In summarizing Erik Peterson’s provocative and still-timely 1937 essay, “Witness to the Truth,” Michael Hollerich writes that for Peterson “[a]ny regime that does not recognize Christ is ipso facto in the service of Christ’s enemy.” According to Hollerich, Peterson’s critique of the present age, one carried out through a penetrating reflection on martyrdom, is “orient[ed] . . . to the coming New Age rather than to a disappearing and irretrievable past[.]” Oddly, however, Hollerich remains uncertain what Peterson’s piece “has to say to those of us who live today with middling contentment, in the shambling structures of liberal democracy[.]” Hollerich recognizes “Witness to the Truth” to be “a powerful summons to resistance,” but for whom? It is at this point in his summary that Hollerich provides a list of potential audiences, editorializing on their relative worth at the same time before breaking off to allow readers to explore Peterson’s writing for themselves.
Anyone who has spent time meditating upon the contents of Peterson’s Theological Tractates, the book-length collection which houses “Witness to the Truth” along with several other important studies, should know that its contents are not intended for a particular audience if by “particular audience” one means any of the specific ideological camps that have shown up within, and outside of, the Catholic Church over the past 50 years. Peterson, who perhaps saw himself as something of a contemporary (Catholic) Kierkegaard, surely had in mind an audience comprised of anyone and everyone who would listen. Unfortunately for Peterson, his life as a lay Catholic theologian following his conversion from Lutheranism yielded relatively little attention. Until the debates over the legacy of Peterson’s friend, Carl Schmitt, prompted some to explore their intellectual relationship, few in the Anglophone world had even heard of Peterson’s name. Now that they have, and now that Peterson has (finally) been translated into English, what comes next?
Very little has come since the translation of Theological Tractates appeared in 2011. What little secondary commentary has shown up focuses primarily on Peterson’s brief treatise, “Monotheism as a Political Problem.” And why? Because it is the one work which Schmitt, a decade after Peterson’s repose, singled out for attack because it challenged a certain aspect of Schmitt’s thinking which he had enshrined in the 1922 book Political Theology. The two (academic) pieces which discuss “Witness to the Truth”—one of which is penned by Hollerich—seem more interested in fixing Peterson’s relationship to the intellectual climate of his times rather than make the daring leap to take Peterson seriously, that is, to consider without prejudice Peterson’s eschatological horizon, which is nothing more or less than the horizon we all dwell under whether or not we wish to see it.
There is a price to taking Peterson seriously and it is this: a complete disavowal of worldly Christianity and all of the psychological and material benefits that go with it. Pay no mind to Christ’s admonition against trading one’s soul for the world. That’s a false bargain we good, enlightened Christians of late modernity need not enter into. For now we are told that Christ has not overcome the world eschatologically, but ideologically. He has shown us a way to physical and emotional peace in this life; the time to come is already secure for every man, woman, and child who lives according to their conscience, guided by private, subjective lights to lead them to fulfill their preferences uninhibited. The greatest evil facing mankind is anything which threatens the comfort—the calm and entertaining life—secular liberalism promises to us all. Satan? He can be ignored, just so long as we remain good citizens of his polity.