“A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it.”—C.S. Lewis
Who Is Jordan Peterson?
A couple of months ago, Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, gave an interview to Channel 4 in the UK, which has subsequently received over 7 million views. Within the interview, he calmly yet firmly argued for the need to strengthen men for the good of society, against myths of the gender pay gap, and for upholding the value of challenging speech. Peterson’s composed performance against a hostile interviewer, who represented the progressive cultural orthodoxy on such matters, attracted admiration from many, excited considerable comment in the media, and has contributed to Peterson’s meteoric rise to the status of one of the foremost public intellectuals in the West today. On the same day as the Channel 4 interview, Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos was released; at the time of writing, it is the bestselling book on Amazon.
Peterson first rose to prominence in 2016 through his public opposition to Canada’s Bill C-16, and his resistance to the ‘compelled speech’ of required use of preferred gendered pronouns for trans persons. Peterson’s uncompromising stance on free speech and against the progressive left, occurring in the context of escalating polarization in campus politics, led many to identify him chiefly as a partisan within the developing culture wars.
People who have only encountered Peterson in the context of his forays into the culture wars are often largely oblivious to the sort of figure he is and to the source of his huge appeal. Others, with somewhat more exposure to Peterson, perhaps through some of his immensely popular videos on Youtube, regard him chiefly as a psychologist turned purveyor of life wisdom and as an advocate for young men. However, without some grasp of Peterson as a scholar and thinker, he will easily be mistakenly pigeonholed as merely another reactionary conservative, a sort of pop psychologist, or at best a wise and powerful speaker and counsellor. While much of Peterson’s significance in our context is in partially occupying the gap left by fathers, pastors, and strong male leaders in our society, it is important to appreciate some of the thinking that animates him. Peterson’s ethics and life counsel arise out of a deeply considered, albeit often highly tendentious, account of reality and truth, from close and sustained grappling with tough existential questions, and from a sense of moral weight and ethical urgency that is fired by intense and lengthy reflection upon the great horrors of the twentieth century.
Scott Alexander of the blog Slate Star Codex recently wrote of Peterson:
About once per news cycle, we get a thinkpiece about how Modern Life Lacks Meaning. These all go through the same series of tropes. The decline of Religion. The rise of Science. The limitless material abundance of modern society. The fact that in the end all these material goods do not make us happy. If written from the left, something about people trying to use consumer capitalism to fill the gap; if written from the right, something about people trying to use drugs and casual sex. The vague plea that we get something better than this.
Twelve Rules isn’t another such thinkpiece. The thinkpieces are people pointing out a gap. Twelve Rules is an attempt to fill it. This isn’t unprecedented—there are always a handful of cult leaders and ideologues making vague promises. But if you join the cult leaders you become a cultist, and if you join the ideologues you become the kind of person Eric Hoffer warned you about. Twelve Rules is something that could, in theory, work for intact human beings. It’s really impressive.
The non-point-missing description of Jordan Peterson is that he’s a prophet.
Peterson, Alexander argues, declares truths that are fairly clichéd, yet does so with a power and a gravity that makes them effective. Without some understanding of Peterson’s underlying thought, it is difficult to appreciate where this power and gravity come from.
Peterson sees himself to be responding to a crisis, to the collapse of meaning in Western society, and to the connected threats of totalitarianism and nihilism that have faced us after this collapse. Our modern scientific models of the world present the universe as if it were principally one of lifeless matter, as if both consciousness and meaning were accidents, alien to the essential character of reality. The myths that once ordered our lives as individuals and societies have been decisively rejected by the new scientific models. God is dead, the mythic underpinnings of society have largely fallen away, and man now faces the cold void of a meaningless universe that remains, empty of consciousness and life.
Peterson’s existentialism is one that exists in a distinctively post-Christian cultural moment. Whereas Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky both highlighted the inauthenticity of the established Church and its betrayal of Christ, its founder, Peterson’s primary foil is Nietzsche. When Christian dogma dies at the hand of reason, what emerges ‘is something even more dead; something that was never alive, even in the past: nihilism, as well as an equally dangerous susceptibility to new, totalizing, utopian ideas.’ The twin horrors of nihilism—a threat of engulfing chaos—and totalitarianism—a threat of extreme order arising in reaction to the threat of nihilism—have risen to meet God’s murderers.
Peterson draws upon the variegated existentialist tradition of Christians such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Søren Kierkegaard and atheists such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre and engages with twentieth century survivors of the horrors of fascism and communism—Victor Frankl, Václav Havel, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, etc. For Peterson, the crisis we face is one whose roots are found in our souls, a crisis that must be addressed within each one of us. The connection between the soul of the individual and the soul of a society plunging into nihilism or giving itself over to totalitarianism is an exceptionally close one, a conviction that Peterson has arrived at from studying the way Nazism and communism functioned in their respective societies. To respond to the crises of society and the world, we must each begin by cultivating the integrity of our own souls and putting our own houses in order.
Peterson’s thought clearly stands in the existential tradition in its characteristic focus upon the responsibility and necessary bravery of the individual in the face of thrownness and crisis. For Peterson, the fundamental reality of life is suffering:
What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with scepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief.
It is meaning that enables us to survive the crucible of suffering and emerge from it stronger.
