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If I learned to believe in God, so can Joe Rogan
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If I learned to believe in God, so can Joe Rogan

Encountering reality in post-communist Czechoslovakia

Is Joe Rogan on the verge of converting to Christianity?

Thanks to a clip of Rogan's podcast that theologian Paul Anleitner recently posted on X, people are wondering. Among them is Jordan Peterson, who reposted the clip with the comment "See you soon @joerogan."

Peterson is a well-known Christ respecter who, unlike his wife, Tammy, has never quite managed actual religious belief. But maybe he'll point Rogan in the right direction. God works in mysterious ways.

He was a connoisseur of 1970s femininity and could talk at length about the unearthly beauty and spiritual depth of murdered Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten, whose distinct presence he could often feel, no matter where he was in the world.

I've grown tired of Peterson's coy, Jungian approach to God, and I prefer the humble psychology professor he started out as as to the professional conservative influencer he's become. But I can't deny that a few years ago, the man in the Batman-villain suit was crucial in changing the course of my inner life.

The ghost of Dorothy Stratten

In 1993, I moved to an industrial city north of Prague, about 30 miles from the Czech/German border. Ústí nad Labem had been around for almost a thousand years, but after half a century of socialist dictatorship, anything old had been replaced with hideous prefab housing estates and pollution-spewing chemical plants. It did have an old church from the fourteenth century, but I never went inside. It was just a relic of a time when being stupid and superstitious was the only option.

I had gotten a job teaching English to engineers at a local natural gas distribution company. I was a 22-year-old Ivy League liberal arts graduate. I had no experience or knowledge worth sharing, of course, and my students were older, with careers and families, and they treated me with deference anyway, as well as with kindness and hospitality. In return, I pitied them as being hopelessly trapped in their small lives. I was meant for something bigger. I had no idea what, but I figured it would announce itself eventually.

I fell in with the small community of foreigners in town — about 10 Americans along with a few Brits and Canadians — but kept my distance. They weren’t the kind of friends I had in mind for myself — they were too provincial and unsophisticated.

Especially strange to me was a hulking gentle giant from Los Angeles named Chad. He was pushing 30 and lived off savings he had accumulated from a series of showbiz-adjacent jobs, including sales for a porn video distributer and caretaking an old Beverly Hills mansion now used for film shoots. The mansion had been the site of a lurid, high-society murder-suicide in the 20s and was haunted. He told us of strange encounters he’d had there alone late at night, the distant sound of piano music, which abruptly stopped as he moved toward it; a heavy, nauseating feeling of malice that descended upon him in certain rooms; the eerie sensation of being shoved.

These stories held our attention, but they didn’t seem like a big deal to him. He had always been particularly sensitive to the supernatural, he said, and he had an endless supply of anecdotes bearing this out. There was the overwhelming mutual attraction he shared with a girl within seconds of meeting her a party only to realize they had been lovers in pre-revolutionary France, until he was garroted for trying to rescue her from prostitution. His vivid explorations of the lost city of Atlantis in lucid dreams and the aching sense it left him of being in exile. He was a connoisseur of 1970s femininity and could talk at length about the unearthly beauty and spiritual depth of murdered Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten, whose distinct presence he could often feel, no matter where he was in the world.

I found all this unforgivably hokey. And I felt it reflected badly on me and my future. But I had to admit he was funny and intelligent. We became friends, even though I secretly regarded him with detached, ironic amusement. I enjoyed the matter-of-fact, unpretentious way he delivered even his boldest claims. Once, in one of my regular hungover tailspins of anxiety, I asked him if he wasn’t afraid of nuclear war. He sighed with slight exasperation and explained that obviously, the higher beings protecting Earth would never allow it.

This idea didn’t reassure me, but his relaxed, confident demeanor did. And I began to realize that maybe thinking crystals were nonsense didn’t make me a better person. Even if Chad weren’t the conduit to the spirit world he claimed to be, he was uncommonly empathetic and perceptive when it came to other people, which is why we all liked to be around him. Whereas my constantly shifting sense of who I was and what it all meant kept me in a state of agitated self-obsession.

