One of the most disturbing features of modern times is the abandonment of young people from the ways of faith.
The sad reality is that we Catholics seem to struggle to fill young hearts with the joy of the Gospel — with the certainty that everyone has an indispensable role in the history of salvation. Our secular world insists that anything transcendent is an illusion. As a result, we have become accustomed to the dark ways in which life becomes messy and weary when meaning and purpose are absent from our lives.
It is therefore surprising that the person who seems to hold the key to the big puzzle of how to reach young people spiritually is not very religious.
Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson has arguably become the most important cultural and intellectual influencer in the West in recent times. His videos and bestsellers have attracted millions of young subscribers.
I went to hear him speak last month in Miami to understand him better. Some 3,000 people, mostly under the age of 35, sat with rapt attention as he spoke of the human need for a philosophy rooted in the transcendent. The speech was college-level, a compliment to the audience who knew he was not condescending.
Digging into some of his writings, talking to the young people who follow him (including my two young adult sons), I have come to appreciate his attempts to teach them a way out of the void and despair of skepticism and enter into the bondage of moral certainty.
As an avowed agnostic, I’m sure Peterson is out of step with the Church on several crucial topics of social teaching. But after checking it out for myself, I have come to believe that we Catholics can learn a valuable lesson from him.
At the heart of Peterson’s ideas is this: first, life is difficult and full of suffering. There are afflictions that we cannot control, such as illness, loss of loved ones, war, and natural disasters. Worse still is what he calls “malevolence”: the dark parts of our nature that hurt others and the malevolence of those around us who hurt us.
It is the basic condition of life, and for young people who suffer from it, it is a relief to learn that it is everybody experience.
The good news, according to Peterson, is that we can still win. We can “take up arms against the sea of trouble and, by opposing it, put an end to it”. Or if we can’t end them, we can bravely face them. We are not victims but protagonists, and able ones, moreover.
Second, Peterson proposes that the first step towards living a meaningful life is embracing responsibility, starting with our own actions and working out to our families and then to the community. By cultivating this sense of responsibility, our lives gain meaning and purpose, making us the kind of men and women who shine like lights in a dark world that others rely on.
Both ideas are familiar to believers. The scriptures remind us that we are wandering pilgrims passing through a “vale of tears.” And the malevolence that adds the horror of intentional harm to accidental cruelty these days is none other than original sin, the inky darkness that dwells deep within each of us, without exception.
As for the responsibility that leads to meaning, it is a great responsibility for a Christian to know that he is a son or a daughter of God. With this knowledge comes the welcome weight of eternal duty, to Father and neighbor, to the highest good, and to the self-created order.
When Peterson offers responsibility to young people raised with a steady diet of self-esteem and the “pursuit of happiness” as the meaning of life, they immediately recognize it as a lifeline.
This is especially true for young men. They long for a challenge, for a citadel to conquer, even if the first is, in Peterson’s famous words, “make your bed.” Whether male or female, they know inside that they were not created for the mundane pursuit of comfort but for the glorious adventure of heroic deeds and lofty goals, and that is to this intuition that Peterson is talking about.
And it is to this intuition that I think that we Catholics do not actually speaking. As I listened to Peterson, I was reminded that for too long we have taught our religion as a comforting and wholesome way to pursue happiness and build our self-esteem.
We have sometimes forgotten the meaning of taking responsibility — for our relationship with God, for the beautiful practices of our faith, for our brothers and sisters. If Peterson starts with “make your bed”, perhaps we could start with “go to mass on Sunday”, for it is in the performance of duty that the heart is engaged and fired, and dysfunction becomes peace.
Jesus Christ modeled and proposed a life of valiant responsibility: The words “Take up your cross and follow me” call us to something else, to face overwhelming situations with hope. Jesus takes a big step forward, of course: His acceptance of responsibility for the sins of mankind is the cure for the wickedness that torments us.
What could be more important than talking about the emptiness that so many young people live in? We know, after all, that our faith is in him who promises “the words of eternal life.”