Friday, August 16, 2019

Straddling Two Worlds

Walking the fine line between pagan and Christian

-          For the Love of God, Steve Vai

Jordan Peterson had a discussion with Steven Pinker; it was posted recently although it seems to have been recorded several months ago.  The topic was Progress, Despite Everything. 

Steven Pinker is an unabashed champion of the Enlightenment.  If one can point to the defining characteristic of the Enlightenment – the one idea that identifies it as an event, as an idea that has captured the West – it would be the death of God.  Man’s reason elevated above all else – pure reason.  From Immanuel Kant:

Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! "Have courage to use your own reason!" -- that is the motto of enlightenment.

Reason without direction from another.  Secondarily (or maybe a derivative), to be considered science, the study must now be objective – testable, touchable, provable, falsifiable.  Pinker is a big fan of the Enlightenment and sees nothing but, and only, the good in it.  Peterson certainly is a student of the Enlightenment, but it is clear by the intellectual path he is walking that he questions some of the premises and results.

There is another side to the Enlightenment, of course.  N.T. Wright reminds us that the guillotine and the Gulag are also products of the Enlightenment.  It is a side about which Pinker is – or chooses to be – ignorant.

I won’t dive deep into the discussion between Peterson and Pinker, but there are a few points worth touching on – everything paraphrased.  First…overall, I had the feeling that this conversation was a result of Peterson running the risk of fully losing his “card” – the one that all respectable intellectuals carry – and that Pinker was sent on a task to try and rescue Peterson from this catastrophe.  But it was just a feeling.

They begin the discussion commenting on the pushback Pinker has received – pushback given his praise of the Enlightenment.  Perhaps due to it being attributed to white history or some such, it is not clear.  Given the significant material progress, Pinker cannot understand at all the pushback.

Peterson also appreciates the progress, but seems hesitant – at least early in the conversation – to properly challenge Pinker on the negatives.  This, it seems to me, should be easy for Peterson: he gets caught up in the material progress discussion with Pinker, but this is really the wrong battle.  Peterson knows that the drawback isn’t the material progress.  It is in the lack of meaning brought on by measuring life merely on the basis of material progress. 

With God removed, man has lost meaning.  This has been Peterson’s message for more than a decade – and quite publicly for two years; it is resonating with a significant audience.  In any case, we see the results: count suicides or opioids, just as a start; or, witness the lack of desire in defending Western Civilization.

Peterson raises the point: what about the loss of Christianity?  Pinker shoots this down hard: Christianity is irrelevant – sure, a few tidbits leftover from that barbarous relic got through the filter of the Enlightenment, but it was just a little picking and choosing, nothing that was meaningful.  It all had to be dumped in order to finally see the light.

Doesn’t Peterson remember the wars of religion, asks Pinker.  Peterson properly refers to such wars as wars of tribalism.  I recall Hans Hoppe describing these wars as wars of state – the various nobles and princes used religion as a pretext to break free from the competing authority of Rome.  Pinker throws out the tired exaggerations of burning witches and the like (a speck in the eye of the political imprisonment and tortures since the Enlightenment); Peterson, unfortunately, has no response to this.

Of course, Pinker is both right and wrong about the value of Christianity.  The Enlightenment, after all, killed God.  So Christianity didn’t come through.  But Enlightenment ideas are built on a Christian foundation, and without this foundation we have Wright’s guillotine and gulag – and today’s despair in the West.  What we are living through is the inevitable outcome of a house without a solid foundation.

Pinker points out: there is no right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the Bible; no all men equal, etc.  Or if there is, it isn’t unique to the Bible.  Peterson tries to explain that all of this works in the West only if we believe that man is made in God’s image.  It was sadly pathetic to watch Peterson try to explain this to Pinker – as if they are speaking two different languages.

Peterson asks – well, then…where do all of these rights come from?  Pinker offers: our common humanity.  All you need in order to figure out ethics is to be a human!  Pinker’s Enlightenment is piled up with the bodies of this common humanity.

Remember, Pinker doesn’t see the guillotine or gulag in his paint-brushed world; these belong to another world.  It is even more pathetic, because while defending this golden age, Pinker decries the violence globally of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.  in other words, his case of progress rests on about the thirty years of history since the fall of the Soviet Union. 

Not even half a lifetime.  But if you are only concerned about pure reason – reason without direction from another – half a lifetime is about all you can count on.

Peterson ends by suggesting that it would be good to have a three-way conversation next time – to include Ben Shapiro for the religious perspective.

I really gagged on this.  Shapiro?  I know that there is a paucity of Christian thinkers on such topics, but Shapiro?  N.T. Wright could certainly do better; Peterson just talked to Bishop Barron – he could also do better; Edward Feser could certainly do better.  The thing is, none of the critics today tangle with Augustine or Aquinas or any of the dozens (hundreds) of brilliant minds that Christianity gave to the West…well, until the Enlightenment. 


All the best minds used to take this educational route – the route that included the metaphysical, the supernatural, the spiritual…whatever term you want to put on it.  No more – the best and brightest are not grounded in proper philosophy and theology.  The best and brightest today are trained precisely to avoid proper philosophy and theology.


