Jordan Peterson has become a YouTube phenomenon.
He is a 50-something Canadian, clinical psychologist and Professor at the University of Toronto. His lectures attract thousands online as he vigorously takes on all kinds of subjects including the wrongness of politically-correct orthodoxy which is crippling free speech and ruining universities across the Western world.
He is rocking the boat of Western liberalism and, because he articulates many ideas with which contemporary Christians can identify (and often have already voiced), he is sometimes spoken of as being ‘the nearest thing to a Christian without actually being one’. But though we can admire him and benefit from his wisdom, reading his book 12 Rules for Life1 gives us a clearer grasp of where he is actually coming from.
The key is to understand that first and foremost he is a psychologist. He is fundamentally a secular moralist who sees things in psychological terms. So when he speaks of ‘God’, ‘Hell’, ‘prayer’ or ‘truth’, he generally means something different from a Christian understanding of such terms.
He presents as a thorough-going evolu-tionist. Yet, like so many, he can’t help slipping into the language of creation. The brain is ‘designed for (coping with) the severest threats’ (p.21).
It is reality which naturally selects those organisms which will survive and prosper within the evolutionary scheme. Yet he infers that somehow this reality includes a moral dimension which people neglect at their peril. (Here he is reminiscent of M. Scott Peck’s People of the Lie.)
He finds his foundation for this in the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust, exemplified at Auschwitz, and the Soviet labour camps described so vividly by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His conclusion? ‘There are some actions that are so intrinsically terrible that they run counter to the proper nature of human Being. This is true essentially, cross-culturally – across time and place. These are evil actions. No excuses are available for engaging in them’ (p.197). It was this reality of evil – not a material category – which was something of an epiphany to him. It gave him a place to stand having ‘outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth,’ (p.196).
Thus escaping the prison of moral relativ-ism, he begins to see and explore (he doesn’t set himself up as having got it totally right) a moral vision of universal relevance. He can speak of objective good and of meaning in life coming through striving for the highest good. He exhorts us to shape up – to ‘stand up straight and with our shoulders back.’
On the edge of order and chaos (whichever threaten us) is where we live our lives. And ‘God’ helps us in this. But his view of God (‘whatever or whoever he may be,’ he writes on p.356) is complex and perhaps fluid. Sometimes he speaks of God as the highest good – worth living for. Sometimes he seems to speak as if he is the reality which naturally selects the survivors in the evolutionary process.
Another take on God is that he has been invented. A personality has been projected onto the cosmos with whom we can negotiate. Vulnerable, over-imaginative, primitive man concluded: ‘It’s as if there is a powerful Figure in the Sky, who sees all, and is judging you. Giving up something you value seems to make Him happy – and you want to make Him happy, because all Hell breaks loose if you don’t. So practice sacrificing, and sharing, until you become expert at it, and things go well for you.’ Then Peterson adds in a footnote, ‘And all this is true, note, whether there is – or is not – actually such a powerful figure “in the sky”’’ (p.169). He claims that the perception of things as entities with personality occurs in human development before perception of things as inanimate things: ‘This is because of the operation of what psychologists have called “the hyperactive agency detector” within us’ (p.39). (There is a similar argument for the origin of religion found in Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind).
Yet the question of God is more complicated. Peterson simultaneously is dismissive of atheists. In arguing that the way we perceive the world is dependent on our religious beliefs we find the following: ‘You might object, ,“But I’m an atheist.” No, you’re not (and if you want to understand this, you could read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment…). You’re simply not an atheist in your actions, and it is your actions that most accurately reflect your deepest belief – those that are implicit, embedded in your being … underneath surface-level self-knowledge. You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe before that’ (p.103). All this sounds rather like Paul in Romans!
But then he also questions the existence of God along the familiar lines of the presence of suffering which is, for him, undeniably the predominant reality of existence. ‘How could a good God, allow such a world to exist?’ (p.346).
Peterson uses the Bible (and other religious books) because he sees them not as factually true, but as encapsulating something of mankind’s distilled wisdom.
‘The Bible is a library composed of many books, each written and edited by many people. It’s a truly emergent document – a selected sequenced and finally coherent story written by no one and everyone over thousands of years. The Bible has been thrown up, out of the deep, by the collective human imagination, which is itself the product of unimaginable forces operating over unfathomable spans of time. Its careful, respectful study can reveal things to us about what we believe and how we do and should act that can be discovered in almost no other manner’ (p.104).
While acknowledging the worth of Scripture, he does not want to buy into it but rather simply use it. And his expositions of Bible passages, while interesting, throw up some horrific distortions of the text.
Uncritically swallowing the old JEDP hypothesis concerning the make-up of the early chapters of Genesis, his understanding of the narrative is not only strange, but perverse.
He acknowledges that human beings are on a totally different plane from other creatures. We are made in God’s image, (‘whoever God is?’ remember). Metaphorically speaking, ‘you have a spark of the divine in you, which belongs not to you, but to God’ (p.60). Therefore you are to ‘treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.’
However, the Fall is not primarily about the entrance of evil into the world, but concerns the emergence of self-awareness in mankind. Self-consciousness and evil go together. Adam and Eve exercised no choice before the Fall, p56. The Genesis verses concerning the variety of fruit to choose from in Eden, and Adam’s choice of names for the animals are ignored.
His approach is mistaken, but what he is driving at is that because we are aware of ourselves and what we are doing, as opposed to other creatures who are not, we are capable of true evil. ‘Only man will inflict suffering for the sake of suffering. That is the best definition of evil I have been able to formulate’ (p.54). He believes in original sin and that human beings are sinful creatures. This is refreshingly different from the blind optimism concerning mankind which liberal humanism has foisted on our culture for far too long, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Not only does he also see work as the product of the Fall’ (p.164), which is clearly not true, Genesis 2.15, but interestingly he avoids any mention of God’s promise of a Saviour to Adam and Eve, the serpent-crusher of Genesis 3.15. Christ is no gracious Saviour for Peterson. The way forward for this modern moralist is for humanity ‘to set itself right’ (p.57).
While he does see some good in Christianity – historically it was less barbaric than paganism – nevertheless he rejects the gospel of justification by faith. This doctrine has made Christianity morally spineless. He quotes Nietzsche with approval: ‘The Christians have never practiced the actions Jesus prescribed them; and the impudent garrulous talk about the “justification by faith” and its supreme and sole significance is only the consequence of the Church’s lack of courage and will to profess the works Jesus demanded.’
Peterson is well worth listening to. His great strength is his concern for truth. But he is not coming from the same place as we are.
1. 12 Rules for Life, by Jordan Peterson, Published by Allen Lane, £14.99