How Now Shall We Live?

by Regis Nicoll | Despite the fashionable heroism of embracing the absurdity of our existence, we have an irrepressible sense that there are objective standards of right and wrong, that justice should prevail, and that our choices matter for something supremely significant. (image: James Chan from Pixabay)

From days of old, mankind has wrestled with the question of ethics. In ancient Israel, after fifty years of Babylonian captivity had all but erased God’s providence and law from memory, the Jewish community wondered aloud: “How now shall we live?”

The very question presupposes a standard and a purpose. Even the early Greeks, influenced by Plato and Aristotle, believed in a purpose-driven ethic—a universal ideal of “goodness” that could be known and toward which all men should strive.

But that all changed in the seventeenth century when René Descartes became the father of modern philosophy. Descartes introduced a method of systematic doubt that became the springboard to the radical skepticism of later thinkers. Pivotal was the influence of David Hume. Hume constructed a wrecking ball of skepticism that, among other things, reduced to rubble the notion of a universal moral standard.

Although it took a while to finish the job, once complete all that remained after the demolition was the dust cloud of relativism. During the last century, no one darkened that cloud more than the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre.

A Paralyzing Gospel
In post-WWII France, Sartre spoke to the anguish of his countrymen who were reeling in despair in the aftermath of the German occupation. Promoting the gospel of personal responsibility and choice, Sartre helped turn the mood of the nation from fatalism to optimism. But while autonomy and free choice can be liberating, it can also be paralyzing—as one young man realized after seeking Sartre’s advice.

During the war, a French student, agonizing over whether to join the resistance movement or stay home with his mother who was totally dependent on him, asked Sartre what he should do. Sartre’s answer: “You’re free, choose!”

I can imagine a choked “Huh?” from the young man as those pearls of wisdom rolled off the tongue of the famed philosopher—and a head-down, hands-in-pockets amble back home, as he strained for some moral scale with which to weigh his choices.

Thanks to Sartre and his sophistic forbears, classifications of “right” and “wrong” have been blurred if not obliterated, leaving us, like that French student, to wonder what it means to be moral.

Engaging a “Bright”
A while back, I discussed this very issue with a fellow named Bob. Bob is a rising star in the Brights Movement—a network of free thinkers who embrace a worldview “free of supernatural and mystical elements.” Notable luminaries in the movement include the likes of Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett.

Our dialog began after Bob read an article I wrote critical of the moral “wholesomeness”—a term the Brights fondly use to describe their worldview—of philosophical naturalism.

In response, Bob denied the need for God to determine what is “good” or “bad,” asserting that ethics are based on common human concepts. He characterized Christian morality as “easy”—a “follow-these-rules-to-be-good” excuse to avoid thinking deeply about real-world ethical questions. He went on to ask whether I thought that biblical morality was moral only because God deemed it so.

My response went something like this:
Bob, you said that the moral capital of law is based on human concepts of justice, peace, and harmony. But that really doesn’t help, does it? If law derives from nothing higher than what has evolved in our collective psyche, then law is law, not because it’s right, but because it’s law—a contrivance of the ruling class. Some cultures care for widows, while others place them on the husband’s funeral pyre. Without a standard that transcends such “human concepts,” who’s to say which should be legal or illegal, not to mention moral or immoral?

While you dismiss Christians for their “cookie-cutter” approach to morality, you admit to struggling with “being a good, ethical person” because, for you, the real answers are difficult to find. You ask, “Is the only reason that it is wrong to steal, murder, or rape because God said it was wrong?

Sadly, I suspect that if you took a poll of professed Christians, some would answer, “Yes.” Yet, Christian morality does not originate from God’s commands; it derives from his ontology (i.e., his nature, who he is). In accordance with his ontology, God created a world of order, intelligibility, and beauty governed by laws that include physical and moral dimensions. Simply stated, morality is aligning ourselves with those principles so that we can experience all the goodness for which we were created. In essence, morality is a purpose-driven set of operating instructions necessary for human flourishing.

It is the same for any engineering product, like a car. Cars are precision-made to provide owners the benefits of efficient and reliable transportation. But to enjoy those benefits, an owner must operate his vehicle within the bounds of its design, and maintain it according to the manufacturer’s specifications. Failure to do so guarantees poor performance and shortened life. It is no less true for us.

Take sexual morality. While God has said that sex outside of marriage is wrong, it is not wrong because he said so; it is wrong because it conflicts with our design. Fifty years after the Sexual Revolution, witness the burgeoning rates of divorce, out-of-wedlock births, single parent homes, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases with all of the concomitant problems of abuse, poverty, and emotional trauma. By disregarding our design, Freudianism defaulted on its promissory note of self-fulfillment through free sexual expression, despite more social acceptance and education than at any time in history.

