The Part That Got Left Out

I am currently reading the textbook Maps of Meaning by Jordan B. Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Univ. of Toronto. Peterson has recently become infamous for his opposition to bill C-16 (a Canadian Parliamentary Bill proposing full civil liberties to trans-gendered persons that has several scary side-effects). My own acquaintance with his work was through the Orthodox Church and the seeming infatuation many Canadian Orthodox thinkers have with Peterson’s ideas.

I worked my way through the 2017 version of his “Maps of Meaning” classroom lectures, available on YouTube. That was a 30 hour slog that made me wish I was in university again. The lectures piqued my interest; the textbook made it abundantly clear why the Orthodox are so enthralled with his work.

It is now expected and a bit trite to blame many of our problems on the Enlightenment. I’ve been on that bandwagon for 25 years or longer since I read Colin Gunton. But other than recommending the Protestant theologian Karl Barth and the Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar, as well as the Eastern Orthodox divine liturgy, I’ve had little to work with beyond repeating the “Enlightenment has resulted in bad things” trope.

I’ve known since my college days that the Enlightenment was and is fundamentally reductionist, and thus leaves us incapable of adequately discerning reality and the truth. Peterson has given me a glimpse into just what got left out of the Enlightenment equation:

Myth.

(Yeah, really! That’s the part that got left out.)

In popular usage “myth” means it’s a story that’s not factual, and thus not really true. To say, for instance, that Adam and Eve are a myth (as Samuel Johnson did back in the 18th century) was and is considered heresy by “Bible believing” Christians. We all “know” that there are facts and there are myths and facts lead to truth and myths don’t. Of course the students of myth (the aforementioned Johnson, as well as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Joseph Campbell, to name a few) say that this bifurcation of myth and fact misses the point.

And the well informed “Bible believing” Christian might sniff, “Well, maybe it does miss the point, but that doesn’t change the fact that Adam and Eve aren’t a myth!”

What’s interesting about this deep divide between what is often construed as conservative and liberal Christianity is a recent phenomenon. The early church didn’t struggle with this “problem” because they didn’t notice a problem. The divide exists because both parties (liberal and conservative Christianity) have accepted certain key presuppositions of the Enlightenment and none of us (including me) can figure out how to move beyond these presuppositions.

This is where I found Jordan Peterson to be quite helpful. He reframes the issue in a manner that helps me (and obviously a number of other people, given his hearty reception among the Canadian Orthodox) to step beyond the Enlightenment problem of reducing reality to too small a box. Furthermore, he does it in a constructive manner. Post-modernists, and deconstructionists of all stripes, have done a good job of stepping beyond the Enlightenment by criticizing it; but beyond that they have nothing positive to say. Like me, once they deconstruct the Enlightenment, they have no path forward, just the old trope, the “Enlightenment has resulted in bad things”

Peterson’s solution (and it’s not his invention – he says he’s adding the neurobiological and neuropsychological pieces to an argument already made by others before him) is not only to expand the frame of reference, but move its focus altogether. Critics of the Enlightenment have universally said the Enlightenment was reductionist. Peterson goes much farther by saying that fundamental truth does not revolve around object, but around meaning. “Objective truth” is actually a second-order truth that is extracted from the more fundamental “significance” (an idea closely related to “meaning”). Significance is what allows us to prioritize and organize objective truth. (See Maps of Meaning, ch. 1, “Maps of Experience: Object and Meaning.”)

To return to a possibly overused analogy (but an analogy that is used so frequently precisely because it is so applicable), Peterson is offering a “Copernican Revolution” as a solution to the Enlightenment predicament. Just as the Earth was not the center of our sky, but rather the Sun (or the center of the galaxy, etc.), so objects are not the center of truth, but rather meaning. Objects come forward out of the chaotic mass of atoms and molecules and energy and light to reveal themselves as objects not because they are inherently objects but because they mean something to us and thus reveal themselves as objects.

Mapping objects is a relatively simple task. At least it was relatively simple from a Newtonian framework. Objects fit into a “time-space continuum.” (Of course the mapping of objects gets a bit weird at the quantum level.) Mapping meaning is far more difficult, and yet it is something that we instinctually know and do. The process of mapping meaning is the dilemma that I am quite fond of which can be described (in Michael Polanyi’s turn of phrase) as, “We know far more than we can say.”

So how do we say that which we cannot reduce to words, sentences, and logical thought? I’m already at 850 words, so I’ll save that question for the next essay.

 

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