As a clinical psychologist, Peterson opposes the dominance of technical reason in the framing of human experience. The landscape in which human beings exist is not that of the objective world, but of a world of affect, meaning, and drama. Something such as pain, for instance, has a reality in the experiential world that cannot simply be mapped onto the objective world.
Science strips the world of meaning for the achievement of its specific—and appropriate—purposes, but it is illegitimate to present this denuded world as if it were the real world in a manner that renders human experience illusory and alien to reality. For its part, psychology cannot be reduced to a narrow scientific discipline, merely dealing with objectively delineated ‘illnesses’: it is inescapably concerned with the art of living well, with ethics and with values. Philosophical and religious questions are unavoidable here.
Peterson follows the tradition of phenomenology in foregrounding the human perceptual and experiential world (my first encounter with Peterson’s work, in 2013, was this TEDx talk, in which he discusses some of these themes). As it appears within this world, reality is inherently meaningful. He cites Ludwig Binswanger (1881-1966) in his lectures: ‘What we perceive are ‘first and foremost’ not impressions of taste, tone, smell or touch, not even things or objects, but rather, meanings.’ In this realm of human perception, it is not the case that we undertake a mental process of transmuting some brute and meaningless reality that first registers in our perception into one pregnant with meaning. Rather, the reality we perceive is always already charged with meaning, indeed perceived as meaning.
This move is a significant one. It unsettles the implicit understanding of the world that is prevalent within the West, one in which science’s denuded reality is conceptually foregrounded. It resists the idea that human experience and perception are a sort of alien veneer overlaid upon a reality that is fundamentally lifeless, meaningless, and impersonal, being relegated to a realm of essentially illusory subjectivity. Phenomenology’s challenge to the subjective-objective divide is an important element of Peterson’s approach.
However, Peterson presses the point further. Following Medard Boss (1903-1990), Peterson makes a deeper claim about Being itself. Human experience is not merely a filter that frames reality as meaningful and value-laden for us, beauty being solely in the eye of the beholder. Rather, things such as beauty inhere in the objects themselves and manifest themselves to us. We can be closed off to reality, dulled to its glory. There are occasions when, perhaps for a brief window of time, our eyes are opened and we can be awestruck with wonder or transfixed by beauty or dread. Young children often display this form of innocent perceptual openness to the world. People in love can also perceive the genuine wonder of another person in ways others cannot. However, our perception typically narrows to specific ways of functional and socially-expected being and, in the process, can shield out the shining forth of Being, oblivious to glory beyond our grasp.
Peterson is committed to the primacy of the individual. Only the individual truly suffers; the group does not suffer save insofar as it is composed of individuals. It is the individual who can take responsibility, rise to consciousness, and bear the weight of Being. Where society itself is failing, courageous individuals must step forth or we will all perish. It is worth recalling here how formative reflection upon Nazism and communism have been for Peterson. Societies prioritize conformity to their order, but those who never foster a deep individuality will lack the integrity and the strength to stand against society when it is drawn towards evil.
Peterson’s is not the individualism of a selfish culture of hedonic self-actualization and indifference to the common good, an individualism that shrugs off all external claims and limits upon the self, yet is actually shallow, biddable, and deeply conformist. Rather, it is an individualism that is engaged with and committed to a natural and a moral reality that is deeper than society, and which is thereby able to withstand the pressures of society, the danger of ideological possession, and the temptations of self-gratification.
Alert, honest, courageous, and responsible individuals are the well-springs of good societies. Peterson is passionately concerned for the awakening of such an individualism at our moment in history. Persons who have lost the ability to tell the truth and act accordingly can easily become ideologically possessed and are prey for tyranny: ‘deceitful, inauthentic individual existence is the precursor to social totalitarianism.’
For opponents of Peterson who are advocates of social constructivist theories and identity politics, the self often seems to be spoken of as if it were merely an epiphenomenon of the forms of socialization acting upon it, the powers structuring and categorizing it, and as if its identity were merely the precise intersectional alignment of the groups and classes to which it belongs. The ‘postmodernism’ Peterson attacks is often hostile to the self, indeed, arguably dogmatically so. In things such as Michel Foucault’s claim that ‘man’ was doomed himself to disappear following the death of God, or Judith Butler’s account of performativity, we can see something of the cause of the fundamental antagonism that exists between Peterson and the postmodernists. The outworking of such an understanding of selves will make people more vulnerable to becoming the puppets of ideas and movements.
Peterson and Jung
In Peterson’s estimation, Carl Jung is the most towering genius of the past century, and Jung’s influence pervades Peterson’s thought. Jung, after an intense initial connection, parted ways with Sigmund Freud due to, among other reasons, his questioning of Freud’s narrow emphasis upon sexual explanations for psychological phenomena and Jung’s interest in the realm of parapsychology. Jung was fascinated with the realm of the imagination and the unconscious, of fantasies, dreams, nightmares, and visions, of myth and legend, of mysticism, the occult, and prophecy, of symbol, of spirit, of the paranormal, and of alchemy and astrology. Jung sought to reawaken people to the mysterious and terrifying subterranean world of the human psyche that slumbered beneath the rational strictures of the modern age, reconnecting us with a realm whose reality was still widely felt, although the once potent sense of its presence was generally forgotten.
