Roger Scruton and Jordan Peterson have captured the attention of the Christian imagination in a way few, if any, explicitly Christian writers, thinkers, or movements in recent years can claim to have done. Intellectually serious Christians who come across them cannot help but be fascinated by the way in which these public intellectuals have been able to reach down into our secular culture and extract an unmistakably Christian message, without putting off readers or listeners who do not have any concrete religious convictions to speak of, let alone any experience of institutional Christianity. Both have tapped into a growing sentiment in our otherwise disenchanted culture that Christian civilization in the West may be worth preserving after all, even at this late hour.
Scruton and Peterson intrigue us because they have both reach and staying power — the very things Christians in missionary mode hope for most.
Scruton’s staying power is beyond dispute. He has built up a richly deserved reputation over the course of forty years as one of the — if not the — leading conservative philosophers of our time.
Peterson appeared on the world stage much more recently, but his staying power is beyond doubt as well. If his critics had been right about him, his 15 minutes would have been up by now. But this psychologist from the Canadian prairies spent years thinking deeply about the strengths and weaknesses of our culture — to which his first book and magnum opus, Maps of Meaning: An Architecture of Belief (1999), is a testament — so that when his moment came, he would be ready for it. As has been the case for much of Scruton’s career, with Peterson, people came for the controversy but stayed for the substance.
Taking Religion Seriously
Both men have received a great deal of attention in the media, but rarely have they been given the positive recognition they deserve by intellectuals (including Christian intellectuals). The first reason for this is obvious but dispiriting to say aloud: they are conservative. I suspect, however, that in the eyes of their enemies their sins are worse than this, and that their principal sin — indeed, their mortal sin, as it were — is that they take religion seriously. As modern men of science and philosophy, they should know better than to be taken in by the long-since discredited God delusion.
Religion should be put back on the menu of culturally legitimate options in the modern world, they argue, not simply as a kind of feel-good palliative for life’s sufferings, or as a test case for how “free” we are. Peterson and Scruton think religion ought to be taken seriously because — wait for it — religious insight might be true!
Even more worrying for the liberal consensus they defy, Sir Roger and Professor Peterson seem to imply that Christianity in particular might be the truest religion of them all, because it is a self-consciously philosophical religion that combines the written and spoken word with spiritual action.
Finally, to the utter astonishment and outrage of their intolerant opposition, neither will concede that the truth of Christianity does anything to diminish the profundity and truth of non-Christian religions. In fact, the space Christianity offers to the “other” may be its greatest cultural legacy, one that should be of great interest to those who profess to champion modern pluralist values. Christianity’s imaginative dialogue with the non-Christian, they seem to suggest, is a natural outgrowth of its abiding spiritual confidence in the truth of its message, a confidence that our disenchanted culture believed it had successfully stamped out.
The robust and battle-tested arguments Scruton and Peterson put forward infuriate Christianity’s cultured despisers, because they answer every possible criticism that can be leveled against it through the very act of accepting criticism and the possibility of dialogue with those with whom they disagree, and even those who hate it. We revel in the rhetorical triumphs of these men, feeling that their victories are somehow also our own.
We feel that way, because they are.
We intuit that Peterson and Scruton are on our side, but we struggle to explain our spontaneous attraction to them. Criticism of them from Christian quarters tends to mirror that of their more strident and vocal secular opponents. This, dare I say it, at times seems born of resentment, verging on outright jealousy. Such emotionally driven responses cloud our judgment. We Christians risk the same superstitious fervor that animates Peterson’s and Scruton’s postmodern opponents when we retreat into forensic or fideistic justifications of our religious beliefs.
Apologetics of this kind forget the origins of our faith: it is a knowledge rooted in love. We know in our hearts that the Christian religion is not just the greatest story ever told; we know this, but stand in need of a constant reminding that our myth is also true. We are not in the post-modern business of out-narration, because we do not have to be. Nobody who is telling the truth is a threat to us. This is the great genius of the Christian faith: the truth is on our side. Indeed, the truth is our side. It is our way of life.