Still, the Christian must ask himself, “Why be good?” If all he cares about is avoiding negative consequences, he might just as well adopt the hedonistic aim of “maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain” or the utilitarian “greatest good for the greatest number.” However, neither conforms to the Christian ethic.

You suggest that Christian morality is “an excuse not to think more deeply about ethics”—an easy way out, as it were. No one who has actually read and grasped Jesus’s hard sayings could seriously think that.

A cursory read of his Sermon on the Mount will dispel any misgivings that Christianity is easy. In a series of “You have heard it said … but I tell you,” Jesus raises the bar of morality to breathtaking heights. Even the Golden Rule of “love neighbor as self” fades to a penumbra with the dizzying directive: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” He concludes his discourse with the Herculean challenge: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”—a standard that even Mother Theresa would not have claimed. All of this is bad news for those who take Jesus at his word. It forces us to ask what that “looks like” and whether there’s any good news in his message.

Jesus answers the first part of that question in the Gospel of John: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

To a non-Christian, this may sound like nothing more than doing good things for each other. But for the Christian who believes that Jesus answered the second part of that question with the Cross, our duty is nothing short of staggering. Out of gratitude for what Christ did for us, we should be willing to do likewise for all, including the “least and the last.”

Little wonder that G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.

We do good not because the Bible says so, or out of fear of consequence, or for a utilitarian end—though, sadly, some Christians are motivated by those very reasons. We do good out of love for God who not only created all persons in his image, but humbled himself so that all could have community with him. For Christians, the Word made Flesh is the standard of ethics and morality that informs our Western concepts of right action, justice, equality, and human dignity.

I went on to explain that deep inside we all know this. Despite the fashionable heroism of embracing the absurdity of our existence, we have an irrepressible sense that there are objective standards of right and wrong, that justice should prevail, and that our choices matter for something supremely significant. It’s a truth that even Jean Paul Sartre, who shaped the thought of a generation with his God-denying philosophy, could not extinguish.

Shortly before his death, in the spring of 1980, Sartre made a startling disclosure: “I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here: and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.”

It appears that the dying philosopher had an illuminating encounter with a real Bright—“the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:9).

Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.



The Peterson–Craig Encounter: A Missed Opportunity?

by Scott Ventureyra | Another troubling aspect of Peterson’s naturalistic outlook is that, as he stated in the discussion period (also found in his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief), he views the transcendent as an ‘irrational’ component. Sam Harris has said of Craig that he is the “one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists.” (image: The Kathmandu Post)

On January 26, Wycliffe College, a graduate school federated with the University of Toronto, hosted a discussion on the question: “Is there meaning to life?” The three participants included, philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig, atheist philosopher Rebecca Goldstein, and clinical psychologist and professor of psychology Jordan Peterson. This encounter made me reflect more deeply on the areas where I have found disagreement in Peterson’s understanding of philosophical and theological issues, and the anticipated interaction between Craig and Peterson.

Having said that, none of what I am about to say is meant to denigrate Peterson and the tremendous cultural impact he is having. I do believe that almost single-handedly, Peterson is rescuing a decadent Western culture and a tragically lost generation of men. Without affirming belief in God, ironically, on this front, he is accomplishing more than many Christian preachers, Catholic Church officials including the Bishop of Rome. It should be noted, I am not saying there are no other thinkers who are involved in this battle, there are, but not at the unprecedented appeal and influence of Peterson. I also know that his research in his field is top-notch. I can also see how effective he would be as a clinical psychologist. But, we are called to speak the truth; here is my analysis of his understanding of philosophical and theological issues, as they pertain to Christian truth.

Natural Law Theory
I had hoped that Craig would have pressed Peterson on the grounds of natural law theory. However, Craig, as a Protestant, most likely does not agree with the tenets of natural law theory, although he is one of the most influential Christian philosophers defending natural theology. He has brilliantly defended the axiological argument, which would be of tremendous aid to Peterson, if not solely as a thought experiment.

Natural law theory entails a set of normative guidelines for human behavior and action that are not human created but endowed by a transcendent source such as God. Human reason can ascertain these laws of nature. They exist independently of the laws of any given state or socio-cultural milieu. Interestingly, Craig did mention he appreciated Peterson’s presentation in his affirmation of objective moral standards as opposed to a relativistic understanding of moral values and duties. The issue is whether Peterson has any foundation to make these affirmations, since they cannot be grounded in naturalism. Naturalism alone has nothing to offer as an explanation of objective moral values and duties. As Craig had pointed out, if morality is the byproduct of undirected naturalistic socio-biological evolution, it is just merely contingent on how we have evolved. There is no necessary and objective morality. As the late Harvard paleontologist, Stephen J. Gould, observed, if we re-ran the evolutionary “tape” of history, we would get different sorts of creatures emerging since evolution is not a deterministic but a contingent process. The same would be true of moral values.