  1. "Peterson ends by suggesting that it would be good to have a three-way conversation next time – to include Ben Shapiro for the religious perspective."

    They need a religious Christian perspective, and Shapiro is (100%) Jewish, so Shapiro will give them the religious perspective they need? Some serious equivocation and sleight of hand going on here. I suppose for Peterson, a secular scholar who dwells primarily on the Old Testament, Judaism and Christianity must seem pretty similar.

    But let's be clear: it was Christianity, not Judaism, that built the Western world. It wasn't Judaism that lost in the Enlightenment and in the revolutionary wars of 19th century Europe. The Jews were merely a merchant and money lending class with above average intelligence hanging on the coattails of Christian civilization.

  2. Small correction: the name is actually spelled "Shapiru".

    I reckon Molyneux, the atheist, would have better defended the legacy of Christendom than did Peterson.

  3. The war between good and evil has raged since before the written word. One side fights for Justice, the other for Just-us. They sound the same but the just-us involves killing the people that will not submit to evil.

  4. If the coercive state is to prevail, then the classical bedrock concepts that underpin Western Civilization and Christianity must either be made subservient to the coercive state... or destroyed.

    Christianity proclaims that every individual is created in the image of God.

    Classical Western Civilization alone has developed this truly radical concept over time.

    It was never fully embraced; in fact it has been violently rejected because the implications are quite profound.

    For if all individuals are made in the image of God, then the individual must be sovereign over themselves and their property.

    Outside of the family, there is no room for a coercive government under this paradigm.

    As the Bionic Mosquito has so ably pointed out, the church was... for a time, an effective check on the power of coercive governments in Western Europe.

    Tragically, that changed.

    To bring about their version of utopia the “children of the enlightenment” had to first kill off God, natural law and everything else that goes with it by any means necessary.

    This explains their hatred of classical Western Civilization and Christianity.

  5. First of all I'd like to point out that the material progress is a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, not of the Enlightenment. You'll have to argue that the Industrial Revolution could not have taken place without the Enlightenment if you want to hang on to Pinker's statement. That may not be so easy to prove, especially since they do not seem to be related.

    Secondly, the Middle Ages were pretty prosperous. If memory serves, it took until late in the 17th century to equal the levels of prosperity reached during the High Middle Ages. As we all know, the victor writes the history books and it serves the victor well to display the Middle Ages as dark, very dark.

    But indeed, the loss of meaning is of course the great hole left by the loss of Christianity and is replaced by an empty consumerism end equally empty hedonism: Nietzsche has seen it a long time ago already. Nonetheless we cannot return to Christianity, it is a thing of the past despite the fact that we've seem to have thrown out a baby with the bathwater.

    1. "Nonetheless we cannot return to Christianity, it is a thing of the past..."

      ...and of the present, and of the future.

    2. “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” - G.K. Chesterton

    3. I've never studied Nietzsche, so I have no idea what he saw a long time ago.

      The loss of meaning was brought about by the loss of Christianity, resulting in a great hole which was filled by meaningless consumerism and hedonism. Nonetheless, even though we lost Christianity, we can't dig ourselves out of the hole we're in by returning to it, but are doomed to look forward to a future which is devoid of anything meaningful--except to accumulate more stuff and experience more selfish pleasure. In other words, to dig deeper.

      Is this what you're saying? I really want to know.

      Perhaps you could explain your statement that "we cannot return to Christianity..." Why is this so? What is to prevent that from happening? What will people turn to when they tire, as they will, of empty consumerism and equally empty hedonism? What is going to fill the void in their lives if meaningful service to God and fellow man is not allowed? Nihilism? The death of humanity?

      Regardless of what anyone says, people have an innate hunger in their souls for a life of meaning and purpose. Consumerism and hedonism cannot satisfy that hunger because they are empty, as you say, but Christianity, which serves a higher calling than one's own satisfaction, can. It has. It does. And it will.

    4. ATL, that is a great quote.

      Roger, your last two paragraphs are gems. Thank you.

  6. Why can we not return to Christendom?

    Because too many no longer believe in God. I do not believe in God. I do not believe in his existence, his omnipotence, his omniscience or his benevolence. I do not believe that his son came to earth to pay and ultimately die for our sins. I do not believe in the miracles. In short: I am not a christian, despite the fact this is written in my passport. In Western Europe this is the default setting for some time already. The US may be different. I'm not competent to speak upon the US. But I suspect it's moving in the same direction.

    Now, I fully admit that Christianity was essential in the development of the West. Western civilization could not have become what it is without Christianity, although we also have to see that Christendom itself is, in turn, deeply embedded in the classical world. For instance, the official moral doctrine of the Catholic church is the one defined by Aquino and Thomas' morality is 75% Aristotelian.

    Nonetheless, it's a thing of the past, like a typewriter. I cannot see a resurrection. Therefore a new meaning must be discovered, formulated, possibly revealed or yes, we may go down in empty consumerism and hedonism.

