Many people have never heard the name Jordan Peterson. But if you haven’t, you soon will. Peterson is becoming a thought leader with a growing influence and sizable following online – especially among younger people.
Peterson, a University of Toronto Professor and clinical psychologist, has recently released a best-selling book called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. The theme of Peterson’s writing is essentially “Grow up, stand up straight, and make something of yourself that isn’t dependent on what society says about you”. It is a call out of ourselves for the sake of ourselves, in order to find real meaning in life.
In my own deep dive of Peterson’s new book, I’m through 7 of the 12 rules – so I’m sure there is more to digest if I were to desire the cocktail of Peterson’s synthesized views – though I have listened to my fair share of his online videos and interviews with podcaster Joe Rogan. So call me ignorant, or not fully informed, but I think I’ve read and watched and listened to enough to form an idea of what he’s been saying for the last few years. And because of his growing influence, and because people I admire have been admiring him, I wanted to take some time and write an essay of what I currently think of Peterson’s body of thought, how the church has reacted to him, and whether or not he’s a helpful influence in our society.
The Vacuum Peterson is Filling
Although he is a professor by day and psychologist by training, Peterson doesn’t limited his views to these fields of inquiry. Because he is basically dealing out prescriptions for how to live a fulfilled and meaningful life, its hard to know where to begin. But one way to start this is by asking the question from the perspective of a Christian: Is Jordan Peterson’s growing following the result of the failure of the evangelical church to address the gospel appropriately to the minds of this new generation? I think the answer is, yes…partially.
Has the church failed to lift people up by not first telling them the truth about themselves? Yes, I think that is a major issue in today’s evangelical churches – at least in the west – and one could say that its true of many catholic churches as well. A half-gospel has been preached. A story of mankind in which people are basically good, and that the ills of society, the mass shootings, the moral failings, and the political corruption is the result of a few people gone wrong – or of a failure of education (an old trope that is still trotted out by liberals). No one wants to grapple with the seriousness of sin, and the fallenness of man. Many times churches today do not confront the depths of Romans 5:12, and the inability of man to change himself – so the problem is ignored or papered over, and the solution to the problem is not taught with clarity and power.
Peterson does grapple with this. He does acknowledge the depths of man’s problems – depths of sin that the individual knows are there if they are honest enough to examine themselves (Pg. 46 “we’ve seen the problem and the problem is us” and pg. 120 where he derides Rousseau as a deluded fool for thinking people are basically good) – if they are brave enough to face up to what they see inside themselves. “We must discover that nature, and contend with it, before making peace with ourselves” (pg. 193). But Peterson’s solution is continually to take small steps in righting the world around us – not always as a means of attaining happiness, but at the very least as a means of atonement for who we are and who we have become (Pg’s 199-200 et all). By prescribing changing in degrees, while simultaneously saying the human being is too complex and unknowable to have a chance at true change, he reveals (and undermines) his case. But he must, because he’s fighting against nihilism. And bravo for that. But we’ll come back to that in a bit.
Peterson and the Rise of Discontented Populace
I think its worth noting, from a social perspective, that Peterson’s appeal happens to coincide with the rise of Donald Trump. And I have been wondering if there are any linkages here. I think that perhaps there are two – but for opposite reasons. First, President Trump was elected because a massive amount of people thought that D.C. politicians and the power structure was lying to them (their choice of hero is ironic, to say the least), and they wanted an outsider to fix the problem. To tell the truth. To bring sanity and order to insanity and chaos (if we use Peterson’s terms). Peterson’s emphasis on seeking truth also appeals to that same desire for a truth teller in the upper hierarchy of society. They want the stability and order of Burke’s principles, but they want to get it by means of Jacobean revolution.
Secondly, perhaps it is the church’s selling out (a la David Gerson’s Atlantic article on Falwell, Reed, and Dobson’s betrayal of evangelicalism) of its social obligations that has fed into the millennial generation’s disgust with organized evangelicalism. They see (perhaps selectively) a church aligned closely (defending Trump) with the very model of someone they moralistically preach against on Sunday mornings. This seems like (and is) the height of hypocrisy. Peterson speaks out against all such hypocrisy. Further, to many younger minds, these evangelical religious leaders don’t speak to key issues they’re grappling with – they’ve spent the last 40 years fighting for displays of the ten commandments, while ignoring this growing crisis of being (sin and suffering and a reason for living in this world).
