Jordan Peterson at Liberty and A Cry For Help

Jordan Peterson at Liberty and A Cry For Help March 29, 2019
David Nasser and Jordan Peterson, Liberty University

I’m not sure what people were expecting from Dr. Jordan Peterson’s recent appearance at Liberty University, but nobody could have predicted what happened about halfway through.

At roughly the 21-minute mark in the convocation (link here), as Peterson is answering a question, there’s a commotion offstage. A young man rushes up and grabs a microphone, on the verge of tears: “My name is David [full name redacted], and I need help! I need help! I just wanted to meet you. I’m unwell…I want to be well…”

Peterson says, “I hope you can get the help that you need.” Spiritual director David Nasser walks over to calm the student as security guards appear. The student says more that’s not quite discernible, but you can make out “I’ve called 911” and “I want to know him better…” (possibly a reference to God, but the context was unclear).

Then he falls on his knees and begins sobbing. Tearing, wailing sobs.

Peterson begins to walk over himself as the video feed cuts out, but audio is still rolling. You can put together that the guards must have begun to remove the student, because Nasser’s voice can be heard saying firmly, “Stop. Stop. Stop pulling him.” [Update: A phone capture of the moment shows Peterson kneeling down and quieting the student while Nasser prays. It’s been confirmed that he is not a student at Liberty and was attending as a guest.]

While the student is still wailing, Nasser says a short, simple prayer. He prays that God would heal the student, that the Spirit would work in him, and that he would be encouraged in this moment to know that everyone is on his side. After he finishes, the wails have subsided. The last thing he says to the student is, “Hey buddy. We’re for you.” Then the conversation resumes, as well as it can be resumed after a disturbance like that. Peterson is badly shaken and breaking up, trying to collect himself. Falwell Jr. says something or other. Nasser is reassuring and earnest, patting Peterson’s shoulder and forthrightly attempting to salvage what can be salvaged of the convocation. Things stumble forward towards an eventual conclusion. But the disturbance hangs over it all.

While he doesn’t press Peterson, Nasser makes a couple of gentle attempts to inject the gospel into the conversation. He says that no doubt many people are feeling the way young David is feeling on the inside, even though they might not rush the stage to cry for help. He commends Peterson for offering a road-map that can guide people who are lost and despairing. But then he turns to the audience and says, “I’ll be the first to tell you, in front of our distinguished guest, that these rules work. But they all stop short without the Ruler.”

There are a wealth of layers packed into that statement, reflecting the layers in the convocation as a whole. It is clear to anyone who watches it that this is not Peterson’s natural habitat. The whole thing begins with two songs led by a full worship band while the audience sways and raises their hands. Nasser’s speech and gestures are saturated with evangelicalism. He speaks unabashedly about “putting Christ in the center of your life.” He frequently touches Peterson on the shoulder. Peterson, for his part, attempts to articulate his brand of existentialist Stoicism for his baby-faced, wide-eyed student audience. The culture clash could not be more acute.

In a sense, Peterson and his interlocutors were speaking different languages. When Nasser would use evangelical language with respect to God and Christ, Peterson would admit that his own ideas were not fully formed and retreat to the symbolic. At the very end, when Falwell awkwardly brought in Gary Habermas to ask Peterson about the resurrection, a similar pattern played itself out. They stood on opposite sides of Lessing’s ditch, unsure how to communicate, unsure how to proceed.

And yet, between Nasser and Peterson in particular, there was still an indefinable commonality. Nasser emphasized his appreciation for Peterson’s tenderness and compassion. Peterson’s mother is traveling with him, and Nasser alludes to his introduction of her the night before: “I saw how you were with your mother.” Nasser may not speak Peterson’s language, but he instinctively senses that which requires no words to convey. He handles the disturbed student with the ease of experience, a kind of experience Peterson also shares. In his simple way, he sees clear past the smokescreen of bad press, past the snide hot takes, to the heart of the man. The heart of the wounded doctor.