    Nietzsche was the one who in the late eighteen hundreds famously proclaimed: Gott ist Tot!
    And then posed the question: but do you know what you have done? We are still trying to answer that question.

    1. Well, that's honest. Thank you.

    2. Youp,

      There are more Christians now than there ever have been in world history. Christianity is still the largest religion in the world. See Rodney Stark's "The Triumph of Christianity" for more on this.

      The main difference now (as opposed to the 'high water mark' of Christianity in the Latin Christendom of the Middle Ages), and the reason why we've all been led to believe we live in a 'secular age', is because we no longer have much of a Christian influence in our political leadership or at the cutting edges of culture: the universities and the media. There is no church out there that can excommunicate the POTUS (if only...), and the Christian universities are no longer the most prestigious ones making the biggest scientific and philosophical advancements.

      Perhaps Christians today aren't as religious or uniformly religious as they once were, but Mr. Stark had something to say about this too. Citing the complaints of religious leaders in the middle ages to their superiors, Stark pointed out that even back then, you had low turn out to religious services, and those that showed up were often drunk or otherwise unruly. Like many in America today cannot recount the basics of American governance when asked, many Christians back then could not answer questions correctly on the basics of Christianity.

      The situation is not so dire as we've been led to believe, especially by atheist psychologists like Jung and Nietzsche. Jung did have some interesting things to say about Christian revival (so long as everything historical about Jesus was shifted to the metaphorical) in his book "The Undiscovered Self", and he saw properly how absent religion, the state becomes the religion as it did in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

      But he was wrong that traditional Christianity (the one where we actually believe Christ died for our sins, rose from the dead three days later, and ascended into Heaven) has no future. It has certainly survived him, and I'll wager it will be around long after we're all dead too.

    3. I've read some of Rodney Stark's books, and they're a refreshing look at the history of Christianity as opposed to the usual simplistic views that are ventilated. The question I'm trying to find an answer to is: what exactly is it in Christianity that created the greatest civilization ever? Given that we are light years ahead of any previous great civilization, be it the Romans or a Chinese or Mongol empire. There really is no comparison.

      Christendom is based on Natural Law, but that was already known to the Greeks. In addition, Justinian laid down the legal code. Of course, the fact that every human being is created in the image of God quickly leads to the conclusion that life has value, that all life has value. The poor, the sick, the handicapped are looked after and, very important, property rights are better respected than ever before. Slavery is ended. Property rights, together with a relatively free market, always lead to economic prosperity; enhanced with many scientific inventions by the monks, who were the intellectuals of the time.

      But is that all? Isn't Christianity also about celebrating the glory that is life, with all that comes with it. Thereby creating a positive and enterprising mood, a desire to understand and explain life and its hidden secrets. When listening to Bach that's certainly the impression I get.

      Anyway, it's true that Christendom has been around for more than 2000 years and that it's always in trouble, yet somehow always survives. However, the current growth is mainly in Africa, Asia and South America; not in the developed world.

    4. Youp,

      You mentioned typewriters as an example of things of the past we can’t go back to. I agree with that, but not with the comparison to Christianity. Your target is incorrect.

      Typewriters, just before computers kicked them off the stage, were the culmination of centuries of mechanical improvements of the press. From Gutenberg’s printing press to the most modern typewriter of the 1980’s, they were tinkered with and improved on, getting better and better every time a new model was rolled out. When the digital revolution happened, however, the entire paradigm changed, virtually overnight, and typewriters were discarded wholesale. You can’t even give one away now. It is certain that digital is superior and preferred to analog, conferring countless benefits on society, all within the space of a few decades and just now getting up to speed.

      So too with Christianity. I am arguing that typewriters are analogous to ritually based religions which had evolved over time, from antiquity to the Hebrewism present at the time of Jesus. Christianity upended this system and the world has not been the same since. The rise of Christianity is comparable to the introduction of computers, with one important distinction: man-made computers will always have new, improved versions introduced, but in the world of Christianity, the perfect model, Jesus the Christ, has been revealed and is now in operation. There is no need to try to improve on that and, in fact, it can’t be done. Selfless love cannot be superseded. There will never be a superior model introduced. We do not have to search any longer for a better way, all that is required is that we put what has been given to us into action.

      I do not understand everything my desktop computer can do or is capable of. Due to my limited knowledge, I do not comprehend its full potential. I can, however, take what I am aware of and use it for my (and hopefully others) good. Occasionally I learn something new about the system and put it into practice, making my work more efficient and better. It does not follow that I should abandon it because there are glitches, hacks, bots, malware, and the like. I will never throw out my computer simply because others use theirs in wrong ways. In like manner, I will never discard my Christian faith and go back to the dark ages of my past selfish life or try to create some new type of ‘good’ by adhering to a newly invented law of ritualism or religiosity. The abuse of Christianity by some is not sufficient cause to "throw out the baby with the bathwater."

      Imperfect though the Christian religion is, it is incomparably better than anything else which has ever been, or will ever be, invented. Love trumps all. Perfect love is ours for the taking, if we can tap into it. I have seen the light. I will not return to the darkness.