“In our lifetimes, many populations in Europe will age and shrink drastically due to their lack of belief in the possibility of transcending death, a belief that undergirds culture.”
In my last essay on Jordan Peterson and Christianity, I laid out the issues I have with his take on Christian doctrine and his conception of truth—and what this could mean for man’s place in the world. In this essay, I’m going to consider what this all means for Peterson’s views on culture, particularly in the West. Again, I’m aware that criticism of Peterson has often been unhelpful to downright dishonest, and I endeavor to stay away from that because it’s dishonest, wrong, and doesn’t bring anything helpful to our societal discussion. Again, I’m going to be writing from more of a Christian point of view, while using non-Christian philosophy to gain a deeper perspective on the relationship between religion, specifically Christianity, and culture.
The disquiet I have over Peterson’s interpretation of Christianity and its link to culture was crystallized for me in a blog post Peterson put out on November 16. In it, he writes of his marvel and emotion when seeing the chapel at King’s College, Cambridge. He writes that the chapel is:
“…a building properly regarded as one of the most beautiful in the United Kingdom, with vast vaulted walls and miraculously filigreed solid stone ceiling, suspended, impossibly, hundreds of feet in the air, extended above like trees in some cathedral grove, light filtering through the ancient stained glass like dappled sunlight through trees. Europe constantly brings me to the edge of tears with its visionary beauty.”
This is absolutely right. I felt the same when I entered Notre Dame for the first time. I felt a hitch in my chest at the beauty of it. Buildings like this have an impact whose depth resonates, and bring you to the edge of tears, and often tip you right over it. They have a serene power that speaks of the heights of Heaven and the depths of the human heart. And here we reach the bit where the incoherent issues that I untangled somewhat last time, that had been bubbling under the surface, broke through in a moment of clarity:
“Why have we forgotten the power of such construction? How was it that our forebears were able to dedicate themselves to the task of producing something so magnificent, over spans of time that exceeded the single lives of all the craftsmen and artists who labored to produce the final work, the symphony in stone, realized by such a chapel? All constructed to remind men eternally to look upward and to aim in the same manner.”
Christ and Culture
Why have we forgotten the power of these buildings? This is a question which has been considered before by much better writers than I am. One of those was the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson, a writer neglected today. The center of Dawson’s worldview was that culture was the important ingredient that motivated us to strive to be the best we could be in all pursuits. Where does culture come from? As Dawson argued, its root is cult, or religion. For Dawson, religion has to be expressed in sociological ways for it “can never escape the necessity of becoming incarnated in culture and clothing itself in social institutions and traditions, if it is to exert a permanent influence on human life and behavior.”
Culture is the incarnation, at a particular moment and in a particular place, of a universal religion in the spheres of art, literature, music and philosophy. The religion births, nurtures, and nourishes a culture, giving it a reason for existence. Without this, Dawson argued, culture dies. He was worried that the secular age meant that our culture in the West would not survive without the thing which gave it life: “The loss of the historic religion of a society is a sign that it is undergoing a process of social disintegration … We cannot … assume the possibility of a culture continuing to preserve its unity and to persist indefinitely without any religious form whatsoever. When the process of secularization is completed, the process of social dissolution is consummated and the culture comes to an end.”
This view of the world goes some way to explaining how buildings like the chapel at King’s College, Cambridge were built. They were built because of the religion that gave European and Western culture its life: Christianity. They were made as they were, with the beauty and the artistry, because those who built them really believed in God. They didn’t believe in some sort of abstract archetype, but in a Creator that they could have a personal relationship with, who sent his Son to die on the cross for our sins. While there were multiple reasons for the construction of cathedrals, the underlying driving force was the faith that compelled the masons and artisans to create these monuments to honor and glorify His name out of love for Him and for what He endured.
