Thursday, July 1, 2021

It’s Complicated


Jordan Peterson and John Vervaeke had a conversation.  Two extremely intelligent and well-educated men, talking to each other – often at a level that was beyond at least one member of the audience (and I won’t speak for anyone else, but I doubt I am alone).

The first thing that struck me about this conversation, however…when Peterson first came back from his long absence, his part in the conversation was understandably a bit disjointed.  But more, he would often interrupt with his thoughts.  The last few conversations (I only watch the few that seem of interest) have gone better – Peterson is doing a better job of listening.

But in this conversation, he is constantly jumping in.  Perhaps it is because the conversation is so mentally stimulating that his mind is moving a mile a minute.  Vervaeke, to his credit, doesn’t let this upset him.

At this point, they enter into a brief dialogue about the relationship of dialogue and Christianity.  Regarding dialogue, Peterson asks Vervaeke: where do you put the Christian spin on this?  They both chuckle a little about this, Vervaeke stumbles, and Peterson is heard saying “sorry, John.”

Vervaeke comments on a conversation he had with Paul VanderKlay, in which Vervaeke gave a description of agape that VanderKlay felt was one of the best descriptions he had heard – saying, it’s odd for a non-Christian to be doing this.  To which Peterson replies, “well, somebody had to.”

Vervaeke: That’s fair enough. 

Peterson: God, what a nasty bastard I am.

I will come to what I believe is the relevance of these comments.  But first…There was a bit of a tone of contempt in this interchange – something that I have not really heard from either of these two when it comes to the discussion of Christianity in this context.  Perhaps it is two academics letting their hair down? 

They will come back to topics of Christianity later in the discussion, so it will be interesting to see how this develops; from everything in their past conversations – separately or together – they have been quite respectful of the Christian tradition.

For Peterson, the one time I recall his directly expanding on his disappointment with the church was in his conversation with Bishop Barron, a portion of which I have captured here:

Barron: if you want to be a good priest, go out where people are suffering, in the depths of suffering.

Peterson: so, then what’s wrong with what you guys are doing?  Why isn’t it working?  What’s the problem?

Barron: it’s true that we’re not doing enough of that, and I do think we have succumbed too much with the modern thing, which is a pre-occupation with rights and freedom and my individuality.

Peterson: well, you see this so much in church activism right now, where the church seems to be replacing itself in some sense with social activism.  It’s like “we’ve got enough social activists.”

Which I have considered from the first time I heard Peterson: why is he doing the work of the church (not the “salvation” part, but the “giving man meaning” part) better than those in the church?  Why is a student of the Enlightenment doing a better job of confronting the downside of Enlightenment thought than those who are not supposed to have succumbed to the Enlightenment’s death of God?

Moving on: in this section, they discuss the difference between the Cartesian and theological view of knowledge.  After a few minutes of background to set the stage – the idea of knowing Plato’s forms and conforming one’s mind to these (you are shaping yourself to the form of the cup, or form of whatever) ….

Vervaeke: this is the difference between a Cartesian and a theological approach to knowledge, because the Cartesian approach is ‘I don’t have to undergo transformation in fundamentally in who I am in order to know.  I just have to properly organize my propositions.’

But if you go before Descartes, even reading was pursued not informatively but transformatively.  The idea was ‘unless I go through fundamental transformations, there are deep truths that will not be disclosed to me.’  That’s a conformity theory of knowing as opposed to a representational theory of knowing.

And what happens, what I am saying, is that people feel themselves being conformed to the reality of the logos.

As happens too often to be happenstance (where I come across something applicable to that which is on my mind), it ties into a comment I made just before watching this video.

…some things are difficult to put into words. When you ask: is it different? How? Why?

I have mentioned before...I have an extensive history in, first, a Reformed church (sermon focused, educational, like a classroom), then a long experience in an Orthodox church (liturgical, meaningful, emotional, but little direct Scriptural teaching, just worshipful "doing"), and have recently returned to a Reformed church with an even longer sermon.

I have such difficulty putting into words the reasons why I value the Orthodox liturgy to those who have not lived in it and appreciated it over the course of many years. The "reasons" don't register for those who only know the classroom style Reformed sermon.

The Reformed service is Cartesian; the Orthodox liturgy is transformative.  In the Reformed service, I learn informatively – I am organizing my propositions, memorizing Scripture, etc.  In the Orthodox liturgy, I conform my mind (soul? spirit?) to the form of the liturgy, gaining a knowledge of the logos in such a manner. 

I might take this a step further: the Reformed service is a very “scientific,” Enlightenment-type approach: prove it to me from the text.  Perhaps this is why, at least to my understanding, things like needing to prove that the first few chapters of Genesis were scientifically and historically true is far more important to many in the Reformed tradition than anything I experienced in the Orthodox – where I never encountered, in my attendance or in my reading of Christian history, the same zeal on the matter.