I think Nasser also senses the culture clash. He senses Peterson’s status by comparison with his own. Subconsciously perhaps, he senses the oddness. But instead of apologizing for it, he embraces it. He doesn’t hide the peculiar gospel away.

For his part, Peterson seems genuinely touched. Partway through, he pauses to say something about the opening ceremony. I had hoped, cringing inwardly, that perhaps he was backstage and had missed it, but I realized that in fact he had been sitting through it the whole time. Yet what he said humbled me. He said that he loved it. He said that one of his greatest fears was the spread of undue (and unearned) cynicism among our young people. But the warmth and the sincerity exuded by the young people during the opening encouraged him. There was something “beautiful” about it.

At the end, Nasser asks Peterson how they can pray for him. Peterson chokes up again and says that we could pray he won’t pay an undue price for the mistakes he will inevitably make as he tries to move forward. Nasser puts an encouraging arm around the weary noble pagan. He thanks God for Peterson’s work and for the people he has helped. He prays that Peterson would come to see Christ as more than a model for good behavior—as a personal Savior. He prays that other people who are searching would ultimately be pointed past Peterson to God and His Word. He also prays for the student who cried out for help: “I pray next semester he’s a student here at Liberty” (here Peterson nods). “I pray that I get to pour into him.” Finally, he closes in thanks for what they’ve been able to learn from Peterson. Then he dismisses the audience.

God only knows what went through Peterson’s mind as David prayed over him. I try to picture what it must be like to be prayed over in that way for the first time. Even as an Anglican curmudgeon in training, I still have a foot in Nasser’s world, enough that the language he uses feels natural to me. It feels like the easiest thing in the world to speak of God as he does, to talk to God as he does. It feels like home. But how must it seem to Peterson? How does home look to a man without a home?

I can only echo Nasser’s prayer. And in thinking of the student who rushed the stage, I can only think of another cry for help, recorded in the gospel of Mark: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” There goes blind Bartimaeus again. Will he please shut up? But he cries out all the more: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

The Son of David stops. The Son of David turns.

“Be of good cheer,” they say. “Rise. He is calling you.”


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  • Ryan S.

    First of all, thank you for your recap of the event today. I appreciate your side notes describing your thoughts and feelings. As a Liberty alumnus and lifelong Christian, I thought I knew most of what I needed to know about the differences between the secular and evangelical arguments. But, when watching and listening to today’s conversation, the most important nuances of Christian thought versus secular thought were highlighted by the commonality we found with someone who disbelieves much that we Christians hold paramount. Dr. Peterson is circling the truth, it seems. He has pinpointed many of the right ideas that make life easier to abide. But he has yet to find the true North that gives meaning to it all. I will research further the points he brings in his books. Thank you for taking the time to recap and hopefully to read these comments.

  • ben

    Thank you for your reporting on this. It is good to see that these strange events indicate the presence of God despite the brokenness in each party described.

  • Comrade Carrot-Blog Vegetarian

    It’s a good thing they had security present, lest an exasperated man crying “I’m unwell, I need help!” would have gotten in the way of the Evangelical’s “putting Christ at the center of their lives”. How differently it could have gone.

    How is one supposed to exemplify the Christian life when the least of these keep getting in the way?

  • @EstherOReilly

    With all due respect, I think you’re misreading what happened. Nasser, the guy who was talking at most length with Peterson and explicitly talking about putting Christ at the center of one’s life, was also the one holding off security while he prayed for the disturbed man (not a Liberty U student, apparently), and making sure he was okay before gently escorting him off-stage and coming back to pick up the conversation. I cannot imagine how he could possibly have handled the situation better. You can see both Nasser and Peterson calming the student together while Nasser prays in an audience video angle on the event. It was beautifully handled by all involved.

    I realize people have “Ew, icky” vibes about Liberty U, and no, I’m not crazy about Jerry Falwell, Jr., either, but brace yourself–it is conceivable for there to be good people there, doing good work, talking about the lordship of Christ and also having a tender heart towards unwell people. In fact, it’s not just conceivable, it’s a reality, as this very situation should have obviously showed to anyone whose high horse is shy of Everest hands tall.