While Freud focused upon individual experience in the formation of the psyche, Jung challenged the notion that this development occurred within an essentially unstructured self. From the consistent appearance of the same set of mythological themes, symbols, images, thoughts, and ideas across cultures, times, and persons, Jung inferred the existence of a ‘collective unconscious’ and its constituent ‘archetypes’. In the dark and dusty basement of the psyche are the psychic structures that we have inherited from our ancestors back in the mists of prehistory.
Rather than being blank slates written upon by experience, a collective unconscious is present in each of us as a determinate psychic structure, evoked and activated by particular realities of our world. Despite the differences we see between cultures and persons, each of which is uniquely configured, we discover a remarkable imaginative commonality between them. This commonality involves archetypes, which are predispositions to patterns of behaviour or modes of functioning, which can give rise to images, such as the Mother, Father, Death, Male and Female, Hero, etc.
It isn’t the case, for instance, that we are blank slates, who develop connections to our mothers purely through behaviourist mechanisms. Jung maintained that human beings have, among various other archetypes, a mother archetype, which is evoked and activated by the presence of our particular mothers and their similarity to the mother archetype. The underlying archetype gradually assumes a unique and determinate personalized form through the ways it is activated by and refracted through the particularity of our world and relationships. By the existence of such archetypes, our natures are prepared for and drawn to our mothers, much as our mothers are prepared for us through their possession of a child archetype. Such archetypes are akin to the sorts of instinctual animal behaviours explored by ethologists.
Religion functions at the deep level of the collective unconscious, presenting symbols that evoke and articulate these fundamental human responses, running far deeper than ideology, which may have a tenacious grip upon the conscious mind, yet has much less imaginative purchase at a more fundamental level of our psyche. In the study of religions, we can come to an understanding of the structure of human reality itself. Due to religion’s rootedness in the collective unconscious, we ought not be surprised by the frequently striking resemblances between religions, even those that have developed independently of each other.
Peterson brings a distinctive Darwinian accent to his Jungianism. The archetypes have developed as we have evolved to our natural and social environments over many millions of years. This emphasis is part of the reason for Peterson’s illustrative discussion of the lobster, for which he has been much ridiculed and somewhat misrepresented (the first chapter of his book, in which it appears, is one of the weakest). Peterson’s point is that hierarchical social structures exist among lobsters, operating according to comparable and related neurochemical processes to those that exist in our own brains. The fact that our evolutionary history diverged from that of lobsters hundreds of millions of years ago and that lobsters have existed in some form for well over a hundred million years, manifests just how archaic our legacy of evolutionary archetypes relating to social dominance are.
Peterson isn’t merely making simplistic prescriptive claims at such points—i.e. you must behave like the lobster! Rather, he is highlighting the existence of commonalities between our evolved perceptual and behavioural structures and those of other far less complex creatures. A prescriptive approach would be incredibly reductive, ignoring how immensely complex human nature and society are compared to those of lobsters. However, the denial of the existence of these deep psychological structures leaves us ill-equipped to grapple with the reality of our natures. Peterson’s point is that we must recognize the existence of such structures forged by evolution within us and do real business with them.
For Christians typically inclined to be highly critical of Darwinian accounts of reality, it is worth considering that evolutionists are increasingly a politically incorrect element of society, with their unwelcome reminder that humanity has a nature (albeit an evolving one) and that we are beings bound up in the wider natural order. This falls afoul of the popular ideological elevation of autonomous human will, power, and reason over natural limits or identities. It violates the conviction, for instance, that differences between the sexes are straightforwardly attributable to unjust social construction, or that hierarchical structures in society are entirely unnatural and oppressive. Most importantly, it offends people’s belief that humanity and society can be remade as we wish—a powerful belief in a society striving for the neutralization of gender and the achievement of ‘equality’.
Attention to nature challenges all these false beliefs; evolutionary biologists’ focus upon the etiology and purpose of traits and behaviours and comparable patterns in other species all serve to disclose the fact that our nature has a form and that this form is not arbitrary. Even if we dispute their accounts of the origins of the features in question, evolutionary biology and psychology help us to recognize the purpose of certain features of our nature, its instincts, the natural ends of various differences between the sexes, and the ordering of our natures to particular realities of our natural and human environment. For believers in autonomous reason, or in the elevation of humanity above all animality, this is both a lesson of considerable importance and a cause of offence.
Jungian archetypes are forms of evolution to the social environment that has gradually developed along with us. They orient us to male and female, to mothers and fathers, to children, to the future, to death and disaster, to self-consciousness, and a host of other such realities.
Peterson’s Darwinianism is often displayed in his discussion of human thought and action as realities deeply embedded in our physiology and evolutionary history. We are not creatures that can be abstracted from our bodies, as if they were incidental to our existence. The human being—mind and body—is a part of and evolutionarily adapted to the physical world. Despite our capacity for higher thought, there are natural continuities between our brains and those of lower species. And our ‘higher’ forms of thought and behaviour are not neatly detached from the more instinctual dimensions of our brains, but are bound up with them, constrained by them, and typically piggybacking on them.
The confluence of these different streams of Peterson’s thought occurs in the notion of myth. The world that we encounter is a world of meaning that must be approached mythopoetically, through the making of myths. It is through the narrative structuring of myth that we can make sense of the world as a realm of human agency. These myths are forms of archetypes, developed through the evolution of the collective unconscious, and variously expressed in the mythologies and religions of the world. They offer the individual a framework for meaningful action in the world.