If generationally the white evangelicals supporting Trump are doing so because they see their country slipping away and their freedoms being threatened by a small but vocal minority of Hollywood leftists, then perhaps Peterson is doing the same thing for millennials who do not find honest solutions coming from the church or their political leaders.
Sometimes when there is a crisis among the larger institutions like this, along come philosophers, prophets and preachers who try to solve the problem socially or politically, and even spiritually.
Peterson is not new – that is, his thinking is not original to him. He’s a mixed cocktail of old philosophy and Christian misinterpretation. He argues for rational thought and order, but his foundational truths are a muddled mess; his conclusions are often contradictory (esp. man’s inability to act good and make good change paired with his exhortation to make small strides in changing one’s life). This is why I think its so hard to critique him. He says many things that are true and good, and even his conclusions can be somewhat helpful. He looks honestly at his own soul and the souls and lives of others and prescribes what he is able based on what he knows. Conversely its hard to critique him because there’s so much that’s wrong. On almost every page of his book there’s some kind assumption to challenge or misinterpretation of scriptural references to wince at (the man is no theologian, though he plays one on TV, as they say!). Layer upon layer of assumption based on his own experiences and reading have led to no real coherent worldview – and that’s not an easy thing to critique, if for no other reason than a shear lack of time and patience.
Peterson and the Bible
But although Peterson is wide ranging in his topical addresses and his philosophical inputs, he is touching some very basic and very fundamental chords of discontent. The problems he addresses are very real. There is an entire generation which has grown up amidst the rotten fruits of the promise that technology would make our lives easier and more fulfilling. Connectedness would equal community, and ease and utility would bring an end to suffering. These were lies. Now, there is a new generation slogging through this lie, running on fumes, and looking for solutions for this emptiness. Peterson taps into these sentiments.
This is why even young Christians see him as a sort of pastor/father figure who is telling the truth about society and helping address some of those fundamental problems of sin and despair they are feeling. Peterson seems comfortable to young former/or current evangelicals because he discusses the Bible so often in his book and lectures. Indeed, you might think the man a Christian at first glance as he confronts sin and fallenness head on. But there are many things Peterson gets wrong along the way – and you see this in his references to historic Christianity. He rightly praises it for its miraculous work against human slavery in history (pg. 186), but he ignorantly charges the universal church with doing virtually nothing charitable in the lives of the average person to help lift them up. Why? Because the church seemed more focused on salvation of the soul than of bringing the kingdom of heaven here to earth (pg.s 185-186).
Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps the church at times has been so focused on the soul that it failed to live that soul-change out in the day to day lives of its adherents. But I would just note that these are usually localized problems historically, and even geographically. Christians have long led the world in living out the teachings of Christ, and, consequently this has brought them happiness and meaning and saved millions from early and painful deaths.
Peterson argues (pg. 187 onward) that once some of the major social problems were solved by the church, there was a retreat from society and an undue focus on eternal salvation. I think this is one of the blind spots in Peterson’s critique of Christianity historically. He is fighting to find real meaning and value in life, but is criticizing the church for making that essentially a top priority. He also overstates the situation, as if the universal church totally turned a blind eye to solving the problems of suffering in the world for major swaths of time. This is nonsense. Even if this were true in certain countries at certain times, for the last 2,000 years the church has been marked by its work to feed the hungry, care for the poor and the widow, and love the unlovable.
It is because of this view, that Peterson sees a real place for Nietzsche, and later Jung, as they sort of pick up where Christianity failed. As Peterson says, “Nietzsche believed that Paul, and later the Protestants following Luther, had removed moral responsibility from Christ’s followers. They had watered down the idea of the imitation of Christ” (pf. 189). This is perhaps the crux of why I hear some people who like Peterson critique Calvinism (which followed in Luther’s wake), as if they seriously understand it (which they don’t). What Paul did was put more meat and practicality around Christ’s teaching – all this is the kind of “order” that Peterson should like! He must not have read Romans 13 or Ephesians 4…but I digress. What Luther did was bring an entire continent out of spiritual and mental darkness. They had been following the superstitious edicts of the Catholic church like so many lemmings until Luther started actually publishing the Bible. That’s the kind of honest truth-seeking that you’d think Peterson wouldn’t object to.
