Jordan Peterson and the Case of the Empty Tomb

Jordan Peterson and the Case of the Empty Tomb April 21, 2019
Image credit Jonathan Castellino, used by permission

Originally published at Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable

The future Bishop of Edinburgh was having a crisis. Easter Sunday was coming, and he had to prepare a sermon.

It was not his first Easter sermon. Far from it. He knew the Easter sermon rhythm well. Year after year, he had climbed into little pulpits of little churches, ready to feed simple people hungry for the greatest story ever told.

He knew how to preach about the resurrection all right. But this year, he no longer knew how to mean it.

That priest was Richard Holloway. Readers unfamiliar with his work may wonder if he recovered from his crisis of faith in time to become Bishop of Edinburgh. In fact, he never did find his faith. He just got very good at hiding the lack of it.

Now long resigned and openly agnostic, he has nothing to hide, and in his mind, nothing to apologize for. True, he was a Christian minister who did not embrace the Christian creed. But for him, the creed was never the thing, because Christianity was never about what you said. It was about what you did.

Jordan Peterson would agree. In his Big Conversation episode with Susan Blackmore, he said it is action that constitutes “the hallmark of belief”. He has argued that Western Christianity lost its compass when it defined “belief” as the affirmation of a set of propositions about reality, rather than our embodied response to reality.

Thus, the question of whether Christ literally died for the sins of the world is secondary to the question of what sacrifices we will make in our own lives. And the question of whether he literally rose again is secondary to the question of how we might overcome our faults and spiritually “rise” to become more than what we are.

Of course, Christians and other believers committed to the truth claims of their religions would beg to differ. But to quote Reformed Jewish rabbi Jonathan Romain in his dialogue with the Messianic Jewish scholar Michael Brown: “So what? So what if [Brown] believes that Christ is the Son of God? What’s really important is what he does. Does he help an old lady across the road or does he barge past her?”

Feeding the poor, clothing the naked, socially liberal advocacy: for religious leaders like Romain and Holloway, this is what religious institutions are for.

And after all, isn’t that really what Jesus was all about too? Forget the stories of water turning to wine, fish multiplying, dead bodies literally rising. As skeptic Michael Ruse put it in debate with John Lennox, we’ve turned Jesus into “David Copperfield”. Magic tricks are trivia. They are beside the point. For Ruse, the true miracle is not what Jesus did, but how he lived, and so inspired others to live. The true resurrection hope was the disciples’ conviction that his spirit of love would live on, though his body was dead.

Whether or not this life is the only one we’ve got, we, like the disciples, can pattern it after Christ’s example. Perhaps there is something more. Perhaps not. Either way, Ruse wrote after the debate, his philosophy is “to live for the real present, not a hoped-for future.” “Leave it at that,” he says. It is enough.

Or is it?

When the agnostic Swiss playwright and novelist Max Frisch died, he asked that his funeral be conducted in St Peter’s Church in Zurich. But he wanted the service to be stripped of any religious trappings. A couple of friends would speak. No priest would bless the mourners. No prayers would be offered. No passages from the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer would be read.

One of those in attendance was philosopher Jurgen Habermas. The intentionally jarring contrast of the service’s setting with its content struck him so forcefully that he used it to open his now famous essay The Awareness of What is Missing.

And what is missing? Perhaps the question is not “what” but “who”. The late, great Irish writer Dennis O’Driscoll answers the question in his poem “Missing God.”

Like rebellious children, we thought we would be free once we were free of Him. Yet “we confess to missing Him at times.” We miss Him at the wedding conducted in a registrar’s office, as the couple “waits in vain/to be fed a line containing words/like ‘everlasting’ and ‘divine’.”

We miss Him at the crematorium when the famous passage from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is read aloud, reminding us that all “golden lads and girls” are dust, and to dust must return.

We miss Him in the TV scientist’s cheerful reduction of the cosmos to impersonal mathematical abstractions, leaving Earth to “revolve on its axis/aimlessly, a wheel skidding in snow”.

These are not light matters. But to hear the glibness with which some people announce that God is dead, as the former Bishop Holloway puts it in his memoir Leaving Alexandria, you’d think they were announcing that the number 23 bus has been cancelled. It’s all very well to say that we are the product of blind, unfeeling chance, dancing to the music of our DNA. But when it comes down to it, is that how we will comfort the dying child, or the bereft mother?

