Back in June, I wrote an article on "Why Jordan Peterson Matters," and why Christians should take notice. My article got pushback from some Christians who — though I'm not sure they thoroughly read it — incredulously questioned why CalvaryChapel.com would run an article on Peterson, or why a pastor (me) would encourage people to listen to or follow such an individual. If one read the article, they would know I didn't do that. That said, the conversations and feedback I received, and something I've heard Peterson say several times, got me thinking. I hope it might do the same for you as well.
In a recent interview on the PBS show "Firing Line with Margaret Hoover," Peterson was asked a question, the gist of which he's received many times before.
"I want to ask you about your personal faith. Christians who watch you have listened closely, over the last two years, about whether you self-identify as a Christian or not. ... Why not take on this question of the existence of God?"
That is precisely the question that many Christians (and atheists for that matter) would like Peterson to give a concrete answer to. But his response, though not as clear-cut as they'd like, has been consistent for a very long time. And in the "Firing Line" interview, he gave a slightly amplified version.
"It isn't obvious what belief means. People think that what they believe is what they say they believe. I don't believe that. I believe that what people believe is what they act out. And so I said, 'I act as if God exists.' That's a sufficient statement as far as I'm concerned. You know, what's the old saying? 'By their fruits, ye shall know them.' Same idea, right? It's a matter of action and a matter of commitment. It's not a matter of me parading out my explicit statements about a metaphysical reality that's virtually impossible to comprehend. You risk when you reduce, and I'm not willing to do that. And I'm not interested in providing people with easy answers." (emphasis mine)
Don't Reduce It to a Sound Bite
Immediately before giving that answer, Jordan said, "It's not something to reduce to a sound bite, fundamentally." I think there is a lot of truth to that. But that's exactly what we often desire. We want the simple sound bite. The 240 character or less, tweetable proposition. Whether you're a Christian or not, we like everything boiled down to broth, when in reality, these meaty issues require something far more substantial.
Unfortunately, our culture has been continuously digesting milk and not solid food for several generations. That is true among Christians, just as it is outside the church. In his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, Neil Postman concluded that this was a product of broadcast television. It's an issue that a preacher in the 1960s hit on when he said:
"And so it wasn't long until it got to our generation where the whole plan of salvation was to give intellectual assent to a few statements of doctrine, and a person was considered a Christian because he could say, 'uh-huh' at four or five places that he was asked to. And if he knew where to say 'uh-huh' someone would pat him on the back, shake his hand, smile broadly and say, 'Brother, you are saved.'"
— Paris Reidhead, Ten Shekels and a Shirt
Have we reduced it all that much? Thankfully, I'm finding that many of the people I interact with want more than mere one-liner propositional platitudes. I'm hopeful they're not outliers.
More Than Mental Assent
Like it or not, Jordan Peterson's answer is quite good: "I act as if God exists." I took note of it the first time I heard him say it, and it has been stuck in my mind ever since.
As the Apostle Paul was testifying before Governor Felix in Acts 24, he said, "I have hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust. This being so, I myself always strive to have a conscience without offense toward God and men." Paul is effectively saying, "I act as if God exists." He had hope in God, and in His promised resurrection, which caused Paul to live differently both before God (in whom he trusted) and man. Paul's testimony is an echo of what James writes in his New Testament Letter.
"But someone will say, 'You have faith, and I have works.' Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?" (James 2:18-22).
It is not enough merely to say "uh-huh" to the question, "Do you believe in God?" Belief cannot be a casual mental assent. It must become a conviction, resulting in action. Faith, if it has not works, is dead.
Actions Prove Our True Faith
On a few occasions, I've met with "believers" that are actively living in an adulterous relationship. They say they believe in God, but they act as if He were not there. The same is true for the Christian who perpetually looks at pornography. Or cheats on their taxes. Or lies to their spouse. Or lives a prayerless, thankless, anxious, hopeless life. It would be far better for one to act as if God exists than to simply say that they believe in His existence. Or better yet, say that you believe He exists, and let your actions say it too. Let's not forget, it was Jesus who said, "Why do you call Me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do the things which I say?" Or the most frightening of Christ's sayings: "Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'"
The devastating reality is that many professing believers are, unintentionally, practical atheists. Such practical atheism is one of the realities that make many atheists all-the-more steadfast in their unbelief. It strengthens their unbelief when you say you believe in God and live with little or no regard for His command or glory.
It is because of this that over the last seven to 10 years, I've stopped asking people to "believe in Jesus," but instead to "trust in Him." That may seem like nuanced semantics to you, I assure you, it's not. The meaning and value of the word "belief" has diminished in our modern vernacular. "Belief" seems now to connote something of a loose, intellectual acknowledgment of an idea. But "trust" implies a certitude of confidence and conviction, which compels dependence, hope and expectation. When I ask someone to trust in Christ, I'm asking them to entrust themselves to Him and to act in accordance with His resurrected existence.