YouTube psy­chol­o­gist un­likely spir­i­tual teacher

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - RELIGION - TERRY MAT­TINGLY Terry Mat­tingly is the ed­i­tor of GetReli­gion.org and Se­nior Fel­low for Me­dia and Re­li­gion at The King’s Col­lege in New York. He lives in Oak Ridge,Tenn.

Ed­i­tor’s Note: This is the first of two columns about Jor­dan Peter­son and YouTube re­li­gion de­bates.

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 only Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and cat videos.

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 said pro­fes­sor’s lat­est book, 12 Rules for Life: An An­ti­dote to Chaos, sells 2 mil­lion copies, and when 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 men — can make de­ci­sions that change their lives, noted Bishop Robert Bar­ron, aux­il­iary bishop of Los An­ge­les and a pop­u­lar on­line Catholic 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.”

Peter­son is say­ing, stressed Bar­ron: “If you want to change the world, look at your­self and say, ‘OK, I’m do­ing cer­tain things wrong. Stop it.’ And that lit­tle move­ment can be ex­traor­di­nar­ily pow­er­ful.”

But is it pos­si­ble for sec­u­lar and re­li­gious peo­ple to agree on how to tell right from wrong? That was the big ques­tion loom­ing over a se­ries of dia­logues that Peter­son held with Sam Har­ris, the best-sell­ing au­thor of The End of Faith and other books, who was once known as one of the “four horse­men” of athe­ist apolo­get­ics.

At the end of one of their Toronto en­coun­ters, which reached YouTube late this sum­mer, Peter­son said he agreed with Har­ris on many is­sues in life.

Then the psy­chol­o­gist of­fered the fol­low­ing re­marks, a per­fect ex­am­ple of the dense state­ments that his fol­low­ers and crit­ics love to dis­sect.

“The devil’s in the de­tails, of course,” Peter­son said. “I don’t be­lieve that you can de­rive a value struc­ture from your ex­pe­ri­ence of the ob­serv­able facts. There are too many facts, you need a struc­ture to in­ter­pret them and there isn’t very much of you. … Part of the way that’s ad­dressed, neu­ro­log­i­cally, is that you have an in­built struc­ture. It’s deep. It’s partly bi­o­log­i­cal. It’s partly an emerg­ing con­se­quence of your so­cial­iza­tion. And you view the world of fact through that struc­ture and it’s a struc­ture of value. Now that struc­ture of value may be de­rived from the world of fact over the evo­lu­tion­ary time frame, but it’s not de­rived from the world of fact over the time frame that you in­habit. And it can’t be.”

Thus, he added, peo­ple can agree that there are log­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween “the hellish life and the heav­enly life — say, the life that ev­ery­one would agree is ab­so­lutely not worth liv­ing and the life that we can imag­ine as good. And I do be­lieve that we should be mov­ing from one to an­other. The ques­tion is, ex­actly, how is it that we make the de­ci­sions that will guide us along that way? I don’t be­lieve that we can make them with­out a pri­ori struc­ture. In fact, I think that the ev­i­dence is ab­so­lutely over­whelm­ing that we can’t, and I mean, also, the sci­en­tific ev­i­dence.

“I would like to go fur­ther into the devil that is in those de­tails. So that’s my sit­u­a­tion at the mo­ment.”

Next week: Why does Jor­dan Peter­son in­trigue be­liev­ers and non­be­liev­ers?

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