Peterson spoke of a Cartesian moment, namely his realization of something he could not doubt. The existence of human evil is the most indubitable fact of reality for Peterson. By coming to this realization, he then comes to understand there must be good as well. Therefore, Peterson understands that there is a mode of discernment between good and evil. Peterson comes to a moral understanding through reasoning. Yet, this presupposes the existence of a moral lawgiver even though the problem of evil seeks to undermine the very existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving God. I believe it inevitably creates more of a difficulty for the nonbelievers, who assume evil. On the one hand, they must confront the nihilist who denies any objective meaning and value in the absence of God; and on the other, the theist who has coherent grounds for affirming objective meaning and value. This means that one can reason through morality, evil and suffering in a framework of natural law—devoid of supernatural revelation. Oddly, in the dialogue portion, Peterson affirms a Platonic sort of realm, thus acknowledging the insufficiency of naturalism to account for morality. There is indeed, a deep tension for Peterson between a naturalistic outlook and a very intuitive transcendent reality.

Methodological Naturalism vs Metaphysical Naturalism
Methodological naturalism is a tool that excludes supernatural explanations to understand the natural world, whereas metaphysical naturalism says the supernatural realm does not exist. In his dialogue with Craig and Goldstein, and elsewhere, Peterson refers to the power of the naturalistic method in science—which I take him to mean methodological naturalism. This is true but methodological naturalism has its limitations and cannot answer the deep questions of theology and metaphysics. He does not make a clear distinction between the two. It seems as though he conflates them.

Metaphysical naturalism seems patently false given the many arguments in favor of God’s existence. Methodological naturalism has its power but also possesses severe limitations and remains logically neutral on questions such as the existence of God, objective moral values and duties, and the nature and origin of consciousness itself. Catholic philosopher Edward Feser has given a brilliant analogy that explains the limitations of methodological naturalism. He likens methodological naturalism with a metal detector. A metal detector is extremely useful for detecting metal but nothing else. Thus, it does not follow that, if the metal detector detects A, B, and C, that only A, B, and C exist. It could be that D, E, or F also exist, but the metal detector is not meant to detect non-metallic entities. Similarly, methodological naturalism has its scope and is not a reliable method for studying non-material phenomena.

The Existence of God
Another troubling aspect of Peterson’s naturalistic outlook is that, as he stated in the discussion period (also found in his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief), he views the transcendent as an ‘irrational’ component. But why? The relationship between faith and reason, and, science and theology are highly complex. It would be more appropriate to discuss belief in the transcendent as supra-rational. The transcendent is not to be understood by reason alone but it doesn’t make it irrational. It merely transcends the rational. Peterson has been frustratingly ambiguous on his belief in God and Christianity. He suggests that people have different ideas about God.

This is true, but there are clear and cogent explanations on the nature and existence of God. Has Peterson not read the works of the great Christian philosophers such as St. Augustine, St. Anselm of Canterbury, St. Thomas Aquinas, Richard Swinburne, and Alvin Plantinga? Is he not aware that such works exist? There has been much ink spilled on explaining the coherence of the concept of God and in defining precisely what God means. In one of his lectures, when asked about the existence of God, he refers to the singularity and Big Bang Cosmology. This is one of Craig’s areas of expertise—the existence of God and Big Bang Cosmology.

 On the Historicity of Jesus Christ and His Resurrection
Peterson suggests that he is afraid of being “boxed in” when it comes to his belief or nonbelief in Christianity. He has also made dubious claims that the historicity of Jesus is questionable. The truth is that the historicity of Jesus is on more solid ground than even the existence of Socrates. We have more firsthand documents about Jesus than any other figure of antiquity. The New Testament books are more than 99.5 percent textually pure. In other words, throughout the 20,000 lines of the New Testament, only 40 lines are questionable; this amounts to 400 words. It is important to note that these 400 words do not affect any Christian doctrine. This is much more accuracy than any text dealing with Plato or Socrates. Still, this does not mean we can demonstrate the existence of Jesus beyond a shadow of a doubt but his existence rests on strong evidentiary grounds. The New Testament critic and self-professing agnostic, Bart Ehrman, has gone out of his way to correct our culture’s theological illiteracy to argue for the historicity of Jesus’s existence, in his book: Did Jesus Exist: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.

There are also plenty of cogent arguments defending the dual nature of Christ and Jesus’s divine self-awareness. Furthermore, there are stronger arguments for a supernatural resurrection of Jesus, over a natural one. Peterson seems to affirm a naturalistic one in this video. The majority of scholars engaging in New Testament studies (including a vast number of nonbelievers), particularly those revolving around the events of the resurrection of Jesus agree upon three well-established facts that constitute historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus: the empty tomb of Jesus; the appearances of Jesus to his disciples; and the origin of the Christian faith. For a rigorous study of a novel historiographical approach to the resurrection, I recommend Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.

