Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Power Claims and Culture Wars


Continuing with the Jordan Peterson – John Vervaeke dialogue… (part one here)

A couple of interesting comments in this exchange:

JV: Christianity is trying to integrate agape and logos together.

JP: Love is the goal and truth is its servant.  Truth is the servant of reality, and reality best manifests itself as love.

Generally, both Peterson and Vervaeke are – as has usually been the case – quite respectful of the Christian tradition, despite their each having less than satisfactory church experiences when young.

But I want to point to something else – something very important, something that I have been pointing to in this conversation (Peterson, Vervaeke, Pageau, VanderKlay): natural law.  Building on the reality that love, as Peterson points out, is the best manifestation of reality.  It is man’s telos, his highest purpose.  Pointing to it enables one to deduce the natural law.  It’s just that no one in this conversation ever says the two words.

Beginning here, they come to discuss the culture wars – Are the culture wars that deep?  The question, referring to the exchange immediately above, about love and truth, and if the culture wars today are a direct repudiation of this.  Instead of love and truth, our society is based on nothing but claims of power.

Which comes to my view that the enemy in the culture war is Christianity, but more specifically the enemy is natural law – with love as the goal (telos) for man and truth is its servant.

Peterson asks Vervaeke: is the culture war that deep?  Is it a claim of satanic possession of the West?  Vervaeke doesn’t answer the question, instead explaining how Foucault and Derrida (post-modernists to Peterson’s thinking) changed their views as they progressed in thought.

JP: is it reasonable for me to assume that Derrida’s and Foucault’s thinking is at the bottom of the claim that I am discussing, which culminates in the assumption that the exercise of arbitrary power is at the core of the Western endeavor?  Is that the center of the culture war?

JV: I think that’s symptomatic of something much deeper and has been going on much longer.

Peterson says that this is fair enough, but doesn’t answer the question: Peterson is looking for a corrective, if necessary, or agreement. “Am I taking this in the wrong direction, or am I seeing this clearly?”

JV: I want to say something other than those.

He then discusses his work in cognitive science.  He brings it back to Descartes – that we have entered a place that all knowledge is propositional, and what is happening is that the West is realizing that the propositional way is inadequate.

Peterson wants to return to his power claim – recognizing that Vervaeke may have answered this, but Peterson wants to move one step at a time.  Vervaeke doesn’t discount Peterson’s views, however he clarifies that it might be a misreading of Derrida.

JP: the reality that is most justifiable is brought about by the action of truth in the service of love.

JV: Yes.  But I guess what I am saying is that I see truth – there is something more than semantic [propositional] truth.  The answer to nihilism isn’t some propositional answer; it is to relearn or re-member what it is to fall in love with reality, with being.

Peterson comes back – we still haven’t addressed my claim about the exercise of arbitrary power being at the core of the Western endeavor.  Vervaeke offers: it is an equally nihilistic claim – it is an attempt to heal a wound, but it is mis-taken; it is framing the problem the wrong way. 

They further the discussion on propositional knowing, beginning here.  Peterson is struggling with what Vervaeke is getting at (and if he is, you can imagine my situation).  Vervaeke offers that there is the distinction of something propositional (knowing that something is the case, asserting the truth of the semantic content) and…he doesn’t say directly, but eventually comes to the point:

JP: and that’s akin to the proposition is to accept a certain set of propositions about God.


And Peterson says this is why he never answers that question, because it is the wrong framing of the question, to which Vervaeke repeats “EXACTLY, EXACLY.”  “Hey, man.  You’re helping me out here,” exclaims Peterson.

JV: We can’t reduce consciousness to…the logical relations between propositions.

JP: [Interrupting] It’s not propositional.

Which brings Peterson to suggest… “I think the atheist critique of religion is a critique at a propositional level.”  To which Vervaeke agrees.  (But, it seems to me, in the West we have reduced the Christians religion to the propositional – making Christianity an easy target to pick off).

JV: to think that religion is primarily about asserting propositions for which there is no evidence is to miss all of the non-propositional…religion isn’t about knowledge, it’s about wisdom

To which Peterson interrupts, “it’s about embodying it, worshiping it,” and Vervaeke agrees: “It’s about taking it into your identity.”  Celebration, worship.

JV: what we have done is we have confused modernity’s understanding of religion [propositional] with the phenomenon.

Which I think comes back to my comments about the distinction of the Reformed and the Orthodox traditions, at least in my experience.

JV: Meaning in life is mostly bound in the non-propositional.

Then followed lots of discussion that went over my head.  So, we move ahead in our programming….

JV: I do not think we are going to solve (and I mean that in cognitive scientific terms) the problem of consciousness without addressing fundamental ontology.

JP:  that’s where the consciousness studies field has it all wrong.  Consciousness isn’t the fundamental mystery; reality is the fundamental mystery.  And the secondary mystery is the relationship between consciousness and reality.  Is it a primary relationship?  That’s the ontological question.

JV: if you are going to be a realist, you have to admit into your metaphysics relationships between things that do not depend for their existence on us being aware of those relationships.  Things have to be able to influence and disclose each other in a way that is dark to us.

Vervaeke then pulls a Biblical reference, citing the first part of Psalm 42: 7 Deep calls to deep at the sound of Your waterfalls…

The relationship certainly depends on God’s existence, at least according to the Psalmist.  Which corresponds with the idea that there are relationships between things that do not depend on us being aware of these relationships.  Vervaeke doesn’t cite the second part of the verse, “All Your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me.”  Of this, we are quite aware, although too many care not to admit it.

