeks ago. 

I'd like to talk some more about this particular passage in Peterson's address:

“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.”
You'll recall I had some critical things to say about the lines "a land to conquer" and "a ladder to heaven to build." I left alone the other lines, lines like "a woman to find" and "a family to nurture."

Why did I pass over those lines? Well, in online spaces trying to say anything productive about gender and sexuality is like grabbing the third rail. The "third rail" being defined by one online idiom dictionary as "an issue or topic that is so controversial that it would immediately damage or destroy one's political career or credibility." But here goes...

It's almost impossible to say anything about gender or sexuality without your words being pulled to one side or the other in the culture wars. And for a person like me, this isn't solely a worry about "cancel culture." As someone who finds themself "in-between" progressives and conservatives--though not really "in-between" but just plain different--I worry about the right as well as the left mishearing what I'm trying to say or do. But I'm going to try here to say something at the risk of grabbing the third rail and this blowing up in my face.

In think the church is having a problem talking about gender and sexuality because of the dual meanings of the word "normative," and how those dual meanings create misunderstandings and slippery usage. Specifically, on the one hand, "normative" can mean the statistical norm, as in the "average." On the other hand, normative can mean a standard of behavior, as in the ethical and moral norms guiding right conduct. 

Now, of course, these things can bleed into each other. Statistical norms tend to create moral norms. What the majority of folks do or think tends to create the expectation that this is how you ought to act or think. But as we know, there's no logical connection here. Something can be the statistical norm and not be the ethical norm. The majority can be wrong. The minority can be right. 

In a different but related way, in social psychology there's a distinction between descriptive norms and prescriptive norms. Descriptive norms are what people actually do, and prescriptive norms are what people ought to do. These can be different. For our purposes regarding the slippery meaning of the word "norm," something can be descriptively "normal" (i.e., what most people are doing) but not ethically warranted. Normal is no guarantor of rightness. Consider pornography. Descriptively, pornography usage is "normal." Most people consume pornography. But does that mean pornography usage is ethical? We can debate that. But the debate highlights the differences in what we mean by "normal" and "norm."

Okay, back to Jordan Peterson's lines "a woman to find" and "a family to nurture." Recall, Peterson's message to the Christian churches concerns the ability of the church to appeal to the hearts and minds of young men.

Now, statistically speaking, as a descriptive norm, Peterson is correct. Most surveys have around 7% of the population identifying as LGBTQ. That means 90-95% of the population is cisgender and heterosexual. That's not surprising given the facts of human reproduction and its central role as the engine of biological evolution. And what that means, while hard for progressives to hear, is that Jordan Peterson is correct. Most young men--around 90-95%--do want "a woman to find" and "a family to nurture." And to sharpen the point, any church unwilling to say this out loud to 90-95% of the population is going to struggle from a messaging perspective. As the LGBTQ community has taught us, in quite profound ways, sexuality sits at the heart of human identity and selfhood. So it stands to reason that a church that cannot clearly speak into the deepest and most profound issues affecting 90-95% of the population will quickly face demographic headwinds. Statistically speaking, Peterson's message "a woman to find" and "a family to nurture" is a winning message. It's a message that will resonate with 90-95% of the population. The numbers are wholly on Peterson's side. 

And yet!

And yet, Peterson's lines "a woman to find" and "a family to nurture" likely were not heard statistically and descriptively. Those lines were likely heard prescriptively and morally. That is, the lines "a woman to find" and "a family to nurture," given Peterson's involvement in the culture wars, especially regarding transgender persons, are shots being fired in the culture wars. Those lines were "red meat" for conservatives and traditionalists. 

Which brings me to my point, as I inch closer to the third rail...

I'll say it plainly again: the descriptive does not logically imply the prescriptive. Most people in these debates don't monitor that logical distinction, but I think the church needs to if it wants to speak truthfully, impactfully, and inclusively about sex and gender in the modern world. 

Simply put, if a church wants to be pastorally relevant to the majority of young men it needs to recognize that 90-95% of young men actually do want "a woman to find" and "a family to nurture." Descriptively and statistically speaking, this is true. And yet, most progressive churches can't find their pastoral voice for this 90-95% as a recognition of that statistical norm is very prone to be interpreted as exclusionary and "heteronormative." And yet, heterosexuality is "normative," descriptively and statistically speaking. But again, that doesn't imply moral or ethical normativity. Notice how the meaning of "heteronormative" is sloshing back and forth. 

To try to state this simply and clearly, the church needs to respond to real demographic trends if it wants to have a significant evangelistic and pastoral impact upon the world. But responding impactfully to large demographic groups doesn't necessarily imply making ethical or moral judgments of minority populations.

Of course, it totally sucks to be in the statistical minority. (And you can blame Mother Nature for this as much as the Bible. And if you're an atheist you have to lay all the blame on Mother Nature.) Minority stress is a real thing that affects mental health. Consequently, we should do everything we can to mitigate this stress. We need to say, over and over, that not every young man wants "a woman to find" or "a family to nurture." But at the same time we should also take care, in caring for the minority, to not ignore the desires and pastoral needs of the 90-95%.

That, in a nutshell, is the question I'm asking. Are we forced, even doomed, into making a choice here? 

Must we so exclusively and aggressively focus on the 90-95% that the 5-10% feel marginalized, ignored, and excluded? Must we use a statistical norm to morally stigmatize the minority? 

Or must we so center the 5-10%, in light of legitimate fears about minority stress and stigma, that we never say anything directly and compellingly to the 90-95%? Must we message ourselves into a demographic death spiral? 

Do we have to choose here? Or can we pastorally recognize the needs and desires of both the majority and the minority? Cannot both be done? 

Here's what I think. I think a church that privileges the 90-95% over the 5-10% can win the numbers game. Many evangelical churches are going with this strategy. But at the cost of diversity, love and inclusion. By the same token, I think that the progressive churches who can't talk directly and compellingly to the hearts of 90-95% of the population are messaging themselves into extinction, to say nothing about ignoring the pastoral needs of the majority of people they are called to love in the world. In my opinion, the church should speak in compelling ways, evangelically and pastorally, to the entire world, to both the 90-95% and the 5-10%. That such churches are rare may imply that what I'm asking is impossible, especially in such a polarized world. But I think rare means hard rather than impossible.  

That conservatives will be upset with this post, because I don't morally stigmatize the 5-10%, is to be expected. That progressives will be upset with this post, because my calling for recognition of the pastoral needs of the 90-95% will entrench heteronormativity, is to be expected. Maybe I've grabbed the third rail here. But I have this deep and crazy conviction that the church is called to love all of God's children, both the 90-95% and the 5-10%. 

To love all of God's children. It might be just that hard and simple. 

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