A response to questions about the Christianity of Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist, cultural critic, and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He has recently gained some notoriety as a result of his stance on free speech and trans-gender pronouns in Canada. However it is his thought in general that is of greater interest and significance. His Maps of Meaning published in 1999 is an attempt to grapple with the human condition from the perspective of the psychological significance of narrative, myth, literature and religion. From a scientific or technological perspective we have become used to seeing the world as a place of things, but it is the world as a forum for action that gives place for human value and meaning, and is also the only context in which we can make sense of good and evil, order and chaos, human well being, and human sociality.

A substantial inspiration for Peterson is the work of Carl Gustav Jung who drew on the ancient archetypes present in religious and mythological material. Peterson has developed his theme in a series of lectures: The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories. The interpretation Peterson makes is explicitly metaphorical. Rather than being a presentation of Christian doctrine or Christian understanding it is exactly what is stated in the title: an exploration of the psychological meaning of the Biblical stories. There has been a great deal of appreciation of his teaching from committed Christians and some claims that it is through Peterson’s teaching that they have come to faith. However others have questioned his approach and even the nature of his own belief.

The question of his approach is easily dealt with by taking seriously his own statement of his intent as expressed in the title of his lectures. He is not purporting to be a preacher or even an apologist for the Christian religion. Much however can be learned by both Christians and non-Christians. Peterson is not saying everything that can be said or needs to be said, were that even possible. In an interview that raised the question of his own belief he commented that “meaning is not exhausted by metaphorical interpretation”. Just because a metaphorical meaning has psychological significance does not mean that is all there is to say. Peterson leaves open the possibility of a virgin birth, a physical resurrection, a life after death but he remains agnostic in the sense that he finds himself unable to articulate the meaning of these ideas. Perhaps his reticence when faced with such holy manifestations is more appropriate than the casual familiarity that assumes we understand what we are talking about. In the Biblical record it is not uncommon that the presence of the divine demands silence. Far too many Christians descend into triviality through a lack of awe for the truths they profess. Belief is so much more than giving mental assent to some set of propositions, a way of thinking that owes more to the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason than it does to Christian thinking. Belief is part of the structure for the way we interact with the world in the sense that belief is the foundation for motivation and action. To abstract belief from this lived in, action producing context is to remove from it its meaning. I see a fruitful line of thinking here that has relevance to many for whom Christianity retains meaning but struggle with the requirement to believe certain ideas that have become problematic. But that is something for another time.

A more specific criticism made of Peterson’s Bible series is his lack of reference to love and what seems to be an overemphasis on truth in the concept of the Logos. I think this is a rather shallow objection as the absence of the vocabulary of love does not negate the possibility that the entire structure actually presupposes it. The Christian understanding is that the whole story of salvation, Genesis to Revelation, is a story of the love of God for his creation. But how often does the word “love” actually occur? It is through the actions of God that it becomes possible to make sense of the nature of his love. The words of Karl Barth in Church Dogmatics II.1 may help to make this point more strongly:

if as our first step we take up the concept of love, it is not because we think that somehow we already know generally what love is as the content of an action which is genuinely good, and that on the basis of this knowledge we can equate God with this content.

….we have not begun with a definition of love, but with the resolve to let the act of God visible in His revelation speak for itself – God is in his act the One who seeks and creates fellowship with us.

In his discussion of the being of God as the one who loves, Barth understands this love in the context of God’s seeking and creating fellowship with us as humans. However it is not a love that we easily understand:

For large stretches it may be for us doubtful, dark, incomprehensible. For large stretches it will seem to us like the very opposite of this relationship. It will reveal itself as such through judgement and grace, through dying and making alive, through veiling and unveiling. It will always be the light that shines out of darkness when it is revealed to us as such.

It is the last sentence that underlines the connection between love and truth, fellowship and light. Love is not a concept we begin with and then apply to God. It is only something that can be understood through a devotion to that which is of the highest value, whether we take this in a metaphorical sense or as speaking directly of God. To be committed to that which in you wants the best in you cannot be separated from truth. In physical or psychological healing and well being it is the case that wholeness can only follow an awareness of the truth. This truth-love connection fundamentally refutes the idea that love is an unconditional positive regard. Love cannot support that which in you is working against your good. The unconditionality of God’s love, and therefore Christian love, is based on the divine “seeking and creation of fellowship without any reference to an existing aptitude or worthiness on the part of the loved”.

