Last year I copied my friend Tanner Greer and listed every book I read. I am stealing his idea again. As with last year’s list, the best book I read in every category is bolded. And like last year I will give special attention to one work: Jordan Peterson‘s Maps of Meaning is the rare book that changes how you read other books.
And Thomas Merton‘s work is that rare book that changes your daily life.
If you are unaware that Microsoft had a $900 million write-down related to the Surface tablet, this book is probably not to you. Rather, Beneath a Surface definitely is for the reader who wants an accurate, if partial, history of a Microsoft business unit.
It’s too high a praise to compare Beneath a Surface to God — even comparing author Brad Sams to the Divinity would be misplaced — but like the All-mighty, it is easier to say what Beneath a Surface is not than what it is. It is not a history of Panos Panay’s career at the company, or even Microsoft Hardware’s efforts (MS Hardware became MS Surface under Panay). It is not a history of the past few years of the company at the highest levels, or even like Hit Refresh a propagandist attempt to create a history from that level.
Rather, Beneath a Surface is a blow-by-blow account of the trials of the Surface project, told from the perspective of the group’s leadership. It resembles Renegades of the Empire in the sense of charting the successes and failures of a high-visibility project within Microsoft. Where it surpasses that book is in its journalistic focus. If you read Mary Jo Foley’s Microsoft 2.0 but wondered how the organizational tree she outlines would actually play out, this is the book for you.
The best part of the book was its the perspective on timing and tenor provided by Brad Sams. Given that Microsoft totally abandoned its mobile ambitions, the lateness with which phones were still being announced in tandem with new Surfaces. Panay was tasked with promoting phones built by a team he acquired but did not want, and the wording of his remarks shows it. Likewise, Sams confirms the extremely late decision to kill the Surface Mini — which was still being hinted at in the official press invitations sent out for a later-repurposed launch.
Bad Blood is a true-crime story, a corporate history, and an ethnographic report on a bizarre, feminist misreading of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. It is Detroit meets Losing the Signal meets Hacks, and — for what its worth — it provides a nifty travel guide to the Silicon Valley Area.
But first: the crime. Elizabeth Holmes and her longtime boyfriend, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, operated a racket that primarily prayed on tech investors, secondly on patients, and thirdly on the status and relationships of high profile champions they found (such as former Secretary of State George Schultz and future Secretary of Defense James Mattis). Their operation, “Theranos,” claimed to be developing either a Machine Learning driven blood test system, or blood test that requires much less blood, or portable blood testing devices, or some combination of these. Theranos was run in a secretive and functional structure, similar to Apple, and the standard practice for individuals who found out it was a scam was to force them to quit, sign an NDA, and threaten them with lawsuits if they talked.
Now, the corporate history. Criminality aside, Theranos acted as if it were a start-up located around buildings now or previously controlled by Facebook. From a 10,000ft perspective, investors were gambling that Theranos could disrupt the blood testing industry — provide a slightly lower quality product at a much lower cost — and that Theranos innovative scientific processes would allow it to quickly increase the quality over time in way incumbent businesses could not. Corporate executives at least claimed their services were widely used — including by the military — when they were not, making the possibility of Theranos boot-strapping quality over an extended period of “dark mode” — at least possible.
Especially in its late stage, as Theranos began courting media celebrity (and, inadvertently, scrutiny) resembled both gamergate and the 2016 Presidential election in its lazy weaponization of feminism. While parts of Theranos CEO Elizabeth Warren’s performance were arguably transgender (mimicking Steve Jobs’ dressing style and adopting a fake, baritone voice), she identified as a woman as was able to convince middle age men to treat her as a daughter. This reached its most ridiculous extent in (SECSTATE George Schultz effectively disowning his grandson to spend more family events with Elizabeth). She also adopted a victimized stance, accusing author John Carreyrou of misogyny, complaining that she was scrutinized more closely because she was a woman, and generally weaponizing a protected status.
Bad Blood contains hilarious moments, such as Theranos’ feuding with a separate patent scam that targeted them. At one point George Schultz is slowly walking up the stairs while his wife tells his grandson to call the family lawyer before he’s able to. Elizabeth Holmes may have destroyed lives, money, and people’s health, but her scam made a great story and was worth a few chuckles.
Impressions of “Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone,” by Satya Nadella with Greg Shaw and Jill Tracie Nichols
Hit Refresh is a book published by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to cultivate a cult of personality within Microsoft, to cement the use of rhetorical phrases common in the company, and to sell himself to both large enterprise clients and regulators. While Lou Gerstner’s Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance was written on the retirement of a CEO, and Alan Mullaly’s American Icon was effectively a resume aimed at larger corporations, Nadella is aimed at cementing and continuing his leadership of what is now America’s most valuable company. Of this genre, Hit Refresh is the first where I am able to judge in a context of closely following the company in question at the time.
