Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Church, Life Issues

Our Faceless Age

Maybe you have heard of Jordan Peterson. I was not aware of this Canadian psychologist until I read Peggy Noonan’s recent column, “Who’s Afraid of Jordan Peterson?” So now I am reading his 12 Rules for Life (near the top of bestseller lists), and his insights are riveting. I am reading slowly—my mind needs to. And I am listening for the lessons God wants me to hear, as well as the insights pastors need to learn.

There is, in fact, a recent blog entitled, “What Pastors Could Learn From Jordan Peterson” (Alastair’s Adversaria). Shortly after Noonan’s column, it was sent to me by our seminary president. I found myself affirming every point, particularly the fifth one. Read the first two paragraphs slowly—then note the writer’s application—

  1. Being a student of human nature matters. Peterson stands out from many scholars in the humanities and social sciences because he is attentive to people. Far too much scholarship in the humanities and social sciences treats human beings primarily as conceptual constructs or as lab rats. Particularly in the social sciences, one witnesses an over-reliance upon scientific methods for understanding and measuring human beings. However, Peterson reveals that there is no substitute for understanding human nature and that, in attempting to understand human nature, there is no substitute for paying close attention to many people. Much social science attempts to understand human nature as if from without, while a wise student of human nature will exhibit a knowledge of human nature from within.

Something that makes Peterson stand out from many of his critics is that Peterson has countless hours of attentive listening to and engagement with clients in practice and is expert at noticing. Through such clinical engagement, Peterson has been attentive to human nature as it functions from within. He has learned much about what makes human beings tick, how they find meaning, how things can go wrong in their lives, and how people can be restored to well-being. As a practitioner, he notices things that reigning ideologies train us not to notice, not least the differences between the ways that men and women tick. As an attentive student of human nature and experience, Peterson is well able to speak into people’s experience with a wisdom, insight, and authority that those who merely devote themselves to books, theories, and experiments lack.

Pastors have much to learn from this. Many pastors are narrowly focused upon Scripture and theology. However, the pastor is responsible for human lives and he must be a diligent student of them. Pastoral visitation and counselling is not only an important part of a pastor’s general duty, but is also a necessary part of his preparation for preaching. In approaching such visitation and counselling, the pastor shouldn’t merely be concerned to dispense his wisdom and advice, but must also be concerned to grow in his own knowledge, to learn new lessons for himself. As pastors devote themselves to learning about human nature and experience, they will be better able to speak powerfully and truthfully into it. The opportunity and responsibility to learn from close and sustained attention to human nature and experience are afforded to a pastor to a rare degree. If a pastor will dedicate himself to this, he will become much more effective and powerful in his teaching.

I have learned—and am still learning–there is no substitute for personal presence. If you want to be effective, you step into ICU, you visit shut-ins, you confront sin face to face (can we still read faces?), and you come alongside people facing personal crises. I am sure few will remember my sermons, but they will remember if I was there just after a husband took his life, or someone entered into serious surgery, or a congregant stopped by to work through a significant life decision.

Churches that have machines answering phones or pastors spending most of their days in front of a screen are sending all the wrong signals. Ministry should be one of the last vestiges where people hear a voice, see a face. It is easy to get sucked into spending much of your day before a computer or sending out texts or creating a following with your tweets. And who knows how online education will contribute to our faceless environment. I am finding it impossible to get students to sign up simply for a web conference, to see a face and hear a voice.

Etched in my memory is a ministry failure when I was in Holland. Dudley, a British scientist, and one of the godliest men I have ever met, suddenly died of a heart attack. He was out riding his horse before taking a trip to India. After the service, I kept in touch with his widow. I sent out notes and cards, and occasionally called. All the things pastors should do, right? Not really. There were times I needed to be there, face to face, to listen, comfort, encourage–and I wasn’t. And near the end of her posting in Holland, she helped me to understand how I failed her as a pastor. There’s no substitute for being attentive to people—but I fear our age and technologies have convinced us they are substitutes.

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