Bishop Barron and Jordan Peterson have something to teach us about evangelization
“If the reader thinks my translation a bad one, let him try his own; if he thinks it good, let him learn Italian.”
These words from Harvey C. Mansfield’s translation of The Prince came to me recently as I listened to a much-anticipated conversation between Bishop Robert Barron and Jordan Peterson.
Bishop Barron, an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, has written and spoken in a number of places about Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychology professor famous for his public resistance to political correctness and his tough-love message, which is aimed especially at young men and reaching an increasingly wide audience on social media. Supposedly at the prompting of both their fan bases, the two sat down for an interview in March 2019, which was recently released as a podcast and video.
Bishop Barron has received both praise and criticism for his engagement with Mr. Peterson’s thought, particularly after the bishop invoked him at the annual June meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Bishop Barron recently told America that he is attracted to Mr. Peterson’s “intellectual approach,” which is “proving so efficacious on social media.” Bishop Barron has been praised for bringing about this meeting of “great minds” in a rare model of dialogue between Christians and non-Christians both committed to reasoned and compelling inquiry that has attracted wide audiences. Critics, however, argue that Mr. Peterson’s thought is deeply opposed to that of Christianity and that he promotes a misogynistic, illiberal form of politics. They argue that Bishop Barron’s embrace of Mr. Peterson evinces a “spiritual worldliness” that is more manipulative than evangelical.
I may be one of the few people who are sympathetic to both the criticism and the praise.
At his best, Bishop Barron is not asking us to universalize what he is doing. Yes, he has strong opinions about evangelization, particularly that it should be oriented toward beauty as a means to the truth. But, just like any other evangelist, fundamentally, he is navigating a particular relationship with prudence, aware of his gifts and limitations. You can disagree with how he does it and with whom he does it, but Bishop Barron is simply giving us one model for evangelization among many. When many of his supporters and critics act as though it were the only model, they take him more seriously than he himself does.
Here is what critics don’t understand: Bishop Robert Barron is not simply engaging in this dialogue for the benefit of some third party. He is doing it to engage Mr. Peterson. I think Bishop Barron thinks that Jordan Peterson himself is coming around. Bishop Barron is not just using Mr. Peterson to model civil dialogue; Bishop Barron wants to convert Mr. Peterson.
Bishop Robert Barron wants to convert Jordan Peterson.
There are significant differences between Bishop Robert Barron and Jordan Peterson, and I think Bishop Barron understands those differences better than Mr. Peterson does. Mr. Peterson made several claims in the conversation that Bishop Barron could have seized upon to criticize. But Bishop Barron wants to advance the conversation, and so for the most part he is happy to emphasize the commonalities. Others in Catholic media could learn from this model.
The Catholic Church needs to maintain its intellectual traditions, and as a Jesuit I am the last person to deny the close linkage between action and contemplation. But I wonder if the emphasis in U.S. Catholic culture has shifted in an unhealthy way toward analysis and criticism rather than action.
Our society and church clearly need more people committed to finding common ground. And it is not clear that such common ground is always a matter of ideas. Perhaps part of the cause of our polarization today is that we focus on theories so divorced from experience that we lose all hope of appealing to and learning from our common experiences as humans, Americans and Chrisitans. If we allowed the example of people like Bishop Barron to challenge us practically as well as theoretically, we might be able to turn down the temperature on our debates and re-orient them to the concrete needs of the church.
Even groups who find Bishop Barron’s techniques problematic should see a reflection of their own efforts. Many Catholics use similar methods with those on the political left, including thoroughly secular groups working on labor, ecology and women’s rights. They find common ground, they are respectful about their differences and they work toward common goals. And I think that’s good.
At some point, however, Bishop Barron’s example is not simply something to be studied: It should be acted upon. We need to get off the sidelines and try our own hand at evangelization.
If you like what Bishop Barron is doing, go out and find your own way of doing it yourself. If you do not, then by all means share your concerns. But do not stop there, and maybe even skip that step if it is keeping you from putting your love of God into action.