There is a short section on Satya’s childhood in India, which largely cuts off around high school. I assume the material in that section is accurate. After that, Satya’s narrative suffers from very selective editing and time dilation. Events are presented as causal when years have (silently) passed between them. Important events are described, sometimes using tortuous language, to hide the presence or activities of certain others. One specific example of this is the renaming of Microsoft’s Windows Azure cloud platform to just “Azure” (dropping the name Windows), which is presented as the result of a specific customary verdict. Another is when a chain of pronouns is needed to hide former Windows-head Terry Myerson‘s role in delaying the purchase of Mojang AB (creator of the popular game ‘Minecraft’) for years.
Nadella either elides or downplays the most significant decisions he made during his first years at Microsoft: the shift away from consumer products and the shuttering of the “Nokia / Microsoft Mobile” smart phone and manufacturing business. (Nokia herself, which sold the phone business to Microsoft, used the proceeds to acquire Alcatel-Lucent, which was profiled in Douglas Coupland’s mesmerizing Kitten Clone). The first is not mentioned at all, and the second is quickly discussed in what seems a paragraph. But these were the most high-stakes, high-risk and potentially high-payoff decisions that Nadella made. Microsoft literally scrapped one of the most modern and effective manufacturing organizations in the consumer electronics business as virtually his first decision. I understand that the renaming of “Windows Azure” to “Azure” is something of a shorthand which describes the point without boring business readers with details, but it means Satya’s narrative is not factually — at least — reliable. This is neither an in-depth portrait of a leader like Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs nor a journalist history of an industry like Blake Harris’s Console Wars.
And yet…. And yet there’s no arguing with success. Microsoft under Satya Nadella left a generation-long malaise and is now the most valuable company in America. Nadella’s Microsoft is more valuable than Apple. And this has not been the result of “cost cutting” or hasty decisions. Satya’s starving and demoting of the Windows organization — not covered in this book — was Solomonesque, and Microsoft’s handling of political risk well before it lands has been masterful. Perhaps the nature of Satya’s authorship here — collaborative, intellectually, and hiding more than it shows — is typical of his leadership. If so, it may be for the best.
Ball Lightning is a science fiction novel by Cixin Liu set in the contemporary world. It is loosely connected to the author’s “Three Body” trilogy of Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, and Death’s End, and like those books is enriched by a Chinese author’s story being told largely in China. But the story does not depend on those connections, and the events in Ball Lightning do not provide much depth to the events in that trilogy. Ball Lightning succeeds in three areas: discussion of the real phenomenon of ball lightning, a fun description of the highs and lows of scientific discovery, and a meditation on the interdependence of defense research and new technologies.
But before that, some brief criticisms. I enjoyed Ball Lightning and recommend it, but as with “Three Body” the focus is definitely on science and its implications, not characters. All characters tend to be two-dimensional, with simple motivations. No character changes much or discovers more about themselves. They are tropes, but tropes well used to tell an interesting “hard science” fiction story.
I am interested in ball lightning. That comes back to two family members, who did not like each other and often undercut each other, who both reported seeing a silent, very bright, ball of light at the same place in time. (The same episode lead to my interest in UFOs, as described in my UFO theory). I did not know before reading Ball Lightning that the phenomenon was no longer considered to be paranormal: it was recorded by scientific equipment in China! Ball lightning discoveries have been scientifically published (Cen et al, 2014). This is mentioned in-book, and I was as pleasantly surprised it really happened. Nevertheless, the actual composition, nature, and source of ball lightning are unknown, and Liu develops (and has characters either support or contest) a number of interesting hypotheses.
Liu goes one step farther, describing not just specific theories but different methods of implementing research. Characters defend, attack or practice theoretical and empirical research, civilian and military research, and even “mechanistic” and non-mechanistic research. The last category appears to relate to Marxist theory as applied by the Soviet Union, and is a reminder that the Cultural Revolution and our own politically correct eras are not the only where science is infected by political fashion. A large variety of defense research methods are described, ranging from the lone “mad” inventor to computer systems espionage to corporate work.
A fascinating, if short, involves the main character’s trip to the United States. Without giving way plot points, the themes of low-trust bargaining, surprise attacks, coded messages, and mutually assured destruction, all familiar from The Dark Forest, make a reappearance. They feel like good friends.
In the afteward Liu states that Ball Lightning is a traditional Chinese-style science fition story, focused on the invention of a technology itself, as opposed to a western science fiction story, focused on the societal consequences of the invention (The “Three Body” series is, by this definition, western). As I look over the western science fiction I’ve reviewed on this blog — A Canticle for Liebowitz, The Accidental Time Machine, The Difference Engine, and “The Frozen Sky” — I do see this pattern.
I was impressed by Jordan Peter’s 12 Rules for Life and before that, his series Introduction to the Idea of God. I knew that Peterson considered his earlier work, Maps of Meaning, the best summary of his beliefs, and that both 12 Rules and Introduction were specific applications of it. I waited until it was available on unabridged audio, narrated by the author, and read the book in that manner.
This post covers the material in Maps of Meaning in roughly the same order as the book does. First, I describe the psychological foundations Peterson presents for his theory, and how it ties into mythic stories.
Maps of Meaning is composed roughly in fourths, starting with a foundation in cognitive psychology, then mythic stories, then Christianity in general, and finally alchemy. Next, I give a history of the allegorical approach of Biblical exegesis, comparing Peterson with St Augustine. Following this, I highlight the two most important aspects of Jesus Christ for Jordan Peterson, as Redeemer and Logos. I then describe two paths taken by Peterson for applying Christianity in everyday life: the path mentioned in this book (alchemy) and one he seems to have adopted later on (a focus on the Holy Spirit).