Surrounded by martyrs

I was too educated to believe that evil left some kind of spiritual mark on a place, but just 50 years ago, this city I used as the backdrop for my inner drama had been ceded to Hitler. Then, it was bombed by Americans. And just after the war, it was the site of a brutal massacre, in which a mob of Czechs attacked their ethnic German neighbors, shooting and stabbing some 100 men, women, and children and throwing them off the town bridge. Maybe Chad was a kook, but at least he made me consider that there might be something at stake in this world. That it mattered what we did and even what we thought. That transcendent good and evil were real and could touch us.

These abstract musings lost their appeal when Chad moved back to California and I moved to Prague. I was finally where the action was. Here, the visionaries weren’t so gauche as to talk about communing with the dead or the melancholy of old souls lost in the slipstream of time. They were there to summon the coming techno utopia, which required optimism and an eagerness to let go of the past. I was on board, but I was also undisciplined and easily discouraged. Everywhere I looked, I saw monuments to martyrs: the heretic priest burned at the stake, the ordinary civilians killed in the doomed uprising against the Nazis, the young medical student who set himself on fire to protest the Soviet occupation. Their resolve, like my frantic strivings, seemed meaningless in the face of oblivion.

The obvious cure for this self-indulgent existential dread was to move to New York City and get serious about my life. I temped and lived in cramped apartments in cool neighborhoods and got a low-paying but status-signaling media job. I ran into an old college girlfriend with a sensible career and many of the same friends I’d had. We got married and had children and relocated to her hometown of L.A., which I’d heard so much about from Chad.

But he’d settled down in a small town outside Sacramento with a wife and son and an unremarkable job. He wouldn’t have fit into my life anyway. We were upwardly mobile and cultured, with high expectations for ourselves and our kids. It went without saying that we were good, tolerant people. Church was an occasional, unobtrusive reminder to be grateful and give back. We didn’t have any commitments that might make things awkward with our friends or put us at odds with our community.

Binging Ram Dass

I was comfortably settled but still imagined myself as on the verge of transformative, clarifying success. Until one day I didn’t. I wasn’t special, my kids would soon abandon me, and I was going to die. I tried to ease the panic with therapy, running, and Ram Dass videos on YouTube.

Nothing really worked until I stumbled upon some old Jordan Peterson lectures. He was on the ascent at the time, notorious for his Toronto trans dust-up but not yet a full-fledged sensation. In some ways, his confidence in what we could know about life reminded me of Chad. I particularly liked his gnomic yet rigorously intellectual treatment of Christianity. It suggested a way I could take solace from a meaningfully-ordered universe without actually having to do anything as gauche as worship. Maybe "acting as if" God were real would be enough to improve my state.

Then a goth girl I did plays with in high school re-emerged on Facebook as a devout Catholic stay-at-home mom and pro-life activist. After a few pointless arguments, I calmed down and started reading everything she posted without comment. It was fascinating to imagine being so gullible and narrow-minded. I watched videos she linked to and read books she mentioned. I embedded myself in this bizarre, backward culture. A few months later, I was sitting in my car saying the rosary for the first time, just to see what would happen.

I entered the church about a year later. Just before the COVID lockdowns, I got a call that Chad had had a massive stroke. We hadn’t been in touch for years. I gave money to his recovery fund and got added to a text group of friends and family who unselfconsciously offered their prayers and invoked the healing power of God’s mercy. I was surprised at how natural I felt doing the same. And how praying actually felt like doing something helpful. I still include him in my daily rosary. Maybe it’s just guilt that I haven’t written or called lately, but I like to think he can pick up on it somehow. If so, I hope he humors me like I humored him 30 years ago. You never know where that might lead.

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Matt Himes

Matt Himes

Managing Editor, Align

Matt Himes is the managing editor for Align. He has been a copywriter and marketing consultant for the entertainment industry for 20 years. A native of Allentown, Pennsylvania, he lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three children.
@matthimes →