Jordan B Peterson was catapulted to fame by his defiance of the political correctness of his academic institution. His place as a cultural icon was cemented with the release of his best-selling book Twelve Rules for Life. Peterson sat down with atheist psychologist Susan Blackmore on a remarkable episode of The Big Conversation to debate whether or not we need God to explain life.
“I would definitely describe myself as a religious man, yes. I think that’s fundamentally true. The devil’s in the detail; what does that mean exactly?…
“What do you mean by believe? What do you mean by God and what makes you think that the question that I’m answering is the same one that you’re asking?”
Bristling at Belief
Although Peterson feels that the concept of a higher power is necessary for a meaningful life, he gets a bit evasive when pressed to definitively declare that he believes in God. Justin Brierley, host of The Big Conversation from Unbelievable?, pressed him on this very issue and while Peterson initially bristled at the question, he eventually drilled down to what is at stake when one professes belief in God.
The reason for Peterson’s reticence is not because he thinks the question is silly, but rather because he recognizes that it is so profound. I want to explore his response in detail because he offers insights about belief that need to be taken seriously by both believers and non-believers.
Pied Piper or Prophet
Peterson has circled around the edges of Christianity for a while, which has caused both panic and praise. Some fear his ideas have poked such a big hole in the Christian bubble that it leaks holy water, while others are grateful for the opening he has created for the spiritually thirsty.
Is Peterson a prophet or a heretic? A ‘gateway drug’ or a poison pill? Is he one crying in the wilderness calling the pagan to know the one true God or is he a pied piper encouraging Christians to sing praise songs around the altar of the unknown God?
I believe the reason for these diametrically opposed opinions about Peterson is that he has left the dimensions of the rent he has introduced into the fabric of the Christian universe too vague. We want him to be black and white, but he seems content exploring the gray.
We want Peterson to give us answers, but he says before that can happen we need to take the questions more seriously. He challenges our complacency by forcing us to not only define what it means to believe but to better understand the object of that belief.
Confession or Conduct
Peterson dislikes the question because he is uncomfortable with the way ‘belief’ is conventionally understood. He feels that if we reduce belief to mere intellectual assent to a proposition then it is empty because “the fundamental hallmark of belief is how you act, not what you say about what you think”.
He offers a more detailed response to his belief in God in a portion of a lecture posted on YouTube. Here, Peterson humorously reveals that his initial gut reaction to the question is: “It’s none of your damn business,” because it is such a personal issue, but then explores the issue in more depth by taking us on an amazing biblical journey.
Wrestling with God
Peterson finds the story of Jacob wrestling with God pivotal, because he believes that what characterizes a truly holy people is their willingness to wrestle with God. In his books and lectures, Peterson frequently refers to life as a struggle to tame chaos or resist malevolence.
Belief for Peterson is not about acknowledging Eden’s owner, but rather about the work we put into actualizing the garden potential of the wilderness. He admits that it isn’t easy to create order from disorder, but makes the point that it is the price we pay for trying to fix a fallen world. It is only when we wrestle with God that we earn a new title of respect and never walk the same way again.
When asked by host Justin Brierley “do we need God to make sense of life?”, Susan Blackmore simply answered “absolutely not”. Peterson’s answer was a little different:
“God is what you use to make sense of your life, by definition. This is one of the things I learned from Jung: the highest value, you have a hierarchy of values. You have to otherwise you can’t act or you’re painfully confused. You have a hierarchy of values. Whatever is at the top of that hierarchy of values, serves the function of God for you.
“Now, it may be a God that you don’t believe in or a God that you can’t name, but it doesn’t matter. Because it’s God for you. And what you think about God has very little impact on how God is acting within you.”
Peterson uses marriage as an example of how struggle makes us better. He suggests that we need a husband or wife that challenges us because that is the only way we will grow. Our mates need to contend and not conciliate in order to unleash our potential.
Peterson says that our spouses should “be more on the side of who (we) could be than on the side of who (we) are”. It is the same with the God who calls us his bride and yet wrestles with us, not to show us our weakness, but to reveal strengths we never knew we had.
The Extreme Sport of Salvation
Accepting struggle as a part of life doesn’t mean that we stoically surrender to the fates, rather it motivates us to embrace the adventure. Peterson’s understanding of belief as action forces us to look at our faith and ask if we are being challenged or pacified.
Does our belief make us toss and turn through the dark night of the soul or give us a good night’s sleep? We need to remember that becoming a Christian isn’t about the comfort of saying the ‘sinner’s prayer’, but the adrenaline rush of engaging in the extreme sport of working out our salvation with fear and trembling.