Peterson begins with a discussion of neuropsychology and cognitive psychology, emphasizing the biological foundations of thought. This is important because of Peterson basis his entire theory on the existence of a mental modular shared by not just humans but most animals: unknown-detection. Peterson argues that the the psychological process of habituation is not a simply a consequence of learning that a stimulus is neither harmful nor beneficial in the moment — rather, it is the primary result of a stimulus ceasing to be unknown and becoming known. Peterson inverts B.F. Skinner’s defense of behaviorism, noting that while establishing the full history of reinforcement schedules can be incredibly difficult, it is now easier to measure brain activity and detect the existence of mental maps of the known and unknown.
Carl Jung is heavily featured in Maps of Meaning. I had always considered the most controversial part of Jung’s psychology to be his theory of the "collective unconsciousness." Peterson cleverly (and I think fairly) rehabilitates Jung by arguing he worked before the modern understanding of cognitive psychology. Peterson explicitly states that the "collective unconscious" is a term for "episodic memory," a well-accepted theory of how narrative memory is formed. Specifically, because the human mind encodes events into its salient pieces, and the salience of those pieces has a biological foundation, the collective unconscious is simply those pieces which have been universally encoded by appropriately developed humans. Thus, the collective unconscious is part of our species cognitive extended phenotype.
If known and unknown are basic categories, in the way that pleasurable/hurtful and hot/cold are, then it makes sense that known and unknown act as characters in mythic literature. Peterson argues ‘known’ as a category is conceptually gendered as male or an old king, and ‘unknown’ as female or a monster, given the capacity of the known to inflict vertical rules and the capacity of the unknown to generate new things into being. Hence Peterson argues that stories involving a Great Father or Great Mother are in fact stories of the known and unknown.
Peterson then moves from experimental psychology to mythic literature. The central stories in religion and myth in human societies are part of the collective unconscious through their mapping to salient episodic memory:
the temporary capture of the Father by the Mother
a younger male, the hero, called to rescue the Father
the murder of a younger male by a brother or co-equal
the resurrection of the hero
the hero’s possession of a virgin
the hero’s kingship.
I don’t believe this specific series of events happens in any myth. But parts of it happen in stories. For instance, in the Ba’al Cycle the events occur out of order
Ba’al (hero) wishes to build a house for himself
God allows for a war between Ba’al on the monsters Yam (Sea) and Mot (Death)
Ba’al splits Yam in half with a club
Ba’al is killed by Death
Ba’al defeats Death
Ba’al builds his house
The same pattern can be seen in the Christian religion
The Son of God becomes a Creature
The Son of God is born of a virgin
The Son of God proclaims himself King
The Son of God is murdered
The Son of God returns from Hell
The Son of God reigns at the right hand of God
Stories from Egypt, pre-modern Europe, and elsewhere are shown to be general instances of this pattern.
Peterson argues that one can deconstruct widely and deeply shared stories to understand the psychological constructs that generated them. That the stories, the structures, the archetypes, and their lessons are not merely a tax on human cognition but the method that it has operated in the social-political-moral for an extremely long period of time.
My son, hear the instruction of your father,
And do not forsake the law of your mother;
For they will be a graceful ornament on your head,
And chains about your neck Proverbs1:8-9
It is after all of this — the psychological foundations of memory, the comparative religion or mythology — that Peterson begins his most controversial and most ambiguous point. Peterson then provides an extended allegorical apologia for Christianity.
The allegorical approach — defending Christianity by asserting fundamental truths of the Bible without defending the Bible’s literal text — goes back at least to Augustine. As he wrote in Confessions:
Behold, Thou hast given unto us for food every herb bearing seed which is upon all the earth; and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed. And not to us alone, but also to all the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the earth, and to all creeping things; but unto the fishes and to the great whales, hast Thou not given them. Now we said that by these fruits of the earth were signified, and figured in an allegory, the works of mercy which are provided for the necessities of this life out of the fruitful earth.
St. Augustine, Confessions
Augustine is a forerunner to Peterson’s approach. The ending of Confessions is almost incomprehensible, as it is an extended description of the Christian religion and then a treatise on the Roman science of psychology. This did not make sense to me until I read Peterson and watched his series Introduction to the Idea of God, which combines contemporary psychological and the Christian religion.
What Peterson seems to do far better than Augustine, though, is to integrate the Semitic worldview into both Christianity and philosophy. Consider for instance their takes on the very beginning of the Bible:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
The earth was without form, and void; and darkness [a]was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. Genesis 1:1-2
Augustine presents a wordy (not surprising) exegesis on the view that the waters were uncreated matter:
For should any attempt to dispute against these two last opinions, thus,
"If you will not allow, that this formlessness of matter seems to be called by the name of heaven and earth;
Ergo, there was something which God had not made, out of which to make heaven and earth;
for neither hath Scripture told us, that God made this matter, unless we understand it to be signified by the name of heaven and earth, or of earth alone, when it is said,
‘In the Beginning God made the heaven and earth; that so in what follows, and the earth was invisible and without form (although it pleased Him so to call the formless matter)’,
we are to understand no other matter, but that which God made, whereof is written above, God made heaven and earth."