Holloway often quotes a passage from Andre Schwarz-Bart’s great Holocaust novel The Last of the Just, where the main character cradles a dead boy on an Auschwitz train. He comforts the other little children with the old story that death itself will die, like a forgotten dream. A woman angrily whispers in his ear: “How can you tell them it’s only a dream?” He replies, between dry sobs: “Madam, there is no room for truth here.”

In last year’s release Waiting For the Last Bus, Holloway recalls how he once quoted this story to Richard Dawkins at the Edinburgh Science Festival. He asked Dawkins: “What would you do in his place? What would you say?” “The same,” Dawkins confessed.

For Holloway, this story lies at the heart of his revelation that in God’s death (or indifference) we could step into the gap. This became the resolution of his crisis, the new theme of his preaching: “…not that tragedy could be overcome by the action of God, but that in responding to tragedy meaning could be imposed upon it.”

Is there meaning to the universe? That is the wrong question to ask, he decided. Rather, we should ask: “Will we choose to act as if there is?”

Similarly, when Peterson is asked if he believes God exists, he says: “I act as if He exists,” leaving us free to speculate on what this might mean.

He gives us hints in his work. He suggests that “God” is the transcendent ideal around which mankind must crystallize, else he is lost. Thus, man’s search for God is the history of man’s search for the ideal: the ideal we ourselves might come to embody, if we speak and act properly.

How do we embody it? By picking up our individual crosses and stumbling up the hill together. The meaning we find in the journey is proportional to the weight of the cross we choose to shoulder. The greater the responsibility, the greater the reward.

We ask Dr Peterson: “What is at the top of the hill?” He answers: “the city of God.” And where or what is that city? He answers again: “A place where everyone bears maximal responsibility and speaks the truth.”

But is that what we seek? Is that why, to quote O’Driscoll again, “our contracted hearts lose a beat” when “the gospel choir raises its collective voice to ask ‘Shall We Gather at the River?’/ or the forces of the oratorio converge/on ‘I Know That My Redeemer Liveth’”?

Are we our own redeemers, or do we seek another? Does that river flow along own shores, or along another shore, in a greater Light?

We will ourselves to keep climbing, because there is nothing else to do. And still, we are discouraged. Still, the shadows fall. Still, the bell tolls. Sometimes it tolls in the evening. Sometimes it tolls in the morning. Sometimes it tolls for 11-year-old girls dying of leukemia, like the girl whose family Holloway befriended when he still wore the collar of a priest.

Like Ernie Levy on the Auschwitz train, he told her the story again. He offered “the impossible consolation.” There was no room for anything else.

And so the end of all our exploring has been to arrive right back where we started. Back to the awareness. Back to “the wrong question.” A child’s question.

The former Bishop of Edinburgh is having coffee with a journalist. The journalist is young, just over thirty. He admires the former Bishop. Not five years ago, he would have called himself a Christian and meant it. Now he has left his own Alexandria behind, and the Bishop has helped him make sense of it.

Still, he is a journalist, one of the best. Good journalists ask tough questions. So Douglas Murray asks Richard Holloway right out: “Did you ever think you were preaching lies?”

Holloway is unfazed: “No. I never preached lies. I never pretended to things I wasn’t feeling.” He wasn’t preaching “historical facts.” He was preaching a way of life.

“But is it true?” asks Murray. Is the Christian story true? Here, he writes later, “There is a considered pause.”

It’s true like myths are true, the former Bishop finally says. It’s a sense-making structure. It’s the medium through we which we are best able to talk about “our need for redemption, for challenge, for forgiveness.” In “wonderful ways,” it explains our dual nature, caught as we are between the animals and the angels. So in that sense, yes, it is true.

But as for the Nazarene, tragically crucified? “I don’t think he got out of the tomb.”

There is an equally considered pause when journalist Tim Lott asks Jordan Peterson the same question: “Do you believe Jesus rose again from the dead? Literally?”

But unlike the Bishop of Edinburgh, Peterson gropes his way towards his answer. “I find… I cannot answer that question, and the reason is because… okay, let me think about it for a minute and see if I can come up with a reasonable answer.” He tries to buy a bit of time: We’re talking about Jesus, the historical figure here, yes? A man, in a body, on earth?

Yes, Lott says, a real man, in a real body, who really died and really came back to life. The Logos made flesh. The myth actualised. The molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindled.

