Over the last few weeks and months, many thousands of people have visited my blog to read my various reflections on Jordan Peterson. Any long term follower of this blog shouldn’t be at all surprised that Peterson and the phenomena surrounding him are deeply fascinating to me.
Peterson and the phenomena surrounding him intersect with several of my personal areas of interest and research. I am, first and foremost, a Christian theologian, who gives close attention to the reading of scriptural narratives and to their significance for understanding our world. A scholar such as Peterson, who reads the scriptural stories from an unconventional and unorthodox, yet frequently illuminating angle, is a worthwhile person with whom to interact. While, perhaps more often than not, I find myself disagreeing with Peterson’s readings, he pursues far more revealing and fruitful lines of exploration that open up dimensions of the texts of which Christians have generally been neglectful.
In particular, much of my work over the last few years—the subject of my PhD research and also of my recently released book—has been concerned with biblical typology, with the ways in which biblical stories manifest deeper and meaningful patterns, patterns which give order to our lives in the present. Peterson’s interest in the psychological significance of Bible stories is addressing a similar issue from a different angle. He too recognizes that the meaning of the biblical narratives is deeper than their surfaces and that their patterns are worthy of close attention. Yet he attends to them in quite different ways from those in which I would usually do. This difference makes for stimulating interaction.
Peterson’s work raises many fundamentally religious questions. As I have argued, Peterson is seeking to articulate a post-nihilist and post-materialist view of reality that recovers existential meaning. We will fall short of appreciating his ability to speak with such power and passion into the contemporary situation if we do not grasp this. For Christians, we share a belief in a reality that sustains deep meaning. Yet we have often become lazy in interacting with atheists who lacked a strong belief in the meaningfulness of reality, so have failed to sharpen our account of this and to press it home well in our message. This is one area where I believe that we can fruitfully engage with Peterson.
As a Christian who seeks to engage receptively with the wider culture, it is also exciting to see such a culturally resonant figure seeking to engage receptively with Christianity. I believe that advancing an attentive and charitable dialogue could benefit us all greatly. While there are many reasons orthodox Christians could give, and have given, for dismissing Peterson without close interaction, I would prefer to pursue the promise of open conversation, seeing what we could all learn through it. Maintaining healthy conversation is also valuable given Peterson’s considerable appeal both within and without the Church. Where such conversation is abandoned, important bridges will be abandoned, a loss on both sides.
I am also someone who, for the last few years, has been working on a substantial project exploring a Christian understanding of the sexes. Peterson’s peculiar—yet by no means exclusive—appeal to a male audience, even though his message did not initially target them and he teaches within a field where students are overwhelmingly female, is a phenomenon worthy of close attention. This is all the more important for Christian churches, who have generally failed to make much progress with the young male demographic for whom Peterson holds remarkable appeal. Contemporary masculinity is a vexed and problematic thing in a society within which virility has come to be seen as a threat and where it is increasingly difficult for men to work out what a healthy yet non-emasculated form of manliness entails. While many may not like some or many of his answers, Peterson is addressing the question and getting real traction in ways that feminist visions of new manhood really have not. For those who are concerned to understand, rather than merely to pathologize what they find threatening to their ideology, it is important to ask ourselves why.
A further issue in which I have long had an active interest is in the forces shaping contemporary discourse, particularly on new media, and in the ways that material factors either exacerbate or give rise to our cultural and political antagonisms and impasses. I have written and spoken on this subject very extensively. Peterson is someone who is using new media in some creative and pioneering ways, overcoming some of the problems entailed by the restrictive frameworks of old institutions and media, while potentially giving rise to new issues. This is worthy of attention, as is the way in which the environment of social media is shaping and driving the reception of and engagement with his thought.
Peterson has proved to be a highly polarizing figure. In both the reactions against him and the reactions for him, fundamental dynamics of contemporary discourse and society are exposed (I commented upon some of these in my most recent post). If we pay close attention, I believe that we could learn a great deal. For instance, we are seeing something of the gendered dynamic of the bad boys versus mean girls antagonism in current society (especially on social media) coming to the foreground (see my remarks here). We increasingly lack a true ‘public square’ as a society, but have a no man’s land in which various parties are competing for dominance, fighting not merely over which ideology or party should be dominant, but also over which mode of discourse should prevail. Peterson is one person in rebellion against the politics of deference that has grown up around women, LGBT persons, and racial minorities, seeking to restore a public square where ideas can be vigorously contested among intellectual combatants. His opposition to ideology and his close attention to non-abstract engagement with persons and reality is also noteworthy.
Finally, Peterson is a remarkably charismatic and compelling communicator, someone who moves others powerfully with his words, especially when accompanied with his striking pathos. He has a rare gift with the spoken word, but also in personal conversation and in the observation of patterns of human behaviour. These are all skills that are integral to the effective performance of the duties of Christian pastoral work. He demonstrates, for those who might have doubted, that lengthy spoken messages that have logos, pathos, and ethos remain a dynamic and powerful form of communication, with the capacity to transform lives. In a supposedly distracted age of instant gratification, nearly two million people are still prepared to listen to or watch a talk of well over two hours in length on the subject of the idea of God. Scott Alexander’s description of Peterson as a ‘prophet’—a point that relates primarily to Peterson’s capacity to communicate with a peculiar transformative power—is insightful, and is one of the reasons why Christian teachers should be paying attention.
