9 Reflections from a Pastor on Jordan Peterson

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In the summer of 2017 my cousin sent me a YouTube link from someone named Dr. Jordan Peterson, who at the time was a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. I popped my headphones in and listened to three hours of Biblical Series I: Introduction to the Idea of God. I’ll spare you the story of Jordan Peterson’s “meteoric rise” … go google it and read about him. Two things exploded him onto the public scene in the last two years: his interview with Cathy Newman, which David Brooks called “the most devastatingly one-sided media confrontation you will ever see,” and for singling out Canada’s C-16 Bill which mandated the use of gender-neutral pronouns as a protection for “gender identity and gender expression.” He has been called the most influential public intellectual in the world right now, with a bestselling book, 12 Rules For Life, that has sold 3 million copies worldwide.

I’ll admit, I followed the rabbit trail down further than I thought I would. I read 12 Rules for Life twice. I attended Jordan Peterson lecture with Dave Rubin in Kansas City, and even got a 12 Rules poster signed by Peterson, framed, and hung in my bathroom. I’ve watched hours of lectures on YouTube. How can a psychology professor and former therapist sell out theaters at $80 bucks a ticket across the globe? How come all of a sudden so many Christians are reading Jordan Peterson and talking about his ideas? What is it about his message that’s resonated with so many? While there are points at which I sharply disagree with Peterson, here’s why I think every thoughtful follower of Jesus should engage Peterson, and why I think his message has resounded so strongly in this cultural moment:

(1) Peterson offers a renewed vision for purposeful masculinity in an age that is agnostic about what it wants its men to be. Peterson’s message is hard-line, get your house in order, get your stuff together kind of message. Due to the rise of feminism, in many ways women have taken spaces in society that only men have occupied traditionally (a welcome change in many respects). Now, women actually surpass men in workplace participation. In today’s culture, men are berated and masculinity is often considered encouraging sexual predation, or an excuse for power-hungry beneficiaries of the patriarchy. We currently have a generation of young men confused about which space they ought to fill in society and where they ought to go to get meaning. Peterson’s message offers clear direction to young men to work on bettering themselves, becoming virtuous people, to leave the world a better place, and to do whatever it takes to bring order into the chaos. Today’s men are starving for such permission, and Peterson, with his decades of experience as a clinical psychologist and the deep compassion to say hard truths in a way that hits home.

(2) Peterson has adequately unmasked the malevolent nature of identity politics. In many talks, debates, and lectures, Peterson has warned of the dangers of the tendency to treat everyone as a member of a group, rather than as an individual. He has forcefully argued that one of the most dangerous things in Western culture right now is this tendency to assume that the most basic part of anyone’s identity is membership to an oppressed group. This kind of “identity politics” has created a climate where groups that perceive themselves as oppressed can wield their victimization against their perceived oppressors, silencing those who disagree with them by claiming that the only reason they disagree is because they are members of a privileged group that is trying to protect that privilege. Such posturing and framing of everything as “oppressed” vs. “oppressor” is reminiscent of the bourgeoisie/proletariat class struggles that led to the deaths of 50 million people in Soviet Russia in the 20th century. This kind of social deconstruction experiment has led to the total breakdown of reasonable discourse and constant name calling by members of the right and left. Peterson has articulately exposed the impracticality, the inherent wickedness, and the hatred of humanity that lurks underneath the identity-politics pretense of being a champion for the oppressed.

(3) Peterson’s offers moral clarity in a relativistic culture starved for it. In a recent conversation with a friend we were talking about the morality of JP. Our postmodern world has been starving for voices of moral clarity. Teachers of virtue if you will. The predominant assumption of our age regarding morality is that it is largely up to the individual to choose it for themselves. But Peterson, drawing from sources such as Dostoevsky, Solzeneitsyn, Goethe, and Neitzche, and the great literature of Western Civilization including the Old and New Testaments, Peterson offers moral clarity with an credibility that appeals to reason rather than to revelation (for example, at one point Peterson mentions that the best thing you can do for yourself if you want to stay out of poverty is to not have children out of wedlock) that goes deeper than the often seemingly arbitrary ways that Christian subculture has sought to teach virtue without the logical underpinnings of the way the world works.