When moderns read ancient myths, they often wonder whether the ancients really believed them. We tend to read ancient myths as if they were often laughably mistaken forms of primitive science. We presume that they were trying to accomplish what our culture achieves using scientific accounts. Peterson writes:
We have made the great mistake of assuming that the “world of spirit” described by those who preceded us was the modern “world of matter,” primitively conceptualized. This is not true—at least not in the simple manner we generally believe. The cosmos described by mythology was not the same place known to the practitioners of modern science—but that does not mean it was nor real.
We will not understand myth until we recognize that it renders the world in terms of its significance for action, for instance, as a battle between good and evil or a matter of balancing order and chaos.
The mythic imagination is concerned with the world in the manner of the phenomenologist, who seeks to discover the nature of subjective reality, instead of concerning himself with description of the objective world. Myth, and the drama that is part of myth, provide answers in image to the following question “how can the current state of experience be conceptualized in abstraction, with regards to its meaning?” [which means its (subjective, biologically predicated, socially constructed) emotional relevance or motivational significance].
Myths disclose the internal structure of meaningful human action. However, this does not mean that myths are without a public truth character or even lacking in truthful relation to objective reality. Myths are concerned with subjective reality, but this subjective reality isn’t merely private, as the collective unconscious means that the structure of subjective reality, despite variations, is consistent in its fundamentals between persons and across cultures.
Peterson also believes that, in some manner that remains mysterious to him, consciousness itself is constitutive of our universe’s reality. While the ‘subjective reality’ displayed in myth is distinct from the ‘objective reality’ of the universe, these realities aren’t divorced from each other (recall that Peterson follows Boss’s account of Being as shining forth, holding a form of phenomenology that emphasizes the fittingness of human perception to the intrinsic character of Being itself). Peterson is prepared to make the bold suggestion that consciousness, or some Logos, is constitutive of reality itself, not merely an accidental or epiphenomenal feature of a purely material order. Miracles can occur when they ‘touch’ (Peterson has speculated along these lines when speaking about the resurrection of Christ).
I am sure that almost every reader of 12 Rules for Life will have been struck by just how much of it is giving over to biblical exegesis, particularly of the opening chapters of Genesis. Peterson recently delivered a series of lengthy public lectures on the subject of the psychological significance of the biblical narratives, reaching to the story of Jacob, and has expressed his intention to continue this ambitious project in the future to address the whole of the rest of the Bible.
Peterson’s ‘doctrine’ of Scripture is roughly delineated in the following passage from 12 Rules:
The Bible is, for better or worse, the foundational document of Western civilization (of Western values, Western morality, and Western conceptions of good and evil). It’s the product of processes that remain fundamentally beyond our comprehension. The Bible is a library composed of many books, each written and edited by many people. It’s a truly emergent document—a selected, sequenced and finally coherent story written by no one and everyone over many thousands of years. 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. Its careful, respectful study can reveal things to us about what we believe and how we do and should act that can be discovered in almost no other manner.
This is a striking statement in many respects. While certainly far from an orthodox Christian doctrine of Scripture, it has several surprising points of connection with such doctrines. First, the Bible is coming from a source that exceeds its human authors. In place of the concept of divine inspiration, Peterson speaks of the Bible emerging from the deep of the collective human imagination (although Peterson would quite possibly regard the concept of divine inspiration as an appropriate and truthful mythic rendering of this fact). Second, the Bible is treated as a coherent text, albeit coherent at the level of myth. Third, the Bible is to be approached with care and responsibility as a book that reveals to us the truth about ourselves. Finally, a book such as the Bible is necessary to teach us things that we couldn’t learn in other ways.
Peterson’s Jungian and existential approach to the Bible has the unfortunate effect of frequently obscuring the historical and social dimensions of its truth, with its focus on the structure of the individual’s subjective reality. The individual focus, while an understandable expression of Peterson’s existentialism, is regrettable, as the exploration of Jungian readings within a more anthropological framework would often prove more revelatory. What may at first glance present itself as a Copernican Revolution in biblical interpretation leaves us at many points with something more akin to complicated Ptolemaic epicycles, with an aesthetically elegant, yet over-involved system that doesn’t possess quite the explanatory power it claims for itself. Many of Peterson’s interpretations of texts will seem strained to the trained biblical exegete, attempts to force uncompliant texts into an alien system.
Recovering the Mythic World of Scripture
Nevertheless, at many points Peterson is a deeply perceptive and attentive reader of Scripture, who is alert to dimensions of the text to which many more conventional interpreters are quite blind. For instance, having done extensive work on the opening three chapters of Genesis, to which Peterson gives considerable attention in 12 Rules, I was often impressed by Peterson’s attentiveness, observation, and insight. Even while I disagreed with much of his interpretation, Peterson’s readings are wrong in ways that nonetheless reveal genuine aspects of the text that often go unnoticed.
For instance, Peterson pays a lot of attention to the archetypes of chaos and order, which are, of course, prominent in Genesis 1-2. Order is, he argues, the known. It is associated with masculinity, God the Father, the social system, law, tyranny, etc. Chaos or the unknown, is associated with femininity, matter, origins, the veiled source of being, nature, birth, etc. Modern readers of Genesis seldom recognize such archetypes in the text, as our scientific mindsets make it difficult for us to perceive the cosmos as a realm lively with meaning and drama, all ordered around the perceptual and affective world we inhabit. The idea that our being created male and female might be approached as a reflection and manifestation of a deeper natural and cosmic order is difficult for us to grasp, though clearly discernible in Genesis to those who are alert to premodern patterns of thought. Indeed, much more recent interpretation has involved concerted efforts to purge the text of the gendered archetypes that remain visible to the modern mind, which are increasingly unwelcome to a gender neutralizing society.