Peterson’s Epistemology of Truth
I think much of the problematic nature of Peterson’s view concerning sustaining a foundation for his morality—God’s existence—is predicated on his epistemology. Peterson’s epistemological approach to truth is two pronged. The first prong adheres to what he refers to as objective truth, this you can think of as a conventional definition of truth. This, in its most basic sense is whatever is in accordance with reality. The second prong, which is where the general thrust of his thought and discourse revolves around, is the notion of pragmatic truth. Essentially his understanding of pragmatic truth is one of action, which follows a question of value, of how one should act in the world. Closely tied to this, is Darwinian survivability since for Peterson, this pragmatic truth is related to the ability for one to exist and reproduce. Thus conferring a selective advantage and functional utility.

Nevertheless, Darwinian survivability does not provide any veritable linkage between knowledge of truth and the brute fact of mere existence and reproduction. Physicist Paul Davies eloquently illustrates this same tension in his book The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World. Davies wonders how we can even comprehend the rationality and structure of reality—why should it be comprehensible to us especially from an evolutionary survival standpoint?

The mystery in all this is that human intellectual powers are presumably determined by biological evolution and have absolutely no connection with doing science. Our brains have evolved in response to environmental pressures, such as the ability to hunt, avoid predators, dodge falling objects, etc. How fortuitous that our minds (or at least the minds of some) should be poised to fathom the depths of Nature’s secrets.

Thus, the aspect of pragmatic truth Peterson refers to is wholly insufficient to explain the capacity for knowledge of objective truth which humans possess. Unfortunately, Peterson’s understanding of truth is mostly usurped by his fixation on its connection to pragmatism and Darwinism. This fixation resulting in confusion was demonstrated in a debate with neo-atheist, Sam Harris titled: “What is true?” The problem for Peterson was that his notion of pragmatic truth is nested not only in Darwinism but also within the concepts of good and evil. Although, in other instances, such as in his course lectures based on his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, he makes reference to objective meaning, he seems to completely neglect it in other instances. The discussion that ensued between Harris and Peterson involved some sophomoric fumbling in ascertaining what truth really is. The safest place to start is with the laws of logic; for instance, without the validity of the law of non-contradiction correct thinking would be impossible. Without it, how would we make assessments and conclusions about anything?

A More In-depth Dialogue with Craig
There is no other Christian philosopher who has not only rigorously engaged academically with the big questions of metaphysics and theology, while also being involved heavily in university debates and the wider culture, than Craig. Sam Harris has said of Craig that he is the “one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists.” The Best Schools named Craig one of the 50 most influential living philosophers. His first doctorate and much of his subsequent publications have dealt with what I consider the most convincing argument for God’s existence: The Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) which was supervised by John Hick, a leading philosopher, in arguments for God’s existence in the 1970s at the University of Birmingham. His second doctorate dealt with the most fundamental question in Christian theology: the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, which was supervised by arguably the most influential Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, Wolfhart Pannenberg, at the University of Munich. Pannenberg set the theological world on fire in the 1960s with his now classic book: Jesus – God and Man.

Craig is also a leading philosopher of time who has explored God’s relationship to time—defending the notion that God is timeless without the existence of the universe and temporal with the existence of the universe. He also worked on divine foreknowledge and human freedom; the challenge of Platonism to divine aseity; and most recently the doctrine of Christ’s atonement. An in-depth dialogue between Peterson and Craig, would help Peterson realize that the existence of God and arguments for the divinity of Christ and his resurrection are reasonable to believe in. Although, not absolutely compelling, they best explain the data available to us.

Thus, Christianity best explains the data of the universe and the plight that humanity finds itself in—something that Peterson recognizes all too well as a psychologist and observer of the history of totalitarian regimes. How much better would it be for Peterson to live his life knowing that Christianity really is true rather than merely act as if it were true? As St. Paul wrote: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). It seems as though Peterson is stuck in the archetypal understanding of Biblical truths, which are indeed useful, but may not be giving other profound questions the proper care that they deserve. Will he become the most reluctant convert in Canada, as C.S. Lewis was 87 years ago in England?

Scott Ventureyra earned a doctorate in theology from Dominican University College in Ottawa, Canada in 2017. He has published in academic journals such as Science et Esprit, The American Journal of Biblical Theology, Studies in Religion and Maritain Studies (the journal of the Canadian Jacques Maritain Association). He has also written for magazines such as Crisis and Convivium and newspapers such as The National Post, City Light News, The Ottawa Citizen and The Times Colonist.