Why Jordan Peterson Matters

jordan b peterson website

We are possibly seeing the beginnings of a religious revival that would be unexpected and different from the kinds we’ve seen previously in the history of the church. I think the spark of this revival is being set off by someone who isn’t a preacher or even a professing Christian in the way we’ve defined the category. It is too early to tell but the phenomena bears watching and exploring. I think it is significant not only because of who he is attracting but also because of the new kinds of challenges and answers he’s presenting. I’ve spent the last few months trying to get my head around this and I feel that I’m just as the beginning of figuring some of these things out.

The Phenomena

Jordan Peterson has been packing out a lecture hall in Toronto this past spring and summer on a weekly basis to paying patrons of his movement at up to 25 dollars a seat. There have been pictures of lines of waiting people that would be expected for early IPhone launches or movie lines for a new Star Wars opening. Everyone in the line also knows the video will be quickly available on YouTube for free not long after the presentation yet they want a chance to be a part of the event. Some are traveling around the world to be at these events. Something is happening.

Jordan Peterson’s YouTube channel now has well over 400,000 subscribers. I expect this number to grow far larger. I don’t think he’s anywhere close to peaking yet. The releases of his Bible lectures gains tens of thousands of views within minutes of the release and they are continuing to climb. I compared this to the video numbers of other celebrity pastors and most of them don’t even come close to these numbers for their weekly sermons. While you might get similar and larger numbers of other viral videos or pop star music releases bear in mind that these videos are of a psychologist offering his amateur ramblings on the Bible that go for over 2 hours. Something is happening.

Peterson’s audience by his own reckoning is 90% male and mostly young. His enthusiastic disciples come from across the religious spectrum, many of them being professed atheists. Many of the young men who comment, discuss or reach out to him with questions are strugglng terribly in “putting their lives together”. Many are part of the cohort of young men today who are failing to launch into adulthood getting lost in drinking, drugs, porn, video games and just general dissipation. This is a group of men that the church has been failing to reach generally except by is more crunchy segments led either by some of its most hard-core leaders such as hard core Calvinists, ex-gang-member or ex-con preachers, or signs and wonders Pentecostals.

Peterson is reaching this crowd with his combination of rather esoteric psychological theory and pragmatic admonitions. A number of themes and catchphrases have emerged like “clean up your room” or “sort yourself out”. He’s got a rather charming Canadian accent and a punchy, shoot-from-the-hip manner that many, including myself, find amusing and engaging. He rambles but I, and obviously many others find his ramblings are fun to listen to.

His Viral Moment

Even though Peterson’s recent rise has been meteoric, and I think is actually only beginning to be seen, what he’s bringing to the table is not new to him. He’s been trying to make his point for years now but hadn’t gathered much of an audience. What propelled him into gathering media attention was his opposition to an Ontario bill legislating use of third party pronouns for those wishes to modify them in the gender identity wars. Peterson believes this to be a dangerous threat to the Western tradition of free speech and so appeared made a video in protest of it. The more you know about Peterson the easier it is to see that for him this is not a small thing and this is something he will battle with everything his rather frail constitution can muster. He isn’t someone looking for instant fame or to make a ton of money, this is someone with a host of well throught through positions who is existentially determined to not see the West sink into the chaos and barbarity seen in the 20th century whether on the right as seen in Fascism or the left as seen in Communism.

You can find hosts of videos on YouTube of Peterson “destroying” “social justice warriors” or “political correctness” but if you dismiss him as someone on the “far right” or a cheap neo-nazi you have him all wrong. He is a zealot for classical, modern liberalism with well developed ideas about how that liberalism is founded upon the traditions of European Christianity and Western Civilization. What he essentially does is then dives deeper to show how they themselves are rooted in evolutionary psychology via the work of Jung and Piaget. Civilization stretching back into ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt has developed as it has and gotten so many things right and he’s afraid at what the loss of this tradition will mean for the future of the world.