Another pause. Then finally: “I would say that at the moment I’m agnostic about that issue.”

Why agnostic? As Sam Harris pressed Peterson in their debate in Vancouver, why not just say it out loud with the former Bishop of Edinburgh?  “He didn’t make it out.” The unspoken conclusion: “And neither will you.”

Peterson could. But he won’t. He can’t explain why. He is simply unwilling, he tells Lott. “I’m unwilling to rule out the existence of heaven. I’m unwilling to rule out the existence of life after death. I’m unwilling to rule out the idea of universal redemption and the defeat of evil.”

A year later, Peterson tells me he is still unwilling, when I ask him. He tells me he will not pronounce on that which he is only beginning to understand. I watch him shake his head as he pounds one hand into the other, to indicate a wall, a limit: “I’m running up against the limits of my knowledge here.”

But what he said to Lott, he repeats to me: He knows the metaphorical conceptualizations. He has studied them all his life. But he will not say resurrection is exhausted in metaphor. No myth has ever taken him so deep. No story has ever stretched him so far.

“Well,” I tell him, “I hope you keep thinking about it.”

His face softens into something like a smile: “I will. I’m thinking about it all the time.”

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  • Laurel Linc Dunstan

    JBP could do far worse than to watch this!! Only the Holy Spirit can convict him….when he is ready.
    It’s the heart conviction that’s required, not the head!

  • sancho

    It’s Peterson’s business and if he feels he needs to explain himself better in the future then I’m sure he will. To put someone on the spot about God’s existence is condescending. The old adage about St Francis of Assisi and his preaching of the gospel by the way he lived his life still rings true to me, whether or not Francis said it or not. You may find that people will open up to you about the issue more often when you let them be the ones to broach the subject. Simply letting them know that you are a Christian is sufficient. Respect their privacy, whether you think you deserve an answer from them or not. Prayer will ultimately be of much more significance. It’s like demanding to know what interpretation of a certain Bible passage a person has. There are a million different interpretations. Yours may or may not be right. Just my opinion. By the way, remember the parable of the sheep and the goats. The ones who gain access to heaven didn’t even recognize Jesus. The ones denied access still called him “Lord”. Christ has shown you what will be asked of you when you stand in front of Him and it’s not “Did you accept me into your heart as personal Lord and Savior”.

  • Alpha 1

    Peterson is noncommittal because he’s a grifter who wants to keep his audience as broad as possible. Not taking a firm stance on the truth of Christianity lets him continue to sell books and get Patreon donations from Christians and non-Christians alike.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    King Tut’s tomb was empty for 85 years. I guess for those 85 years the empty tomb was proof that King Tuts had been resurrected.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    The heart is a muscle, it does no thinking. This ( not thinking) might be required when it comes to religion.

  • jc

    Belief always precedes action. Doctrine before practice. The wholeness of belief and action is what we call integrity and the dichotomy is hypocrisy. However there are things that we can not prove by measurement or experience or by the scientific method. It is on these things that we exercise faith. All actions are premise on a form of belief. You believe therefore you act.

  • Peterson is not the first person to identify action as the “hallmark of belief”. Kierkegaard called the response of faith a scandalous encounter with Jesus, not with a creedal formulation or doctrine. David McCracken, a literary critic, makes the case very well:

  • Bernard Dainton

    Christian faith has never been simply about giving mental assent to a series of propositions – otherwise how could those who are intellectually challenged and unable to understand theology ever be ‘saved’ (c.f., James 2:19). It is, in the words of a scholar I was reading yesterday, “the recognition that Israel’s god is active in and through Jesus”, and a commitment to living/acting in the light of Jesus’ authority. It is not so much believing that Blondin can wheel a wheelbarrow on a tightrope across Niagara Falls as it is getting into the wheelbarrow…

  • morbass

    His face softens into something like a smile: “I will. I’m thinking about it all the time.”
    Therein lies the problem. Not everything from which we gain knowledge is intellectual and will be had by thinking. Unless Jordan Peterson or others are willing to risk going into their soul place via prayer they may not ever get their answer. The soul is where faith from God resides and knows the truth about God and His Son Jesus Christ and his life death and resurrection. If we don’t go there our faith is on a foundation of sand as it appears has happened to the Bishop of Edinburg. I pray he can continue to seek in a spiritual way, he will get his answer if he is vulnerable and open to the Holy Spirit.