We’re not Worthy
Peterson added a very interesting caveat to his desire to live as though God exists. He humbly acknowledged his personal limitations by saying that he does it “to the best of [his] ability”. Peterson has immense respect for what it means to properly live out belief and while he may be a Christian outsider, he certainly takes the Bible at its word.
Peterson convicts us because he makes it clear that following God isn’t a hobby but a vocation. Maybe we never recognize our shortcomings until we are pushed to the limit. Perhaps if we expressed a bit more humility in the face of the Almighty, the world might take us Christians more seriously. Peterson convicts us all by asking if we have really made the effort. G.K. Chesterton summarized the situation well: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Fear of the Lord
In the lecture I previously referenced, Peterson also admitted that part of the reason he takes belief so seriously is because he is “afraid that he might exist”. In a culture that has emptied Christianity of its significance, Peterson still feels its weight. It’s a bit embarrassing when an outsider seems to fear the Lord more than we do.
Peterson has defined belief as action that flirts with a works-based salvation. He still seems to hold out hope that we can earn our ‘belief’ without a savior. He admires Jesus but doesn’t want him to carry his sins to the cross.
I think Peterson is afraid that if we don’t test the waters then we will never understand what it means to seriously believe in God. He seems willing to make personal sacrifices, but unwilling to accept God’s sacrifice. Peterson rightly fears the psychological power of ‘God’, but fails to recognize that his real power is found in weakness. He wants to pull himself up by his bootstraps, but forgets that before Jesus was crucified he took the time to wash our feet.
Belief in the Trenches
Peterson’s emphasis on lived out belief resonates with young men. Males traditionally are doers and not feelers, so when he tells them to get behind the plow and not look back in their religious walk they feel like he is speaking their language.
Peterson has become a respected voice because he has walked the talk. His willingness to turn over tables in the temple of academia has given him street cred among young people who have experienced the indoctrination of higher education first-hand.
Outside Looking In
Peterson is a powerful presence because he is an outsider looking in and cannot be accused of having a religious axe to grind. It is difficult to accuse a psychologist of being brain-washed. He is embraced by believers because they love to see the atheist contingent speechless when a secular academician offers even a quasi-Christian witness.
In addition, Peterson also offers a psychological perspective on Bible stories that theologians aren’t trained to render. While it is important to understand the Greek and Hebrew in the original texts, sometimes we just want someone who speaks our own language. Very few of us will have an in-depth understanding of the Ancient Near East yet we all can relate to the emotional struggles of the characters in the Bible that Peterson brings to light. During The Big Conversation debate, he said:
“I’ve been trying a psychological approach to the biblical stories. I’m not a theologian, even though I’m very interested in these stories. I do believe that biblical texts are foundational.”
Exegete or Eisegete
Is Peterson’s use of scripture appropriate exegesis or dangerous eisegesis? Does he listen for God’s voice coming from scripture or does he introduce psychobabble? I think it is a fair question. Theologians help us understand the Bible in its cultural context because they have extensive knowledge of history and ancient languages, but that often reduces our engagement with scripture to passively accepting their assessments.
The average Christian has a tough time wrapping their heads around the trinity, atonement and kenosis, yet are intimately familiar with the psychological toll of feeling timid, sorrowful and poor in spirit. Jesus came to those who had emotional issues, not the mentally healthy therefore psychological exegesis seems appropriate.
While not proper theologians, both Jordan Peterson and his dark web colleague Douglas Murray, have brought religious sensibilities to the secular world. Murray has been labeled a Christian atheist because of his focus on the power of the New Testament, but I think Peterson should be awarded the title of God-Fearing agnostic because of his interest in Old Testament Jewish thought, while remaining on the fence about the existence of a God.
I think most people are tired of commuting across the sacred-secular divide and want the spiritual aspect of life incorporated into the physical. Peterson’s ideas are appealing because he wants to unite heaven and earth and make the world a better place by encouraging us to take our belief out of the gated communities of emotional suburbia into the inner city of our day-to-day lives. He wants us to realize that if the spiritual rubber doesn’t meet the physical road then our faith goes nowhere.
Turn the Page
Peterson has had health issues as of late, but we await with anticipation the fresh insights he will offer us as he reflects on his own struggles. Peterson, while being a cultural icon, is at heart a healer. A man concerned with the mental health of not only his patients but the entire human race.
Peterson is not afraid to break the bad news about our cultural disease. He has diagnosed the problem, told us it will be difficult to cure and offered a Biblical solution. Peterson has appropriately opened the Bible for guidance, but just hasn’t turned enough pages. Jesus told us we would suffer for his name and Peterson got out the calculator and counted the cost for us, but Jesus will remain a poster boy for a better life until he accepts the fact that we cannot atone for our imperfections under our own power. Peterson has made it clear that we will take our lumps, but we pray that someday he will recognize the One by whose stripes we have been healed.