I’m not sure what people were expecting from Dr. Jordan Peterson’s recent appearance at one of the largest Christian universities in the world. But nobody could have predicted what happened about halfway through his appearance at Liberty University in Virginia, USA.
At roughly the 21-minute mark in the convocation as Peterson is answering a question, there’s a commotion offstage:
A young man rushes up and grabs a microphone, on the verge of tears: “My name is David, and I need help! I need help! I just wanted to meet you. I’m unwell…I want to be well…”
Peterson says, “I hope you can get the help that you need.” Spiritual director David Nasser walks over to calm the student as security guards appear. The student says more that’s not quite discernible, but you can make out “I’ve called 911” and “I want to know him better…” (possibly a reference to God, but the context was unclear).
Then he falls on his knees and begins sobbing. Tearing, wailing sobs.
Peterson begins to walk over himself as the video feed cuts out, but audio is still rolling. You can put together that the guards must have begun to remove him, because Nasser’s voice can be heard saying firmly, “Stop. Stop. Stop pulling him.” A phone capture of the moment shows Peterson kneeling down and quieting him while Nasser prays. It’s since been confirmed that he is not a student at Liberty and was attending as a guest.
While the man is still wailing, Nasser says a short, simple prayer. He prays that God would heal him, that the Spirit would work in him, and that he would be encouraged in this moment to know that everyone is on his side. After he finishes, the wails have subsided. The last thing he says to the student is, “Hey buddy. We’re for you.” Then the conversation resumes, as well as it can be resumed after a disturbance like that. Peterson is badly shaken and breaking up, trying to collect himself. Jerry Falwell Jr. says something or other. Nasser is reassuring and earnest, patting Peterson’s shoulder and forthrightly attempting to salvage what can be salvaged of the convocation. Things stumble forward towards an eventual conclusion. But the disturbance hangs over it all.
While he doesn’t press Peterson, Nasser makes a couple of gentle attempts to inject the gospel into the conversation. He says that no doubt many people are feeling the way young David is feeling on the inside, even though they might not rush the stage to cry for help. He commends Peterson for offering a road-map that can guide people who are lost and despairing. But then he turns to the audience and says, “I’ll be the first to tell you, in front of our distinguished guest, that these rules work. But they all stop short without the Ruler.”
There are a wealth of layers packed into that statement, reflecting the layers in the convocation as a whole. It is clear to anyone who watches it that this is not Peterson’s natural habitat. The whole thing begins with two songs led by a full worship band while the audience sways and raises their hands. Nasser’s speech and gestures are saturated with evangelicalism. He speaks unabashedly about “putting Christ in the center of your life.” He frequently touches Peterson on the shoulder. Peterson, for his part, attempts to articulate his brand of existentialist Stoicism for his baby-faced, wide-eyed student audience. The culture clash could not be more acute.
In a sense, Peterson and his interlocutors were speaking different languages. When Nasser would use evangelical language with respect to God and Christ, Peterson would admit that his own ideas were not fully formed and retreat to the symbolic. At the very end, when Falwell awkwardly brought in Gary Habermas to ask Peterson about the resurrection, a similar pattern played itself out. They stood on opposite sides of Lessing’s ditch, unsure how to communicate, unsure how to proceed.
And yet, between Nasser and Peterson in particular, there was still an indefinable commonality. Nasser emphasised his appreciation for Peterson’s tenderness and compassion. Peterson’s mother is traveling with him, and Nasser alludes to his introduction of her the night before: “I saw how you were with your mother.” Nasser may not speak Peterson’s language, but he instinctively senses that which requires no words to convey. He handles the disturbed student with the ease of experience, a kind of experience Peterson also shares. In his simple way, he sees clear past the smokescreen of bad press, past the snide hot takes, to the heart of the man. The heart of the wounded doctor.
He prays that Peterson would come to see Christ as more than a model for good behavior—as a personal Saviour
I think Nasser also senses the culture clash. He senses Peterson’s status by comparison with his own. Subconsciously perhaps, he senses the oddness. But instead of apologising for it, he embraces it. He doesn’t hide the peculiar gospel away.
For his part, Peterson seems genuinely touched. Partway through, he pauses to say something about the opening ceremony. I had hoped, cringing inwardly, that perhaps he was backstage and had missed it, but I realised that in fact he had been sitting through it the whole time. Yet what he said humbled me. He said that he loved it. He said that one of his greatest fears was the spread of undue (and unearned) cynicism among our young people. But the warmth and the sincerity exuded by the young people during the opening encouraged him. There was something “beautiful” about it.
At the end, Nasser asks Peterson how they can pray for him. Peterson chokes up again and says that we could pray he won’t pay an undue price for the mistakes he will inevitably make as he tries to move forward. Nasser puts an encouraging arm around the weary noble pagan. He thanks God for Peterson’s work and for the people he has helped. He prays that Peterson would come to see Christ as more than a model for good behavior—as a personal Saviour. He prays that other people who are searching would ultimately be pointed past Peterson to God and His Word. He also prays for the student who cried out for help: “I pray next semester he’s a student here at Liberty” (here Peterson nods). “I pray that I get to pour into him.” Finally, he closes in thanks for what they’ve been able to learn from Peterson. Then he dismisses the audience.
God only knows what went through Peterson’s mind as David prayed over him. I try to picture what it must be like to be prayed over in that way for the first time. Even as an Anglican curmudgeon in training, I still have a foot in Nasser’s world, enough that the language he uses feels natural to me. It feels like the easiest thing in the world to speak of God as he does, to talk to God as he does. It feels like home. But how must it seem to Peterson? How does home look to a man without a home?
I can only echo Nasser’s prayer. And in thinking of the student who rushed the stage, I can only think of another cry for help, recorded in the gospel of Mark: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” There goes blind Bartimaeus again. Will he please shut up? But he cries out all the more: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
The Son of David stops. The Son of David turns.
“Be of good cheer,” they say. “Rise. He is calling you.”
Esther O Reilly is a teacher and doctoral student of mathematics. She blogs at Young Fogey, where this post first appeared. Hear Esther debate identity politics with James Lindsay and Neil Shenvi on Premier Christian Radio's Unbelievable? show