St. Augustine, Confessions
Augustine emphasizes the unconditional nature of God, but ignores the near-eastern view of ordering as Creation that inspires the passage. (To their credit, Mormon theologians pick up this theme). Peterson tackles the same passage as Augustine, but I think derives a deeper meaning:
It is primordial separation of light from darkness — engendered by Logos, the Word, equivalent to the process of consciousness — that initiates human experience and historical activity, which is reality itself, for all intents and purposes. This initial division provides the prototypic structure, and the fundamental precondition, for the elaboration and description of more differentiated attracting and repulsing pairs of opposites:
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 228-229
It is his words immediately following the passage, however, that present a sotorology (theory of salvation) different than any I had heard before:
Light and darkness constitute mythic totality; order and chaos, in paradoxical union, provide primordial elements of the entire experiential universe. Light is illumination, inspiration; darkness, ignorance and degeneration. Light is the newly risen sun, the eternal victor of the endless cyclical battle with the serpent of the night; is the savior, the mythic hero, the deliverer of humanity. Light is gold, the king of metals, pure, and incorruptible, a symbol for civilized value itself. Light is Apollo, the sun-king, god of enlightenment, clarity and focus; spirit, opposed to black matter; bright masculinity, opposed to the dark and unconscious feminine. Light is Marduk, the Babylonian hero, god of the morning and spring day, who struggles against Tiamat, monstrous goddess of death and the night; is Horus, who fights against evil, and redeems the father; is Christ, who transcends the past, and extends to all individuals identity with the divine Logos. To exist in the light means to be born, to live, to be redeemed, while to depart from the light means to choose the path of evil — to choose spiritual death — or to perish bodily altogether.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 229
In what manner was Christ redeemed by the Father?
God the Son
Christ’s genealogy explicit includes our Father-in-Faith, Abraham, as well as the biological father of the human race, Adam, and the father of all surviving humans, Noah.
Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, the son of Heli, … the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalalel, the son of Cainan, the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God. Luke3:23,36-38
Jesus, the perfect man, literally redeemed his fathers. He redeemed his-step father, Joseph. His redeemed his fathers, and in His image we will live:
The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man. 1 Corinthians15:47-49
It was men…
who nailed perfection to the cross:
And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, one on either side, and Jesus in the center.,.
Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments and made four parts, to each soldier a part, and also the tunic. Now the tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece. John19:17-18,23
And God the Father…
who nailed sin to the Cross…
And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. Colossians2:13-15
… and now is our Father.
And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this:
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Not that God the Father is missing anything, or lacks anything. But Christ restores our relationship with God the Father, getting us back to a place where God the Father can be called our Father.
In the Roman liturgy, the Eucharistic assembly is invited to pray to our heavenly Father with filial boldness; the Eastern liturgies develop and use similar expressions: "dare in all confidence," "make us worthy of. . . . " From the burning bush Moses heard a voice saying to him, "Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." Only Jesus could cross that threshold of the divine holiness, for "when he had made purification for sins," he brought us into the Father’s presence: "Here am I, and the children God has given me."
Our awareness of our status as slaves would make us sink into the ground and our earthly condition would dissolve into dust, if the authority of our Father himself and the Spirit of his Son had not impelled us to this cry . . . ‘Abba, Father!’ . . . When would a mortal dare call God ‘Father,’ if man’s innermost being were not animated by power from on high?"
Man and God, the Suffering of Sin and Glory of Perfection, meet in our Lord Jesus Christ. But Peterson presents Christ as the mediator between order and chaos, as the line between Yin and Yang, the One in whom all things may hope, and the One without which there is no hope
Peterson’s preferred term for Christ is logos, the Word:
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is the Logos — the word of God — that creates order from chaos — and it is in the image of the Logos that man ["Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Genesis 1:26)] is created. This idea has clear additional precedents in early and late Egyptian cosmology (as we shall see). In the Far East — similarly — the cosmos is imagined as composed of the interplay between yang and yin, chaos and order — that is to say, unknown or unexplored territory, and known or explored territory. Tao, from the Eastern perspective, is the pattern of behavior that mediates between them (analogous to En-lil, Marduk, and the Logos) — that constantly generates, and regenerates, the "universe." For the Eastern man, life in Tao is the highest good, the "way" and "meaning"; the goal towards which all other goals must remain subordinate.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 87
Peterson emphasizes this point, emphasizing the use of The Way to identify both the Logos and the Tao. All things outside the Logos are harmful. Order inside the Logos is the protective ruler, while Order outside the Logos is the tyrannical father. Likewise, Chaos outside the Logos is the Dragon, while Chaos inside the Logos is the virgin.
