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.

Beyond the Postmodern Search for Meaning

In the search for meaning throwing off the chains of oppression, relieving suffering, exposing indecency, or what might be summed up as naming the idolatrous powers (political, social, cultural, religious), is the singular goal in postmodern cultural theory. People are oppressed by racism, sexism, ageism, class, or simply life’s circumstance. Failed families, mental and physical disabilities, or ill health, plague us all. Life is filled with suffering. Some suffer more than others, and this inequity and injustice is itself a source of suffering. Naming the power structures, throwing off the chains of oppression, relieving suffering – isn’t this what makes for a meaningful life or at least a meaningful enough life?

The last film we saw at the True/False film festival last week, The Commons, and events following the film, illustrate the problem.  The film (by Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky) documents student protests over a two-year period against the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The protests occasionally consisted of reasoned argument and well thought out speeches but there were also a lot of scenes of people shouting at each other. The students had prepared for the occasion by showing up with bull horns which enabled them to outshout their opponents. At one-point students attached ropes and pulled the statue down, with the eventual outcome that the Chancellor of the University was fired and the monument consigned to oblivion.  Usually at True/False at the end of a film the director or main characters hold a Q & A with the audience. This time the sort of protest we had just been watching spilled over into the auditorium.

The festival organizers had accommodated NCU student wishes and one of their own, Courtney Staton, appeared on stage to read a statement and to have a dialogue with the film makers. At the same time, a group of students went to the front of the auditorium with two of them holding up a banner reading, “Decolonize Documentary.”  Throughout the ensuing dialogue student demonstrators, in a coordinated effort, would begin chanting or shouting. Stanton presented a reasoned and sympathetic objection to the film – that seemed to unravel the more she engaged the filmmakers. They explained they had sought permission from student leaders, sought to include their individual perspective, and turned over all their film for the students to review. They had even shifted the perspective of the film to accommodate the fact that the students were preparing their own documentary with personal interviews. What Stanton and the students seemed to be saying, as Hawley brought out in a question, was that there was only one possible politically correct film and it would not be a film by white people. As I have heard it phrased more crudely and in a different context, white people need to shut-up.

The protestors “succeeded” in the film and in person after the film. The cry against white privilege and black marginalization was heard and contains a truth that needs to be heard but clearly the students wanted to shout down and cancel out other viewpoints – even those, as with the film itself, which was sympathetic to their cause. There may be a time and place when white people, men, the wealthy, the young, racists, need to be made to listen and their power and privilege exposed as an injustice. Protest, revolution, exposing injustice, bringing down the idols, or toppling monuments celebrating oppression, may be necessary. Just as yelling F.U. in someone’s ear with a megaphone (a scene in the film) can be very effective, so too protest, deconstruction, revolution, tearing down idols, may be called for – but as with the commons at NCU – the space is now empty, the protest silent, the message received. The object of wrath, at least this monument in this place is gone, and so either the protest latches onto a new object (the documentary) or the momentum and meaning will dissipate.

The Corinthian elite have made a similar discovery: the idol is nothing and they have been freed from their own version of Silent Sam. The way in which this half-truth is summed up by Paul (who seems to be quoting the Corinthians) is that the idol amounts to nothing and thus, all things are lawful (I Co 10:23 – potentially even eating meat sacrificed to idols). Especially if you were an idolater, this is indeed quite significant. If your life has been filled with fear, which in my experience in Japan characterizes idolatrous religion, to say the idol is nothing is to suspend this fear and oppression. Uchimura Kanzo (perhaps the most renowned Japanese Christian) describes how just walking to school as a child, having to walk past all the idols, filled him with fear. Each god, each idol, each shrine required something. One has to pray just right, show respect in the right way, pay homage correctly or the gods will get you. They will cause your house to burn down, they will bring sickness and disease and the gods always get you – all we can do is momentarily assuage their anger. You can never serve them enough, do enough, so that life under the gods is a form of slavery.

It is not simply the idolatrous circumstance but life under the law (which Paul seems to be equating with idolatry) that is oppressive. This is the law of sin and death, the law of suffering, the law of oppression, the law from which springs every sort of injustice and evil. Law, as Paul is using the term here, is not simply Jewish law as these people are Gentiles. They are under the weight of the universal law that constrains and oppresses all of us.

Step one in Paul’s gospel is the realization that we are free and what we are free from, whether Jew or Gentile, is the constraint and oppression that this world puts upon us (which may involve a different sort of suffering). All things are lawful – nothing constrains us – the idol is nothing. We need to recognize the law, or our orientation to the law, in all of its various modes (the principalities and powers) will cause suffering and then we need to expose the fact that the idol can be undone. Silent Sam can be made to topple, the Emperor can be exposed as naked, and power can be deconstructed.

Many things need deconstructing as we need to relieve the idolatrous oppression by which we may be surrounded. Black people oppressed by whites, women oppressed by men, those with special needs oppressed by the general population, the poor oppressed by the rich. We can enter into many of these battles and declare – the idol is nothing, the law does not define us, race and gender and class are not definitive of humanity. As the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, cries out as the crowd presses around ready to do him harm – “I am a man.” Finding meaning in relieving suffering, in helping others, in finding dignity ourselves, in throwing off the law and idolatrous oppression, offers a vortex of meaning – but is it enough?