Recognizing the importance of these things, I have written several pieces on the subject of Peterson and his appeal. My earlier pieces on Peterson principally focused on his vision for masculinity and his appeal to men. I wrote this piece about Peterson’s interview with Cathy Newman and his claim that strengthening men would be to the benefit of women too. This is a position that is very important to me, as so much of the discourse on gender issues in all quarters has pitted men and women against each other, treating men and women chiefly as competitors or opponents, rather than as loving collaborators. Our differences, I am convinced, should not be seen primarily as differences from each other, but as differences for each other. Both men and women need the space and means to thrive—something that requires recognizing our differing strengths and giving us both the space to play to them—and both sexes can benefit from the thriving and strengthening of the other sex.
I have explored, in this post and the one that followed it, how Peterson speaks effectively to young men’s shame and struggles, while the Church so often fails. The connection between gender, spirituality, and piety is an important one. As some of our deepest human instincts for meaning are profoundly coloured by gender, it should not surprise us that spiritualities often appeal to male and female followers in different ways and to differing degrees. Differences between male and female senses of meaning and spirituality are pronounced, perhaps somewhat ironically, in many modern forms of spirituality and belief that are supposed gender neutral. The New Atheist movement appealed predominantly to a particular type of young male for a reason. Likewise, Oprah appeals to a largely female audience in large part due to gender differences in our senses of meaning (see Ross Douthat’s recent opinion piece on this).
While speaking of the ‘feminization’ of the Church can invite unhelpful controversy, the differing levels of engagement between men and women in the message and practice of the Church is a striking feature of most Christian contexts. Thought about how Christian faith can faithfully engage men once again, without resorting to gimmicks, shallow spectacle, or masculine identity cults is much needed. Peterson’s ability to attract young men to potentially life-transforming truths that, while having particular resonance for men, aren’t about a male identity cult is worthy of our attention. I’ve reflected upon Peterson’s appeal to young evangelical men here. I’ve also written about some of the things that pastors could learn from Peterson more generally here.
While most encounter Peterson primarily as a voice in various social or political debates, as a writer of self-help literature, or as a powerful motivational speaker, recognizing the academic roots of his thinking and practice is valuable, especially for Christians. Such understanding can enable us to interact with his work more fruitfully, more clearly to recognize what can be taken on board, and where we need to be watchful. In my most extensive treatment of Peterson to date, I provide a lengthy sketch of his thinking. I also recently recorded a video of a conversation with Brad Littlejohn of the Davenant Institute, in which we discuss what Christians should make of Peterson and his work.
If Peterson is not to your liking or doesn’t resonate with you, that’s quite OK. We don’t all have to resonate with every person and every message. Many truths will have a peculiar salience for specific audiences, while leaving other audiences cold. I would merely advise that you do not dismiss Peterson and effect he is having on that account. If Peterson and some of his more fanatical or defensive followers are personally irritating to you, then try to ensure that any criticisms that you have arise from non-reactive and attentive reflection, rather than personal animus against people to whom you struggle to relate well. Limit your exposure to the often cult-like Peterson bandwagon, by all means—I assure you, I don’t find it hard to understand your frustration with it! Focus on the saner advocates of his viewpoints. We will all be better off foregrounding the saner voices on every side and resisting our urge to get outraged about the extremists (the same applies to Jordan Peterson fans: there is a great deal that you could learn from people that are carelessly dismissed as ‘cultural Marxists’ and ‘postmodernists’, if you were prepared to look beyond the shriller and crazier voices and to listen carefully and charitably).
If you are going to engage critically with Peterson, please keep your eyes open for the good fruit of Peterson’s work, while criticizing him and the movement around him where they genuinely need to be criticized. Peterson and his followers badly need friendly, non-reactive, and attentive critics, people who aren’t merely hostile or carelessly dismissive of them, preaching to their own choirs, but who are seeking to represent their positions accurately, to support that which is good in Peterson’s project, to expose that which is weak, and to address those areas which are misguided.
We all need people who are committed to the work of persuasion, people with an unfeigned concern for the well-being of the people attracted to Peterson’s work (in no small measure because of his unfeigned concern for them). Strawmanning and carelessly rejecting the work of someone who has made a profound difference in many people’s lives, while it may play well with your own party, is only going to lead to knee-jerk reactions against you by those who aren’t. It is easy to play the partisanship game, but if we are truly to make our society a better place, we need to start trying to win people, not merely win ideological battles against grossly caricatured opponents.
Peterson’s advice to set our own house in order first before we try to change the world is valuable and it applies to all of us in this area. We all need to learn how to think and engage calmly and non-reactively. We all need to seek out sane and reasonable people who disagree with us and to forge charitable, generous, receptive, and attentive conversations with them. If you don’t believe that such people exist, you aren’t looking very hard: there are plenty of them out there. We need to stop playing zero sum games. We all need to learn how to care much more about our neighbours who disagree with us and to consider how we could pursue a good that we could hold in common with them. While we may not care for certain of their viewpoints, it is imperative that we care for them.