The hero is a pattern of action, designed to make sense of the unknown; he emerges, necessarily, wherever human beings are successful. Adherence to this central pattern insures that respect for the process of exploration (and the necessary reconfiguration of belief, attendant upon that process) always remains superordinate to all other considerations — including that of the maintenance of stable belief. This is why Christ, the defining hero of the Western ethical tradition, is able to say "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6); why adherence to the Eastern way (Tao) — extant on the border between chaos (yin) and order (yang) — ensures that the "cosmos" will continue to endure.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 152
Paul the Apostle argues that all things, both life and death, are beneficial in Christ:
"But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain. Galatians2:17-21
This centralization of Christ, relative to Order and Chaos, may be visualized as showing the divine or redeemed nature of Order and Chaos within Christ, and that without Christ, which will be destroyed
The Spirit of Truth
The False Dawn of Alchemy
Peterson spends an extended part of the conclusion of the book on alchemy, which initially appears inexplicable (or a misguided defense of Jung), but the analogies become clear. Gold is to rocks what Christ is to man, the ideal toward which we strive
Gold was, furthermore, the ideal end towards which all ores progressed — was "the target of progression." As it "ripened" in the womb of the earth, lead — for example, base and promiscuous [willing to "mate" (combine) with many other substances] — aimed at the state characterized by gold, perfect and inviolable. This made the "gold state" the goal of the Mercurial "spirit of the unknown," embedded in matter
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 322
The alchemist was a sort of priest, working on beings without souls:
The alchemist viewed himself as midwife to Nature — as bringing to fruition what Nature endeavored slowly to produce — and therefore as aid to a transformation aimed at producing something ideal. "Gold" is that ideal.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 322
Peterson had a shaky grasp of the Catholicism that imbued the medieval work while writing Maps of Meaning. His assertion that alchemy was a belief that sacrifice if not priesthood was still needed after the Crucifixion might be shocking to the college protestants he may encounter teaching…
The alchemical procedure was based on the attempt to redeem "matter," to transform it into an ideal. This procedure operated on the assumption that matter was originally corrupted — like man, in the story of Genesis. The study of the transformations of corruption and limitation activated a mythological sequence in the mind of the alchemist. This sequence followed the pattern of the way, upon which all religions have developed. Formal Christianity adopted the position that the sacrifice of Christ brought history to a close, and that "belief" in that sacrifice guaranteed redemption. Alchemy rejected that position, in its pursuit of what remained unknown.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 344
This is unintelligible from a Catholic perspective
Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us. But grace also includes the gifts that the Spirit grants us to associate us with his work, to enable us to collaborate in the salvation of others and in the growth of the Body of Christ, the Church. There are sacramental graces, gifts proper to the different sacraments. There are furthermore special graces, also called charisms after the Greek term used by St. Paul and meaning "favor," "gratuitous gift," "benefit." Whatever their character – sometimes it is extraordinary, such as the gift of miracles or of tongues – charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. They are at the service of charity which builds up the Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2033
While certainly there were alchemists who wrote in a metaphysical way, it was at the time considered to be a physical science. St. Thomas Aquinas defended alchemical processes that actually work:
Many clerics were alchemists. To Albertus Magnus, a prominent Dominican and Bishop of Ratisbon, is attributed the work "De Alchimia", though this is of doubtful authenticity. Several treatises on alchemy are attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas. He investigated theologically the question of whether gold produced by alchemy could be sold as real gold, and decided that it could, if it really possess the properties of gold (Summa Theologiae II-II.77.2). A treatise on the subject is attributed to Pope John XXII, who is also the author of a Bull "Spondent quas non exhibent" (1317) against dishonest alchemists. It cannot be too strongly insisted on that there were many honest alchemists.
"Alchemy," Catholic Encyclopedia
If Peterson was more aware of the Christian tradition when he wrote this work, his concern might have been that the externalizing features of Protestantism (which deny man agency in the ongoing work of salvation) and Catholicism (which seemingly deny man the teaching authority, as that is possessed by the Church) both deny him agency.
Alchemy was a living myth: the myth of the individual man, as redeemer. Organized Christianity had "sterilized itself," so to speak, by insisting on the worship of something external as the means to salvation. The alchemists (re)discovered the error of this presumption, and came to realize that identification with the redeemer was in fact necessary, not his "worship" — came to realize that that myths of redemption had true power when they were "incorporated," and acted out, rather than "believed," in some abstract sense. This meant: to say that Christ was "the greatest man in history" — a combination of the divine and mortal — was not sufficient "expression of faith." Sufficient expression meant, alternatively, the attempt to live out the myth of the hero within the confines of individual personality — to voluntarily shoulder the cross of existence, to "unite the opposites" within a single breast, and to serve as active conscious mediator between the eternal generative forces of known and unknown.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 346
Which is to say, for Peterson, alchemy and not "Organized" (read: evangelical) Christianity took seriously the commandment
Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom. Matthew16:24-28
There is no good King without a cross.
The Age of The Holy Spirit
Paul, immediately before describing living and crucifixion in Christ, talks about the importance of justification by faith in Christ. "Faith" is not an abstract mental idea or an emotional state. It refers to allegiance in Christ, of imitating Christ.