But in essence what he’s piling onto here are not the major feats of these great and godly men, but the trope that they spurred on a kind of moral and social laxity that ruined society and caused ethical indifference. Of course the very pages of history are littered with objections – the modern hospitals we have today were started and proliferated by religious organizations to name only one example. But none of this is really worth debating much because its so self-evidently nonsense. Some of the greatest Christians since Christ have followed an Augustinian belief in God’s sovereignty over the souls of men, and yet have not hid behind that as excuse not to engage in social justice, feeding of the poor, and caring for the widow.
As far as other Biblical interaction of an eternal nature, Peterson understands the gospel story and the sacrificial death of Jesus without understanding the transformational aspect of the Christian life post-conversion. In fact, he is so hung up as on Jesus as the archetypal man of sacrifice, and the importance of sacrifice, that he misses the historical post-sacrifice reality of life united to a risen Savior. This is perhaps his biggest failing. If he got this right, he might understand both the power of a Christian, and the transformed desires and aims of a Christian and Christian churches and community. The consequences cannot be understated.
So Peterson calls people out of themselves. He calls them out of Nihilism and into meaning through a true examination and facing up to the existential problem of “being” – what some of the great
erman thinkers called the problem of “angst”. But he gives no power to do this, and, in fact, there are times when he wavers as to whether or not its even possible for it to be done. He gives the edict, he sounds the call toward greater individual value – even placing value on the individual based on being an image bearer of God – but he has nothing to equip the disciple with after this. In this way he calls people out of slavery to one kind of sin (meaninglessness and Nihilism), and into another kind of sin (pride – which is why some critics have rightly said he seems to be the embodiment of the man C.S. Lewis termed as the most dangerous). This is no small thing.
Peterson’s Critics in the Church
I’ve read odd critiques of Peterson, from all over the spectrum. I think many miss the point – but I empathize with their attempts.
Some have said that Calvinism in the church has led to a rejection of social engagement and therefore is partly to blame. But while this may be true in some churches, it’s a bit anachronistic to level this charge for two reasons. First, because the more modern move toward calvinism looks much more holistic in its application of the fundamental principles/doctrines of grace – the modern calvinistic movement is NOT akin to early 20th century fundamentalism in its retreat from the world. So the timing seems a little off in its current iteration theologically.
Also belying the odd accusation is the fact that modern calvinism is just beginning to spread through Baptist and nondenominational churches. An entirely new era of pastors being trained up to see God as sovereign, but man as responsible, and with that desire to glorify God in all things, they are reaching into communities and loving their neighbors. But this rise of the new calvinistic thinking is really only 15-20 years old in terms of the larger American evangelical church (Presbyterians are the exception, having long been Augustinian in their doctrine). Which means pastors who were trained under Mohler, Schreiner, Ware, Piper and others are only just now coming into lead positions in their churches. This is reflected in the more recent upheaval among Southern Baptist Convention members organizations and leaders (a collision between pro-Trump old timers like Falwell/Dobson/Reed and young Keller/Mohler/Moore calvinists is often played out on the pages of the Wall Street Journal and other major publications). So the timing is not quite contextually accurate, from what I can tell.
I’ve also read critiques that say that while Peterson is off-base in some respects, the lack of godly men being trained up and leading by example has created a vacuum that Peterson is filling. Still others say that the church should “steal” the best parts of Peterson and leave the rest – as if Peterson has a monopoly on ideas! These are very odd prescriptions, and while I applaud people reading and grappling with Peterson, I don’t think that a wholesale change of approach is necessary. Rather a getting back to the fundamentals of the gospel, a holistic and honest look at the human condition and its struggles, and a willingness to speak truthfully to these deeper philosophic issues are required in today’s church leaders if they’re to reach these Peterson disciples.