I say this not suggesting one is better than the other, just that one reaches me differently than the other.  Having said all of this…this demonstrates one reason (not nearly the most important reason) why it was necessary that the Platonic form of the cup (God) was made manifest into Aristotle’s cup (Jesus).  We “know” the form of a perfect triangle because we know triangles.  We know the form of the perfect human because we know Jesus.

And from here, we begin to know natural law.


I am twenty-nine minutes into a two-and-a-half-hour conversation.  In order to not abuse the readers, I will break this review into more than one post.


  1. That's all good reflection BM. I was drawn to this statement.

    "The Reformed service is Cartesian; the Orthodox liturgy is transformative. In the Reformed service, I learn informatively – I am organizing my propositions, memorizing Scripture, etc. In the Orthodox liturgy, I conform my mind (soul? spirit?) to the form of the liturgy, gaining a knowledge of the logos in such a manner."

    What if you practiced conforming your mind or soul to what you are experiencing in the Reformed service?

    What you describe in following the Orthodox liturgy is what I would loosely call "devotional". It involves self-reflection and reflecting on the presence and truth of God. You are showing your devotion through the different things in the liturgy. You are actively worshipping or showing your obedience/devotion to God.

    You can do the same thing while listening to a sermon or singing a song. Of course we (I) can get caught up in either critiquing the sermon or treating it is simple knowledge to master. Or you can take that knowledge and have it master you. You can reflect on how or how you are not conforming to truth. We (I) can also get caught up performing while singing hymns or praise songs. The attention is on self. Or we (I) can instead sing directly to God in an attitude of devotion, obedience, thanks, etc with the attention on Him.

    I agree. It is easy to approach sermons in a Cartesian manner. I do it too and need to check myself more to make sure I am approaching it in the right manner.

    1. "What if you practiced conforming your mind or soul to what you are experiencing in the Reformed service?"

      It is too much square peg, round hole. It happens during the singing (but for me, only with those songs that are in public domain).

      "It involves self-reflection and reflecting on the presence and truth of God."

      Yes, but also there is more "community" in it, exchange with each other, exchange with the priest and deacons, etc.

  2. "this is the difference between a Cartesian and a theological approach to knowledge, because the Cartesian approach is ‘I don’t have to undergo transformation in fundamentally in who I am in order to know. I just have to properly organize my propositions.’"

    Maybe an analogy resides in the comparison between an armchair quarterback and an actual professional quarterback. The former can memorize all the playbooks and know all the audibles and all the possible defensive sets he might face. He might know exactly what the correct throwing motion is supposed to look like and where to put his fingers on the ball and the mechanics of release to achieve a perfect spiral.

    He might know everything there is to know about quarterbacking that one can learn from an armchair, but without any real experience, if you put this man under center in a live game he will fail miserably every single snap. There are a million different things to know about being a quarterback that you cannot get from an armchair. And all the things you can know from it have to be incorporated into your intuition, reflexes, habits, and natural movements, so that you can utilize them quickly and efficiently under duress - while men larger and meaner than you are coming to hurt you as fast as they can.

    A book alone can't teach you when to step up in the pocket to avoid being crushed from your blindside while you are looking downfield at the routes of four receivers and 6 defenders in coverage. (I was a quarterback all through high school, so I'm not totally ignorant of the requirements of the job, though Tom Brady I was not).

    True religion I think is similar. It isn't enough to know the faith. If you only 'know' it and don't also 'do' it, you don't really even know it. We have to make it a habit and live it. Liturgy is built for this. Avoiding and rejecting sin can be very difficult, especially in today's world. What Jesus asks of us is hard, and so we have to prepare. We have to practice and build the right muscles. But we can't only be Christians on Sundays, so we must get out and live the faith by helping others and being a good representative of Christ. This is where I struggle.

    1. One is a classroom lecture, the other is a group of people interacting. One speaks to the mind, the other to the heart.

      Of course, neither is this stark - it isn't totally black and white. And I don't say one is better than the other - I find value in both.

    2. I agree. I think both are necessary for a rock solid life in Christ.

      All I had growing up was liturgy, and so I ended up losing my faith for a while because I became convinced the Church didn't have a good intellectual or historical foundation. It was a beautiful story that didn't hold up to the cold calculating crucible of reality. My faith was centered in my heart and so when my enemies attacked my faith via my brain, I had no defenses and doubt defeated me. It wasn't until I built up defenses on this front that I regained my faith in God.

      But it took longer to accept the specific faith in Christ again. Seeing in history where 'deism' led was part of it. It also took accepting that my refusal of Christ was based, at its root, on pride. So in the end it was humility that led me to again accept the outstretched hand of Jesus.