One could almost view the spires of cathedrals like fingers saluting the wonder of the beyond while being content to recognize the limits of our existence, in affirmation of the joy that is promised, that lies beyond our mortal world but which imbues our lives in this world with meaning. Today’s modernist architecture, built in the cultural aftermath of the death of God, represents with its ever-taller towers the accusatory finger stabbing the sky in anger at our ultimate insignificance in the cold, empty universe that cares nothing for our triumphs or torments. No wonder this view of our place in existence leads to cold, soulless monstrosities that are almost designed to suck the life from those who use them.
The fact that Peterson doesn’t seem to grasp this is perhaps indicative of his rather instrumental view of religion. Peterson seems to want all the benefits of the Christian religion without actually engaging in the thing which makes Christianity what it is. He wants the cultural benefits of a belief system centered on a divinity whom he can’t bring himself to believe in or acknowledge on its own terms. He can’t quite reconcile himself with that which, according to Dawson, gives life to the culture that overwhelms him with the depth of its beauty. In some sense, the answer to his question as to why we can’t build such places anymore is obvious: why should we, when most of us don’t even believe in what drove the original builders?
A way to picture our current situation is to imagine a wine cup, highly crafted but with flaws in the design. That is the outward manifestation of the culture that Dawson argued Christianity made. The liquid it contains is the immanent source (Christianity) which gives it meaning for existence and which sustains it. The liquid has been drained away over time, leaving an empty and increasingly cracked and brittle shell. We licked the remaining residue from the cup in the 19th century. In the 20th, we survived —just—by sniffing the vapor, a poor substitute for the real thing. Somehow, I feel that even the vapor that our culture has been living off is now dissipating, leaving our wider culture with nothing to sustain itself.
Mortality, Immortality and the Sacred
When the religion dies, so does the culture, and so does the country: the aging populations and collapsing birthrates in the secularized developed world are partly, if not mostly, explained by this. In our lifetimes, many populations in Europe will age and shrink drastically due to their lack of belief in the possibility of transcending death, a belief that undergirds culture. As David P. Goldman argues, channeling Franz Rosenzweig, we each harbor the need to believe in the survival of the meaning of our lives past death. The sacred provides the sense of meaning which endures beyond ours and our children’s years on this earth. Christianity, with its promise of eternal life, provides this promise of transcending mortality.
This yearning for immortality is repeated in the desire for remembrance, to live on as an echo in the minds of family, community, or political followers. This echo on its own is insubstantial consolation, and this form of transcendence dissipates like mist in the air. Culture, springing from the religious root, provides a much stronger sense of continuity, anchoring the spirit of those gone before and providing the context through which to perceive the world. As Goldman writes, “individual human existence looks forward to the continuation of the culture that nurtures, sustains, and transmits our contribution to future generations. Culture is the stuff out of which we weave the hope of immortality—not merely through genetic transmission but through inter-generational communication.”
In the Western context, Christianity provides the scarlet thread that makes up the weave of culture that binds us together up and down the years. One could say that culture is a community of souls, expressed in memory, traditions, and habit and stretching across time. The loss of religion, the root of culture, leads to an unravelling of this weave. The covenant described by Edmund Burke that binds the dead, the living, and those yet to be born breaks down. Without the sacred, we lose hope for the future, and the thing which binds us to those gone before and those yet to come snaps. Without a sense of the sacred, we see no way of transcending death, no way for meaning to continue past this life. The loss of the sacred means that culture, the expression of us as a community of souls across time, loses its reason for existence, and then so do we as individuals. As Walker Percy wrote, we become “wintry kingdoms of the self.” We break the pact with those behind and before, as the reason for it, the transcendence of death with meaning, is gone. If a society accepts that there is no way of living on spiritually, why should it physically in this world through children?