We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. Galatians 2:15-16
Peterson comes to the same conclusion: the Spirit of the Law is not a watered down or easier Law, but a harder one: one that involves creatively combining the order of the Law with new events coming out of Chaos:
Denial of unique individuality turns the wise traditions of the past into the blind ruts of the present. Application of the letter of the law when the spirit of the law is necessary makes a mockery of culture. Following in the footsteps of others seems safe, and requires no thought — but it is useless to follow a well-trodden trail when the terrain itself has changed. The individual who fails to modify his habits and presumptions as a consequence of change is deluding himself — is denying the world — is trying to replace reality itself with his own feeble wish. By pretending things are other than they are, he undermines his own stability, destabilizes his future — transforms the past from shelter to prison.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 258
In the years since Maps of Meaning came out, Peterson seems to have talked about alchemy less and the Holy Spirit more.
Peterson’s later adaptation of the Blessed Joachim of Fiore’s understanding of Catholicism crosses the Catholic-Protestant divide in a very clever way. Emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit:
I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you." John 16:12-15
and the "everlasting gospel"
And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, Revelations14:6
Joachim theorized that:
There are three states of the world, corresponding to the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. In the first age the Father ruled, representing power and inspiring fear, to which the Old Testament dispensation corresponds; then the wisdom hidden through the ages was revealed in the Son, and we have the Catholic Church of the New Testament; a third period will come, the Kingdom of the Holy Spirit, a new dispensation of universal love, which will proceed from the Gospel of Christ, but transcend the letter of it, and in which there will be no need for disciplinary institutions.
"Joachim of Fiore," Catholic Encyclopedia
It is easy to see how such a view, of progressive revelation and a direct experience with the Holy Spirit, complements Peterson’s view of the centrality of the imitation of Christ in the life of every believer.
The truth seems painfully simple — so simple that it is a miracle, of sorts, that it can every be forgotten. Love God, with all thy mind, and all thy acts, and all thy heart. This means, serve truth above all else, and treat your fellow man as if he were yourself — not with the pity that undermines his self-respect, and not with the justice that elevates yourself above him — but as a divinity, heavily burdened, who could yet see the light.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 353
The Kingdom of Heaven includes the parts of material Christian within Christ. The Kingdom of Heaven is not just within heaven
Christ said, the kingdom of Heaven is spread out upon the earth, but men do not see it. What if it was nothing but our self-deceit, our cowardice, hatred and fear, that pollutes our experience and turns the world into Hell? This is a hypothesis, at least — as good as any other, admirable and capable of generating hope — why can’t we make the experiment, and find out if it is true?
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 353
Impressions of “How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels,” by N.T. Wright
N.T Wright’s How God Became King is the best biblical commentary I have read since Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm. This book complements that one. Heiser focuses on the enthronement of God as lord of the world. Wright focuses on the same events, culminating in the enthronement of Christ. Heiser look at God’s defeat of supernatural antagonists; Wright at Christ’s defeat of Casesar and his ilk. And while Heiser discusses God’s organization of his re-made domain, Wright explains Christ’s new-formed Kingdom.
You never thought of “Render under Caesar what is Caesar’s” as a call to divine revenge before, did you?
The King of Israel, the King of the Jews
Wright argues the Old and New Testaments a parts of one story: the triumph of the Jewish Messiah against the so-called rulers in the world. Wright argues that the combination of the personal name “Jesus” (a variation of Joshua) with title “Christ” (the Annointed One) is not an accident of history: following the life of Christ, the most relevant fact about God is that He is the King of the world.
Wright says this may be surprising to Credal Christians whose churches focus their education on the three great creeds, The Creeds, Greco-Roman works written in response to heresies, addressed controversial or not immediately clear aspects of Christianity. Indeed, there is nothing of the ministry of Christ in the Creeds at all! The the Athanasian Creed focuses on the nature or essence, and not the actions, of Christ. And what Christ did in his earthly life in skipped over, in both the Nicene Creed:
who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man;
he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,
and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
Under Pontius Pilate, He was crucified,
died, and was buried. suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
Wright (and Heiser) argue the scriptures place as much emphasis on Christ’s teachings his ministry, as the Creeds do His nature. The Scriptures refers to a political story, of the Ancient of Days and the One Like the Son of Man:
“I was watching in the night visions,
And behold, One like the Son of Man,
Coming with the clouds of heaven!
He came to the Ancient of Days,
And they brought Him near before Him.
Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,
That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
Which shall not pass away,
And His kingdom the one
Which shall not be destroyed. Daniel 7:13-14
N.T. Wright also shows this vision is echoed (prophesied?) by Mary, as recorded by the Evangelist who most attended to the voices of women, Luke:
And Mary said:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.” Luke 1:46-55
Catholic marionology builds a lot of meaning on the word “magnifies.” But relevant for N.T. Wright is that the Messiah is given dominion, re-organizes the political world, and is Himself enthroned.
A fiery stream issued
And came forth from before Him.
A thousand thousands ministered to Him;
Ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him.
The court was seated,
And the books were opened. Daniel 7:10
Mary’s words describing revolutionary strength and “thrones” echo the the verses before the Son of Man passage in Daniel. Wright, like Heiser, sees in this the re-organization (that is, creation) of a Kingdom into one that places the Lord in direct control of the Earth. The Court of the Ancient of Days ruled against the former rulers, and granted dominion to the One like a Son of Man.
