Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Meaning and Happiness


I have been waiting to see the discussion between Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Pageau.  Based on Peterson’s comments and reactions, I suspect Peterson has been waiting for this discussion also.  Peterson is clearly struggling with this line he is trying to walk – the fine line between pagan and Christian.

I am only about half-way through it, but I found the following very valuable, and perfectly in line with thoughts that I have been working through.  Following are Peterson’s comments.  I will thereafter add a couple of thoughts:

It isn’t obvious to me that anyone wants to live a meaningless existence.  I don’t think you can live a meaningless existence without becoming corrupted, because the pain of existence will corrupt you without a saving meaning.

And it also seems to me that you can sell the story that meaning is to be found in responsibility.  When I have tried to sell that story to myself, I seem to buy it and when I have tried to communicate it to other people it renders them silent – large crowds of people silent.

And that’s strange, because I am not sure why that is.  It’s perhaps because the connection between responsibility and meaning have never been made that explicitly somehow, because meaning gets contaminated with happiness or something like that [here Pageau lets out a chuckle] but it’s to be found in responsibility.  But there isn’t any responsibility that’s more compelling than trying to aid things in the manifestation of their divine form.

That should be an adventure that could be sold.  And I don’t know why the church can’t do it.  I don’t understand that, because it seems to me that that’s something I have done, at least in part.  And that accounts for the strange popularity of the Biblical lectures in particular.

And I do believe that the right striving is to attempt with all your heart to encourage things to develop toward that divine goal – like what else would you possibly do, once you think that through?  You are always aiming at something that’s better, or you wouldn’t be aiming.  You’re always moving toward something that’s better or you wouldn’t be moving.  So why wouldn’t you move towards the greatest good.

First, on the point of meaning and happiness.  Meaning is to be found in happiness, but not the superficial understanding of that term today.  The Latin is beatitudo, often translated as happiness, but better translated as fulfilment, and this through other-regarding action.  If this definition doesn’t fit Peterson’s prescription, I will eat a shoe.

Pageau chuckles at the idea of meaning to be found in happiness.  But this must be only because he isn’t aware of the depth of the word “happiness.”  If he understood it as other-regarding action, he wouldn’t chuckle.

Second, Peterson wonders why the church can’t or isn’t selling the message that Peterson found so fruitful.  We take action to move toward something better, or we wouldn’t bother taking action.  And if that’s the case, why wouldn’t you aim for that which is best – the greatest good.

Earlier in the discussion, the two of them spoke of Jesus Christ as (at minimum) the archetype of that greatest good.  Jesus offered the greatest commandment, and the second just like it.  Both involved love: other-regarding action.  Here is to be found meaning…and happiness.


  1. First point, it is interesting how this discussion fits into your thoughts BM. In terms of the church this type of meaning is described with two theological words: sanctification and evangelism. These are the responsibilities of Christians and they do bring happiness in the beatitudo sense and the emotional sense for those who believe in Jesus. Further, the elements of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 commonly known as the beatitudes fit this definition for the purpose of life or the meaning of life. It is God directed and other directed action.

    Second point, this is what any healthy church does today. I know of many who do this. It is curious to me why Peterson says that churches don't do this. Even those who do it don't always do it well. But those two things are the main thrusts of any church I have been involved in since adulthood: sanctification and evangelism.

    My question is BM how is this conversation similar/different than the other two that you have shared with us? They sound like they contradict his comments here about finding meaning in divine responsibility. That doesn't fit with going along with the systems of power and living for affluence. That sounds like what Schaeffer describes as a loss of faith in meaning leading to apathy about it leading to the pursuit of an easy and convenient life. What is to explain this clear contradiction?

    1. Wow, RMB, you got me to write what could be another post. But I will leave it here:

      Regarding what the church is or isn't doing, where it's failing, etc... Peterson has opened the door to Christianity for many people by speaking on taking up responsibility.

      Churches can speak of sanctification and evangelism all they want. But too many also speak of a prosperity gospel, Scofield worship of the state of Israel, worship of militarism and torture, "just do it because I am the bishop," thinking that what happens in this life is irrelevant, every word of the Bible can only be taken literally (the science and history), worship of woke culture and “systemic racism.” (I think I just covered a large majority of churches in the US).

      So, yes to sanctification and evangelism, but they are then speaking out of two sides of their mouth when they preach these false and, in some cases, evil doctrines listed above (among many others). And, as can be seen from the list above, many specifically take positions contrary to responsibility.

