There’s a lot to love about Dr. Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto who made headlines for refusing to use transgendered pronouns. His YouTube critiques of anti-West postmodernism, anti-patriarchy feminism, and anti-human environmentalism have made him a right-wing hero, especially among young males. Peterson has just released a book, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” that offers serious life advice primarily to his largely millennial audience their parents and culture have failed to pass down.
Online, he’s in the middle of a lecture series on the Bible entitled, “The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories.” His 2.5-hour-long lectures begin with creation, and he plans to get through the entire scriptures. The lectures are stimulating and engage the western tradition in a way that reminds listeners what a university education could be in the hands of a thinker instead of an ideologue.
How Carl Jung Cuts The Post-Darwinian Knot
Peterson’s lectures are intellectual catnip for me because they flesh out the pivotal point in my book on Gnosticism’s rising influence in America. Basically, I argue that after Charles Darwin undercut God’s final hold on the western mind, and Friedrich Nietzsche announced his death, the West stared into a horrifying abyss. How can we even discuss meaning and morality once God has vacated the premises? Short of pure nihilism, Gnosticism provides the only answer.
Gnosticism is atheist theology, a way to do religion when the evidence of the sensate world compels a loss of faith. At a more psychological level, it’s what happens when one’s dawning consciousness of a malevolent world order gets projected psychically as alienation from a malevolent God. Don’t tell me, for instance, a bunch of godless leftists screaming at the sky because of President Trump isn’t a religious event.
My book builds off this point, arguing current movements in politics, religion, and culture hash out this post-Darwinian, post-Nietzschean reality through Gnostic religious constructs. My section on culture hinges on the thinking of depth psychologist Carl Jung, who absorbed historic Gnostic teachings and drew much of his psychology from it. Jung is Peterson’s most-referenced thinker.
According to Jung, any individuated ego consciousness is born alienated from its higher self, which is part of a collective unconscious. The collective unconscious appears in one’s ego consciousness through universal archetypes found in dreams, myths, folklore, art, and literature. It can also be unlocked through psychedelic drugs, an idea from Aldous Huxley that Jung was aware (and wary) of. By facing these archetypes, the ego begins reintegrating with its higher self and finds healing.
Jung lays the foundation for religious yearning in a post-Darwinian context. He infuses meaning back into religious and mythological tales that scientific hyper-materialism had drained. Jung was ahead of his time, attaining heroic status in 1960s counterculture and, if Peterson has his way, again today.
Peterson Takes Over from Jung
Peterson’s lectures build on Jung. He acknowledges human evolution and confronts the Darwinian conundrum: the impulse toward nihilism it necessitates. If we’re just a random assemblage of atoms who hit life’s lottery and attained self-consciousness, what could possibly guide us on a moral level, and what possible meaning to life could there ever be?
Peterson gives a brilliant answer, speaking of “God” and the inspiration of scripture like a televangelist on fire for the Lord. His key is Jung’s psychology peppered with a good dose of neurological data. If “God” emerged in human consciousness over millions of years, and if the scriptures are the result of geniuses—prophets and poets—tapping into archetypical truths of the human psyche, we’d better take such things seriously.
In other words, God and the archetypal truths of scripture are part of the survival gear of the human species, writ into the very neurological apparatus of our beings. Monkeys don’t wrestle with meaning and morality. But we do, because we gained consciousness some time in the relatively recent past. Peterson connects this foundational moment in human evolution with the creation story and the eating of the forbidden fruit, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
From that premise Peterson gives a psychological spin to the biblical hero’s journey, the critical role of sacrifice, the confrontation with chaos, the psychic reality of judgment and hell, and my favorite, the role of the Logos. His psychological explanation of the Trinity is sublime. When he amps up his rhetoric on moral behavior, it’s tough not to feel like you’re at a tent revival.
This is all healthy fodder for millennial males whose only contact with the hero’s journey is through a joystick, whose masculine vitality has been sapped by an overly feminized, risk-adverse culture, and whose religiosity is at an all-time low. It also fills a moral void created by years of jejune education and indulgent parenting.
Is Peterson A Gateway Drug into Christianity?
Some have called Peterson’s lectures a gateway drug into orthodox Christian faith. I can see why. In Christian terms, he’s a theologian of God’s alien work—the best we can know about God through a fallen and cursed world order. He sees signposts of the divine throughout the realm of human endeavor, and he’s not afraid to bend the knee in humble awe to what he discovers.
This, combined with his rhetorical approach and that his Canadian accent affects just enough of the exotic to tantalize Americans who assume profundity in such things, is exactly the stuff of a YouTube sensation. If that makes Christianity cool again, or helps skeptical Christians feel good and intellectual about the faith, that can’t be a bad thing. I guess.
More likely, however, Peterson is fostering our cultural Gnosticism. Consider his understanding of God, what he calls his first hypothesis: God is the abstraction of a human ideal formalized over millions of years of human development in the myths and teachings of any religion. Does an actual transcendent deity exist? Peterson leaves this “floating up in the air” (his words, in lecture one), something unfit for rational investigation.
The idea of an unknowable, trans-cosmic God eluding any rational or scientific investigation is a classic Gnostic construct, but you can see why it’s the only way to understand God in today’s intellectual climate. Yet, as Saint John repeatedly emphasized in his writings, an unknowable God undermines the central tenet of the Christian faith. Instead of Christ “up in the air,” God has tented on earth and entered our history, becoming quite knowable at a rational level.
Of course, rationality understood as Peterson does cannot entertain any possible case for the tenets of the Christian creed, even though the creation, the incarnation, and the church most certainly are rationally defensible. What is the first cause? How do you explain 500 people witnessing a resurrected Christ? How do you explain the beneficial societal effects of the Christian faith wherever it goes?
