If you haven’t heard of Jordan Peterson by now, you may be living under the archetypal rock, low in the personality trait “openness” and your position in the dominance hierarchy could be threatened. If this makes sense to you, then you have most likely watched a number of his videos and most likely already have developed an opinion on his content. If not, this article will explain some of his thought as well as a critique of it.
If you haven’t, Peterson is primarily a psychologist, studying Evolutionary Psych and Jungian thought and so his interpretation of Politics, Religion, and lobsters (which he refers to in his 12 rules for life), is understood through this lens. Peterson believes in God, although he defines “It” as something like the greatest value, the highest possible aim. In Evolutionary Psych terms, he considers it the top of the dominance hierarchy, the “Golden Buddha”, the highest way of being to withstand the tragedy of life.
Here is where a Christian would have a seriously qualm. God is, the higest value, the aim of one’s life “the Good” (and beyond Goodness according to Dionysius the Aereopagite), but God is more than that. He is knowable, personal and came and “pitched his tent among us”- the mystery of the Incarnation. The Christian God takes on human form, lives among us and dies for us. God’s Love for man is deep and even absurd in the words of Evdokimov, a modern Russian Theologian. Why would God tolerate all of human evil, become human, and be rejected and humiliated – the absurdity of His love. God is real, knowable, and died for us and not merely a transcendent first principle.
Peterson also seems to believe very strongly in the utility of belief in God both for society as a whole as well as the individual, In a debate with Matthew Dillahunty, he argues that God is a necessary requirement for the basis of an objective morality, an old argument drawing from Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky. He seems best to be classified as an agnostic; when pressed on the issue in various interviews, he seems to respond with a sense of disappointment almost as if he wants to believe, but can find no reason why or how. Perhaps this is the reason for his popular appeal. He represents the attitude of our Post-Modern, cross-pressured society, longing for God, but plagued with doubt – Thomas before the Resurrection.
Peterson interestingly considers himself a Christian as well. Although, He also considers Sam Harris a Christian, which certainly would raise questions among anyone who has ever encountered Harris’ work. Nevertheless, he considers both himself and Harris Christians because they are working and thinking in the Juedo-Christian tradition. They don’t argue for a might-makes-right morality of earlier pagan societies, but they believe in a truth, a logos, and advocate for free speech; products of Judeo-Christian society.
When commenting on the Old Testament, Peterson shows his remarkable speaking ability mixed with a strong knowledge of world mythology and psycho-analytic analysis. I personally really enjoy his deep enthusiasm and while some Christians may object to this, considering it a modern interpretation, Peterson’s interpretive lens resembles the early Church Fathers in certain ways. In general, the Church fathers see the Old Testment in three levels, the literal, the moral, and the spiritual. Peterson seems to argue for a moral and spiritual/psychological reading. The early Church Fathers saw Christ as the Archetype of the Old Testament, which means that they saw the events of the Hebrew Bible as foreshadowing Jesus’ life. Jonah in the belly of the whale for three days foreshadows Christ in the tomb. Joseph being sold into slavery and becoming Pharaoh represents Christ dying and rising again as God. The early commentators also see these stories as addressing our suffering. Joseph, despite being sold into slavery rises to become Pharaoh because of his trust in God and we should do the same.
Peterson instead sees psychological insight and archetypal themes present across cultures, drawing on world mythology. While a Christian would be skeptical of certain of these claims, taking them with a grain of salt (or many grains of salt), he advocates for a deeper reading of Biblical texts beyond a fundamentalist approach as well as that of a dismissing skeptic.
On the Whole
On the whole I think Jordan Peterson is a strong positive force in the serious discussion of religion in the public sphere. I think Peterson advocates for a serious examination of Religion, God, and meaning that has been largely overlooked by our culture. A due point of criticism of Peterson is that he seems to be taken up by (although not actively supporting) Right wingers like Steven Crowder and Milo Yiannopoulos who have nothing to do with Christ or the Gospel. Effectively, Peterson allows these people to consider themselves “Christians” without changing their lives at all. While he shares Crowder and Yiannopoulos’ criticism of the Progressive movement’s identity politics, P.C culture (heck, even Slavoj Zizek doesn’t like P.C culture), I think Peterson could do more to criticize these types. Overall, I think a thoughtful listener will find something very compelling about his talks. It will certainly be interesting to see the effects his work will create both in this generation as well as the future.
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