The two discuss their criticisms of the new atheists – with Peterson referring to his Biblical series and Genesis, where he “approached the book with reverence,” and asked: “what, are we stupid that we have preserved this book and let it influence us for thousands of years?”

Which brought Vervaeke to offer his criticism of the new atheists also, but mentioning his criticism of many modern religious types, having bound themselves to a Cartesian conception of modernity and reality.

JV: the new atheists look for scientific knowledge in the Bible, and don’t consider how it cultivates wisdom. 

Look, I don’t want to start a denominational food fight here, but isn’t this a reaction to the Protestant view of the Bible as both science and history?  Didn’t Augustine warn about this 1600 years ago?

Peterson continues, making a remarkable (not for his, but for most Enlightenment thinkers) statement.  Basically, don’t confuse the church (I would say Christendom) with its dogma.  How I hear this: just because some (many) Christians either interpret the Scripture or advocate contrary to the wisdom of the Scripture, doesn’t mean the Scripture is wrong.  Maybe it is such Christians who are wrong.

But Peterson also recognizes positive things about dogma: it is the map.  Vervaeke follows: dogma is the inescapable need to set the criterion.  Credo follows and is in service to religio.  Religio is to bind, a connectedness. 

JV: the point of setting the criterion is to get as reliable a continuity of religio as you possibly can.  And when credo goes from ‘giving your heart’ to ‘I assert,” we stop seeing credo as integrally in service of religio. 

Natural law, gentlemen, natural law.  It flows so easily from the Genesis story, through Moses, to Plato, to Aristotle, to Jesus, to the Apostle Paul, and to Aquinas.  It points to the highest end for man: love – or, in Vervaeke’s words, “giving your heart.”  All of the thinkers, creeds, and dogmas that these gentlemen are discussing find the end of the road here – or, I should say, the beginning of the road.


Still not done.  About forty minutes to go.  Consider: I am only reviewing that which I (somewhat, and likely not very correctly) understand.  I would already have about three more posts if I understood it all.

But the one clear takeaway: looking at the Bible only through a Cartesian lens has cost the West – and, by extension, Christianity.  Don’t misunderstand me: I greatly value the Scriptural teaching in many Protestant / Reformed churches.  And I also see the failings in both institutional Catholicism and Orthodoxy.  But it is also worth considering the two-thousand-year-old tradition that gave birth to these.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that this meaning crisis – a crisis brought on by the reality that the Enlightenment ideal is failing and was destined to fail – is resulting a return to the church, but specifically to the traditional church (non-Cartesian): Orthodox, Catholicism (the Latin Mass).  And, in Protestantism, to the more culturally conservative denominations.


  1. What are ways a Protestant church can become more non-Cartesian in your view?

    1. I think it would help if the Bible was not taken in a historical / scientific way throughout. Certainly, much of it is history, but much of it can be read in other ways - even multiple ways.

      I think the idea of "proof texts" ("see, this proves it"), is valuable but can be overused. On many topics, there cannot be such certainty, as holders of a different view also have their "proof texts." Jehovah's Witnesses can point to text to demonstrate that Jesus was just a man.

      I think more leaning on the early Church fathers would help. We have the work of some who were disciples of the original disciples. For many centuries, they lived in a culture that better understood the times of Jesus while He was on earth. Sola Scriptura is valuable, but interpretation requires context, and these early church fathers lived in the context.

      Having said all of that, my experience in both a Protestant church and an Orthodox church has shown me that the latter should do much more teaching of Scripture, beginning with the young.

      Those are just some initial thoughts.

    2. Regarding the teaching of the Scriptures in the Catholic Church and in the Orthodox tradition, my experience teaching in a nominally Catholic University is that the Catholic undergraduates are ill grounded in the Bible. And that is despite the reforms (maybe because of them) of Vatican 2. Part of the liturgical reform of Vatican 2 involved mandating variable readings, on a three year cycle, from the Old Testament, the Epistles, and the Gospels on the Sundays and major feasts, with a weekday variable Gospel reading and a first lesson from either the OT or the Epistles/Revelation for the Eucharist. When I was a child, the Tridentine Use stipulated the same Epistle reading and Gospel for every Sunday of the year, repeated during the week when no feast/saint's day occurred. The current Orthodox practice is similar, with Old Testament readings provided for certain Vespers and Matins. In the older Roman use, the rest of the Bible was read in Matins of the Divine Office, similar to the scheme for Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. Ask any Catholic coming from a Vatican 2 Eucharist what the lessons were, and I would be surprised if even the Gospel passage was remembered. Though not exposed the whole of the Scriptures, the Tridentine Catholic would have known the Gospel text well from yearly repetition. Memory is an important faculty exercised in any rule of Prayer: assistance in probing the depth of the familiar. Ask any Orthodox Christian about the texts for the Sunday of the Final Judgment, few will fail to recall its details, since, from childhood, they have heard this passage. Ms. Kennedy from Fox news made a joke about goats going to Hell, which any Orthodox would easily find funny in the context of that Sunday. The Tridentine Use and Orthodox current practice provide variety, but also familiarity, an at-home-ness with certain Biblical passages which have become life long companions. IMHO, the new Catholic approach to liturgical Scriptural reading is an instance of roller skating through the Louvre: you have been exposed to much, but little time is given for digestion, comprehension.