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Evangelize, Bucko

“Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.”

This was the line I happened to flip open to in Dr. Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos at a bookstore recently.

“Every parent,” I read on, “needs to learn to tolerate the momentary anger or even hatred directed towards them by their children, after necessary corrective action has been taken, as the capacity of children to perceive or care about long-term consequences is very limited.”

With five kids I am always seconds away from being the object of anger or hatred, so these words functioned for me — right there under the fluorescent lights in a suburban bookstore aisle — as a kind of soothing balm or drug. In a trance-like state I proceeded to the cash register.

Three days and 350 pages later, I had gleaned some new parenting wisdom and more surprisingly, some ideas for faith in the public square — call it 3 Rules for Evangelists.

But first to be clear, 12 Rules is categorized as “psychology — self-help,” not theology. Though Jesus’ words season the book, 12 Rules pushes no faith perspective. Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron notes that it is “chockablock” with “wise insights,” yet cautions against the wider Jungian perspective to which the book is related, with a “tendency to read Biblical religion purely psychologically and philosophically and not at all historically.” “On balance,” he says, “I like this book and warmly recommend it.”

First: Sort out your rule of life. Each of us needs a rule of life that guides our daily use of time — from prayer to technology use, confession and much more. And yet in our relativistic milieu, we seem to apologize for anything even resembling a Catholic rule, dogma or precept. We shove them all into the closet, too embarrassed to explain them to guests. Yet the Peterson phenomenon suggests that millions around us are famished for precisely such a conversation about rules, limits, delayed gratification, sacrifice and freedom. “Set your house in perfect order,” Peterson advises, “before you criticize the world.” Sort out your rule of life, now. 

Second: Accept your suffering and imbue it with heroism. “Life is suffering,” Peterson writes. Instead of hawking a new elixir in our therapeutic culture, Peterson invites us to reflect deeply on suffering: he uses the word more than any other in the book. “The person who wishes to alleviate suffering ... ” he writes, “will make the greatest of sacrifices … of everything that is loved, to live a life aimed at the Good. He will forgo expediency.” 12 Rules pulses with no-nonsense calls to heroically delay gratification — to “privilege the future over the present.” Evangelists take heed: scores of people are trying to unlock the meaning of suffering, and you hold the keys.

Third: Start engaging with questions people actually are asking. In 2012, Peterson the psychology professor, then the author of one obscure work on myths, discovered a website called Quora that was inviting responses to this question: “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” Readers anonymously rank their favorite responses, and the 40 brief rules and maxims that Peterson posted promptly received the most votes. The rest is history. 12 Rules was born. Nota bene evangelists: Get out, find the nearest commons (actual and maybe even digital), listen, and start engaging with questions. 

After his speaking events, Peterson is approached by individuals — including many young men — sharing some variation of the story that “I was in a dark place” and “your online lectures helped me get my life back together.” Peterson beams as he exclaims, “God! That’s so good! Great!”

There is only one Jordan Peterson, yet you as an evangelist were sent on a mission to the same cultural and historical moment — with its same dark places and same raging thirst for encouragement, meaning, and rules. Peterson the professor formerly was read by the average scholarly journal audience of 2.6 readers, but he got restless, found Quora and embarked on a quest.

“Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord,” we hear every Sunday. If you find yourself stuck in a bubble in which 2.6 people know about the riches and joy of your faith, perhaps it’s time for you to set out. A lot of people are waiting for you to buck up, stand up straight with your shoulders back, and glorify God with your life. If something is holding you back, hear Peterson and hear him well: “Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today.”

Johnson is associate director of the St. Thomas More Institute.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018