  • Simon

    A great article. Thank you.

  • Joris Heise

    I read this today–and respond with the blog I wrote before I read it:

    The Good News for the Day, May 1, 2019
    Wednesday of the First Week of Easter (269)

    Jesus continues to talk with Nicodemus: “God has so loved the world that He has given His only-begotten Son, so that every person believing in Him might not perish but might have permanent life. Actually, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but so that the world could be saved through him.
    Whoever believes in him won’t get condemned. No, whoever doesn’t come to believe has already been condemned to a dead end, because that person has not committed to the family of the only-begotten Child of God. Finally, this is the decisive thing—that light has come into the world, but people have preferred darkness to that light, because the things these people do is evil. Everybody who does wicked things hates the light, and does not move toward the light, so that what the person does won’t be exposed. Everybody who lives out the truth comes to the light, so that whatever such a person does may be clearly seen as done ‘in God.’” (John3)

    This verse, “God so loved the world…” is probably the most familiar line in all of Christian Scripture—whether hanging in a sports stadium, turning up on t-shirts, riding on bumper stickers, or seen in billboards along expressways.
    So, of course, you and I need to reflect on what it means for us.
    Most striking is the emphasis on God, as our Father, as a loving Person willing to send His Son into peril, into a hostile, even evil, world of dirt and flesh. He was sent to mingle with the unworthy, to touch the leprous, to talk to people denying his message, and to forgive whoever nailed Him to His Cross.
    Belief is not believing in words or creed—but in this Person, Jesus—the kind of Person He was and is. Faith—belief—trust—commitment—these lead to a Permanent Life, a Different Life, emergence from a dark womb—which, if a person stays unchanged, is a “dead end”—a corpse, ignorant, passive, dependent and “ungrowing”—a seed hiding inside its shell, fearing exposure. Belief is the choice to start a new Life.
    The commitment of your belief requires breaking open that shell—around your heart—to become with Jesus—Open-Hearted, Wounded, Courageous, Obedient to God, not humans, becoming free of bad prejudices and habits, of unwitting sins, and of so much bitterness, fear, revengefulness, and faking it—to become your true self.
    Once committed in your belief—to this spirit of Jesus, a light turns on. You escape your resentments, hiding who you are, so much self-deception, and trying to please other people. You feel that This is It—truth, enlightenment, the Way things ought to be. It is a great discovery; you are humbled to realize so much is God’s doing—all you have to do is respond to God, be “in God,” and do your best. You now walk by means of an inner light. Your whole life brightens—and grows more challenging—but more satisfying, more mysterious—but clearer, more demanding but finally free!

  • Mike Harris

    Was the following extract suppose to be in quotations (reflection what Peterson said):
    We’re talking about Jesus, the historical figure here, yes? A man, in a body, on earth?

  • Wes

    You wrote this like an epic story; Man’s search for God. Better yet, the sacred romance of the Father’s pursuit of us. I got goose bumps like I was reading a secret and ancient passage from Lewis or Tolkien. It made me think, too: the words of thinkers in the vein of JPB or have been useful to me. But I don’t think Grace and Truth come together unless the story is the literal manifestation of the existential metaphor, understood on multiple levels. I believe. Help my unbelief. Your passion to see specific others come to that belief is articulate and admirable.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Thank you Wes, that’s kind!

  • Laurel Linc Dunstan

    You need to do a little “fact check” here…Patreon booted him off!!

  • Laurel Linc Dunstan

    Al, I can only hope you have a “heart” for your wife!!

  • C_Alan_Nault

    If your heart failed & you received a heart transplant would you love your spouse less?

    Or stop loving your spouse completely?

    Or stop loving your spouse & instead love the spouse of the person whose heart you received?

    Or would there be no change because the heart is a muscle & the love is a product of your brain?

  • DuckyShades

    A “case for the resurrection” implies there’s a case against a literal reading. Anyone who fears eternal hellfire for not believing one literal way of reading it, developed over many generations, be free. That is not the way of unconditional love. May no evangelical ever gaslight you into a life of fear and introspection of the fate of your soul. God is unconditional love. That means you.

  • disqus_PICqUzDgRD

    I have read hundreds of articles on Patheos over the years. Of the many articles on the site I would rate this one as an excellent read! Perhaps one of the most fascinating and engaging articles I have ever found on this site!