While the specific way that Peterson frames these masculine and feminine archetypes, for instance, is not entirely the same as the male and female archetypes that emerge from Genesis itself, the opening chapters of Genesis clearly present grand gendered archetypes to any who are listening carefully. The association of the woman with the earth and nature is a strong one, and the association of the man with the task of forming and bringing order to nature and society is also strong. To the ancient mind, an association between the two great lights of the Sun and Moon created to rule the day and the night and the realm of the heavens and the creation of two great lights of Male and Female to rule the realm of the earth and sea would be a straightforward one too (cf. Genesis 37:9-10).
The phenomenological truth of reality—the anthropomorphic character of a meaningful cosmos as the realm of our habitation—is presented in the form of myth, but literalizing modern readers have lost the ability to hear it. Conservative Christians who believe in the truth of Scripture are generally no less trapped by a narrow objectifying scientific model of reality. Even in seeking to be faithful in maintaining a reading of Genesis that emphasizes historical facticity, for instance, our scientific alienation from the mythopoetic imagination leaves many conservative Christians unable to grasp much of the import of these chapters, let alone the way that something like the sacrificial system would function in the lives of its practitioners. While I may disagree with many of Peterson’s positions here, he is asking precisely the right sorts of questions.
The theological concepts that emerge from Peterson’s work are often highly idiosyncratic and unorthodox, although they also can have surprising points of resonance with orthodox Christian doctrine. Peterson’s account of Scripture, discussed above, is one such example. To understand Peterson’s ‘theology’, it is important to consider that he is generally arguing for the mythic truth of the Christian message, as it relates to subjective reality. He holds a curious admixture of agnosticism, hopeful supposition, and disbelief concerning its historical and objective facticity. At various points, mythic truths have a more explicit concrete reference in his understanding. For instance, ‘hell’ is a real place, but for Peterson it is the horrific social reality that results when men abandon their integrity and give themselves over to evil—clearly not any standard Christian conception of hell!
The concept of God, for Peterson, seems to be a personification of the force that governs fate within the universe. Symbolically speaking, ‘the future is a judgmental father.’ This personified force is someone that you can ‘bargain’ with through the offering of sacrifice, which is the ritual enactment of delayed gratification and related to the practice of work. Whatever the existence or non-existence of God—and Peterson seems to be agnostic on this point—properly performed sacrifice comports the offerer well to the universe.
Peterson consistently downplays conceptual theological belief for an account of religion as practical belief. Religion is the dramatic mythology that enables us to ‘dance’ effectively with the world. It isn’t about the lower ethical concerns of ‘right and wrong’, but about the archetypal concerns of ‘good and evil,’ about ultimate value. Peterson insists that it is impossible to be a practical atheist: ‘You’re simply not an atheist in your actions, and it is your actions that most accurately reflect your deepest beliefs—those that are implicit, embedded in your being, underneath your conscious apprehensions and articulable attitudes and surface-level self-knowledge.’
Peterson’s account of human nature often has a vaguely Augustinian flavour. A recurring theme in his work is the potential of the human heart for wrongdoing and evil and the direct connection between the individual’s lack of integrity and responsibility and the greatest horrors of history. Sin isn’t something to be taken lightly or toyed with. He explicitly speaks in terms of ‘Original Sin’, relating it to man’s capacity to inflict suffering for its own sake.
Christ, in Peterson’s conception, is the ‘archetypal perfect man.’ He is the historical figure who approaches so close to the archetype that he is identified with it. Those who are paying attention shouldn’t be surprised to see that Peterson focuses upon Christ primarily as example to imitate, rather than as the Saviour to trust: ‘Christ’s archetypal death exists as an example of how to accept finitude, betrayal and tyranny heroically—how to walk with God despite the tragedy of self-conscious knowledge…’ The heterodox account of Christ’s suffering and sacrifice that emerges from this has a strangely reverent flavour. Peterson writes of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness:
This story has a clear psychological meaning—a metaphorical meaning—in addition to whatever else material and metaphysical alike it might signify. It means that Christ is forever He who determines to take personal responsibility for the full depth of human depravity. It means that Christ is eternally He who is willing to confront and deeply consider and risk the temptations posed by the most malevolent elements of human nature. It means that Christ is always he who is willing to confront evil—consciously, fully and voluntarily—in the form that dwelt simultaneously within Him and in the world. This is nothing merely abstract (although it is abstract); nothing to be brushed over. It’s no merely intellectual matter.
Beyond sounding remarkably like the sort of statement one might encounter in the world of much modern academic theology, the particular emphasis here may in part be related to Peterson’s seeming sympathy for an alchemical critique of conventional Christianity. A one-sided Christian emphasis upon the descent of spirit and light left matter itself unredeemed and failed to incorporate what Jung referred to as the ‘Shadow’.