Now for many on the left this makes him sound like a regular right-wing conservative which is how he is commonly interpreted by if they would take a higher-resolution look at him they’ll see he’s not anti-gay, or anti-women and be believes in human induced climate change. He’s not a right wing idealogue as much as a classic Western liberal who has a prophetic zealotry for honesty and action. Confusing him with the “far right” will be the most common mistake those on the left will make.

Son of the Cold War

While he’s passionate about his denunciation of the radical left his motivation for this is his passsionate anti-marxism. He begins both his Maps of Meaning and Psychological Significance of the Bible series with an autobiographical section where he talks about growing up in Canada during the Cold War and trying to figure out why the world nearly blew itself up over ideas. What was with that? Why did both sides feel the stakes were so high in terms of their ideals that they would jeapardize the world in such a way?

This, along with the sorting himself out has made him who he is today. He’s quite transparent in terms of his own story much of which he shares on his Question and Answer videos for his Patreon supporters. He’s not only an academic but a clinician who clearly cares for the well-being of people and he brings that kind of concern to his handling of questions from supporter. He’s not a primadona. In many ways his a preacher/prophet and a pastor because you get the sense he cares for his students and he cares for his flock.

What he sees in the ascending left today is for him a re-emergence of Marxism which for him is a disaster. He believes this is a catastrophic case of cultural amnesia given the horrendous failure of Communism. We have already forgot the lessons of the 20th century and are well on our way to repeating them.

How His Work Has Helped Me Sort Some Things Out

I, like many, first noticed Peterson in the pronoun flap. I was impressed that here was a guy who wasn’t afraid to take a stand but he did it in a rather Christlike way. There are videos of him being ruthlessly attacked by university crowds where he doesn’t lose himself. That got my attention.

The next thing that got my attention was the fact that this guy was rambling about the Bible for two hours to sell-out-crowds and millions of YouTube views and since I’m in the “business” of teaching about the Bible I wanted to see what was going on so I started listening to the lectures.

Those of you who know me know I’m a voracious auditory learner. I’m dyslexic so reading has never been my strongest medium but I can listen and comprehend material while doing all sorts of other things. I quickly caught up on the Biblical series and made my way through his Maps of Meaning class and the Personality and Transformations class.

I’ve been struggling to articulate how and why I think his work is helpful and important. I’ll try to sketch out a bit of it here but it goes far deeper than I can lay out in a few hundred words.

Cosmology and the Contemporary Crisis of Unbelief

Since my seminary days in the 80s I’ve always been fascinated with the Bible and science debate. I think I’ve long approached the debate not so much a winner take all battle but more as friction between two cultures. This could be because I was very much raised a bi-cultural person (African American Paterson culture and CRC Dutch Immigrant culture).

I think this fit fairly well in the CRC’s own struggles with this issue which has always tried to straddle, often unsuccessfully, the approach of Biblical literalism as well as taking science seriously. This is often articulated in the Belgic Confession’s “two books” language. We recognize the Bible as special revelation but also science as general revelation. Neither book can be dismissed yet how do we deal with the contradictions.

Mainlineish interpretations of Genesis and science have often used the language of “metaphor” or employed rather simplistic ideas of “the Bible teaches us truths about humanity” but as the critics from the more literalistic camps protested this more of less leaves those teachings rather unteathered. Origin stories in the Bible yield ideas about “how we are”.

To the right literalists have serious problems of their own. A high resolution history of the progressive setting aside of the Bible as a guide for origins as well as the deeper philosophical assumptions of what origins meant (see Walton’s material vs. function) left a deep and bitter divide in church and society. The low resolution results of that divide was a pervasive dismissal of the Bible as offering an authoratitive perspective on “the real world” we inhabit today. In an age both heady and drunk on the wine of technological success the Bible was joyously dismissed and rejected as having anything to offer.

CS Lewis I think articulates this well in chapter 10 of his book Miracles. I’m going to drop this extended quote in here because Lewis illustrates it so well, it having been his own story.

