Christian Championing of Jordan Peterson Exposes a Perverse Form of the Faith

The popularity of Jordan Peterson as part of a conservative backlash to this supposedly postmodern moment is surprising in its scope and in the fact that many Christians have found a champion in Peterson. This however may say more about the shape of modern Christian faith than it does about the depth of insight of Peterson. A faith that can celebrate our “Common Stories, the participation in our common rituals” and which looks to the hierarchy of culture, politics, or as Peterson puts it, the unified attention which has evolved through time through myths, stories, and the development of social order as the truth, this is not the Truth of Christ.[1] But Peterson is not confused about his stance (he does not identify as a Christian and he does not hesitate to interpret Christ and the Bible according to his definition of truth).[2] The confusion arises with Christians who imagine law, the symbolic order of culture, the structural hierarchies of state, society and church, are definitive of the gospel.

This is not simply a rhetorical point, but describes a form of the faith which interprets the gospel through law, which understands Christ through the Old Testament (e.g., dying due to the law) and which attaches primacy to language, symbols, and law, rather than to Person or personhood. For Peterson the personal and personhood is subsequent to language, symbols, and culture – this is no surprise, given his worldview. What is surprising is that Christians would relinquish the primacy of the Person of Christ and God, and assign it to the structures of the social order. While one might agree (or not) that Peterson occasionally says something true, this is very different than confusing his truth with Christian Truth. One is evolutionary, dualistic, gradually unfolding, and ever aiming (never arriving) toward the arche contained in myth, while the other is the Divine Person.

Peterson has made it clear that he is not simply offering advice, self-help, or cultural critique, but is attempting the broadest of philosophical/scientific projects in which he is tracing the rise and function of truth. Peterson and Jonathan Pageau (an Eastern Orthodox Christian) describe the ground of truth as evolving through human attention: “Our own personal attention becomes organised in a more comprehensive and universally viable, rewarding, and stabilising sense when it is related to others; when it is given or offered up to our connection with our family, friends, and fellow citizens; when it is sacrificed to the social hierarchies we participate in.”[3] This attention then gives rise to the unity and coherence of truth.

He does not hesitate to include the Bible and Christianity as supports of his view that truth evolves through human interaction, hierarchy, and organization. Moses did not receive the ten commandments from above, but inductively arrived at them from below and Christ is not the Truth but he “embodies the ideal of ‘speaking the truth.’”[4] As Marc Champagne summarizes, “In his writings and lectures, Peterson presents an ambitious re-reading of the Bible that locates this text in humanity’s evolutionary history, as it were. On his telling, the Biblical stories are a collectively authored attempt to depict the ideal person.”[5] The key point here is not that Peterson reworks the story of Moses, or questions whether the law came from God. Paul and the writer of Hebrews do as much, suggesting angels and not God delivered the law, and that it has a secondary function to Christ. The point is, Peterson gives primacy to both the inductive method, and the laws at which the method arrives. Christ’s claim to be the son of God is itself aimed at displacing divine authority with inductive generalization.[6] Every son can perform the inductive trick.

Peterson has no room for revelation (whether in Christ or otherwise) rather, “different folks observed the conduct of many moral persons, abstracted out the common denominator in their actions, and then reified the resultant abstraction in a narrative format.”[7] The logos for Peterson, is not a person but a “leading principle” distilled from many human samples over a long span of time. “The Bible has been thrown up, out of the deep, by the collective human imagination, which is itself a product of unimaginable forces operating over unfathomable spans of time.”[8] Human beliefs, for Peterson, “make the world, in a very real way – that beliefs are the world, in a more than metaphysical sense.”[9] Human belief (the archetypes, the trues extracted from religion), evolved and tested through time provide a moral and metaphysical order (Peterson’s absolute).

Peterson claims “the meanings of the most profound substrata of belief systems can be rendered explicitly comprehensible, even to the skeptical rational thinker.” He has learned “why people wage war,” which paradoxically revolves around “protecting and expanding belief” but he can tell us how to “ameliorate this tendency,” universal though it is. Unfortunately, in Peterson’s world it is life’s cruelty that produces life: “the terrible aspect of life might actually be a necessary precondition for the existence of life – and that it is possible to regard that precondition, in consequence, as comprehensible and acceptable.”[10] What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, in Peterson’s Nietzschean world. Life’s cruelty and evil is part of life’s necessity.

In terms of his field of specialty, psychology, Peterson is a Jungian, holding that the archetypes (a sort of basic truth) are uncovered in considering all religions, dreams, and myth, which also serve as the foundation of the human psyche. In psychological terms, this is a rejection of the Freudian/Lacanian understanding taken up by Slavoj Žižek, which while recognizing the primacy of language, notes that a fundamental lie must accompany the psychological structuring around language. Language, in this lie, must be reified, made substantive, and accorded a metaphysical reality. (This is precisely what Peterson sets out to do in each stage of his work.) The big lie for Žižek is that there is something substantive to the ego, while in fact the dynamic between the symbolic (the superego, law, language) the imaginary (the ego, the sense of self), creates a dynamic of death drive (the id, the real) which is a dynamic of death and nothingness. This aligns with Paul’s picture of the fallen self in Romans 7 (according to Žižek), but of course, Žižek is an atheist, who denies there could be anything more (he is a Romans 7, atheistic Christian). While Peterson may acknowledge something like God, it is the lying image of God (God as the one who holds the symbolic order together as Big Other, as Superego, as Law Giver) which Jesus, Paul, and the New Testament would rid us of. In both Christian and Žižekian terms, Peterson is a promoter of the lie, that language, society, the symbolic order, is truth per se, and this he equates with God. In terms of Genesis, Peterson is on the side of the serpent, advocating for the dialectic of the knowledge of good and evil as accessing the divine order.