The meaning of Christ’s death, mythologized, yields the following summation of Christian truth:
In the Christian tradition, Christ is identified with the Logos. The Logos is the Word of God. That Word transformed chaos into order at the beginning of time. In His human form, Christ sacrificed himself voluntarily to the truth, to the good, to God. In consequence, He died and was reborn. The Word that produces order from Chaos sacrifices everything, even itself, to God. That single sentence, wise beyond comprehension, sums up Christianity. Every bit of learning is a little death. Every bit of new information challenges a previous conception, forcing it to dissolve into chaos before it can be reborn as something better.
The account of ‘salvation’ that Peterson offers is not without elements of grace. While acknowledging the pathetic and wicked natures as the sons and daughters of Adam, he speaks compassionately to people as those who can be ‘redeemed’. However, this redemption chiefly consists of confronting and addressing the evil of your own nature, starting to move towards the good, devoting your life to meaningful responsibility, and gaining victory over shame in your sinful nature as you develop a natural dignity as you follow the example of Christ and learn how to walk with God. There is no robust account of divine grace or deliverance here.
Peterson argues that Christianity addressed some of the most fundamental issues in human society, but that it started to be eclipsed when, as society grew forgetful of the significance of the problems Christianity addressed, new problems came to light for which science appeared the more promising saviour. He presents Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity sympathetically. The Church distorted the Christian message by replacing abstract belief and worship of Christ for the manifestation of the archetype Christ represents in the particularity of Christians’ lives. Whatever the theory, in practice justification by faith had the effect of relieving individual believers of their ethical duty to imitate Christ. The focus upon heaven and the hereafter devalued the significance of life in the here and now. And the downplaying of works and the present reality led to a failure to confront and transform the status quo.
Yet Peterson leans more in favour of Dostoevsky’s representation of the matter in his famous Grand Inquisitor speech from The Brothers Karamazov, which identifies the corruption and distortion of the Church, while recognizing (according to Peterson’s interpretation) that, even in this corruption, the spirit of Christ could still find some room and might even potentially reign. Indeed, Peterson recognizes, with Nietzsche, the (temporary) necessity of the limiting dogmatic structure of the Church, as a guardian providing a disciplinary structure enabling individuals to grow to the maturity of independent judgment.
Peterson attended a church with his mother as a child, but left in his teenage years (he describes the ambivalence of his feeling towards the church in this video). He argues that he did not realize at the time what he lost with his rejection of Christianity until later, when he appreciated the ways his life became disoriented when robbed of its mythic framework.
What Should Christians Make of Peterson?
By this point, I hope that it will be clear to my readers that Peterson has an extensive and highly considered ‘religious’ position. He is offering much more than mere self-help: he is presenting a broader account of reality and of humanity’s place within it. He is synthesizing several philosophical, literary, psychological, religious, and scientific thinkers into a vision of reality that is lively and existentially compelling, especially when contrasted with the prevailing scientism of our day.
Although much of his life counsel is presented apart from such an account, anyone diving deeper into Peterson’s work will very quickly encounter these elements, which come to the foreground the closer you come to the heart of Peterson’s thought. These religious elements aren’t peripheral features of Peterson’s account of reality, even though they aren’t the most immediate aspects of his thought that Peterson presents to the world.
While he is very friendly to Christians, and places considerable weight upon the Bible and certain loci of Christian doctrine, Peterson is very far from an orthodox Christian in many respects. His account of Christian truth is highly idiosyncratic, albeit frequently brilliantly so, even in its error.
However, its frequent proximity to Christian truth, in content as in form, requires extra caution on the part of those handling it, lest certain of Peterson’s remarks be misconstrued due to their deceptive resemblance to orthodox sentiments. Peterson’s passionate conviction in the mythic truth of Christianity is remarkably evident in the way that he can bring Christian concepts to bear upon the existence of his hearers with an ethos and pathos that few preachers manifest. While the actual form of Peterson’s ‘Christianity’ resembles many expressions of theological liberalism, Peterson often seems to be moving towards genuine faith, while theological liberals typically display a movement away, characterized by an attenuation of conviction. He is a very curious figure in this regard, and worthy of our attention.
Reading Peterson, despite my various disagreements with him, I believe we have much to gain from engagement with him and his thought. While his courageous integrity is worthy of our admiration and imitation and much of his counsel is both wise and powerful—especially for young men, who have been ill-served by many churches—I believe that in engaging with his less publicized deeper religious perspective we also have much to gain.
By foregrounding myth and its rendering of the world as a realm of meaning and drama and directing people towards purposeful and effective action, Peterson reminds Christians of dimensions of Christian truth of which we have often become forgetful. While we may disagree with his answers, he is asking many extremely revealing questions. That so many Christians are turning to a Jungian to find a powerful mythic structure for their lives is an indictment of Christian churches. Through a narrow modern focus upon the objective reality of history and science, we have so often failed to present a powerful account of the reality of Christian myth.
Even in those areas where Peterson most notably falls short of Christian truth, there are ways we could benefit from engagement. For instance, Christians often talk about the importance of grace, yet they seldom bring great psychological and sociological insight to their discussion of it. Interacting with someone like Peterson—who lacks a robust account of grace—affords us an opportunity to discover dimensions of a Christian doctrine of grace to which we might otherwise have been blind. In responding to him, we will become more alert to the ways in which living in grace and gratitude both exposes and answers the psychological problems and limitations manifested in lives built either around desert, entitlement, and victimhood or around responsibility, duty, and robust personal agency. It seems to me that, even on Peterson’s own terms, a message that foregrounds responsibility, agency, and restored dignity is weaker when grace is not the fundamental note.