Certainly, meaning in life begins in not letting the law, the oppression, the suffering, define oneself and others. This is the discovery or rediscovery of the psychologist Jordan Peterson: we are all oppressed and the only meaningful thing is to pull yourself together.  Do not let your circumstance define you. Reach out and make your life meaningful and relieve suffering, is Peterson’s message.

Paul brings us up short here though, as the Corinthians are verging on the demonic. To say as they are, “we are free from the law,” needs to be qualified with the fact that the law of love now applies. “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (I Co 10:23-24).

The demonic moment of the Corinthian church is one that faces us all. The Christian truth that Marxism, socialism, deconstruction, and postmodernism have discovered is that meaning is largely a social construct. Marx noted that it was the wealthy elites who controlled the levers of power and posited law and morals. His resolution was that the proletariat (the working class) arise and take control. The outcome in the 20th century was the slaughter of hundreds of millions of people (about one hundred and ten million people, foreign and domestic, were killed by Communist democide – inclusive of all forms of murder). The constraint of the law was lifted, the idolatry of culture was exposed, but this unleashed the demonic (a more oppressive form of law). I believe we are witnessing the continued realization of the power of suspension of the law. Race, gender, even humanness is a construct that is put upon us and one means of attempting to demonstrate the plasticity and constructed nature of identity is to reshape it. We can redefine ourselves endlessly but like LGBTQ . . .  which requires an ellipsis or question mark, this is an open ended and infinite striving.

Throwing off oppression (whether of race, gender, or class identity) may simply lead to endless revolution as it did with the unprecedented human sacrifice of the 20th century. Marxism, socialism, and deconstruction may all harbor a Christian capacity for naming the idols (for undoing the constraints of gender, ethnicity, and social class). Each, in its own way, recognizes we can throw off the law. We can behead the Emperor, annihilate the Czar, obliterate the opposition, or as in psychoanalysis (Žižek and Lacan), which is simply borrowing and following Paul, we can suspend the law. Certainly, there are any number of groups that are weak like the Corinthian weak. The lesson of the age and the lesson of Corinthians, however, is not to empower the weak (the proletariat or their representatives in Mao, Stalin, Lenin, or Pol Pot) to be the new authoritarians. Paul’s neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, is not a call for endless social, sexual, and ethnic reordering but a suspension of this order with its oppressive law like structure. According to Paul, we do not throw off the law so as to engage the flesh but we suspend the mode of fleshly identity. This frees us up for love: “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (I Co 10:24).

Paul warns the Corinthians that knowledge, in and of itself, is not meaningful (it simply “puffs up” with empty air, according to Paul). It is not enough to say that the idol is nothing and we are free from the law so we can now dine on the flesh of idols. We can make one of two mistakes: (1.) The fundamentalist or conservative error is to imagine that it is enough to prove that the world, due to the existence of God, through creation, through Christ, has the resources for an epistemological meaning and leave it at this. Apologetics as evangelism, Christianity as belief in doctrine, theology in which ethics is an addendum (or absent), verges on the same sort of demonic possibility in that gnosis or knowledge is made primary. (2.) On the other hand, meaning apart from this epistemological resource is negation, opposition, and protest – requiring continual revolution, continual social rearrangement, continual striving for a properly gendered identity. The first is a resource for a life of meaning without the reality and the second is an attempt at meaning without the resource.

The chief meaning or the chief end of man, according to the Westminster Confession with direct reference to I Co 10:31, is to glorify God: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (I Co 10:31). Glory is an ambiguous term (Humpty Dumpty says it means whatever he wants it to mean) but in Paul’s explanation glory fills out meaning. Giving glory to God is to be found in the loving servanthood of Christ (Paul says that, like Christ, he has become the servant of all) as here meaning is lived out such that every act (eating or not eating meat) can be meaningful. Actually loving, actually caring for the weak does not involve taking the position of the strong but means becoming weak (Paul impoverishes himself by refusing money, he works at a trade, he takes a low social status, he is willing to become a vegetarian). Paul explains, “I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved” (I Co 10:33). Salvation, in this context, is not referring to conversion but to departure from the crushing oppression of the culture to which the weak are susceptible and from which the Corinthian cultural elites are providing no relief. Paul does not presume to displace these elites by shouting them down but he sums up his argument with, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (I Co 11:1).

It is not enough to name the idols, expose the power structures, tear down the high places, or suspend the law. In place of the oppression of the law the freedom of the law of love is necessary for the full realization and in order to sustain a meaningful life. True, we must fully recognize our freedom from the law as this law is always one which would oppress, cast out, demonize, scapegoat, and choose death for some that others might live. To simply expose this law, realize its weakness, recognize that nothing is there, that it is a human construct, maybe this is what it takes to then exercise the love of the messiah. Christ exposes the principalities and powers but he does not, however, leave us in a vacuum. Paul and Jesus call us to follow them or to imitate their lives and this is where meaning kicks in.