The difficulties of the unbeliever do not begin with questions about this or that particular miracle; they begin much further back. When a man who has had only the ordinary modern education looks into any authoritative statement of Christian doctrine, he finds himself face to face with what seems to him a wholly ‘savage’ or ‘primitive’ picture of the universe. He finds that God is supposed to have had a ‘Son’, just as if God were a mythological deity like Jupiter or Odin. He finds that this ‘Son’ is supposed to have ‘come down from Heaven’, just as if God had a palace in the sky from which He had sent down His ‘Son’ like a parachutist. He finds that this ‘Son’ then ‘descended into Hell’—into some land of the dead under the surface of a (presumably) flat earth—and thence ‘ascended’ again, as if by a balloon, into his Father’s sky-palace, where He finally sat down in a decorated chair placed a little to His Father’s right. Everything seems to presuppose a conception of reality which the increase of our knowledge has been steadily refuting for the last two thousand years and which no honest man in his senses could return to today.

It is this impression which explains the contempt, and even disgust, felt by many people for the writings of modern Christians. When once a man is convinced that Christianity in general implies a local ‘Heaven’, a flat earth, and a God who can have children, he naturally listens with impatience to our solutions of particular difficulties and our defences against particular objections. The more ingenious we are in such solutions and defences the more perverse we seem to him. ‘Of course,’ he says, ‘once the doctrines are there, clever people can invent clever arguments to defend them, just as, when once a historian has made a blunder he can go on inventing more and more elaborate theories to make it appear that it was not a blunder. But the real point is that none of these elaborate theories would have been thought of if he had read his documents correctly in the first instance. In the same way, is it not clear that Christian theology would never have come into existence at all if the writers of the New Testament had had the slightest knowledge of what the real universe is actually like?’ Thus, at any rate, I used to think myself. The very man who taught me to think—a hard, satirical atheist (ex-Presbyterian) who doted on the Golden Bough and filled his house with the products of the Rationalist Press Association—thought in the same way; and he was a man as honest as the daylight, to whom I here willingly acknowledge an immense debt. His attitude to Christianity was for me the starting point of adult thinking; you may say it is bred in my bones. And yet, since those days, I have come to regard that attitude as a total misunderstanding.

Remembering, as I do, from within, the attitude of the impatient sceptic, I realise very well how he is fore-armed against anything I may say for the rest of this chapter. ‘I know exactly what this man is going to do,’ he murmurs. ‘He is going to start explaining all these mythological statements away. It is the invariable practice of these Christians. On any matter whereon science has not yet spoken and on which they cannot be checked, they will tell you some preposterous fairytale. And then, the moment science makes a new advance and shows (as it invariably does) their statement to be untrue, they suddenly turn round and explain that they didn’t mean what they said, that they were using a poetic metaphor or constructing an allegory, and that all they really intended was some harmless moral platitude. We are sick of this theological thimble-rigging’. Now I have a great deal of sympathy with that sickness and I freely admit that ‘modernist’ Christianity has constantly played just the game of which the impatient sceptic accuses it. But I also think there is a kind of explaining which is not explaining away. In one sense I am going to do just what the sceptic thinks I am going to do: that is, I am going to distinguish what I regard as the ‘core’ or ‘real meaning’ of the doctrines from that in their expression which I regard as inessential and possibly even capable of being changed without damage. But then, what will drop away from the ‘real meaning’ under my treatment will precisely not be the miraculous. It is the core itself, the core scraped as clean of inessentials as we can scrape it, which remains for me entirely miraculous, supernatural—nay, if you will, ‘primitive’ and even ‘magical’.

In order to explain this I must now touch on a subject which has an importance quite apart from our present purpose and of which everyone who wishes to think clearly should make himself master as soon as he possibly can. And he ought to begin by reading Mr Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction and Mr Edwyn Bevan’s Symbolism and Belief. But for the present argument it will be enough to leave the deeper problems on one side and proceed in a ‘popular’ and unambitious manner.

