Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
When Bishop Robert Barron addressed the U.S. bishops during their June assembly this week, he spoke about the challenges of evangelizing the “Nones,” the increasing number of young Americas who are no longer affiliated with organized religion.
Bishop Barron also singled out the enormous online impact of Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and author of the best-selling 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, who has produced a series of video presentations on the Bible watched by millions of viewers.
Bishop Barron did not endorse Peterson or his approach to the Bible. Instead, he suggested that it could be worthwhile for his brother bishops to look at the Peterson phenomenon and consider the reason why he has attracted so many young people, in particular.
Peterson’s videos on the Bible span issues like the Problem of God, and specific stories, themes and teachings from both the Old and New Testaments.
Adopting the framework of 12 Rules for Life, his Bible videos offer high-level philosophical, psychological and cultural analysis, embedded with concrete, practical guidance that is particularly tailored to young men struggling to make their mark in the world and form lasting relationships. “My sense is that if you were able to reveal the best of yourself to the world,” he tells his audience, repeatedly stressing the need to take personal responsibility, “you would be an overwhelming force for good.”
Gleaned from some of his Old Testament video presentations, here are some “rules for life” that give readers a sense of Peterson’s modus operandi.
1. The creation of the world and of the human person in Genesis reveals that “there is something eternal outside of history,” a consciousness that shines a light on our own experience of reality and secures our dignity as creatures made in the divine image. In practical terms, this helps explain why no one likes to be ignored, or have their conscience and dignity trampled upon. It also explains why our laws assume a basic capacity to distinguish between right and wrong.
2. The story of Adam and Eve reveals that the “divine spark is manifest in men and women.”
3. Abraham “heeds the call of God to leave what was familiar behind and to journey into unknown lands.” Overcoming his own failings, famine and tyranny, he remains “a model for life in the world as it is, not as we wish it would be.” Likewise, he never loses sight of his dignity as a child of God.
4. “The fundamental tragedies of life… are conditions of existence.” The question is: Do you curse the darkness, or “make yourself so damn differentiated, dynamic, and able that you’re more than a match for that”?
5. The story of Noah, a “just man and perfect in his generations,” shows the importance of getting your house in order by exercising virtue and “healing wounds” within our own family. When the “flood comes,” Noah is ready. It’s never too late to begin your own preparations: start with making your bed.
6. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah shows that if you “don’t behave properly you bring about the end of the world. Maybe it is only the end of your world, your family’s world, but what you do is connected to everyone else.” Look at the “cataclysmic events of the 20th century.” Authors Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn and Viktor Frankl, [Man’s Search for Meaning] concluded that “the state became corrupted because each individual allowed himself to be corrupted.”
7. The story of David and Bathsheba reveals the universal applicability of basic moral norms that we forsake at our peril. If a king like David violates the prohibition against adultery, “there will be hell to pay.”
8. Moral decisions are “the most important decisions” you make in your life. “[G]enerally, you want to do things that are the best things that you can think of to do — hence ‘good.’ But, sometimes, you also want to do things that are the worst things that you can do, because you’re angry, resentful or bitter.”
9. When setting goals for your life, aim for the “balanced ideal.” Ask yourself: “what do you want for your family? what do you want for your career? what do you want for your education? what do you want for your character development? how are you going to use your time outside of work? how are you going to structure your use of drugs and alcohol, and places where you might get impulsive?” When you put an “integrated ideal” above you as something to reach for, then you’re more committed to the world in a positive way, and you’re less tormented by anxiety and uncertainty.
10. Faith involves an acceptance of the fundamental goodness of Being, and a desire to “improve it, rather than making it worse.’”
11. Be adaptable, like Joseph, with his coat of many colors. “You should be able to go have a drink in the pub with the guys who are drywalling your house, and you should be able to have a sophisticated conversation with someone who’s more educated in an abstract way... One of the indications that there’s more to you is that you can be put more places and function properly.”