      As to how is this conversation different…this is why I was waiting for the Pageau conversation. In the previous conversations, Peterson was actively, and sometimes passively, avoiding the topics that touched on woke culture and the government and media actions that shove this down our throats. He was doing his best to stay within the acceptable (to academia and the broader society) subset of his views.

      In this conversation, he certainly did not go after the woke culture, etc. But what he did do was open up again to the need for meaning, and that it is through Christianity that this can be best found. He went after the nihilism of our age.

      He also exposed himself – he is struggling with what seems to be his need to acknowledge the reality of the Christian God and the reality of Jesus, but his moderate-left Enlightenment side is not allowing him to let go – although it is clear he wants to do so. He complained about religious leaders that don’t act according to their beliefs – that this is one reason that stops him from taking the plunge.

      I offered a comment at the PVK review of this discussion:

      Christians: “Man is fallen.”

      Jordan Peterson: “I can’t believe Christians because man is fallen.”

      Christians: “Yes, that’s what we said. Why do you say you don’t believe us?”


      Jesus: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

      Peterson: “I can’t take Christians seriously, because some of them are ravenous wolves.”

      Jesus: “Yes, that’s what I said. Did you think I was not serious?”

      End comment.

      I know many people get bent about Peterson and what he is or isn’t relative to any particular Christian tribe (or Christianity more broadly considered). Also, that he isn’t perfect on the things he claims (free speech, etc.). Welcome to the club; we are all fallen.

      I think of the following, from Mark 8: 38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” 39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us.

      Many people are exploring Christianity because of Peterson. Many are leaving the new atheist camp because of Peterson. This is undeniable. That he has come back to this conversation is meaningful.

    2. I get it. He felt more comfortable having this conversation with Pageau than with the others and he is still straddling the two worlds a bit.

      I don't have a harsh opinion of him for that. Previously, it sounded like he had completely gone back on his search for true meaning. I was and will be more harsh, at least in my mind, if that is where he ends up.

      I am thankful for anyone who turns away from materialism to God on account of his teaching whether he is fully on board or not. While he is on this path in whichever way I consider him an ally.

    3. He is searching, and your first paragraph summarizes this well. I do believe that he is now purposely avoiding the woke topics (at least this has been true thus far); the thing is, I find these quite intertwined with the loss of meaning in the West (what meaning can one have if one's own identity can be whatever one wants it to be?).

      But this might save Peterson from further abuse - although the radical left never forgives or forgets. We will see.

  2. Intellectual approaches can be intuitively guided and inspired, but will seek to fit the New Wine (Revealed Meaning) into the old paradigm of narrative attempts to solve inner conflict by casting out to a 'world' that is 'othered' by the act of self-alienation. A prodigal mis-taken identity-inheritance.
    Creation is One in Many, as Many in One. There is no 'other' but a fear-belief. Love reveals 'Brother' as in Jesus' two (selected) commandments.
    To let revealed Meaning abide in us, to give welcome rather than recoil, willingness rather than terms and conditions of possession and control set as judgements, is to become an instrument of Thy Peace, rather than a blocked channel of conflicted self-referencing 'meanings' that take image and form as if fixed or locked down reality of support for self set in grievance, lack and loss.
    True resonance is Communication and Synchronicity - but the identity set in lack and grievance of loss invokes All the king’s horses and all the king’s men as an exercise in futility. Wholeness or Meaning is always already the premise of all true profit. A house divided cannot stand (itself).
    It doesn't matter what anyone 'identifies as' or masks in, so much as what they live or embody as the gift of their presence. Love is not copyrighted or patented by any 'identity' for love is That which identifies Everything and Everyone truly. Look past the dead mask to the Living, by receiving love in place of getting a self-reinforcement. Yes, waking responsibility is key, as is releasing the burden of false responsibilities. The Holy Spirit reveals the false from the true to your freedom to accept one and release the other. Addiction to thinking persists in seeking both.
    A Course in Miracles is one of my inspirational Companions - but there is no truth IN any book in and of itself. Willingness to listen is the Receptive, and trusting the movement of our being is the Extension of love as this very moment, situation, relationship, world.
    Give to God what is due unto God. Giving to 'power-in-the-world' is sacrifice of love to a dead set of idols or ideals. What we give to God rather than seek to wrest meaning from, is then cleansed or purified and given back as a more truly integrated experience of self and world.
    Yielding to our true being is not sacrifice of anything but invested illusions. One step at a time.