Our age of cynicism, skepticism, and nihilism is desperately in need of heroes who can balance realism with hope, caution with optimism, and a clear-eyed understanding of human sin with a firm belief in the innate and essential dignity of man. It is equally in need of heroes with the courage to speak up against the growing threat of an aggressive, militant leftism that would stamp out free speech and enforce a radical egalitarianism that breaks down all distinctions.
Enter University of Toronto professor and psychotherapist Jordan Peterson. He ignited a firestorm in 2016 when he opposed a notorious Canadian bill to compel citizens to use preferred pronouns for transgender people.
That an academic social scientist—and a Canadian to boot—would take a courageous, career-threatening stance against political correctness and cancel culture was surprising enough. That he would also champion traditional understandings of virtue and personal responsibility, celebrate masculinity and femininity, and warn against the dangers of totalitarianism from the right and the left seemed too good to be true.
An Academic Who Stands Apart from the Academy
Conservatives have long respected Thomas Sowell for his ability to make clear, logical, rhetorically effective arguments against false claims of systemic racism and then back up those arguments with hard facts from objective sources. In the same way, Peterson fearlessly exposes the flaws in the claims of feminist and LBGT activists, then presents statistical evidence from peer-reviewed studies that show, for example, that there is no gender wage gap, that men and women are not interchangeable, and that their needs and desires are innate and not mere reflections of socially constructed gender norms.
For many conservatives, Peterson is the caped crusader they have been hoping and praying for, and thankfully, he is no fear-mongering, nay-saying political pundit. Indeed, he avoids speaking in narrowly partisan terms, calling for personal rather than systemic change and putting his focus on individuals rather than political-racial-economic-sexual groups. For Peterson, human flourishing means real men and women breaking free from their internal chains of narcissism, envy, and resentment, not the building of a sexless, classless, colorless utopia of flat equity.
To put it another way, he is a highly trained researcher who knows the biological and social scientific literature inside and out, while being a true humanist opposed to any kind of ideologically driven, bureaucratically run social engineering. How has he avoided becoming a member of the elite corps of academic specialists and government controllers who think they should be given free rein to shape the next generation of men and women? By holding up ancient stories and archetypal myths as a better determiner of what it means to be human than identity politics, critical theory, and resentment studies.
And where does he borrow the bulk of his explanatory archetypes? Not from the myths of Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Finland, nor from popular comic book heroes, but from the Bible, particularly Genesis and the gospels. Therein lies the dilemma for Peterson’s Christian fans, who are many and growing.
Evangelicals like myself applaud when Peterson puts free on YouTube a series of lengthy lectures mining the deeper meanings of the stories of Genesis, but then draw back cautiously when they notice that, rather than treat the stories as literal-historical, he views them through a Nietzschean-Jungian lens.
Sadly, many Christians have resolved this dilemma by dismissing Peterson or his readings of scripture. Ron Dart would challenge such Christians to rethink their decision. In Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson: A Christian Perspective (Lexham Press, 2020), Dart, who teaches in the Department of Political Science, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, British Columbia, gathers ten essays that analyze Peterson and his work from a Christian point of view.
Rather than read Peterson in a “gotcha” mode, eager to expose his theological errors and hermeneutical fallacies, the contributors to this slim but meaty volume approach him with an open spirit, willing to learn as well as to judge, to be convicted as well as to be critical.
Bruce Riley Ashford, provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, sets just the right tone in his opening essay. He praises Peterson for teaching our secular age that, by drawing “on the biblical narrative, we can appropriate the wisdom inherited from our ancestors, a wisdom that orders our lives and teaches us to delay gratification, live virtuously, build society, and flourish.”
Although Peterson is not prepared to ascribe historical validity to that narrative, he does recognize “the Bible as the founding document of Western civilization” and assures his diverse audience of readers and listeners that wrestling with the Bible will alter their lives for the better.
He may not describe sin as that which violates the nature of a holy God, but he does recognize the deep shame we bear and how it cuts us off from God and from Being. More vitally, although Peterson remains agnostic about the literal dimensions of the atonement and resurrection, he finds a “solution to this shame . . . [by tracing] the Bible’s redemptive arc toward the New Testament, where we realize that Christ embodies the way forward, revealing to us the path of virtuous self-sacrifice, acceptance of finitude, and heroic perseverance on the hard path of suffering. Instead of victimizing ourselves, we take responsibility and move forward.”
Conservative Christians who dismiss or reject Peterson would do well to reassess the power of Peterson’s voice in what Richard John Neuhaus called the naked public square. Because he does not preach from a literal pulpit and uses the language of myth rather than doctrine, he is able to evade the kinds of (mostly facetious) accusations made against American Christians who bring their faith into the political sphere: namely, that they are in violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution.
While skirting past the tiresome pontifications of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Peterson manages to bring the weight of scripture to bear on issues that are doing great damage to individual people as well as to the wider body politic.
Criticizing Intersectional Marxism
Hunter Baker, dean of arts and sciences at Union University, highlights one such example in which Peterson’s reading of the biblical story of Cain and Abel allows him to critique, on a deeply spiritual level, the dangers of the resurgent Marxism that undergirds critical race theory and its intersectional comrades.
