Thursday, June 14, 2018

The God Point

Everybody’s on the JBP train today, it seems.

I mean the “Jordan B. Peterson” train. For those who have been living under a rock (or perhaps have no love for YouTube or other media), Dr. Peterson has been the center of much rapt attention over the last couple of years. How a psychologist and philosopher of religion rose to the pinnacle of worldwide publicity is quite an odd story. Starting with his principled stand against transgenderism and compelled speech in Toronto, continuing with his publications in print and on YouTube, and then in widely-viewed and controversial interviews on worldwide television, JBP has positioned himself as the most famous public intellectual of recent years.

What’s really surprising is the scope of his reach. Not only does he have a new bestselling self-help book on the market, he has a comprehensive program of self-therapy on offer as well. Perhaps most surprisingly, he’s also widely publicized lengthy lectures on biblical themes. If anybody has made religion a hot topic in the last few years, it’s been Dr. Peterson.

Dodging the Question

Now, I like a lot of what he says. I like him as a person as well. But anyone who watches him for any length of time cannot help but see how completely evasive he is on the question of whether or not he actually believes in God. He’s been asked it numerous times — almost in every interview — and every time, he pulls the same answer out. He says, “I don’t know what you mean by believe, and I don’t know what you mean by God.”

Really?

Yes, yes, you do, Dr. Peterson. You just don’t want to answer.

“Believe”?

I don’t know if he’s a believer or not. I wish he were; but I can’t get comfortable with his level of evasiveness of that question. After all, Christians confess their Lord; and if they don’t, then they are none of his. Be that as it may, I enjoy a lot of what Peterson says. And I’m thankful for the way he’s brought issues of faith back into the public arena. That will be to the good, I think.

I was particularly interested in something he said today in a debate interview on the radio show Unbelievable in England. If, as the great Alexander Pope said, “True wit is … what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed,” then we can thank JBP for having put an old Christian point very succinctly.

That point is that mankind cannot do without God. Even those of us who think we can, who imagine ourselves as totally non-religious, are actually just deceived on the point. If one denies the true God, then false gods will instantly take his place. This is the price of atheism; not that one is free of domination by gods, but that one becomes blind to that by which one is being dominated.

JBP puts it this way:
“God is what you use to make sense of your life, by definition … You have a hierarchy of values. You have to, otherwise you can’t act, or you’re painfully confused … Whatever is at the top of that hierarchy of values serves the function of God for you.

Now, it may be a god that you don’t believe in or a god that you cannot name, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s God for you.”
Now, the Christian community has been singing a tune like this for a long, long time. I remember an old Sunday School brochure from back in the ’70s that depicted a hippie bowing down to his guitar. It said that whatever you spend all your time thinking about is what you actually worship, and that is your god, whether you know you have one or not.

That’s simplistic, maybe. But there is a profound truth behind it, if you pursue it a bit.

The “God” Point

JBP has it more right. It really works like this. You have a bunch of different things in life that you find important, but some are more important to you than others (that’s the meaning of a “hierarchy”). This order is not indicated reliably by how much time you spend thinking consciously about things — the hippie may spend most of every day thinking about his guitar without it being his god, because people often spend time preoccupied with the essentially trivial. And when they think about things, they may even realize that guitars, or video games, or shopping, are very trivial things. Things that are not high in the hierarchy of your values may still take up a lot of your time, especially if you are nervous whenever you try to think too hard about the higher-level stuff and use the low-level stuff to distract yourself and prevent the anxiety.

Rather, the way to look at it is to say that there are things you would, if pressed, give up in order to secure or preserve other things. And maybe the hippie who spends most of his time thinking about his guitar would still give it up for his girlfriend, or for world peace, or whatever else he actually values more. The important thing is this: at the top of that list of things you value is something. You need to know what it is in order to know yourself. But even if you don’t know consciously what that thing is, you will be unconsciously responsive to everything that threatens or promises that top-level thing: and that will serve the function of “God” for you in this sense — that your decisions, reactions, impulses, actions and aspirations will tend to be targeted to assuring the highest-level value above all. The top value in your hierarchy will act as the ‘magnetic north’ of your mental and emotional compass.

The “Happy” Trap

The worst way to try to orient your life is to try to orient it to happiness. I know that most people today, especially people who don’t believe in higher values, will tell you that something like happiness is their highest goal — at the end of the day, we all just want to be happy, they say. Sounds right.

But that way of thinking is a disaster. That is because happiness isn’t a single thing at all; it’s a by-product of other preconditions in your life, such as having what you really need, sensing your life matters in some ultimate way, or believing you are engaged in a noble activity. Then hap-piness may just hap-pen; but hap-penings sometimes don’t: because the word “hap” actually means “chance” or “luck”. It may hap, it may not.

A second problem with the happiness goal is that it comes in unexpected ways. We often don’t actually know what will make us happy, even though we may think we do. Consider all the people who have made themselves rich or famous, only to become miserable (hello, Hollywood). Or, as Thomas Merton so famously said, “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success, only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” Thinking you know what will make you happy is not the same as knowing what will. Much of our happiness comes to us unanticipated.

In fact, deep happiness often comes coupled with challenges, setbacks and pain, and since nobody tends to seek those preconditions for their own sake, those sorts of happiness cannot be secured by intention. If overcoming, enduring and achieving are part of happiness, then the attitude that expects happiness to arrive soon and easily will actually undermine the chances of arriving at it.