I will say something about how this very logic can be used to hold Peterson and Scruton to account in the way Christians would like them to be, but first some introspection is in order.
Misreading Scruton, Misjudging Peterson
Scruton’s Christianity tends to fall under suspicion for being overly aestheticized. It is said that he prizes the beauty of Christianity and of the Western culture to which it gave birth more highly than our faith’s message of salvation. His representations of the Christian religion are regularly criticized, and he is even accused of promoting an obscure kind of atheism.
These are deep misreadings of Scruton’s oeuvre. Much of his literary output is dedicated to showing the dangers of prizing the aesthetic above the moral. His reluctance to engage in traditional theological speculation has to do with certain argumentative boundaries he does not feel he can cross, for reasons that, as we shall see, are quite close to Peterson’s.
Peterson is repeatedly faced with the sometimes sincere — but oftentimes obstinate bordering on banal — complaint that he does not call himself a Christian, even as he attempts to vindicate the Christian story. And why won’t he, at the very least, say he believes in God? Peterson finds these questions disingenuous — he says he doesn’t “like” them, but he’s being polite — because they’re an attempt to box him in. What exactly would he be committing himself to, he wonders, by saying he believes in God and calling himself a Christian?
Peterson asks that he be judged by what he does, not what he says. Very often he uses Christ’s own words to make his case: “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” He now regularly admits that he’s a kind of modern John the Baptist. He doesn’t quite put it that way, but the pattern is similar — he’s preparing us for something. In concrete terms, Peterson says that he is trying to return the biblical stories to the center of our culture, and to remind us of the Judeo-Christian metaphysical vision that has ensured the endurance of these stories for thousands of years.
His impatient Christian critics would do well to pause and ask themselves: Why would he do that unless he thought that these stories and the doctrine they have inspired were in some fundamental sense true?
Stories About Us
But the real question lingering in the back of the sincere Christian’s mind is this: In what sense exactly does he think these stories are true? And surely part of the reason we ask the question is that we ourselves may be unclear on the matter. In fact, we are not taking our religion seriously if this is not a matter of constant reflection. Our liturgical year is itself built around the question.
Peterson’s answer, inspired by depth psychology, is addressed to those who pose the question in an empirical, historicist sense — once called “positive Christianity.” Bishop Robert Barron, for example, one of Peterson’s more charitable critics, thinks Peterson needs to realize that the Christian story “happened.” I doubt that Peterson would find the bishop’s argument very persuasive.
Peterson thinks these stories urgently need to be retold because they are about us. To his way of thinking, it doesn’t matter that the Christian story “happened” — what matters is that it’s happening to you — now — as we speak. As a Jungian psychologist, his point is that, culturally speaking and therefore psychologically speaking, these stories are about you whether you like it or not. They are our foundational texts. If you don’t know them, you don’t know yourself. We therefore ignore them at our peril.
But Peterson does not think that we are ignoring them exactly. Much of the success of modern culture — to which he’s constantly drawing our attention in part as a reaction to the perpetual millenarian alarmism of the radical left — is a result of the fact that we continue to act these stories out. The danger, however, as Peterson sees it, is of a spiritual kind. We are no longer aware of the fact that we are acting out these stories, which means we can no longer explain the reasons lying behind our moral assumptions.
We are living on borrowed time, coasting on a certain cultural inertia set in motion by forces we no longer understand. The crisis of meaning across the West is a sure symptom of what could become a very dangerous disease — a veritable sign of a coming apocalypse. Indeed, the horrors of the twentieth century, which captured the young Peterson’s imagination and inspired him to do the work he does, are an example of what happens when we ignore the spiritual sources and resources of our culture.
Drawing Knowledge Out
The Christian response should be to say “Bravo” and ask for more of the same. The metanoia that we hope for from Peterson is God’s concern, not ours — not directly anyway. Christ is a law written on our hearts — it is innate knowledge drawn out through sacramental participation in the mystical body of Christ. We do, however, need these stories to help draw that knowledge out — to prepare us for participation in the life of Christ.