The Christian Response is a Solution for Being
But to do all of this, we need to continue to look at what it is that Peterson is saying as it pertains especially to “truth.” His search for truth is really a search for honesty – and this he achieves. But honesty isn’t enough to avoid Nihilism. You also have to have truth. And as much as he seeks it, he doesn’t give it, because he doesn’t have it.
Now, I’ll just note that I think his slavish devotion to evolutionary ideals hurts him and undermines his understanding of the human mind and soul, but in an ultimate sense in terms of his argument I don’t think its fatal. That is to say, I’m unsure it hampers him from getting to the point where he concludes people are a mess. His calling people out of themselves to a greater meaning for their lives is admirable, and able to be done even despite atheistic evolutionary ideas (which ironically, at their root, contradict the foundation of his own battle against Nihilism) and I think this is just a paradox in his thinking built in by his own influences and journey. He gets through it because he is an honest stater of the obvious.
Where Peterson runs into a problem is more foundational. He might state what he has found honestly, but without foundation to run back to, without truth to build upon, where do you go? Why should people follow his advice over the long haul? One major (and I mean this is a big deal) example is that he doesn’t fundamentally explain what it means to have meaning. Similarly, he isn’t able to fundamentally explain how to solve the problem of being and suffering. He just honestly tells us they are important and they exist. Well, congratulations, Mr. Peterson! You’re more honest than most philosophers who erect coping mechanisms, but it doesn’t mean you have a solution.
By contrast, the Christian does give solutions for these problems – even if evangelicals today in large swaths have failed to articulate these solutions very well.
First, there is the problem of meaning. The Christian answer to this is that we are created by God (which Peterson might believe) FOR God, and for His glory. That means that aside from the law codes of Christian writing (which Peterson sees as very helpful from a chaos/order perspective) there is a secret that underlies it all: Purpose. Purpose, belonging, and true joy. In other words: meaning.
This is what Piper and Keller and Lewis and Sproul (as few Calvinists there…) capture so well. They show that meaning DOES come from “looking above” (contra
Peterson, who is arguing against Paul in Philippians, perhaps accidentally), and that a Christian transfers that meaning to his/her life here a la God’s reconciliating purpose for life here on earth (2 Corinthians 5). There is purpose because there is meaning to be found in eternal relationship with God. He put you here for a reason. He went to great lengths to redeem you – your soul and your future. But contra Peterson’s understanding of the Christian faith, this is only the start, as Paul points out in Ephesians 2:10. After laying out how were were saved, Paul then states how we were saved for good works “that we should walk in them.” This means all of life is subject to the redeeming work of Christians on earth (cf. Keller, Kuyper, Schaeffer etc), and that justification actually leads to acts of mercy and social engagement and community betterment – even if the church, at times and places, fails in this mission.
The Christian says that not only is there meaning in life beyond Nihilism’s incorrect view of a nonexistent eternal purpose, but there is a reason to live and redeem TODAY, in the here and now.
Christians are to motivated by several very powerful things, and Peterson misses some of that. He sees order as a chief end goal. This is a good goal. But it is not enough to avoid Nihilism and despair when the rubber meets the road in the dark night of the soul. Christians have a relational love – a sort of bond – between them and their Lord. I think this is a motivating bond, a love in our hearts that keeps us moving on – and Peterson does not have and is not able to address this cosmic post-conversion bond, beyond a sort of cursory understanding of the imago dei.
Still, ultimately, Christians live for one central purpose: the eternal glory of God. Peterson wrongly says that just doing good works leads to the kingdom of heaven here on earth by the efforts of people to do these little acts of order (which counter the chaos of life). The Christian believes their acts of goodness and charity transcend the here and now, are empowered by something extra nos (the Spirit of God), and magnify that they do deeply care about the here and now, as Christ did during his time on earth. But the Christian desire to do good works differs from a Peterson driven motivation. It’s not merely to avoid Nihilism and scratch out a reason for being (i.e. it is not merely expressed in the negative). They care about people because they love Christ who loved them first, as John states in his epistles. And they do all of this out of a desire to glorify and make much of God.