Christian love therefore has no excuse to absent itself from a commitment to understand the world at both an individual and societal level in the deepest way possible. The human condition is both profound and tragic, characterised by love, faith and hope, but also by unspeakable evil. The gift that Peterson offers is a deeper understanding of our common humanity. We should take that gift and allow it to wean us off the beliefs that in their over simplification result in un-truth. In the context of those of Christian faith this can be a pietism that is concerned with personal salvation and a love for the world that unwittingly adopts the simplistic solutions of the surrounding culture. Although a great deal more could be said on this I suggest there are two areas in which the contemporary church is less than adequate. One is in simply getting on with its business of preaching and living the gospel. The second lies in the spiritual-intellectual work of deepening the understanding of the contemporary world and the role Christianity has had in shaping it. Concepts such as the value of the individual, liberty, and the dignity of work have a Christian parentage. The very idea of secularism that creates a space between unchanging holy law and the practical business of finding a way of living together with others is unique to Christian cultures. We are only too aware of the rigidity and oppressiveness of current theocratic societies. Even the possibility for individuals to enter freely into contracts with one another in a market economy is the product of Christian thought. It would not be hard to argue that the notion of free speech is a product of the Christian understanding of the Word of God, both creative and incarnate. This no doubt raises many contentious issues that need a much fuller treatment but the point I want to make is that out of ignorance of its own intellectual history the contemporary church has a tendency to adopt the concepts of ideologies that have arisen as a replacement of God. The Church has had at many times in its history condemned the attempts to realise heaven on earth as heresy. How much more should it do so with the political ideologies of both right and left that have swept in to fill the vacuum left by religious faith and promise their own distinctive utopia? This is precisely where the Christian mythic vision of a new heavens and a new earth, a city of God that is yet to come, has the potential both to liberate and to enable us to live with the here and now.

Even for those of no faith, Peterson offers an understanding that has the potential to reconnect us with what it means to be human, and to make sense of our Christian heritage. One of the greatest tragedies that post-modernism has foisted on Western culture is the idea that there are no overarching stories and this has had no small part to play in the attempts to de-Christianise the West. Whilst traditional faith is for many no longer tenable it remains the case that the deeper structure of our society is predicated on Christian ideas. To ignore this and to attempt to erase it from history is suggestive of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four dystopia. It is the role of the Ministry of Truth to continuously rewrite history in order to make it consistent with the orthodoxy of the moment and hence to make permanent the dominion of the Party. Orwell’s insight was that the end of story is also the end of freedom and the end of all that gives meaning to human life. Even if it is a story that has become problematic, the Christian story is still our story.

2 Replies to “A response to questions about the Christianity of Jordan Peterson”

  1. IS PETERSON’S AGNOSTICISM REALLY HARMLESS?

    Dear Mr. Towlson: In this blog post, you wrote: “Peterson leaves open the possibility of a virgin birth, a physical resurrection, a life after death but he remains agnostic….”

    May I present to you a hypothetical for you to consider?

    Suppose Peterson announced that he is agnostic about the issue of equal rights under the law for non-white persons and for Jews. In other words, suppose Peterson made clear that he is agnostic on the question as to whether the laws of the government should forbid private citizens from refusing to rent or sell to non-white person or Jews, and also that he is agnostic on the question as to whether local governments should be allowed to prevent non-whites and Jews from voting in elections or serving in governmental positions.

    Now, in this hypothetical, Peterson is NOT saying that he is IN FAVOR of the legality of such treatment of non-whites and Jews. He’s just “agnostic.” I.e., he’s undecided. He’s open to being persuaded to believe in civil rights, but, so far, at age 55, he’s still not convinced.

    If Peterson were to make this announcement, would you continue to recommend his videos and writings? I’m guessing that your answer would be “no.” I’m guessing you’d view Peterson as a horrible, monstrous, and dangerous intellectual.

    Yet, you continue to recommend Peterson’s teachings on the Bible, God, Christ, religion, and Christian ethics, even though Peterson has made very clear that he is agnostic as regards supernatural foundations of the Bible and the Christian religion.

    Do you see any problem with that?

    The problem I see is that if a person takes the position the supernatural foundations of the Bible as are dubious, debatable, uncertain, unclear, currently lacking in sufficient evidence and credibility, and perhaps ultimately unknowable, then that destroys the authority of the Bible and the Christian religion. The Christian religion then just becomes one belief system option among many, right along with Church of Scientology, Kabbalah, Atheism, Objectivism (Ayn Rand), Islam, Wicca, New Age religion, UFO-ology, Wotan worship, Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Hinduism, etc.

