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.