    Seriously dude.

  • Comrade Carrot-Blog Vegetarian

    I have a hard time believing he didn’t have the authority to call security off…but, assuming he didn’t, the right thing to do would be to publicly apologize to the audience for such a shameful display of contemptuousness for the message of the cross, and follow the guy out.

    What I saw wasn’t “beautiful”, and I consider myself fortunate not to have the sort of eyes which would see it so.

    It made my heart hurt.

  • JoeS54

    The problem you have is that the video exists for anyone to watch the entire event, and see your bitterness and spite for what they are.

  • JoeS54

    Not only did you not watch the video, you didn’t even read the article.

  • rvs

    God’s truths pervade Peterson’s work. He’s doing God’s work, and I’m thankful for him.

  • Comrade Carrot-Blog Vegetarian

    I did both. I never comment on something I don’t watch/read, and I read all of Ether’s posts whether I comment on them or not.

  • @EstherOReilly

    I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I haven’t the foggiest clue in hell what you’re talking about. If you have some direct evidence that Nasser personally is a false shepherd, spit it out. Otherwise, this gestalt armchairing that you’re doing is pointless and, frankly, more than a little bigoted. May I remind you that Jesus did not take kindly to Pharisees?

  • camainc

    I have a lot of respect for the man and his courage. I also agree that he’s circling the truth; I pray that he finds The Truth. Until he does, he’s still lost, and, ultimately just another blind leader leading the blind.

    I pray that his spiritual eyes will be opened before he at last falls into the ditch.

  • rvs

    My main point for you and Ryan S. to consider is as follows: Peterson expresses God’s truths on a regular basis. Not only has he found God’s truths, but he also expresses them–often in highly contentious circumstances. I pray for his well-being and his wisdom.

  • Pine Forest Camper

    I watched the video in its entirety. I went online looking for more information last night and found this post. I hope my intrusion here is welcomed.

    Peterson was focused on inviting people into taking on the project that is their life. Christians should not be surprised that there is little difference as to how they live their lives than others who do not sign on to their orthodoxy. Much of evangelicalism can be boiled down to making a “decision” with little more to it than that. There was some push back to what Peterson was saying by Nasser who asked Peterson about transformation as something other than behavior modification. We are a nation of people of that “decision” and have little to show for it. Knowing what I know about these folks and what Nasser had to say at the end you realize they truly believe that real transformation happens in that decision. If thats the case where is the fruit of that? Why are things not far different than what we are experiencing?

    There is an absurd naivety to all of this that is missed by those who were on stage with Peterson. I am speaking mainly of Nasser as he did most of the talking. Peterson is inviting others to come out of hiding and discover what their root sins are. This is the nature of his work. These people are hyper focused on the superficial act of acknowledging sin before God. God already knows your sins. God wants you to intimately know your sins so you can partner with God and do something about it. Do something about it right now.

    Before you discount what I have to say ask yourself what your root sins are? What are you doing in your life and why do you do what you do? People are living in the dark as to what they are all about. The more I talk to people the more I realize people have little zeal to honestly address their own problems. You cant understand the problem if you wont even admit to it and we all have core issues.

    Peterson is laser focused on talking about the truth. First and foremost about ourselves. I appreciate what Nasser said to the audience in regards to being honest about our own issues. However, his finish confirmed that he is over his head when he settles in on a “decision”.

  • @EstherOReilly

    “Christians should not be surprised that there is little difference as to how they live their lives than others who do not sign on to their orthodoxy.”

    That’s awfully sweeping, and in my experience, not really true. I see plenty of fruit of that decision at work in people’s lives every day. I would also add that if Peterson is seeking truth, he should be interested in the truth about who Jesus actually was. Because if Jesus was who he presented himself to be, this should be a game-changer.

    Nasser had it right.

  • Adam Friended

    great stuff.