Peterson, for his part, exposes some of the weaknesses in many Christian accounts of grace, accounts which so emphasize Christ’s work on our behalf and the sinfulness and insufficiency of our works that they fail to speak effectively to our restoration in God’s image, the importance of following Christ’s example, and the establishment of our agency in him. Peterson’s engagement with the criticism of his work as ‘Pelagian’ here really will not allay all of the concerns of orthodox Christians—nor should it!—but his insistence upon foregrounding our duty of following Christ, without denying a need for grace is important for Christians to reflect upon, as this duty is often downplayed. As developing robust and honourable agency is such an integral dimension of masculinity, it should not be surprising that many Christian men have so powerfully resonated with Peterson’s message, recognizing in it something for which they have unknowingly been hungering.
The observation by C.S. Lewis with which I began this essay—“A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who assented and did not think much about it”—is one that seems apt for describing the complicated relationship that Christians may have with someone like Peterson. Peterson is not a believer in the fact of the Christian message, but he is deeply committed to feeding on it as myth, albeit significantly distorted in places. Peterson describes ruminating on certain texts over periods of time to arrive as insights about their truth and how it relates to human experience. Few Christians are as attentive to the mythic features of the biblical text as Peterson is. Our modern focus upon objective reality has robbed us of Christian myth as the world we are called to inhabit. Here we have much to recover, and engaging with people like Peterson may help us to do this.
In recovering the importance of the mythic character of Christian truth, we must not dispense with its historicity. The fact that we do not follow ‘cunningly devised fables,’ but declare actual historical events when we speak of work of Christ is a matter of no small importance. We cannot dispense with historical facticity and expect the Christian faith to be left substantially unaffected. Our faith is one that is profoundly and inescapably invested in history. There is a real danger that Peterson’s emphasis upon the practical ends of religious truth might lead to a radical deflation of Christian thought into a myth with helps us to live more effectively, but which has little or no factual relation to actual reality at all. The question of the historicity of the resurrection, for instance, is still a live one in Peterson’s thinking. This importance of this issue is not merely of historical or personal religious significance, but goes to the very heart of Peterson’s entire account of reality: the question of whether and how, in the final analysis, human consciousness and the material order are genuinely unified. At points it seems as if Peterson has constructed an incredible and imposing edifice, yet is dallying when it comes to unveiling the foundations. Christians have good reason for concern here.
There are some Christians who, recognizing the genuine problems with Peterson and some of the thinkers that he is drawing upon, believe that Christians should keep their distance. While I appreciate the necessary note of caution, we would be missing out if we failed to engage.
Part of what underlies many of these differing reactions to Peterson are contrasting understandings of how our thought as Christians should relate to that of non-Christians. For many theologians in the Van Tillian tradition of presuppositionalist apologetics or for Christians for whom ‘worldview’ thinking is important, Peterson’s growing appeal in their circles is a cause of considerable concern. A focus upon grand coherentist systems of thought or ideologies will lead to the thoughts of someone with Darwinian, Jungian, or certain existentialist convictions being dismissed far too readily, as if the presence of key commitments in opposition to or in tension with Christianity sufficed to disqualify much of their thought. At the popular level, such an emphasis upon Christian or non-Christian systems of thought or worldviews can produce in some a dangerous tendency either to reject the thinking of someone like Peterson entirely, or to swallow it whole.
Our thinking develops largely in engagement with a created reality we share in common with non-Christians. Non-Christians can often, in being closely attentive to this reality, perceive things to which Christians are unalert. We have much to learn from non-Christians to whom God has given wisdom and insight into his world, and we should welcome the process by which the riches of the nations’ wisdom are brought into Zion. Over the centuries, Christians have learnt much from pagans, non-Christians, and even apostates, benefiting from their wisdom and insight into human nature and the creation, while carefully sifting error out from truth. Peterson stands in a tradition of such thinkers, from whom Christians have been learning for centuries.
Even despite God’s gracious revelation of saving truth in Scripture, our own understanding of the world and of ourselves remains exceedingly limited; a humble yet discerning receptivity to the insights of those outside of the Church is part of how we are supposed to grow in truth. This isn’t safe, but it is how we become strong. Reckoning with the admixture of genuine wisdom and commitments that are clearly at odds with our Christian faith that we encounter in a thinker like Peterson requires maturity. Undertaken carefully and responsibly, such engagement can be deeply rewarding. Yet, if stubbornly resisted, not only may we miss an opportunity to grow, we may also be the occasion of people rejecting the Church for powerful truths they’ve discovered locked outside its walls.
 12 Rules, 193.
 12 Rules, 197.
 Oliver O’Donovan’s remarks come to mind here: “[W]e may say that the conscience of the individual members of a community is a repository of the moral understanding which shaped it, and may serve to perpetuate it in a crisis of collapsing morale or institution. It is not as bearer of his own primitive pre-social or pre-political rights that the individual demands the respect of the community, but as the bearer of a social understanding which recalls the formative self-understanding of the community itself. The conscientious individual speaks with society’s own forgotten voice.” Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 80.