In short, by setting happiness as your top hierarchical goal, you’re committing yourself to chasing a vapor — you’re pursuing a feeling you cannot guarantee, guessing at what will get you there, avoiding the very experiences that might take you in the right direction, and meanwhile, trading off other things in hope of catching it.

Good luck: you’re going to need it.

The Top Value

Even if you haven’t fallen into the happiness trap, you’ve got something that is your highest value. We all do. And that thing can be something more worthy, or something less worthy. But there’s something there. It could easily be buried in the subconscious: after all, that’s how psychiatrists make their bucks — on convincing you of the deep-seated things that were actually motivating your choices, even though perhaps you thought other things were. There’s something to that; at least for some people.

And JBP is right: it doesn’t matter whether or not you actually know what that thing is — you can’t do without the top value in your hierarchy, because a person who genuinely had none at all (if such people could exist) would simply be incapable of action — he would never know how to prefer any one thing over any another, so he would be painfully confused and in practice, paralyzed.

Something is driving the car: it may be you, consciously, or it may be something you don’t even really know. But there’s a driver, or you’re going nowhere.

A Visual Analogy

Picture a triangle of cardboard pegged to the wall by its tip point. The thumbtack at the tip represents your deepest value. Descending from that point and radiating toward the bottom are things you value less. At the bottom edge are those elements of your life that perhaps you hardly value at all, but they’re there.

The whole thing can swing around on its axis. The things at the bottom swing wildly left, right and all around — they’re very negotiable for you. The things higher up swing, but less wildly. The things close to the tip hardly are allowed to swing at all. The thing at the tip holds the whole triangle in place, and is so essential to you that you never suffer it to swing at all. Among all things, it stays put.

That’s like your life. The thing you value most highly (your “God”) is the thing that orients the whole. Other things are, to some degree, negotiable; but the thing you use to make decisions about moving the other things around doesn’t move; it gives the relative position and significance to everything else. You depend on its fixity for all your decisions and actions, so it does not move.

Changes

However, that is not to suggest that your highest value (your “God” point) cannot ever change. It surely can. As a baby, you may orient your whole life to your own bodily satisfaction; but if you’re normal, that won’t last. As a child, you may orient your life to some other person, to something you love and possess, or to some activity; but as you grow, you’ll likely grow out of that too. As a teen or young adult, you may orient all to establishing your security or attaining a partner; but once you’ve got those things, you’ll need a new focus. As an adult, you may orient yourself to your career, your family-building, or your social status; but since all of those change, you won’t even keep any particular one of them in central position.

Rather, as life progresses these things will probably change. Only someone who genuinely has a transcendent focus on God himself will not need to change one “God” point for another. For whereas lesser goals cannot survive the changes of life, the actual God is more than sufficient to each phase through which we pass. Our knowledge of God increases and matures with our own growth, if we keep him as our focus. However, not everybody does that.

The important point is this. We may or may not be aware of our highest value. It may or may not change, from time to time. But at each particular point in life, there is something upon which we are depending in order to relativize our other values and to organize our activities in the world. Those who are aware of what that is can make judgments about whether it’s worthy and rational to keep orienting everything to that goal. Those who don’t consciously know what it is cannot. Either way, there will always be something there, some thumbtack in the tip of your triangle that makes possible the ordering and moving around of all the other things in your life. You just can’t live without a “God” point.

Your “God” Value

So what’s yours?

When you get up in the morning, how do you decide what needs to be done? When you go to school or work, to what do you refer when you make up your mind what deserves your time and efforts and what does not? When you shop, or marry, or use up your leisure time, what value makes one particular purchase, person or pastime seem “better” to you than any others? There are always lots of options; how do you navigate among all the possibilities?

You must be using something. What is it?

Do you even know?

Where JBP Goes Sadly Wrong

The problem with Jordan Peterson is that he gets it backward. He starts off with the very wise observation that everybody has a “God” point, but then inverts that to say that the “God” point is actually all we need to know about God. He thinks we can leave God as a mere metaphor for “what people use in order to organize their lives,” or perhaps “what societies and cultures have valued collectively in organizing their lives,” or even “the human impulse to organize life itself.” And he thinks we can leave the real existence of an actual God as some kind of open question.

But we can’t, and for some of the reasons I’ve given above. Only a real God is a fixed value. Only by knowing the real God can we rightly orient our lives to what ultimately matters, rather that simply to what we contingently (and often wrongly) may think matters. Only by disciplining and orienting our own values to what the true God says is valuable can we get our lives in right order. And only by being in relationship with the actual God can we be saved.

A God who isn’t there, with a Son who did not die for our sins, and a Spirit that won’t indwell us will not direct, save and secure us. These things will be no help against the tragedies of life and afterlife — no matter how much we might hope they will. We need more than a knowledge of our own subjective “God” point — we need the One True God himself.

To JBP

So, Dr. Peterson, thanks for underlining what Christians have long been saying is true. There is no being without God. It may be a good one or a bad one, a real one or a fake. But without some key orientation-point, any life at all cannot continue.

To put it in the words of Bob Dylan: “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

Right on.

However, it’s not self-help we need, Dr. Peterson. True, we need to pick ourselves up and take responsibility for our own lives; thank you for saying so. But it’s much beyond that. Our deeper problem is that self-help is not enough. It’s never worked. Not at any time in history. And it never will.

We need a real God, not just a “God” point.

I truly hope that point is not lost on you.

___________________________
Photo credit: Adam Jacobs [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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