A crucial difference between our interest in these stories and Peterson’s is not a trite, “Yeah, but it happened” pose. That kind of assertion can and should elicit any number of reasonable queries: How do you know? Were you there? For what part of it? Scripture itself says that no one saw Jesus come out of the tomb, save God and the angels. What intelligent person would be convinced by such desperate assertions that Christ’s Resurrection is a matter of the historical record, even if Christians accept this?
We believe these stories help us to know God, and only then ourselves as made in his image. Our advantage is spiritual and imaginative evidence, not historical; the historical is certainly not a weapon with which we should attempt to persuade a man of Peterson’s intellect, except by saying that we, too, understand that history is a slaughter bench, one on which God himself laid down his life for his friends — for our humanity.
Historical pieties ignore our greatest weapon in the spiritual crusade for the souls of men: the Christian imagination.
A Central Symbol
Peterson and Scruton are men with profoundly Christian imaginations. The exciting thing about both men is that they are a kind of gateway drug to the theological and contemplative life of prayer. What’s more, they themselves admit this.
Scruton has been happy to be pushed in this direction, to explore what he calls the “theological trajectory of his writings.” He also freely admits that philosophy itself calls us to something that looks a lot like the life of prayer, a transcendental encounter with another subject like myself, a person through whom I may come to know myself as both the most important and least important thing in the world.
Similarly, Peterson says repeatedly that he’s open to the metaphysical claims of the Christian religion, especially since that religion is predicated on a logos theology whose truth he has seen borne out in his clinical practice and his study of symbolic mythology. The exploration of Christian images can serve as a reminder of the abiding power and message of our great icons — the great images and symbols — of our culture.
Both thinkers, for example, are deeply attracted to the complementary images of the theo-tokos and the pieta: the mother of God standing before us at the conception, birth, and death of her son.
In many of his novels and musical compositions, Scruton makes us feel the deep loss of the standards once set by the virtuous woman in courtship. He shows us how women suffer in a culture where nothing is sacred and everything is put on sale for the gratification of appetite. Under these conditions, women are encouraged to sell their bodies and discard their children. In a society from which chivalry and chastity have disappeared, Scruton, like Dostoevsky, whom he so much admires, depicts the modern man as someone who does not know his own mind — who does not will his choices. Women are put at terrible risk when the world raises men without chests.
Peterson, for his part, wants the theotokos put back at the center of our culture. This image illustrates a plain truth with an awesome depth: human beings come into the world born of women. If the Christian story is true — even metaphorically — this is how God himself, or “divinity” in Scruton’s and Peterson’s romantic parlance, came into the world. It is a great evil that attempts to subvert the truth conveyed by this image. Peterson argues passionately that modern women have been miseducated to believe a pernicious lie, one made possible because their gaze has been drawn away from seeing the profound truth of this image.
Motherhood has always been a burden, Peterson explains, but now it has become a much less attractive option for the modern, educated woman, since it is a sin against the church of feminism to prize family ahead of a career. It is a profound lie, he insists, that a career, as a rule, is more fulfilling than the state of holy matrimony. The very word conveys its purpose: it is a sacred union, the rite of passage by which a woman becomes a mother. Marriage is first and foremost about children. This fits with Peterson’s pragmatism. Virtually all women can become mothers; almost no one — men included — has a “career,” if by career you mean a richly fulfilling job for which you are generously compensated. Much of the hate directed towards Peterson is motivated by how clearly and powerfully he reminds us of this inconvenient, deeply Christian, truth.
Love & Vulnerability
Less clear is whether Scruton and Peterson draw ire for their defense of children. Our culture is, of course, terrified by children, especially the most vulnerable kind: the unborn, the disabled, and the abused. They are almost always thought of as a potential or real burden — a kind of existential threat to personal fulfillment. It does seem, however, that we are still reluctant to vent this wrath explicitly against children per se. The evil that stalks children is more subtle.