 12 Rules, 215. It should be clearer why Peterson so vehemently resists the tendency in contemporary society to speak of the individual as if a passive victim and a mere expression of group identity and dynamics. Such ways of thinking prevent the development of individual consciousness, agency, and responsibility and make people ripe for ideological possession. The ideologically possessed person has become so evacuated of self that everything that they say is predictable when you know the ideology that has possessed them.
 Peterson has an unfortunate tendency to caricature postmodernist thinkers and his account of ‘cultural Marxism’, although it may be attractive to many conservative Christians, is profoundly inaccurate and paranoid. Many of Slavoj Žižek’s criticisms of Peterson on this front are perceptive. Much of what Peterson is so strongly opposing—political correctness, identity politics, etc.—arises out of the liberal tradition itself and is more perceptively critiqued by thinkers on the radical Left, the very people he might presume to be complicit with it. Peterson, who identifies himself as a classic British liberal, has a sense of some of the systemic problems faced by liberal society—a sense that comes to the fore in such places as his recognition of ineradicable differences between the sexes. However, his fundamental liberal commitments leave him limited in what he can offer in response to them.
 Despite the rather fantastical character of his bête noire of ‘cultural Marxism’, there is genuine cause for conflict between Peterson and certain forms of postmodern thought. The postmodern disposition to the self is, Peterson believes, destroying the humanities. When the self and humanity have largely been dismissed and displaced, the humanities can be reinvented as a constant deconstruction of the power structures inherent in our cultural inheritance, rather than as disciplines devoted to making us more human through close engagement with human wisdom across times. In stark contrast to such approaches, for instance, Peterson comes to texts like the Bible believing that he can learn something profound about himself through the encounter. Such an approach is premised upon an understanding of the self and humanity that postmoderns generally lack.
 For those acquainted with and committed to evolutionary biology, Peterson’s arguments may seem quite shaky on certain key claims and vulnerable to hostile criticism (lobster brains may use the same fundamental building blocks, but they function and interact in different ways to those same building blocks in humans). However, for such persons, I am sure that close attention to the social structures of the great apes would serve to strengthen many of Peterson’s points about deep evolutionary archetypes associated with (primarily male) dominance hierarchies, while also illustrating the variation that can exist between species (bonobos are often discussed in this context, although the supposed egalitarianism of their societies is considerably overstated).
 Christians often punt the ball of anthropology into the long grass of the pre-Fall state, attributing a vast range of features of human physicality, psychology, and behaviour to the Fall, behind the veil of which an idealized anthropology can be crafted, shorn of features that we dislike. It is rare to see such anthropologies closely examined by their advocates, considering the assumptions they require and what they might have entailed in practice. While it is important to take the Fall seriously, all too often such a tactic is used to resist the offence of our natural fleshliness, with its instincts and drives, behavioural inclinations, imaginations and subconscious, sexuality, sexual dimorphism, and other such features that unsettle our notions of ourselves as individuals created chiefly to operate on a rational and spiritual plane generally unconditioned by our physicality. While we are distinguished from the rest of the animals by virtue of our reason, we are nonetheless rational animals.
 Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (London: Routledge, 1999), 8.
 Maps of Meaning, 13
 It isn’t often that one encounters source criticism in a book on psychology (12 Rules, 45)!
 12 Rules, 104
 Chaos isn’t bad per se, nor is order good per se. For Peterson, we must navigate between these two, maintaining a healthy balance, so that we aren’t overcome by chaos, nor trapped in excessive order. The association of order with the masculine arises from various associations, not least the fact that, throughout history and across cultures, men have overwhelmingly been the ones who forged the social structure and the material infrastructure of society. The association of chaos with the feminine relates to the fact that women are the source of newness, possibility, and the unknown primarily on account of gestation and birth. They are particularly associated with nature and our veiled origins and place limits upon the masculine order.
 For those who would like to explore some medieval expressions of this approach to perceiving the cosmos and the process by which the universe was reimagined by early modern scientists, I would recommend C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964) and E.A. Burtt’s The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2016).
 12 Rules, 165
 12 Rules, 166
 12 Rules, 101
 12 Rules, 102
 12 Rules, 103
 12 Rules, 54-55
 12 Rules, 78
 12 Rules, 59
 12 Rules, 180
 E.g. Maps of Meaning, 415
 12 Rules, 223
 12 Rules, 63-64
 12 Rules, 189
 Maps of Meaning, xii
 At various points, Peterson might seem to functionalize grace, treating it merely as a fix for a problem of human agency, rather than as the world-framing reality that it actually is.
 For all of their problems, the arguments of post-liberals such as George Lindbeck are important here. Lindbeck highlighted the danger of bringing extrascriptural categories to the text in order to extract ideas from it, rather than approaching the text in a way that enabled it to absorb our world.
 We also have much that we could learn from critical engagement with Darwinians. As Christians we have become resistant to the fact of our flesh and our animal nature. Likewise, Jungians also alert us to the fact of our imaginative and instinctual human nature. They can help us to understand some of the resemblances between religions across cultures and perhaps offer some insight into why Christ’s advent may have taken the form that it did, as God sent his Son in a manner that would powerfully resonate in created hearts and reveal truth about humanity. Jung’s mysticism and interest in the occult should rightly lead to considerable caution from Christians. However, given his contrast with the reductive materialism that prevails in our culture, Jung is worthy of engagement.