Peterson comes awfully close to reckoning with these realities, but because of his a priori understanding of rationalism and psychological emphasis, he prepares the soul more for Gnostic spirituality than Christian orthodoxy, leaving the true power of Christianity—faith—just beyond his comprehension.
Peterson also runs a risk with his psychological case for the transcendent. So long as there is no real, rationally grasped, objective transcendency independent of human involvement—the very thing Christ provides—any rational grounds for the transcendent must be tautological. The Jungian formulation articulates this: the archetypes of myth are transcendent because transcendency is defined as what an archetype is.
This classic petitio principii is constitutive to Gnostic epistemology as well as most attempts at morality in our day. The knower just knows the truth. How do you know it’s the truth? Because the knower just knows it is. He’s special that way. He’s woke. He’s the one Cretan you can trust when he says “All Cretans are liars.”
From Gnosticism to Paganism
The psychological angle also explains the pagan inclinations of Peterson’s thought. Paganism is ultimately a religion of psychic projection. Archetypes developed over eons translate into psychic energies—what the ancients called daemonic—which by force of human projection animate the various gods and goddesses of myth.
Idolaters didn’t really believe stone was divine. Idols were totems objectifying aspects of the self they divinized, the whole process being a way of placing the mysterious ways of the self in a mythical, and therefore cosmically meaningful, context. It’s what we do all the time with our modern media archetypes and icons. It’s what a good marketer does with ads. It’s all part of the systematic theology of the self.
On these terms, Peterson’s theology of scripture is a paganization of the biblical narrative, a transforming of biblical characters and themes into psychic projections of our collective unconsciousness. Peterson’s easy willingness to cross-reference his conclusions with archetypes from other world religions and pagan mythologies support this conclusion. The archetypes are real; the religions are mere passing forms.
But Peterson does focus on archetypes in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and for a reason. One of this goals is to reconstitute the Bible story into a fresh myth he hopes can re-found the West. Herein is his attraction for conservatives. In feminist terms, by giving life to flaccid patriarchal archetypes, he tantalizes the alienated heirs of the patriarchal tradition.
One senses this project is too late. Living in the comfort of a founding myth with its organizing principles is the luxury of a culture in ascendency. Such a culture doesn’t know its myth is a myth. It thinks everything is the way the cosmos intended, and how could it be otherwise? (Think Manifest Destiny.) Cultures at this point enjoy confident adventure and growth—see Greece, Rome, the Medieval West, and America until the 1960s.
Cultures in decline have passed a point of no return, when its people wake up to the knowledge that the myths founding their societies are indeed just stories. They lack confidence, disoriented and confused at the slightest challenge, their founding principles in tatters. Clearly we are at this latter age. It’s tough to just fake it until we make it.
That is, unless something different is underfoot. At the beginning of one lecture, Peterson read a letter from an avid follower who under the spell of psychedelic drugs received the message that Peterson was a prophet appointed to reestablish the patriarchal spirit in Western society. His highly educated audience erupted in applause when he finished reading it.
Aside from the incongruity of this occurring within an ostensibly rationalistic setting, one wonders whether Peterson’s end goal will be reestablishing the West’s founding myth or founding a new one, where Gaia’s tribe ever contends with Marduk’s in some eternal Ying Yang, masculine/feminine polarity. That would certainly be more conducive to our tribal age, but it should not be confused with the power Christianity had as foundational for Western civilization.
It Still Must Come Down to Faith
The fact is, Christianity’s power to shape Western civilization wasn’t because of any myth, but because of faith. The distinction makes all the difference in the world and is the West’s true secret sauce. Different psychological apparatuses are required to live the ultimate lie of a myth versus operating within the confines of faith.
To use an analogy Peterson uses, a myth is like a log raft on the ocean. So long as the logs stay together, you’re protected from the deep chaos lying beneath. The moment they begin to fall apart, you’re in trouble. You face the abyss and its power to choke you of life.
Psychologically, you have to put a lot of confidence in your ability to keep things in order, a task given to sheer willpower alone. With myth, your protection from the choking hellishness of societal breakdown is your ability to maintain the myth. Once things begin unraveling, it’s too late, and you face what Peterson calls hell. The stress alone to maintain order by sheer willpower cannot but be pathological, pathologies we are seeing played out today.
By contrast, on a psychological level faith is scuba gear. A Christian can enjoy the foundational security of any given civilization—Greco-Roman, Western, American—but when things fall apart, he can still say, “Meh, nice while it lasted, but our confidence isn’t in princes.” A Christian can dive into the abyss for fun, freely alive while in the middle of chaos, and swim over to a new raft. Or not.
That would be wish fulfillment were it not rooted in what has always been presented as historical fact with evidence harder to disprove than prove: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The point is, faith takes the psyche one step beyond the wobbly foundation of self into what is sure, and that is quite liberating, so liberating it has the power to unleash vast reserves of culture-building energy, just as it has, and will.
Peterson gets ever so close to this confidence, but because of his a priori embrace of Darwinism, his raft must fall apart. With his focus on the psychological, the best Peterson can provide is temporary avoidance of psychological pathology, something he does quite well. But as far as big questions are concerned, docking at Peterson’s harbor can only be temporary.
Eventually the undercurrents of the nihilistic tsunami reach the shallow waters of his safe harbor and toss all ships therein ashore. Why? Because to reduce the foundational truths of the Christian faith to mere psychological projection can work for awhile, but how long can one play pretend with his own mind?
In the end, Peterson’s fundamental argument, though profound, falls flat. His psychological advice, while insightful, makes him little more than a highbrow Joel Osteen. Still, his defense of the West against the leftist ideologies of the day is fresh, and well worth the investment in time.