There is something very deep and fulfilling in being part of a larger story, a divine story, and something even more meaningful in being used as a means (a meaningful means) to bring glory to your Creator. That is true meaning. That’s the kind of meaning that blows the doors off of Nihilism.
Second, there is this core issue of suffering. Peterson addresses head on the suffering of mankind. Suffering is of critical importance to him, because as he dug down deep and examined everything he knew about life and man, the one essential truth he came to was that life IS suffering. That seemed solid. That seemed true and indisputable. The second (though he doesn’t parse it quite this way) truth is that there is evil and good, and there’s no doubt in his mind that evil produces suffering and that good is the opposite of evil. His next thought is that after close examination, he (and every man) is capable of this same evil – and he gives the Nazi death camps as an example: We must come to grips with the fact that any one of us could be that guard sending Jews to their death in the gas chambers. Suffering is intrinsic to life, evil is intrinsic to humanity, and good is the opposite of evil. These are fundamental building blocks for Peterson. They are as universal for him as they are for the Apostle Paul in Romans 5 and Moses in Genesis 3.
By making these assertions, Peterson tosses out post-modernist thinking (and the older utilitarian atheistic 19th century thinking upon which it is founded – which in turn was founded on Hume’s empiricism, and Kant and so down the line) and end-runs this by openly acknowledging what post-modern thinkers have denied us for years, namely that there are standards, there are morals, there is sin, and this leads to suffering – something has to. He unapologetically calls people out of a world of self-deception which had been erected by post-WWI thinkers (even within the church) whose naiveté had been burst upon the evils in Flanders’ fields.
But what to do about suffering? Peterson says we must do small acts of order. Get yourself together. Fix one small thing at a time until it all adds up. Get yourself to the top of the social totem poll. Don’t be at the bottom of the social caste or you’re going to be miserable and passed over (cf. his first rule). In the end, though, he has no antidote to suffering. It’s actually hilarious how he packages this. Almost as if he is trying to embody Solzhenitsyn, battling back Marxism and Benthamism by preaching a radical individualism: pull yourself up by those bootstraps boy! He’s almost like the Teddy Roosevelt of social psychology! But again, we get this from him because he’s a poorly mixed cocktail of bad theology, social psychology and historical philosophy.
But individualism, and attaboys, and a push out the door doesn’t alter or (more importantly) make meaning from suffering. It doesn’t even help us cope with suffering very well.
Suffering is indeed part of life – but it is not how life ought to be. Life is not meaningless, and suffering not purposeless. Life is not simply about ending chaos or pulling ourselves to the top of the pecking order, rather it is about bowing before the reality of the situation and the One who holds it all in order (Peterson does the former and not the latter). Paul acknowledges this in Romans 8. In this chapter, Paul says there is this groaning of creation and of all mankind. We all want to see this suffering abolished. We all know it exists – there’s no running from it. Paul addresses it head on. Like Peterson, he acknowledges that it was sin that caused this suffering. But then he says that the Christian has hope – Peterson offers no hope.
The Christian has two forms of hope: eternal and temporal (the here and now). Paul says in Romans 8, that we have hope because the Spirit of God is within us driving us and reminding us of eternal hope’s foundation on the work of Christ, the death of Christ and (especially relevant for this) our being united to Christ through his resurrection. If you’re united to the source of life, then suffering has meaning and and end date. If he suffered and we are suffering, there must be a purpose to it. The purpose is to refine us, and make us more like him (Rom. 5:1-5). This is the hardest part of Christian theology, that Christ works all this suffering for good (Rom. 8:28) and for his glory.
This is the opposite of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. In fact, this hurts our pride. But its gives us this hope in the here and now that as he uses suffering in our lives, we know that he is with us in it, because we are united to him. This is intensely meaningful, and gives some real purpose to our pain here on earth, and a way to experience joy in the midst of it.
In Conclusion: Is Peterson’s Voice Helpful to the Social Discussion?
There is no doubt in my mind that Peterson’s strength is in honestly grappling with the problems of sin and suffering, but that he falls woefully short of providing a solution to these problems that will satisfy his followers long term. But does that mean that he isn’t helpful in some way to our society’s conversation as a whole?
