Jordan Peterson has had a string of excellent conversations recently. I would say three in a row, in fact:
· The Language of Creation, with Matthieu Pageau (brother of Jonathan, equally as gifted but not nearly as public)
I will focus on only one of these, the conversation with Dr. Kreeft. I will only focus on one because just this one will require several posts to cover. Yes, you could listen to the podcast instead (I encourage it), but in this series of posts I will attempt to tie together some of their comments with threads that I have been explored in my writing.
For convenience, PK = Peter Kreeft; JP = Jordan Peterson.
PK: I love the old story about some peasants hauling stones on logs through the mud in a storm in order to build one of the great medieval cathedrals. A visitor from another country asked one of the peasants, “what are you doing?” And he was sweating and cursing and saying ‘I am trying to get this damn stone through this damn mud.”
And he asked another peasant – who was doing the same thing, but smiling – what he was doing. And he said, “I am building a cathedral.”
There is significance to a task if you start at the end of the chain: what is the purpose? Toward what am I aiming? The first man had no purpose in his task; he did not see, or did not value, the end – the telos. Apply this same lack of meaning to most aspects of life, as is the case for many in the West today, and you have a meaning crisis…which means a crisis brought on by a loss-of-meaning. A life without meaning – can you imagine a bigger waste of this gift of life that we have been given?
As for the second man…Peterson has often said (but not this time), and perhaps he was citing someone else: a man can suffer any how if he understands and values the why. But we live in a world where there is no why:
Why are we here?
Because we’re here.
Roll the bones
- Rush, Roll the Bones
This is all the materialist-atheist can offer – we’re here because we’re here. “Because” is a child’s retort when asked “why” about something that would rather not be faced. It is a reply as meaningless as the life it envisions.
No purpose, no design, nothing higher. We are the result of random atoms smashing together randomly. There are a small handful of individuals who are able to find meaning in such a life. And of these almost all of them find a meaning toward evil, only a few find a meaning toward good. But for most of humanity, a life without purpose offers no meaning.
Peterson understands this, although he also usually will just say “do something meaningful.” Of course, Stalin and Hitler did do something meaningful…. But still Peterson continues to explore:
JP (asking rhetorically): What should be at the highest point? Is it a description or is it a spirit? Well, it has to be a spirit. A description doesn’t provide a guide to perception and action. What human beings need at the highest place is something to emulate and act out and see through.
We have been given something to emulate that is even more valuable than a spirit – something more than the abstract form of the good. We have been given the form of the good made manifest: Jesus Christ. No matter the protestations of today’s atheists, Jesus represents the archetype for man. But He offers (and is) so much more. This will be touched on in future posts.
Kreeft offers that the reason why many prefer abstractions (a description) – especially in academia but elsewhere – is because they are safe. They won’t disappoint you the way a being or a spirit will.
PK: Nietzsche is the key thinker here, because he is the first, as far as I know, in the history of human thought to explicitly deny the will to truth. Why truth? Why not, rather, untruth? This conflict tears the human heart apart more radically than anything I have ever encountered.
Read again the last sentence. Isn’t this so, right now – today; hearts torn apart? We are offered lies (untruth) at every turn, on every meaningful subject, by those who have leading roles in society – politicians, businessmen, academicians, and clergy. We live in a society not built on rock – we have nothing firm on which to stand. Or, in the words of Nietzsche’s madman:
Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?
A meaning crisis. Returning to the discussion:
PK: Therefore, postmodernism is a much greater danger than atheism. Because the atheist can still have that will to truth whereas the postmodernist has lost it.
Arguing about objective truth at least recognizes the reality of objective truth. When there is no such thing as objective truth (a man can be a woman is one example that comes to mind), there is no chance for meaning in life; a house built on the sand of subjective truth or “I have my truth” cannot stand. All there is in life is dragging the stone through the mud…with no “why” behind it.
Then the topic moves to freedom:
JP: God says, let my people go. But that isn’t the whole phrase. He says, let my people go so they can serve me in the wilderness. This is very different than just “let my people go,” which can be seen as a call to hedonistic freedom.
This speaks to so many things, one of which is that freedom is conditional and conditioned. We are free to live according to our purpose, according to our design, according to…natural law ethics. Absent this, freedom leads inevitably to hedonism…and nihilism.
I have had an extensive conversation with Roger, one that has helped me better understand and explain my thoughts about natural law, man’s purpose, etc. The conversation begins here. Read the thread and you will see my evolution. The topic is a discussion of means and ends in the frame of natural law.
I used to write: our purpose, the reason for our being, is to love. Through my conversation with Roger, my thought has changed, because another question remains. Why are we to love? Our purpose (or end, or telos) is deification, or theosis: to become Christ-like – a phrase that Protestants will be more comfortable with, I believe.
The way St. Athanasius put it will sound controversial to many:
God became man that man might become God.
Now, a good Orthodox Christian would say that, unlike God, we will always remain in a state of becoming – in other words, we will never become God. This as opposed to God, who is, and was and always will be…God.
Now, you might ask: why become Christ-like? Why isn’t this “why” the next (or last “why”? two answers, one for atheists, one for believers. For atheists: Jesus is the archetype. This has been true for two-thousand years and remains so today. Write a better story: God sacrificed Himself / His son in order to save the world. We weep when Iron Man snaps his finger in Endgame, ensuring the survival of the world while also ensuring his death. Multiply that story by a few trillion.
For Christians…the answer is obvious, it is given. We accept it as an objective truth.
So, to become “Christ-like” is our purpose, our end, our telos. How do we do this – what is the means? Jesus gave us the answer:
Matthew 22: 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Love is the means, not the end.
Roger asked me to provide my definition of natural law, to which I replied:
It's an interesting ask, given that I have written countless words on the topic. But it forces me to try to say something succinctly. I reserve the right to further refine this, but here is a starting point:
When a being acts in accord with its created purpose (or end, telos), and acts according to the means as intended by its creator, that being is living in accord with natural law.
In other words, natural law speaks to proper action in means and proper objective in ends.
In order for a being or thing to act in accord with natural law, one must understand the purpose of the being or the thing.
Roger closed with a question:
Are natural law and love synonymous or are they two separate operating principles working together toward the same goal--to rule and reign in the Name of God? As Christ did and does.
Natural law describes behavior, and the proper filter through which we pass our behavior is love. I used to end it here, with the answer to the last “why” as love – why we do X is out of love.
This is where my conversation with Roger has altered my understanding, because I used to leave it here. There is another question that follows – another why. Why do we love? We love in order to become more Christ-like. There is no “why” after this.
And this is why natural law ethics can never be fully understood or lived or sustained absent Christ and Christianity.