Prof. Jordan B. Peterson calls them “postmodernists,” but he’s really criticizing today’s worst Gnostics. A sensation on YouTube, the Canadian intellectual lambastes those who think everything human, including gender, is entirely socially constructed.
But what if Peterson himself is also offering an extreme thesis? His version of psychological “self-improvement” demands a certain kind of maturity and responsibility: “Stand up straight with your shoulders back,” says his best-selling “self-help” tome, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
But is such a Pelagian approach sufficient to save us from today’s Gnostic social engineers? I call it “Pelagian” because Peterson’s use of Biblical symbols consistently reinterprets those symbols as having purely psychological meanings, rather than also metaphysical and theological ones.
For Peterson, “take up your cross” demands no less – but no more – than a personal effort to “stand up straight.” But that’s why, from a theological point of view, Peterson’s Pelagianism is an error that shall eventually fail to save those he aims to help.
Like Gnosticism, it’s another human gambit for manufacturing salvation. His Pelagian efforts at self-improvement neglect tapping into God’s genuinely higher power. Thus, both Peterson and his Gnostic opponents are warring doubles, because to side with one or the other is to choose an erroneous extreme.
Christian salvation, rightly understood, stands in contrast to “the individualist reductionism of Pelagian tendency, and to the neo-Gnostic promise of a merely interior salvation,” says Placuit Deo, a brief but highly interesting letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church, released last week by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Earlier, on Feb. 16, Pope Francis had approved and ordered the publication of Placuit Deo.
Unlike the warring doubles of contemporary culture, Christian salvation offers something wholly unique
Unlike the warring doubles of contemporary culture, Christian salvation offers something wholly unique. Because it comes from a truly divine initiative, it can achieve the harmonious golden mean.
Instead of the two extremes, Gnosticism and Pelagianism, which offer salvation in merely human ways, the Incarnation of Christ really is a higher power: “an incredible synergy between divine and human action appears in the life of Jesus, a synergy that shows how baseless the individualist perspective is,” says the CDF.
Gnostic schemes are merely human schemes, and Pelagian efforts are merely human efforts. Placuit Deo reminds us, however, of “the absolute primacy of the gratuitous acts of God; humility is essential to respond to his salvific love and is required to receive the gifts of God, prior to all of our works.”
Although “the Pelagian and Gnostic heresies” originally arose as “ancient errors” within “the social context of early Christianity, ” the CDF letter notes that even in our “modern, secularized society,” it is nonetheless still worth talking about them, because “Gnosticism and Pelagianism represent perennial dangers for misunderstanding Biblical faith.”
Human efforts at individual salvation can use secularized religious tropes
Human efforts at individual salvation can use secularized religious tropes within a “self-help” psychology; for example, of the kind offered by Peterson. But human efforts can also use religious tropes within a grand pageantry that makes a big show of purportedly genuine religiosity.
Joseph Ratzinger called this the “Pelagianism of the pious,” in a series of meditations written for a retreat he conducted in Collevalenza in 1986, and later published in book form as The Yes of Jesus Christ.
“The Pharisees of the New Testament are an eternally valid representation of this deformation of religion,” wrote the future Pope Benedict XVI. “The core of this Pelagianism is a religion without love that in this way degenerates into a sad and miserable caricature of religion.”
People today who are overly fond of their cultivation of all the correct religious practices also exemplify a Pelagian type of self-reliance about salvation: “They do not want any forgiveness from God, nor indeed any gift at all from him,” said Cardinal Ratzinger.
Because they self-righteously consider their own opinions, and their fervently preferred religious practices, to be superior to everybody who is not like them, they end up seeking “not forgiveness but their just reward.”
“What they lack is the humility essential to any love”
“What they lack is the humility essential to any love – the humility to be able to receive what we are given over and above what we have deserved and achieved,” wrote Cardinal Ratzinger.
It’s something to keep in mind the next time one sees the smug self-satisfaction of a Jordan Peterson fan, or foe, in the social media echo chamber.
There are many forms of Pelagianism and Gnosticism, as the CDF says, but all of them pose a “perennial danger.” They habitually harden the heart into rejecting the one indispensable ingredient for salvation: namely, divine graciousness.