Our solution is to “indoctrinate” children who do happen to be wanted by their mothers but whose mothers have few to no spiritual resources with which to defend them against the predatory stories spread by our culture. Peterson and Scruton see this clearly. Children are the target of indoctrination precisely because they are so obviously loveable and innocent. It’s also the case, as Peterson powerfully points out, that children need love precisely because they are vulnerable.
Children teach us something essential about love itself. Scruton argues that love is a relationship between dying things. The first-time parent is often panic-stricken: you love this child terribly, and you also know that if you don’t, the thing you love most in the world could literally die. Love and fear are a powerful combination and a heavy, perhaps the heaviest, burden. The entire repertoire of human emotions is present to you when you are made responsible for life itself. This, Scruton thinks, is why spiritual education is the most urgent human task. We need to make ourselves ready to bear one another’s burdens.
The Christian imagination is drawn to Peterson and Scruton as deeply confessional thinkers. The problem of the vulnerability of children, Peterson tells us, confounded him for a time. The first instinct of parents is to protect their children at all costs. Peterson admits he felt this when his son Julian was three years old. But then it dawned on him: he loved his son because of his vulnerability, not in spite of it. To take away his vulnerability would be to remove the very thing that made his son what he was.
Making a Stand
Scruton and Peterson stop short of elaborating on the theological implications of the lessons of love, but at the moral level, they are clear that love is our greatest teacher. It should be profoundly encouraging to the Christian imagination that a philosopher and a psychologist can come to see the world in this way, by seeing it as loveable.
The logic of love shows us that knowledge itself requires making a stand. Meaning, these philosophers show us, cannot be infinitely deferred. It must be rooted; it is home-making; and it will make sacrifices for a chance at settlement.
This sacramental vision of things reminds us of why we have such powerful cultural allies in Peterson and Scruton, especially in the so-called canon wars. Here Scruton and Peterson are complementary. While Scruton goes high, Peterson goes low, or better, deep.
Scruton defends the high culture of romanticism and its most important philosophical sources. He draws on and criticizes its most rigorous minds, like Spinoza, Kant, and Wittgenstein. There is a tension in these strands of Scruton’s thought — between his philosophical rationalism and his spiritual romanticism — that is at least in part resolved in his Hegelian conservatism. As a master of the modern philosophical tradition, Scruton sets an unsurpassed contemporary example of how to engage the great minds of the past.
Peterson makes a simple but powerful — what he calls a “technical” — argument in defense of the Western canon. He thinks we should ask ourselves the following: What books should I read that have had the most influence down the ages? Allowing for works of “undiscovered genius,” Peterson dismisses, in one fell swoop, the postmodern attempt to move on from the works of “dead white men.” The deeper but related message, as we’ve seen, is that if you don’t read the canon — or learn from people who have — you won’t know who you are.
For both men, education itself is a voyage of self-discovery. It is not an attempt to weaponize my immutable characteristics against people with characteristics different from my own. It’s the disciplined, loving, and liberating work of pious self-discovery. The sort of liberal arts education once taken for granted in our great universities now requires the very courage it once taught if it is to survive the philodoxa of the age.
The Failure of “As If”
I promised to say a word about where Scruton and Peterson might be pushed from an orthodox Christian point of view. They do not need advice from me, especially since it’s the authenticity of these men — that they are what they seem and mean what they say — that holds our attention. So I preface these criticisms by saying that I do not think for a minute that they should change who they are or radically alter the course of their arguments. Instead, I suggest that Scruton and Peterson should simply continue to become more deeply who they already are.