  • Laurel Linc Dunstan

    Thanks for nothing Esther, now I have sore eyes from crying thrroughout your whole piece!! What a wonderful, gentle, loving Savior we have. Jordan may get to where we think he needs to be, but God may have other plans for him. Bigger and better, who knows.

  • Laurel Linc Dunstan

    I’m speechless, your orrogance is breathtaking!! The one take away i get from your comment is that im glad you are NOT the
    Judge of this world

  • @EstherOReilly

    Thanks! Laser-eyes are back, I see. 😉

    You said you grew up Southern Baptist once–this might feel like familiar turf to you.

  • Jill1968

    Thank you for this great post. I hadn’t heard about this. May Jordan Peterson see with his eyes, hear with his eyes, understand with his heart, and turn, and be healed. (Isaiah 6:10.)

  • Al Cruise

    People like him don’t have the courage or skill set to do what Peterson is doing. His comments and others who comment like him use that type of rhetoric to justify their luke warmness and there also will be jealously issues going on as well.

  • camainc

    If you are both referring to me, I am only echoing the words of Jesus. If you have a problem with those words, take it up with him.

  • Laurel Linc Dunstan

    Al, I think the stones along the way may have something say about camainc remarks!!

  • Al Cruise

    Exactly , Jesus says a good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him. He also says whoever speaks a word against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. You better be sure the Holy Spirit is not working through Peterson, remember God’s ways are not our ways and if Satan drives out Satan he is divided against himself.

  • PaleyRedivivus

    Actually, that’s not what Jesus says. Might want to re-read Matthew 13.

  • Al Cruise

    You make your own judgement call and live with it.

  • kmk1916

    Christmas Poem
    There fared a mother driven forth
    Out of an inn to roam;
    In the place where she was homeless
    All men are at home.
    The crazy stable close at hand,
    With shaking timber and shifting sand,
    Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
    Than the square stones of Rome.

    For men are homesick in their homes,
    And strangers under the sun,
    And they lay their heads in a foreign land
    Whenever the day is done.

    Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
    And chance and honour and high surprise,
    But our homes are under miraculous skies
    Where the yule tale was begun.

    A child in a foul stable,
    Where the beasts feed and foam;
    Only where He was homeless
    Are you and I at home;
    We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
    But our hearts we lost—how long ago!
    In a place no chart nor ship can show
    Under the sky’s dome.

    This world is wild as an old wife’s tale,
    And strange the plain things are,
    The earth is enough and the air is enough
    For our wonder and our war;
    But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
    And our peace is put in impossible things
    Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
    Round an incredible star.

    To an open house in the evening
    Home shall all men come,
    To an older place than Eden
    And a taller town than Rome.
    To the end of the way of the wandering star,
    To the things that cannot be and that are,
    To the place where God was homeless
    And all men are at home.

    (Gilbert Keith Chesterton)

  • The Ancient Mariner

    Kudos to Dr. Peterson for getting off his chair to help the young man. ‘By their fruits you will know them’….’the word became flesh’

  • The Ancient Mariner

    Love G.K. Chesterson found him here

  • Comrade Carrot-Blog Vegetarian

    That’s right…he didn’t.

    My objection is mostly with the behavior of security, and therefore, with the university.

    My only real quibble with Nasser himself is that he, as a representative of the university, didn’t apologize for the university’s actions qua security, or even comment on the tension between his subsequent statements about christcenteredness, and the actions everyone JUST SAW the university take, which were reflective of anything but. That tension just hung there throughout the remainder of the event.

    Sorry, but in my view, the appropriate Christian response to a man desperately crying out for help knowing God in an allegedly Christian university is NOT for forcibly expel him for doing so.

    Agree to disagree, but that’s my view.

  • David Cromie

    “Nasser [ ] prays that God would heal the student, that the Spirit would work in him…”. ‘Thots and praeyars’ are the last refuge of the terminally deluded, and scoundrel grifters. This could have been set up deliberately by Liberty to make some theological point for Peterson and the audience.