(4) At the same time, he is surprisingly nihilistic. In Peterson’s world view, we are all going to die, so the best thing we can do is work hard and do our best to bring order into the chaos. There is very little hope in his prescriptions on living in the present, and such is implied in the direct encounter with the chaos of Being as Peterson would say it. In contrast, the Christian worldview invites us to live both for this life and the next, and to place our hope in the resurrection of Jesus.

(5) He tends to downplay the ‘historical’ nature of the Bible. Similar to the project of the “Quest for the Historical Jesus” guys in the early part of the 20th century (like Albert Schweitzer and Rudolph Bultmann) who sought to eliminate all the miracles and supernatural claims of Scripture to get at the nugget of truth underneath, Peterson’s reading of the Bible, while extraordinarily interesting and fresh, seeks to get at the psychological meaning behind the stories. The important thing is NOT that they happened, but that they are important stories that have been repeated throughout all civilizations across history. The story of Adam and Eve, for example, is representative of humanity’s evolution towards ‘self-consciousness’ in the eating of the forbidden fruit. Such reading of the Bible, while interesting, is impossible for Christian to continue in for too long. Recognizing that there are multiple angles of interpretation of different passages, Christianity is unique amongst world religions in that it insists on the historical veracity of its main claims - namely - the resurrection of Jesus.

(6) JP is appealing because he gives hard truth over religious fluff. As a pastor, I often catch myself saying things to people and walking away thinking to myself “how does that really affect their lives?” In many ways I lament that evangelicalism has become largely unthinking and uncritical and has opted for pat answers and cliches when it comes to the pressing questions of life. But Peterson is a reminder of a moral voice that offers hard truths that have more teeth than the often metaphysical teachings of evangelicalism.

Reading Peterson has left me with some personal reflections as a pastor and a person of faith:

(7) I’m reminded of the importance of understanding sanctification. “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” is Peterson’s first Rule for Life, illustrating his claim that in this world there are people on top and there are people on bottom. When confronted with the reality of the ‘pecking order’ of things, some people complain about it, some people bow out of the fight, but in light Jesus’ statement that “to those who have, more will be given,” as a Christian I need to seek first the Kingdom of God with all of my heart, and to get busy at living faithfully, speaking the truth in love no matter what the cost. Jesus did not just die to save us FROM our sins, but to save us FOR a life of good works. Paul says we are to “make every effort” to add to our faith goodness, knowledge, and self-control. Paul writes to Timothy that “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” Further, our God is a God of order, who spoke order into chaos in an act of creation, and we created in his image ought always be seeking to leave a better world behind us, to speak something into the nothing.

(8) I’m reminded of the importance of “watching your life and doctrine closely.” (1 Tim. 4:16) I’m noticing that when there is a popular teacher or voice in culture, it is very easy to jump on the bandwagon, and to take that person’s ideas and subconsciously and uncritically embrace them. Especially someone like Jordan Peterson who is extraordinarily articulate, well-reasoned, and logically clear. We need to be like the Bereans, who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11)

(9) I’m hoping we can have some new voices in the Church that recover a lost vision for godly masculinity. JP’s popularity is a result of a vacuum of masculinity in our culture. In the 1990s there was a renewed interest in masculinity in the church with the golden years of Promise Keepers, and John Eldredge’s Braveheart, follow-your-desires masculinity in Wild At Heart, itself fraught with all sorts of problems. The craving for moral clarity in young men today is because of fatherlessness and a lack of ‘village elders’ willing to ‘tell it like it is’ to young men who have grown up without the manhood compass that comes from the presence of a father.