Paying Back to Caesar
But if Christ is a worldy ruler, what of “Render under Caesar”? What of “My Kingdom is not of this world”? What of the claims that Christianity, unlike Judaism or Islam, recognizes a separation of church and state as a founding claim?
Wright argues there is no contradiction, because the first quote is a threat, and the second indicates origin, and not maximum extent, of the Heavenly Kingdom.
Take first the “render under Caesar” line, which is more literally translated as “give back to Caesar.” The point is that the word used for “render,” apodote, is cognate with antapodote, pay back, which is also used for revenge.
But having perceived their craftiness, He said to them, “Show Me a denarius. Whose image and inscription does it have?”
And they said, “Caesar’s.”
And He said to them, “Therefore give back to Caesar the things of Caesar, and to God the things of God.” Luke 20:23-25
Pay-back will come to our world too. Judas Maccabeus lead the Jewish revolt against another foreign invader, and promised pay them back for their atrocities:
“Now behold, I know that Simeon your brother is wise in counsel; always listen to him; he shall be your father. Judas Maccabeus has been a mighty warrior from his youth; he shall command the army for you and fight the battle against the peoples. You shall rally about you all who observe the law, and
avenge the wrong done to your people. Pay back the Gentiles in full,
Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
“But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt..So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.
“So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” Matthew 18:23-35
The mercy we show to sinners is pay back God’s enemies. It is through love given to sinners we grind the head of the Serpent into the dirt, as Paul said in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians:
since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-8
Similarly, Wright argues that Christ’s statement that his kingdom is not of (or, in Greek, ek) this world refers to the His kingdom being from (ek) a victorious realm Heaven, and not the soon-to-be-conquered Earth. In this reading, Christ’s speech recorded by the philosophical John is more an indictment of the weakness of earthly forces than submission to them:
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world; if My kingdom were of this world, My attendants would fight that I might not be betrayed to the Jews. But now My kingdom is not from here.” John 18:36
Likewise, the Greek-English Interlinear Bible provides uses of ek which clearly mean “out of” or “from”. N.T. Wright rejects the idea the Christian scriptures encourage the separation of church and state. Atheists from Razib Khan to Sam Harris laud “render under Caesar” as implying a necessary distinction between government and religion in Christianity. Wright argues there reading is wrong, and is a reflection not of Biblical teaching but of Enlightenment error.
Creating His Kingdom
Wright’s logic is in keeping with the Canaanite view of creation as proper Ordering or Organizing. Ba’al crafted, or literally contracted out, the crafting of his home when he “made” his Temple — and he made mistakes while doing so. The shocking part of the Genesis narrative is not the mere existence of a creator god — most near eastern cultures had that — but that He is also a competent craftsman. The Jewish Bible subsequently records God organizing Earth as His holy temple and Canaan as His holy land in the same way: by taking existing parts and putting them in a new order, he created them.
As creation is ordering, un-creation is disordering: being placed under the ban or made herem. Pre-Israel Canaan was uncreated to be later remade for Israel. The corrupt Kingdom of Israel itself would be uncreated — the prophet Elijah actually tried to hurry this process along. Ordering-as-Creation occurs in each human life. God’s servants who let themselves be un-created by God’s enemies will find themselves re-created by God Himself:
The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory. Although she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. She encouraged each of them in the language of their ancestors. Filled with a noble spirit, she reinforced her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage, and said to them, “I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of humankind and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.” 2 Maccabees 7:20-23
In keeping with his position as a former Bishop in the Anglican Church, Wright also finds a middle ground between the Reformed and Catholic traditions in how Christ’s Kingship should be manifest in the world. Specifically, Wright adopts Reformed terminology and Catholic practice. His use of “theocracy” to refer to the state of existing under Christ’s kingship and explicit recognition of God as King (without explicitly stating the existence of any intermediaries) recalls the Reformed tradition. But Wright’s attacks on the Enlightenment concept of a separation of the political and theological spheres, not to mention the recall the universal nature of the Catholic faith.
But this creates a difference with Heiser’s Unseen World that is not addressed in the text. Who are the thrones seized from that are given to God, who controlled the separate sphere that was abolished by Christ? Heiser argues that these are supernatural entities, “gods,” who may literally include Ba’al, Ashtarte, and the Canaanite pantheon. That is, the supernatural hierarchy envisioned for man in Genesis, Hebrews, and The Psalms…
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And You have crowned him with glory and honor.
You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet, Psalms 8:4-6
… is not merely poetic, but refers to Christ’s literal overthrow of supernatural overlords. But here Wright seems to hew to a Reformed — or at least post-Enlightenment — line. While a few brief words about possible supernatural entities are shared, the focus seems to be on men like Caesar who are cast down. (Allegorical or “hyper-real” readings, such as Jordan Peterson’s view that the defeated gods are disorganized aspects of personal psychology, are not addressed at all.)
How God Became King by N.T. Wright is an excellent work, focused on the New Testament, arguing that Christ is the real and true King of our world, and that this story is told through the Gospels. Wright looks beyond the Creeds to the enthronement of God on Earth, His command to pay back His enemies, and instructions as to how we should proceed. Became King relies less on the literary and theological background of Second Temple Judaism than Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm, but perhaps because of that, is more accessible.