He comes by this conclusion in the typical fashion of Platonists or dualists, by positing two primary forces, chaos and unity, as the dualistic poles which constitute reality. He says, “We are adrift in chaos and longing, in the absence of a firm identity, no foundation underfoot, nothing to strive toward, prone in our lacking conscious and unconscious to decomposition and strife. Something must unite our attention and our action, so that we are integrated, psychologically. Something must unite our interests and endeavours, collectively, so that we can cooperate and compete peacefully, productively, reciprocally, and sustainably.”[11] He points out the dangers on both the chaos and order side of the dualism, but suggests this is the engine of history driving toward extremes but eventual harmony: “It moves forward in time like a powerful motor, pistons cycling back and forth, driving the machine of modern identity toward ever-greater extremes.”[12]

The dialectical war between the state and individual is not one in which either can emerge triumphant over the other, as the dualism is the truth. Too much autonomy of the individual, “freeing himself from religion, family, nation. . . means the totalitarian state becomes more likely” to occupy all these “intermediary roles.” This becomes the opportunity (he uses Covid and the vaccine as an example) “to universalize the collective.” The pendulum swings between Weimar and Reich, between Revolution and Napoleonic empire, between Great Mother and Father, but as the book of Revelation describes, this war produces the heavenly City. “This may seem obscurely mythological to some, but the image of the heavenly city is in fact the ultimate representation of structured harmony, a vision of the reality that might obtain if the entirety of existence properly found its place, served what is highest, and integrated itself into a transcendent whole.” [13] The trick is to keep the Beast or Leviathan from consuming the individual through totalitarian control, and so “nation, gender, family, and religion,” pose the obstacle to totalitarianism. The dialectic must be kept alive, both by preserving the individual but by also preserving intermediate identities such as those found in heterosexual marriage and normative sexual identity. Too much relinquishing of these identities unleashes state control over identity.

Peterson references Platonism and Christianity as playing key roles in imparting this dialectic and keeping it alive. It is in fact, the secret behind the cosmos, the secret of God, carried within each individual. “This perspective is offered by the early Hermetic and the Neo-Platonic writings. It permeates the Christian mysticism running from St. Paul to Meister Eckhart. Within this tradition, the individual is understood as the active embodiment of and participant in the patterns of the cosmos itself—even of the God who created that cosmos—instead of a unity in contrast to or competition with the superordinate social order.”[14] The knowledge of good and evil, the dialectic, provides access to deity, and is itself the divine reflected in each individual. This, according to Peterson, is what St. Paul meant when he “describes the Church as the Body of Christ, he is similarly stepping into this domain of fractal conceptualisation, journeying between macrocosm and microcosm in a manner that is no mere literary trope.” It is like “the head of a city or a company, or of a body of laws, a body politic, or a corporate body we are, like St. Paul, employing this vision of a fractal identity or reality, attempting in that way to describe the very nature of our participation in reality.”[15] Paul, in Peterson’s estimate, had in mind Peterson’s sort of dualism, and the body of Christ, is just one example of how society can organize itself, and in doing so fully participate in reality.

Peterson’s God, and apparently the God of those Christians who align themselves with his metaphysics, is no bigger than the dualism of chaos and unity. Each side of the dialectic, as in the knowledge of good and evil, yin and yang, something and nothing, is required. Evil (suffering and human cruelty) is the means to the good (unity), and the good is never free of the evil. “Unity—purposeful essence— and multiplicity define each other.”[16] Chaos and multiplicity feed new information into unity, freeing it from a frozen totalitarianism. The building blocks of unity are forged in furnace of chaos. Error and fallibility are inevitable and perhaps, the desired constant of the human environment.[17] God needs the devil, just as unity needs the disrupting powers of chaos.

Real evil is to be found only in those who do not fight the good fight and take responsibility for themselves. “The best strategy for coping with the ignorance and suffering that result from our finite nature is to take personal responsibility for one’s hardships and constantly negotiate between sticking with one’s beliefs and revising them.”[18] This is the mode selected by Darwinian mechanisms and taken up in cultural dynamics. The very fact that certain forms of life have evolved and endured is testimony to their foundational role.

While a Christian might find some good advice in Peterson (get married, have a family, etc.), this is not all that is happening. Though he invokes God, Peterson’s metaphysics are at best atheistic or theism of the worst kind. If he is articulating what they see as essentially true, this may mean many Christians are functioning from an atheistic form of the faith or a deeply perverted understanding of God. A metaphysically shallow faith, attached to Christendom, social order and unified rituals and institutions, may need an unbeliever like Peterson to articulate the “conservative values” which now serve in place of the radical faith preached by Christ, but to mistake this for Christian Truth is on the order of fusing the law with Gospel or confusing Christendom with Christianity. It is a failure to grasp the foundational Truth of Christ, and to replace it with an alternative foundation.

[1] Jonathan Pageau and Jordan Peterson, “Identity: Individual and the State versus the Subsidiary Hierarchy of Heaven” (ARC Research, October 2023) 21. (Hereafter, “Identity”).

[2] Which is not to say he may not be confused about the nature of Christianity.

[3] Identity, 1.

[4] Marc Champagne, Myth, Meaning, and Antifragile Individualism: On the Ideas of Jordan Peterson (Societas Book 92) . Societas. Kindle Edition

[5] Ibid.

[6] Champagne, 1812.

[7] Ibid, 100.

[8]  Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, (Toronto: Random House, 2018) 104..

[9] Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (Routledge, 1999) 13.

[10] Maps of Meaning, Ibid.

[11] Identity, 1.

[12] Identity, 2.

[13] Identity, 3.

[14] Identity, 6-7.

[15] Identity, 7.

[16] Identity, 7.

[17] Maps of Meaning, 47.

[18] Champagne, 100.