  • David Cromie

    Looks like the interior of Liverpool Anglican cathedral.

  • The Ancient Mariner

    Its Beautiful wherever it is..

  • ElrondPA

    That is just plain nasty. “Could have been set up”–well, I suppose anyone COULD have set it up. Maybe the Freedom From Religion Foundation set it up to make Liberty look bad. But I doubt it. And I doubt that Liberty planted him, either. Suggesting that with no evidence is a sign of anti-Christian bias, confirmed by the rest of your comments.

  • Dannette Rausch Cox

    That is true Ryan. The reason those outside of a redeemed relationship with Christ are aware of the natural moral law – because we are all image-bearers of the moral Law-giver. And the reason we cannot consistently do the ought that we all know is because we are fallen image-bearers. I love Dr. Peterson and his work and pray that he comes to truly know the One source of the morality that he is aware of and teaches about.

  • Dannette Rausch Cox

    What is the ‘fruit of that’ decision? Really? Ideas have consequences and worldviews shape entire nations and cultures. Marx & Darwin = reduction of mankind and destruction of mankind on an unprecedented scale. Mohammed = Iran & Saudi Arabia. Christ = elevation of man to image-bearers with intrinsic worth and inherent freedoms, hospitals, the elevation of women, universities, the emancipation of slaves, care for widows and orphans, freedom of religion, the intellectual foundation of the modern science, etc.

    In regards to the evangelicals’ focus on a ‘decision’, I agree with you that for many, the focus has been too narrow. However, the fact that some have made this mistake does not negate the inescapable preponderance of New Testament evidence of the need to repent and trust in Christ (decision) for the forgiveness of sins. The mistake comes in from focusing on decisions only, as if the Great Commission charges us to go and make decisions, rather than ‘Go and make disciples’.

  • The Old Time Podcast Hour

    I slightly disagree with a couple things implied here—(1) that the convocation simply coasted along the best it could after the “cry for help,” and (2) that Peterson felt especially out of place or uncomfortable in this setting. While I wish Peterson could have finished his points on free speech which were interrupted, the interruption turned into a fairly natural pivot toward the “self-help” version of Peterson with which so many are familiar. And though the incident caught everyone off guard, he’s an incredibly resilient speaker. The remainder of his points were mostly unmarred by the incident, if not enhanced. Peterson brilliantly weaved spiritual principles with the practical advice from his books, but that wasn’t good enough for the evangelical leaders of LU who wished to hear supernatural concepts naturalized by reduction to labels, if only to put Peterson in a box. Even then, he indulged them without compromise, breaking down his personal epistemology to the limits of natural logic and articulating its meaning better than any professing Christian I’ve ever heard. If Jordan Peterson isn’t a Christ-like man, I don’t know who is. Nasser sees this. But the paradox of a religious identity that practically insists upon “fully-formed” ideas (at risk of eternal punishment) obligates Peterson’s host to pray for his salvation. It’s hard for me to imagine that the clinical psychologist is the less comfortable party in this situation, as he understands the principle of “if any man hath an ear” perhaps better than anyone else on the stage.

    Just my take on the situation. Side note: Esther, I’ve really enjoyed your contributions to Unbelievable.

  • @EstherOReilly

    I actually do agree that things proceeded remarkably well considering the circumstances. Disagree however that Peterson is bringing special enlightenment while the evangelicals just don’t get it. There is something they have for which he is still searching. It will snap the whole puzzle into place once he grasps it.

  • logik69

    I think Jesus the man would have a good time debating with Mr. Peterson. Labelling yourself Christian does not make you Christian. Sadly that has become more abundantly clear in recent times. I think Jesus was a lot more open minded than people that claim to be Christians. Call me when evaneglicals start to publicly reject someone like Donald Trump who is an amoral power hungry liar. Jesus would not be impressed. No Holy Spirit running through that man.