Some of this can be judged by simply observing the fruit of what his followers are saying online. Some liberals have pointed out an eerie parallel between the crude, rude, and angry dogmatism of Peterson’s followers online, and President Trump’s online followers. I didn’t take their word for it, but dove through many comments this week when Peterson responded angrily to liberal critique of his viewpoints – it’s worth noting Peterson’s own retort was “(expletive) you!” And many of the comments from his supporters online were as foul, though just as many seemed taken aback by his outburst.
Aside from how his followers behave (which is no small thing, but still developing I’d say), the question remains: Is it helpful to call men and women to a fuller meaning? Is it helpful to confront head-on the problems of suffering and pain and find a way to think about life that is helpful and hopeful? I believe the answer is unequivocally, YES. But not if the meaning you’re calling them to is meaningless in the end, and not if you’re calling them to something they won’t have the foundational motivation to stick to in the long run. There are clear pitfalls of pride here, and as I mention above, it will be hard for his followers to reconcile the competing cocktail of philosophies to support them in their purposes.
It reminds me of the dangers posed in my own life by Norman Vincent Peale. When I was in my mid-twenties, I found Peale extremely helpful – even life changing, in fact. I took his admonition to pray for others, memorize scripture, and meditate seriously. And these things really did change my life for the better. But the deeper I dug, the more I looked for a why and more foundational reasons for all my doing, the more I realized that foundationally his thinking was twisted, and even antithetical to the gospel I thought I was memorizing. Like Peterson, his techniques were mental, and psychological (Visualize, Actualize, Realize etc). He told me to “expect the best” in order to get it. Like Peterson, he called me to self-examination, and to meditate on the essence of being, that the kingdom of heaven was within me, “It remains for us to tap and develop these powers.”
There were good things that came from Peale for me (scripture memorization and prayer) – even though he badly abused the Bible, using it as a self-help tool more than anything. Indeed, I shudder to think where I would be mentally and spiritually today if I had not read more widely and read the Bible more contextually for myself. Would I have ever recognized Peale’s shallow bible-based pop-psychological nonsense? Yet, God used it to help bring me out of myself – much as God may use Peterson to bring many people out of themselves, while he remains dangerously wrong in many ways.
Peterson’s voice in the discussion is helpful to a degree, but I think that Christian voices will ultimately end up offering many more solid answers to the problems of life. It’s no surprise that people find voices outside the church to help guide their way when they so distrust the church – not only for much of its rank hypocrisy (which will occur in every generation, and especially when the church aligns too closely to the state instead of acting as a light shining on the state and the path of nations), but also perhaps for their own experiences in church growing up, hearing a watered down gospel, or failure of parents, or their own sinfulness and rebellion against all they inherently know to be right and good (cf. Romans 1).
Ironically, the stability, the order, that many yearn for is found in the enduring scripture and community/liturgy of the church. Mostly, that rock that they need will never be found outside the church, and this is again where Peterson falls short. His own young experience with the church led him to think it had no answers for the problem of suffering. Which, as I have mentioned above, is incorrect.
The second reason Peterson might be helpful, though, is in calling the church back to a real discussion of sin and the problems of living in a fallen world. You cannot keep serving up the same fluffy drivel Sunday after Sunday and expect people to find these trite sermons a healing balm to the huge existential problems they face on a daily basis. We have to assume people are thinking, and suffering, and struggling. Which means we have to offer the bright, deep, strong truths the Bible gives us as keys that unlock some of the bigger questions of meaning and being. Otherwise a new generation will find a lesser tonic that does not cure, but does honestly acknowledge the issues.
I am hopeful that the church will continue to reform, continue to battle for truth and offer careful examination of the Scriptures, and deft exhortation and explanation of them each week. I hope that the church will offer a transcendent view of life that uses eternal hope as a springboard to community transformation and love of neighbor. That’s what people need, its what they crave, and giving them anything less leads to a search for answers that will be filled one way or another – by people who truthfully acknowledge their problems, even if they don’t have the answers to bring them ultimate joy in life and the hereafter.