    Peterson is open to the possibility that the supernatural claims of Christianity might be true. But he’s also open to the possibility that the supernatural claims of at least some other religions might also be true. He’s said many nice things about Buddhism and Taoism. And he’s also open to the possibility that all supernatural claims might be false.

    If Peterson were agnostic (undecided; not for or against) about basic human rights for non-whites and Jews, that would be sufficient for him to be immediately excluded from all Conservative talk shows, and from all Conservative circles, period. He’d become a persona non grata for virtually everyone, except some extremists.

    But, in essentially the same way, the real-life Peterson is agnostic (undecided; not for or against) as regards the supernatural claims of Christianity that are necessary prerequisites for anyone to take Christianity seriously.

    Even the Apostle Paul said this directly and explicitly in the Bible: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is worthless, and so is your faith.” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

    Peterson’s agnosticism regarding supernatural claims may seem neutral and harmless, but I see it as just as non-neutral and dangerous as agnosticism regarding rightness or wrongness of the sort of legal racial discrimination that was widespread in the U.S. prior to the 1960s, and of the sort of legal racial discrimination wreaked havoc and ungodly evil in Europe in the early 1940s.

    1 Corinthians 15:17: “And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain.”

    Peterson says that even if Christ was never raised from the dead, a Christian’s faith is still valuable and not in vain or worthless.

    Who’s correct? Peterson or the Apostle Paul? They can’t both be right, can they? Are they not making diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive truth claims about the nature of reality?

    1. Thank you Tom for having taken the time to comment. Firstly, your hypothetical is ignoring a category difference. Debates or decisions on equality regardless of race or colour are to do with morality and human law. Even if we were to disagree on this we would know what we were talking about. It is a matter that lies entirely within the human realm and does not rely on transcendental realities that are unavailable to human knowledge. So, this part of your argument is unconvincing.

      You are absolutely correct however to point out that to doubt the supernatural in Christianity is to undermine its authority. That is the whole thrust of the Enlightenment. Immanuel Kant in particular exposed the limits of human reason as lying within this world. Metaphysical realities can in the end only be taken on faith, perhaps allowing for intimations within this world pointing to the divine but definitely not any certainty of knowledge. This is a problem for the authority of the Christian faith and theologians continue to wrestle with the issue. Authority can be built on tradition, reason, and the present and historical experience of the church. But these foundations are much more tenuous since the Enlightenment and are only convincing to believers. This undermining of Christian religion in the West has certainly undermined traditional personal and social morality and the sense of who we are as a people. It’s not entirely one sided though. Some of the ideas that arise out of Christianity such as the value of the individual and love for the other (neighbour, foreigner) continue to have a positive influence on our society. This is a huge topic, but something that Christians of all persuasions ought to appreciate is the work that Peterson is doing to recover the hugely significant cultural inheritance we have from the Christian religion.

      Peterson is not an evangelical however. He does not read the Bible in the way that you do. If you would therefore prefer him to stay silent then you are entitled to that opinion but I think you are wrong. Peterson is doing more than a work of cultural recovery. He is fighting a battle against those that are working to undermine and destroy all aspects of Christian culture and traditional family structures. He also speaks to those that find themselves unconvinced by evangelical or traditional interpretations of faith. Some come to a faith, others do not. I assume you would doubt the validity of any faith that does not include a literal belief in, for example, the virgin birth, the physical resurrection of Jesus, the existence of angels, etc. If that is the case, I suggest you have fallen into a religion of works in which correct belief is a requisite, a failure to embrace that we are saved by faith.

      A final point is this: whilst you appear to believe in the supernatural claims of the Bible, you do not as a human being have any comprehension of their true nature or significance. Take the resurrection: this was not just a resuscitation that simply delayed death. It was an entirely different kind of body that could appear (and disappear) and ultimately ascend into heaven. Now what does that mean? Is heaven up? Where is up located for inhabitants of a rotating globe in space? I could go on, but obviously the language is metaphorical and it is describing realities that are entirely beyond our human experience or ability to comprehend. I could suggest that in remaining agnostic in the face of these mysteries is to give them their due reverence and before which we should be removing our shoes and prostrating ourselves as Moses did before the burning bush. By opposing Peterson’s truth claims to St Paul’s statement that unless Christ is raised our faith is in vain, you miss the point. I suggest it is a literalistic faith that is at odds with St Paul. By taking these irruptions of the divine into human space and time with blithe assumptions that we understand and therefore have correct belief you deny the very thing you purport to believe which is the presence of God in the world. If there is God, if there is a transcendent realm, if there are irruptions of the divine into our lives, then this can only be met by awe, reverence, and faith.

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