  • andrew

    Peterson is a modern day Thomas Jefferson, he bases everything he knows on reason. Jefferson cut all the miracles out of his Bible and based his ideology on the teachings of Jesus only……We all have are working on virtues, Peterson is clearly working on the virtue of Faith and the virtue is working on him.

  • rvs

    Interesting and fun comparison. I see Peterson as more mystical than Jefferson, especially when he uses terms like “transcendence” in the way he does, but I get your point. On a semi-related note, Jefferson had the good sense to adore Laurence Sterne, one of the great 18th-century satirists. I’d be curious to know what sort of satire Peterson enjoys.

  • I am one among many thousands with similar experiences…. In my case, made an early “decision” for Christ and had solid “Evangelical” faith in the “saving work of Christ” for literally decades (to about age 45); studied the Bible in great depth, had a strong prayer life and ministry in churches and Christian counseling, etc… Then, my faith gradually matured to another understanding and stage… was never “lost” as some might term it… only my view of and about the Bible and the WAY it came to contain wisdom and reflect our God of love changed. And my understanding of much of its content changed.

    I believe the critical point of following Jesus is, indeed FOLLOWING; it’s living The Way (perhaps the earliest title for Jesus-following). One might say that takes an initial “decision” somewhere along the way, but I see no consistent scriptural requirement to come to a personal “saving faith”, whether by decision or otherwise. No doctrinal tests for orthodoxy/heresy. And IF there is a “saving faith”, no one in all my vast reading and conversations over nearly 7 decades has provided, that I’ve found, a clear and “biblical” definition of just what constitutes that faith (or how one knows if one actually HAS such faith) … at least that more than a handful of people might agree upon. It’s more “faithfulness” (per Paul) than “having faith” that I see as The Way; nor is THAT what gets a person to “heaven” (or “saved”)… it’s the way to live life “abundantly”.

  • Marvin

    got interested as soon as I heard Ian so I looked at the youtube discription

    Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden) and Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) performing “Revelations” live at Canterbury Rock at Christmas (2011)
    Justin Hayward, Bruce Dickinson & Ian Anderson – Canterbury Catherdral 10 Dec 2011 Finale

  • Nimblewill

    Nasser’s language is for the Christian believer. Peterson is for the general and sometimes non-religious public. Neither would be as effective in their opposing roles.

  • Nimblewill

    Repentance (metanoia) means to change your mind; your way of thinking. That is exactly what Peterson is getting people to do.

  • phil8

    Thank God for Liberty. They bring in some of the best guest speakers. Good for them.

  • danlocke

    The convocation touched me deeply. God spoke to us all through this event, and the consequence for me is a deepening of my love for and faith in Christ. Your thoughts about the event parallel my own so closely. God bless you for your way with words. Thank you for helping me sort out my own thoughts and feelings.

  • Jesusisdemocrat


  • Lamar Carnes

    So wonderful to see the Sovereign God and the Lord Jesus the Savior will break into a planned and staged program and meeting. I have often wondered how it would look if the Minister suddenly along with the congregation experienced the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit coming down upon them and they had to forget the time limits, the planned program moments, etc.! Would that not just be wonderful! There was an element of that in this meeting. Thank God!

  • Caleb

    Some of these comments are so full of ignorant arrogance. Do you think Jordan Peterson hasn’t thought or tried to understand what you “think you know”? Jerry Falwell’s comment about “we’ll teach you over lunch about the resurrection” (something along those lines) is the perfect example of that kind of arrogance. I don’t think it’s malicious but it’s already decided that they k now everything they need to know.

    You brought this man to your convocation to speak but the entire time you were trying to police and guide what you wanted him to say. David had his hand on his back whenever he wanted to guide him back to the narrative that they wanted for his speech. If you’ve listened to Jordan, you know his message is not a “Jesus Saves” message so why would you try to funnel his message into that. I appreciate that Liberty brought him to speak as I believe everyone needs to hear the truth of his message but it came across as cringy at points as they tried to hijack his message in a “you’ve got the right idea, Jordan but we know more” manner.