When I think about London I usually see a mental picture of Euston Station. But when I think (as I do) that London has several million inhabitants, I do not mean that there are several million images of people contained in my image of Euston Station. Nor do I mean that several millions of real people live in the real Euston Station. In fact though I have the image while I am thinking about London, what I think or say is not about that image, and would be manifest nonsense if it were. It makes sense because it is not about my own mental pictures but about the real London, outside my imagination, of which no one can have an adequate mental picture at all. Or again, when we say that the Sun is ninety-odd million miles away, we understand perfectly clearly what we mean by this number; we can divide and multiply it by other numbers and we can work out how long it would take to travel that distance at any given speed. But this clear thinking is accompanied by imagining which is ludicrously false to what we know that the reality must be.

To think, then, is one thing, and to imagine is another. What we think or say can be, and usually is, quite different from what we imagine or picture; and what we mean may be true when the mental images that accompany it are entirely false. It is, indeed, doubtful whether anyone except an extreme visualist who is also a trained artist ever has mental images which are particularly like the things he is thinking about.

In these examples the mental image is not only unlike the reality but is known to be unlike it, at least after a moment’s reflection. I know that London is not merely Euston Station. Let us now go on to a slightly different predicament. I once heard a lady tell her young daughter that you would die if you ate too many tablets of aspirin. ‘But why?’ asked the child, ‘it isn’t poisonous’. ‘How do you know it isn’t poisonous?’ said the mother. ‘Because’, said the child, ‘when you crush an aspirin tablet you don’t find horrid red things inside it’. Clearly, when this child thought of poison she had a mental picture of Horrid Red Things, just as I have a picture of Euston when I think of London. The difference is that whereas I know my image to be very unlike the real London, the child thought that poison was really red. To that extent she was mistaken. But this does not mean that everything she thought or said about poison was necessarily nonsensical. She knew perfectly well that a poison was something which killed you or made you ill if you swallowed it; and she knew, to some extent, which of the substances in her mother’s house were poisonous. If a visitor to that house had been warned by the child, ‘Don’t drink that. Mother says it is poison’, he would have been ill advised to neglect the warning on the ground that ‘This child has a primitive idea of poison as Horrid Red Things, which my adult scientific knowledge has long since refuted.’

Lewis, C. S. (2001). Miracles: A Preliminary Study (pp. 108–113). New York: HarperOne.

I think Lewis gets it mostly right but this is an area that I’ve found Peterson very helpful for me with, especially when he deals with archetypes and story. I’d like to get into that far more deeply at some point but that’s not the focus of this piece.

The Collapse of Authority on Cosmology Landslides its Authority in Other Areas

I remember David Gushee’s lecture on same sex marriage at City Church SF and I noted how the basis of his change on this subject in terms of Biblical authority was essentially “if we can re-read the Bible on cosmology because of science why can’t we re-read it on sexuality in the same way?”

To me this illustrates the dynamic of the collapse. The Bible came untethered from our world as Charles Taylor noted and with the Bible also its God.

One way to put the question that I want to answer here is this: why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?

Part of the answer, no doubt, is that in those days everyone believed, and so the alternatives seemed outlandish. But this just pushes the question further back. We need to understand how things changed. How did the alternatives become thinkable?

One important part of the picture is that so many features of their world told in favour of belief, made the presence of God seemingly undeniable. I will mention three, which will play a part in the story I want to tell.

(1) The natural world they lived in, which had its place in the cosmos they imagined, testified to divine purpose and action; and not just in the obvious way which we can still understand and (at least many of us) appreciate today, that its order and design bespeaks creation; but also because the great events in this natural order, storms, droughts, floods, plagues, as well as years of exceptional fertility and flourishing, were seen as acts of God, as the now dead metaphor of our legal language still bears witness.

(2) God was also implicated in the very existence of society (but not described as such-this is a modern term-rather as polls, kingdom, church, or whatever). A kingdom could only be conceived as grounded in something higher than mere human man action in secular time. And beyond that, the life of the various associations which made up society, parishes, boroughs, guilds, and so on, were interwoven with ritual and worship, as I mentioned in the previous chapter. One could not but encounter counter God everywhere.