For those interested, a conversation between Heiser and Wright is available online as audio and in transcript.
I read How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels in the Audible edition.
I normally don’t listen to abridged books. While I have good memories of Great Illustrated Classics and Readers Digest editions as a kid, I cannot remember the last abridged edition I actually read. And in fairness, this one was an accident. During a conversation where I mentioned Colin Wilson’s The Mind Parasites a friend recommended I listen to Manual for Spiritual Warfare during my bicycle rides. The only version on Audible was abridged, so here I am.
Manual contains neither a narrative nor a clear theology. The thrust of the work is folk Catholicism, a collection of prayers, saints, sacraments, and devotions to help one during spiritual crises. I am Catholic so this is fine, but it does not present a clear picture (to either Catholics or non-Catholics) of what or how any of this may work, beyond the obvious. But then, for many going through spiritual difficulties, a speculative survey of the supernatural realm may well not be useful.
During the most dire period of my life I took refuge in such thinking about what the universe actually might be. My posts The Fire of the Angels and The Good Bull date from this time, as does my reading of speculative and systematizing books such as The Assembly of the Gods and The Unseen Realm. Other people may just need tips on who to pray for. It is that audience Manual for Spiritual Warfare is aimed at.
Worth noting is a point where Thigpin’s practical discussions of demonology overlaps with paranormal experiences in our modern days: the “increasingly bizarre” supernatural attacks on St. John Vianney. Anyone who reads much of UFOs, Bigfoot, or the like will eventually come across the phrase “high strangeness” and the implication that whatever is behind paranormal events appears to intentionally make its interactions with the world so improbable as to be unspeakable.
I read Manual for Spiritual Warfare in the Audible edition. According to reviews the only abridged material is the full text of some prayrs which are otherwise referenced by name within the text.
Recently I read Dogfight, a history of the shone war between Apple and Google. It is the latest history in the corporate history of the phone market that I have read. Though it benefits from certain perspectives of insiders, its largely duplicative of other books of this era. Yet a short section is vital to understanding the entire era.
Dogfight follows the iOS and Android fight between Apple and Google. The best history of Apple in this period is Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s famed biography, while Inside the Plex is an overview of Google – both written during the hottest part of the Apple-Google phone war. Each of those histories is more complete and provides more context for the actions during the era of the early iPhones and Androids than Dogfight. Unfortunately, much of Dogfight reads like a sportswriter’s play-by-play of a series, rather than the story of either the years dedicated to these projects or the corporate goals they represented.
Yet Dogfight does get one thing right: the importance of corporate politics in both goals. Despite different market positions (Apple was an incumbent) and different organizational structures (Google is organizational while Apple is functional) each company was hampered by internal politics. Apple’s hardware and software divisions fought for resources (such as who should manage the software engineers writing tests for hardware components) which ultimately culminated in the marketing disaster of “antenna-gate.” Google, for its part, was initially focused on porting its apps to a large number of smartphone platforms, and in the early years of Android the Google Apps team treated Google Android as a second-class platform.
The book cover to To Light a Fire claims it is written by Robert Barron “with” John Allen, the Vatican correspondent for CNN. The text itself states it is written by John Allen based on “interviews” with Robert Barron. The truth, I think, is more interesting.
Robert Barron is a Catholic auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles. He’s best known for a YouTube Channel, “Word on Fire which include short commentaries on current trends and movies such as Silence and The Shape of Water.* He’s no Jordan Peterson — in light of Peterson’s amazing success the books claims of Barron being a new media magician ring hollow — but he’s probably the highest profile Catholic writer and media celebrity operating in the English language. (Aside from Pope Francis, of course.)
To Light a Fire is written like a campaign book. It positions Barron both as competent and as political acceptable for — something. It tries to do for Barron what The Devil’s Bargain did for Steve Bannon or Hacks did for Donna Brazilla, except in the context of Catholic Church politics. Bishop Barron understands new media, is center-right (“post-liberal”), has objective metrics for success (# of people attending weekly mass), etc. etc.
Once I realized the genre I tried to ask myself, what is Robert Barron campaigning for? His own bishopric (not merely as an auxiliary)? A higher position in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops? Pope? These may be, but in the last chapters Green (or Green on behalf of Barron, or Barron himself) talks in very concrete terms of Barron’s organization, “Word on Fire“, being elevated to the status of Movement within the Catholic Church. The existing Catholic Movement “Communion and Liberation” is repeatedly used as a model to follow, as well as the personal prelature of Opus Dei. Thus, I assume this book is part of an internal Catholic argument that Word on Fire should, indeed, be a “Movement.”
The subtitle of To Light a Fire is “Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age,” and this is accurate. It is about a proclamation of the gospel, but a description of one man and one method of proclaiming it. This book is not an effective resource for someone curious about Catholicism or even about religion in general. It is Catholic “inside baseball,” and in that genre it is enjoyable and educational. If you want to know how bishops campaign with each other, I recommend this book.
I read To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age in the Audible edition.