This loss of the sacred, and the hope in the promised hereafter, is arguably partly responsible for the increased elevation of the self to mystical heights. Hence today we see increasingly divisive identity politics from both sides that is really a replacement for religion through which people can orient their lives, and through which they can find a sense of meaning. The fact that this meaning is pathological, and ultimately self-destructive, doesn’t seem to have occurred to those who grasp for it as a life-jacket in a sea of liquid modernity. The irony is that the life-jacket of identity politics is lead-lined. The identity politics of the anti-Christian white identitarian Right in particular, with its emphasis on the biological characteristics of whiteness, provides a poor and more importantly immoral substitute for belief in Christ, the promise of eternity and the unique dignity of the human soul. Reading the self-satisfied, ideologically turgid literature of the white identitarian writers, obsessed with the death of the white race, I’m constantly put in mind of these words by Rosenzweig in his Star of Redemption:
“Just as every individual must reckon with his eventual death, the peoples of the world foresee their eventual extinction, be it however distant in time. Indeed, the love of the peoples for their own nationhood is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death. Love is only surpassing sweet when it is directed toward a mortal object, and the secret of this ultimate sweetness only is defined by the bitterness of death. Thus the peoples of the world foresee a time when their land with its rivers and mountains still lies under heaven as it does today, but other people dwell there; when their language is entombed in books, and their laws and customers have lost their living power.”
The white identitarians’ love for their own race is indeed “sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death.” Hannah Arendt noticed something similar in her analysis of the development of racialist intellectual currents in the 19th century, when she noted in The Origins of Totalitarianism that “Doctrines of decay seem to have some very intimate connection with race-thinking.” How could it be otherwise, given the mortality of the object of worship: themselves? The white identitarians are today’s pagans, having replaced the worship of God and the hope in the hereafter with the raising up of the mortal biological reality of whiteness to mystical levels. A society built on its own mortality will commit suicide more swiftly than the society the white identitarians despise. The irony is that in reaching for something to guarantee immortality, they only hasten their own demise, and risk losing their souls in the process. In trying to refill the cup of our culture with a racial religion, the white identitarians instead fill it with poison.
Peterson and Culture
Where does this leave Jordan Peterson? Some would argue that Peterson is trying to fill the wine cup of our culture again, giving us the meaning that allows us to see a way of transcending mortality. But I don’t believe he can, and he is making a mistake in trying to, at least by himself. As I showed before, his views on what Christianity actually is don’t fit with what most would understand as Christianity. It is often said that Peterson is reintroducing a sense of the sacred into our postmodern world. As Matt McManus has pointed out, this may be true, but he seems to want to do so without that which makes it sacred. He has said that he supports the Catholic Church—but as an institution which resists the identity politics of the Left. Again, it seems to be about the structure, and not about the faith that sanctifies the institution and gives it reason to exist.
Peterson seems to want it both ways. He arguably wants the institutions and hallowed truths associated with them, while drained of the sacred source that created them and sustains them. His efforts to approach the Bible and Christianity from an archetypal perspective, while interesting, seem to be his attempt at using Christianity as a series of narratives devoid of their transcendent source, i.e. God, in which he cannot quite seem to bring himself to believe. As with the buildings and the institutions, so with the religion that created them: Peterson’s approach to Christianity is to use its form as a kind of structure for self-improvement—but by draining it of its sense of the transcendent as traditionally understood. He wants the sacred surety that Christianity provides, without accepting the Christian conceptions of who God and Christ are, as understood by Christians. In this, we can clearly see his debt to Carl Jung, whose thinking, as David Bentley-Hart has written, reflected a desire for “transcendence without transcendence.” Sacredness is desacralized; Christianity is de-Christianized. Peterson’s abstract semi-theology is too unstable and ultimately unable to provide the assurance of spiritual immortality.
I don’t think this can sustain itself. Indeed, it may be that like the wine cup of culture, without the source that provides the essence of its reason for existence, Peterson’s conception of religion is unsustainable. In time, the concern is that we continue on in Dawson’s “process of social dissolution” without the inner strength that our faith provided. As a result, our cultures and societies will eventually collapse in on themselves. We will be left standing among the wreckage with no way to remake them, nor an ability to find our way home once more.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.