(3) People lived in an “enchanted” world. This is perhaps not the best expression; it seems to evoke light and fairies. But I am invoking here its negation, Weber’s expression “disenchantment” as a description of our modern condition. This term has achieved such wide currency in our discussion of these matters, that I’m going to use its antonym to describe a crucial feature of the pre-modern condition. The enchanted chanted world in this sense is the world of spirits, demons, and moral forces which our ancestors lived in.

People who live in this kind of world don’t necessarily believe in God, certainly not in the God of Abraham, as the existence of countless “pagan” societies shows. But in the outlook of European peasants in 1500, beyond all the inevitable ambivalences, the Christian God was the ultimate guarantee that good would triumph or at least hold the plentiful forces of darkness at bay.

Charles Taylor. A Secular Age (pp. 24-26). Kindle Edition.

The world has changed and in many ways the church has never recovered.

Christian Apologists as Resistance Movement

Christianity has responded to the onslaught of this collapse mostly with resistance movements. Young Earth creationists and flat-earthers double down on Biblical authority and inerrancy. More moderate apologists like Alvin Plantinga grant a variety of things to the scientific basis for evolution but question other assumptions within the theory that threaten key Biblical and Christian positions.

Most of these efforts are located sociologically from communities struggling to hold pre-modern and pre-scientific perspectives. Traditional doctrines of inspiration are maintained within the church and so the church attempts to slow and deny the destruction of those doctrines from the outside. The strategy is a defensive one and in many cases it depends upon the church’s ability to raise its young, hold its own institutions and resist the changes that began to grip the West from the time in the period of Charles Taylor’s interest.

Jordan Peterson’s Post-Secularity

Jordan Peterson’s assault on the collapse of Biblical authority comes from an entirely different direction. Alvin Plantinga’s defense of traditional faith is in a sense post-Christendom. The walls have been taken down by information technology and secular politics and the barbarians are marauding within the lines. Jordan Peterson’s work is essentially neo-Christendom. He’s arguing that what were seen as enemies, Darwin, Nietzsche, and psychologists like Jung and Piaget were actually allies of his new type of pragmatic ancient/modern fideism which “acts as if it were true” undoing the disconnect between the material world and the world of “God”.

Peterson is essentially undoing the breach that Taylor noted has been happening steadily between 1500 and today. He finds the fingerprints of “God” all over the place in the dominance heirarchy present in lobsters making it “older than the trees”.

This is why Peterson is connecting with some people who should be sociologically anti-Darwinians (Evangelical students arose to ask a Question in the last or second to last of the weekly Biblical series lectures) while also with atheistic followers who fully embrace the contemporary science of human evolution. Peterson is using evolutionary biology and psychology to prove the “God” of the west in a deeper way than I’ve seen in other efforts like Biologos who try to hold the tension between the church and the scientific community.

You might ask “well wasn’t the mainline supposed to do this” but Peterson is essentially post-mainline in that he, unlike the mainline, hasn’t simply followed the progressivist script which in Peterson’s estimation is corrupted by neo-Marxism. My guess is that in Peterson’s sight the mainline patronizes the Bible, as sort of a senile grandfather who might now and then spin out an old chestnut of wisdom or who in the past produced some nice poetry but who’s relevance has long past when it comes to the important matters of today like liberating the racial and gender groups.

Peterson finds the Bible far more alive and prophetic, as uncharted deeply authoratitive territory in his new Christendom. Conservative Christians hear this passion and it connects with their own memory of a world before the great divorce Taylor notes. This I think is why they are drawn to this man who loves Darwin and Jung and why they’ll give him a hearing.

