Would you believe in Christianity even if you believed it to be factually false? This is a complicated question. On the one hand, I am persuaded it’s rational to think in hypotheticals: about what I would believe if I were no longer able to accept or at least defend the literal reality of Christ’s life, death, burial, and resurrection. I recently took a sort of informal social media poll about this, asking online friends (most of whom are Christians) what their “second choice” of religion would be. Many of them said things like deism, Buddhism, and Neoplatonism.
But on the other hand, as some pointed out, if Christianity were false, it would call into question what truth and knowing, themselves, are. If God is the basis of rationality, then what would it mean to say He doesn’t exist? If my mind is not made in the image of God’s, on what basis can I assume states of my mind correspond to reality as it really is? Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary critique of naturalism comes in, here (if my monkey mind evolved for survival, not truth comprehension, why assume it can accurately discern its own origins?). And if, as many Eastern worldviews have it, the Western duality between truth and error is illusory, then I face the same problem.
In other words, as the presuppositional apologists like to point out, it is difficult to justify a belief in the correspondence theory of truth (that it’s possible for me to think a thought that corresponds 1-to-1 with reality) without borrowing girders from the Christian superstructure. Everything belongs to God including the distinction between truth and error.
I am further persuaded of this by observing how many people appear to be reaching for the Christian God without realizing it or even while consciously professing that He does not exist and has not done the things the Bible says He has. This is what we ought to expect if, as the Apostle Paul taught, God inscribed knowledge of His existence, eternal power, and moral requirements on every human heart, in the creation around us, and in the stars above. The consequence is that even those who don’t have the intellectual tools to defend earnest faith, or who perhaps consciously reject it in the form the Creed enumerates, will still sometimes choose to live and talk as if it is true.
Christians have a tendency to attack this sort of existentialist move on the part of unbelievers as inconsistent, or “stealing from God,” in the words of the presuppositional apologists. And of course, they’re right. It is both of these things. But does that mean we should attack it? Should we not, rather, prop up this bruised reed growing beside the waters of truth?
I recently finished Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” and thought it was best summed up by Doug Wilson, who called it “pockets of silliness connected by long stretches of common grace on fire.”
Peterson is not a believer in the Christian God in any recognizable or orthodox form. He is a student of Karl Jung and teaches that the story of Scripture is true only in that it represents one of the clearest manifestations of mankind’s collective unconscious, the inexpressible lessons of which the authors of Scripture encoded through symbolic stories. The dawn of self-consciousness, for example, and the attendant realization that there are other selves with analogous vulnerabilities which we can exploit to cause pain, Peterson takes as the substance behind the Genesis 3 account of man’s fall and the “knowledge of good and evil.” Likewise, sacrifice is for him the symbolic representation of the timeless truth of deferred gratification—one of the pillars not only of civilization and order, but of morality itself.
When pressed, as he has been on at least one occasion that I know of, Peterson admits that he is a pretty run-of-the-mill materialist. He believes we evolved from tree-dwelling forebears, who in turn stand at the end of an eons-long evolutionary chain stretching back to our common ancestor with lobsters (hence the much-derided analogy in his opening chapter). He acknowledges and accepts the Documentary Hypothesis. He believes Genesis is a heavily-redacted mosaic, albeit one of unrivaled brilliance and insight. In other words, he doesn’t believe the Christian story describes literal realities that took place in time and space, or even that the Christian God is a real being. They are stories that help us understand our deepest fears, hopes, and aspirations. And because there is no God, for Peterson, there is no ultimate, objective meaning outside ourselves.
And yet, when confronted with the stark reality of moral evil expressed in accounts like Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago,” Peterson can’t contain the inner knowledge that screams at him: “This isn’t the way the world is supposed to be! This is wrong.” And if there is a wrong, he reasons, there must also be a right. Thus, he opts, very deliberately and self-consciously, for existentialism over nihilism. We must make a meaning where there is none, and he defines “’meaning” with what I can only describe as a kind of archetypal theodicy:
What is meaningful…is the organization of what would otherwise merely be expedient into a symphony of Being. Meaning is what is put forth more powerfully than mere words can express by Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy,’ a triumphant bringing forth from the void of pattern after pattern upon beautiful pattern, every instrument playing its part, disciplined voices layered on top of that, spanning the entire breadth of human emotion from despair to exhilaration…
Meaning is when everything there is comes together in an ecstatic dance of single purpose—the glorification of a reality so that no matter how good it has suddenly become, it can get better and better and better more and more deeply forever into the future. Meaning happens when that dance has become so intense that all the horrors of the past, all the terrible struggle engaged in by all of life and all of humanity to that moment becomes a necessary and worthwhile part of the increasingly successful attempt to build something truly Mighty and Good.
Meaning is the ultimate balance between, on the one hand, the chaos of transformation and possibility and on the other, the discipline of pristine order, whose purpose is to produce out of the attendant chaos a new order that will be even more immaculate, and capable of bringing forth a still more balanced and productive chaos and order. Meaning is the Way, the path of life more abundant, the place you live when you are guided by Love and speaking Truth and when nothing you want or could possibly want takes any precedence over precisely that.
Peterson finds himself willing light into existence because he is so painfully aware of the darkness. He knows there must be a difference between the two and rejects nihilism as the coward’s way out—a sort of intellectual suicide that tries to solve the problem of darkness by denying the difference between it and light. Moreover, he sees glimmers of light everywhere—agonizing hints of a transcendent purpose so beautiful and so obviously meaningful that a life lived chasing even its faintest refraction is a life well-lived. For this Jungian psychologist, God and the moral universe He drags in His coattails is too good not to be real. He is in fact so good that He must be real, even if we know otherwise, as Peterson thinks modern man does.
Many Christians react to this pitiable paradox, again, by attacking Peterson for his inconsistency. I think this is exactly the wrong response. I am reminded of a Christian critique of C. S. Lewis’ “The Silver Chair” I once read, in which the critic wrapped Lewis on the knuckles for writing Puddleglum the Marshwiggle as an existentialist in the scene where the Lady of the Green Kirtle is trying to delude the Narnians into believing Narnia isn’t real. When the Witch has finally enchanted the four into confessing that Narnia, the sun, the sky, and even Aslan himself are all figments of their imagination, and that her dreary underworld is the only reality, Puddleglum bravely stomps on her fire, and gives this reply:
All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-word which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.
Lewis’ point, of course, is not that chasing delusions is virtuous. That’s not what Puddleglum is saying, and I marvel at the short-sightedness necessary to reach that conclusion. Lewis is saying here what he has said elsewhere: that our deepest desires are burning signposts pointing to the meaning of the universe and ultimate truth. Even in the darkest pit of despair and materialist illusion, there is no permanently extinguishing the hot coals of general revelation within that cause us to shout back at the darkness: Good is real. Meaning is real. This gloomy hole of a world is not all there is. And it’s this cry of innate and indelible knowledge which comically breaks from Puddleglum and writers like Jordan Peterson as that paradoxical, existentialist affirmation: The material world may be all there is, but we must behave as if there is something more beyond Underland. We must be on Aslan’s side and live like Narnians, even if there isn’t any Aslan.
What Peterson misses, of course—and what I pray he realizes every time I read or listen to him—is that the play-world of meaning he endorses is not only a good deal more important than the “real world” he has been deluded into accepting—it’s also a good deal more real.