One legitimate worry Christian theologians have about Scruton is that he does not think speculative theology can be practiced after Kant. As Scruton sees it, Kant showed us that reason’s inherent limits mean that the practice of any historic faith will ultimately require a leap of faith. But this runs counter to Scruton’s own reverence for tradition and his deep respect for what the human mind can see and, more importantly, receive. The formative ecumenical councils drew on philosophical concepts — like the Aristotelian concept of ousia — to make sense of the deep mysteries God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ — that divine thing. Philosophy prepares us for the inspired and speculative imagination that theology requires — it does not cut us off from it. The fideism Scruton laments in modern theologians, which bears the mark of its atheistic, utopian, and postmodern counterparts, is in large part the result of the cleavage between faith and reason in the modern world. If faith is left to its own devices, all of the central bulwarks of orthodoxy, like, for example, Christ’s divinity, will disappear (as they have in many Western churches), and Christianity will no longer be a fitting source for the cultural revival that Scruton hopes for against hope, since Christianity will not have enjoyed the benefits of rational scrutiny. The Enlightenment atheist and believing Christian will have nothing to say to one another. This is, of course, largely the predicament we presently find ourselves in.
This brings me to something Peterson and Scruton have in common: the Kantian “as if.” Peterson says he acts “as if” God exists — that “he’s afraid” he might. This simply won’t do when it comes to God. The way to convince men of integrity and seriousness, like Peterson and Scruton, is to meet them where they are strongest and most convinced — that is, as moralists.
Neither would ever countenance the idea that you should treat your wife “as if” she were your wife — “as if” you had made a promise to love and cherish her until death do you part. Nor should you treat a friend merely “as if” he were your friend. Friendship and matrimony must be grounded in an indubitable reality, or else they are nothing at all. When put to the test, “as if” arrangements will show themselves to be mere fantasies projected onto the screen of unreality. One need only appeal to the pragmatist in Peterson to make the case: How well are marriages doing in our “as if” culture? How abundant is friendship, good will, and respect for the rule of law?
The whole thing falls apart if it’s not real; that is, if it’s not true. No amount of willing or acting “as if it’s true” will do. God must be the ground of all reality through Christ his Mediator — the eternal and incarnate Logos. There is no other way to see and accept the goodness of being that Scruton and Peterson defend. This is something we believe, but it is also possible to know it, just as it is possible to know ourselves even as we are known. This does not demand a leap of faith in an existentially absurd sense — it’s a deeply rational vision, both logically and intuitively, and it is one that we, Scruton, and Peterson already share. But we need to make ourselves continually aware of it. This is what we call the sacramental life.
Courage & Vision
That said, medieval men like Thomas Aquinas thought that a thing could only be known according to the mode of the knower. Christianity is not a religion of proofs but of persuasion; where it uses proofs, it uses them to persuade. God is beyond what can be known completely — Scruton and Peterson are undoubtedly right about that. The modern spirit, in large part owing to its great worldly achievements (or perhaps because of its false claim to be responsible for them), tends to be discouraged by what it cannot know with absolutely certainty. To avoid disappointment, we limit ourselves to our natural knowledge.
Peterson and Scruton themselves show us that natural knowledge is not enough. The human spirit demands more. Both insist we are Godward creatures. Certainty is not a goal worthy of man — its end is epistemological and spiritual sloth; in a certain sense, it is not knowledge at all, but a kind of irrational fear of how deep knowledge really goes. It is a fear of passing over into contemplation of the face of God. Surely we are right to be afraid.
What we seek is the prayerful awe rooted in this deeper knowledge, knowledge better described as vision. Our culture cries out for people who can remind us of how awesome our being really is. Peterson and Scruton evoke the awe-inspired passion that our dispirited culture is in search of, and their courage lights a spark in those looking for leaders who would stand up against its sophistry and cynicism. Theirs is the courage and vision for which we Christians should be deeply grateful. Let us remember them deep in our prayers, for they are already on our side.
About the author
James Bryson is a Research Associate in the Cambridge Divinity Faculty. He is the author of The Christian Platonism of Thomas Jackson (Leuven, 2016), and editor of The Religious Philosophy of Roger Scruton (Bloomsbury, 2016). He and his wife and two children are members of the ancient parish Little St. Mary’s in Cambridge, England.