More to Come, I Hope

I’ve got way more to say about Peterson but it will take time for me to more fully digest his work and figure out why I’ve been drawn to it. I think a great companion to his work is CS Lewis’ Miracles which works on the same problems but from a few generations earlier. Lewis and Tolkien basically embraced the same program of re-enchantment that Peterson is promoting. Lewis does so as a professing Christian. Peterson’s concept of “faith” and “God” has to be seen within the light of where he is located on the timeline, this is why he’s having trouble explaining exactly how he regards fideism to an audience that is demanding to place him in the modernist/fundamentalist framework from the 19th and 20th century schism.

This is what I’ve got time to spin out today. Please let me know if this helps. I’m trying to figure out how to do some videos on this because YouTube as a medium is integral in this movement, as as Neil Postman noted medium matters.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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9 Responses to Why Jordan Peterson Matters

  1. mavismoon says:

    This is fascinating, Paul. Looking forward to learning more.

  2. Len Vander Zee says:

    Paul, it seems to me that Petesen’s approach to the BIble is primarily typological, archetypical, and mythological. By that I do not mean it is just a bunch of stories, but that it conveys deep truths througn these stories. I think the mistake of Evamgelicals and some liberals is that they have staked their claim (pro or con) on the historical truth conveyed. Herefore reading the Exodus story, for example, they think of how to defend or debunk the story on an historical basis. Petersen seems unconcerned about story may or may not be historical, or may contain historical elements. But he believes its real power and meaning lies on the mythological, trancendant, and archetypical levels. I think that is the way to go in our culture.
    I agree with you that this phenomenon is important to watch and learn from.
    Len

  3. Nate Van Denend says:

    Thanks for the summary thus far, Paul. I look forward to reading the rest of what you have to say. As one who remains intrigued by the intersection between theology and science, I think you are right to say that this is what makes Peterson compelling. We want to say that the heavens declare the glory of God and if you look long enough, you will see that glory. I remain skeptical of those who are too quick to defend the Bible against science for this reason. If the glory is to be found in the heavens and in all that has been made, you can’t be “Biblical” by saying “don’t look.” On the other hand, the scientist who dismisses theology ends up making rather amateur philosophical mistakes (Hawking for example) and can’t account for why any of the science works in the first place. Peterson takes a different approach, a kind of ‘if the Bible/theology and science are taking about the same world, they both must be true.” And then asking the penetrating question “How are they both true?” And he discovers a method that is common to both: Keep throwing off what you know to be false and keep pressing on to what you believe to be true. In theology this is death and resurrection. In science, this is just good science.

  4. Mark H says:

    Is Pederson simply echoing the work of Joseph Campbell?(https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Campbell)

    While I’m not sure what he means when he says he’s trying to “resurrect the dormant ‘logos’ in men/males,” I am sure that his critique of neo-Marxism is as abhorrent to certain parts of the academy as it’s been for a while. His treatment of archetypes has been much more marketable by Oprah’s friends (Chopra, Dyer, even Bell these days), but his testing of the socio-biological “shibboleths” is fun to watch as it plays out. It’s all intramural until grant money gets redirected! Also, college students have been getting ‘triggered’ long before 2001…

  5. John Suk says:

    As someone from Toronto who is getting ready to launch a new post-Christendom worshipping community, I guess I’m going to have to go listen to this guy!

  6. Marco Boet says:

    Paul, I stumbled across your blog while searching for connections between Jordan Peterson and Charles Taylor. I, too, am strangely and profoundly drawn to both these thinkers. I am trying to unpack what impact their message to both the church and the broader western society will be. As a Canadian and a person of Dutch/ Indonesian descent I resound with many of your blogs. truly enjoying them. By the way, its interesting that both Peterson and Taylor are Canadians as well. Perhaps you are at heart one of us.

    • PaulVK says:

      Thanks Marco for your comment! I grew up in NJ and when I went to Calvin College I always felt a strange affinity for Canadians. I don’t know why. 🙂

      • Marco Boet says:

        I grew up in Sarnia Ontario and attended a CRC christian elementary school. Many of my friends ended up at Calvin College a short drive away in Michigan.

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