“Peterson links the Marxist way of thinking less to compassion for the poor and working class and more to hatred and resentment. In other words, the Marxist understanding of the cause of suffering goes right back to Cain and his envy of Abel. For Peterson, Cain’s bitterness corresponds to the classic Marxist hostility to the bourgeoisie and their conventional lives,” Baker writes. Peterson may be unwilling to treat Cain and Abel as historical brothers, but he nevertheless treats their rivalry as a true myth that has direct bearing on modern political and psychological struggles.
Laurence Brown, who studied political philosophy at the University of the Fraser Valley, digs a bit deeper into Peterson’s analysis of the Cain and Abel story and how it connects to the modern rise in hatred and resentment.
“This story, according to Peterson, is the most profound story in the Bible because it speaks to the fundamental division between good and evil that runs down the center of every human heart. Peterson portrays us all with the ability to shoulder the burden of being with grace like Abel, yet we also possess the proclivity to murder the best part of ourselves like Cain. When resentment toward being itself knocks at the door, it is ultimately our own choice whether to let it in,” Brown writes.
Alluding to Solzhenitsyn’s famous comment that the dividing line between good and evil runs not between nations or parties or ideologies, but through the heart of every human being, Brown finds in Peterson an understanding of good and evil that is strongly Judeo-Christian and whose source lies far deeper than man-made social mores.
For Peterson, Brown explains, pre-fallen Adam, Abel, and Noah “encapsulate the prototypical man of virtue”; however, with Abraham, a new type of archetypal hero arises, one “who displays the all-too-common flaws to which we can all relate as humans” and so must operate “on faith alone in his conquest of the unknown.”
Abraham’s call did not bring a guarantee of an easy life. According to Brown, “Living through poverty, famine, and warfare may have been difficult enough, but having to sacrifice his beloved son whom he had waited his whole life to hold would have been absolutely devastating.” And yet, that is what it means to be a creature made in God’s image living in a fallen world.
As such, Abraham’s symbolism as an ancient archetype both has a fullness of meaning in itself and points forward to Christ. “As God Incarnate, Christ is also the model of the perfect individual who both accepts the tragedies of life and transcends its vicissitudes by directing humanity’s gaze upward toward the Kingdom of God. . . . the passion of Christ not only builds on the great sacrifice of Abraham but also exceeds it as the quintessential archetype of sacrifice itself,” Brown writes.
The Prophetic Spirit of Christianity
Baker, Brown, and others offer salient examples of when Peterson’s mythic approach to Genesis and the gospels bears fruit that is compatible with Christianity; but it is T. S. Wilson, another political philosophy graduate of the University of the Fraser Valley, who states most succinctly how the two complement rather than contradict one another. Unlike Spinoza and his fellow Enlightenment philosophers, who looked to reason as the best road for understanding the essence of Being, Nietzsche and Jung held up “myth, fantasy, and imagination as higher truths that are ultimately more reflective of the primordial ground of Being.”
By following in the footsteps of Nietzsche and Jung in this area, Peterson is able to unlock doors in the Bible that have too long been closed to modern Christians who are Enlightenment thinkers without knowing it.
“Referring to the Genesis stories as myth is likely to make many Christians uncomfortable, but from the Christian perspective it can be thought that Peterson is simply holding the prophetic spirit of Christianity higher than the literal-historical. By ‘prophetic spirit’ I mean the word of God, spoken through his prophets and distilled into the true myths that undergird Western civilization, not only in the institutions that have carried the message through time but also in language itself, grown from the seeds first spoken by the word,” Wilson writes.
This prophetic spirit is captured powerfully by Esther O’Reilly in her chapter on Jordan Peterson as a true humanist. O’Reilly, a freelance writer and doctoral student in math, focuses on one of Peterson’s many videos. It includes a Q&A session in which a member of the audience confesses that he is contemplating suicide and wants to know why he shouldn’t go through with it. Peterson begins by invoking the answers one would expect from a modern therapist, reminding the man that he will hurt his family if he kills himself and encouraging him to meet with a psychiatrist and to take antidepressants.
Then, suddenly, he shifts gears and “begins to stop sounding like a typical clinician: ‘You have intrinsic value, and you can’t just casually bring that to an end. You’ll leave a hole in the fabric of Being itself.’ These are strong, countercultural words: Intrinsic value. Can’t. A hole in the fabric of Being. His final words are even more striking: ‘Don’t be so sure that your life is yours to take. You know, you don’t own yourself the way that you own an object. You have moral obligations to yourself as a locus of divine value, let’s say. You can’t treat that casually. It’s wrong.’”
These are surely not the words of a materialist who treats the supernatural as irrelevant to modern science and modern struggles. Christians should applaud Peterson’s boldness in bringing a metaphysical dimension into the therapeutic world that speaks clearly to our intrinsic worth and divine value. Again and again, the contributors to Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson locate exciting moments in which Peterson transcends the naturalistic limits of his field and gazes upward to the divine.
I will give the last word to Dart, who takes up Peterson’s vigorous defense of free speech. Unlike classical liberals, who ground their defense in “individual autonomy and self-expression,” Peterson grounds his, “not in the autonomy celebrated by an individualistic philosophy, but in reality and our relationship with it.” Peterson may be a bit skittish in discussing his religious beliefs, but he is unapologetic in his defense of transcendence and of those absolute truths that Nietzsche so infamously deconstructed.