4 Things Jordan Peterson Is Absolutely Wrong About
Now things get interesting. While there is a lot to learn from Jordan Peterson, and his tremendous - at times, unlikely - success, there are also some things that he is absolutely wrong about. Many of these things stem from the common comparisons between Peterson’s worldview and Christianity. Of course, I’m writing from that perspective. If it came down to most likely secular worldviews, I might sign on with Peterson. What he’s doing is working, depending on how you define “working;” but it’s important to remember that he can be extremely valuable and not even be remotely Christian. It’s really important, then, to understand how he fits and doesn’t fit with orthodox Christianity.
Of course, all worldview analysis is fraught with several difficulties. First, since I don’t know Dr. Peterson, it’s hard to say what he thinks about anything comprehensively, and I don’t claim to have read and listened to everything he puts out. Secondly, and even more importantly, everybody’s worldview is a mix of several different factors all relating to one another, with different strands taking the wheel in different moments. While Peterson is extremely thoughtful, nobody is completely consistent, including Christians. There are pieces of his thinking that Christians may be able to hold in tension with their Christian commitments in ways that Peterson does not. For example, Peterson is an existentialist. There are Christian existentialists. But that doesn’t mean that he’s a Christian. It means he’s an existentialist. With that said, the major contours of his thinking present a few problems.
Here are four things I think Jordan Peterson is absolutely wrong about:
One of Jordan Peterson’s favorite things to do is talk about the Bible. Early on, he used mostly cultural myths and legends to talk about human nature like the Lion King, The Little Mermaid, and Pinocchio. These stories provide a mythic architecture for Peterson to play around with and talk about the human condition. The convenience of the Disney stories is that they’re fairly universal and they have enough plotlines to feature some interesting character studies. The same thing could be done even more profitably with Greek and Norse myths, but while they’re more epic in scope, they’re not as well known. The Bible is the perfect middle ground. The stories of the Bible have stayed around for a reason, even beyond the fact that they’re true. They paint the most compelling picture of human nature you can find.
The major problem with Peterson’s biblical interpretation is he doesn’t know much about the Bible, and beyond that, his method doesn’t require that he spend any time learning about the Bible. While I think it would be fascinating for Peterson to take a class on Hebrew narrative or to read Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative, or even How to Read the Old Testament For All It’s Worth, because he’s an extremely intelligent guy and would learn a lot, it wouldn’t make much difference given his method. He reads the Bible like it’s suspended in thin air, without any attachment to God, to history, or to its cultural context. This is because he takes it as a blueprint for the human condition. You don’t hear him talking much about Paul. He’s after narratives. This is because he’s far more informed by Jung’s theory of archetypes than he is by the teachings of Jesus.
Jung believed that every person comes preloaded with certain archetypes as a result of the collective unconscious. This is, to state it broadly, a rival conception of God and human nature. Instead of saying, human beings are the way they are because God made them that way, Jung would say, human beings are the way they are because consciousness contains within it an interpretive framework loaded with these archetypes. The types have made their way into popular culture: the mother, the father, the child, the sage, the trickster, the shadow. Listen to Peterson talk about Ursula from the Little Mermaid and you’ll realize he’s not actually talking about Ursula per se, he’s talking about what Ursula represents and what her character embodies, the feminine type of chaos. While this makes for really interesting analysis of the biblical stories, it’s pretty easy to see why his reading of the Bible brings him to some odd conclusions. These preloaded archetypes are not shared by the biblical authors.
If you were to come up with a list of things not to do when interpreting a biblical text, Jordan Peterson would be the first person to yell Bingo! He doesn’t pay attention to context or history, he doesn’t have any knowledge of the original languages, he doesn’t read with a hermeneutic of trust (to be fair, he isn’t overly skeptical either), and he moralizes every story. The bottom line is, he isn’t remotely theological. The fundamental question he’s asking is: how do these stories instruct us about how to be in the world? The fundament thing the Bible is saying is different; who is God and what has he communicated to us about himself and his plan for the world? In this sense, Peterson is reading the Bible humanistically, not theologically. He’s concerned with getting to the truth about human nature, but he doesn’t take seriously the nature of God or the plan of salvation.
It’s hard to know what Peterson thinks about Christianity. He’s certainly sympathetic to some aspects of the Christian worldview, but in at least one interview I’ve heard him dismiss questions about his religious beliefs by saying he’s asking different questions. This is probably the best answer to questions about Jordan Peterson’s relationship to Christianity. He’s given no appearance of being a Christian; he doesn’t seem to have any doctrine of sin, redemption, or any kind of confession in the salvific work of Christ. If you don’t have any of those things, you don’t have Christianity. But in the places he’s asking other questions, he can be very helpful for Christians. As I wrote last week, he’s a fantastic teammate in today’s cultural climate. I’ve heard several people talk about how they’ve been drawn to reinvestigate religion after listening to him. This is all good stuff, but when it comes to biblical interpretation and matters of faith, Peterson is not a reliable guide.
Pragmatism and Behaviorism
Peterson’s entire suite of lectures is a familiar academic project. He’s running data through a model, it just so happens to be an extremely cogent and compelling model. Here’s how it works: Peterson has a set of fundamental commitments. He is a Jungian behavioral psychologist, an existentialist, and a pragmatist. So whatever data comes in runs through those filters and comes out the other side with those constraints. What does this reveal about personality? How does this person relate to their own struggle for existence? Does this produce any kind of meaningful change?
As a small example, think about the amount of time he spends talking about fascism. This is partly because the illiberalism of the far left is a form of fascism, but also because his model pits totalitarianism at one pole. He plays everything against the great evil of the Russian gulags. Part of his appeal is that when he runs things through his system the results sound a lot like social conservativism or Judeo-Christian ethics. But this is not because he is thinking about things through either of those lenses. The what is the same but the why is completely different.
The obvious question becomes: is this a good model? We would have to answer no to that question. All three of these examples prove difficult to square with the Christian worldview. Even though he’s right about a lot of things, there is little shared space for Christians in his philosophical model.
I’m not an expert in Jungian psychology by any means, but after listening to Peterson for any amount of time, it’s obvious the significant role his training plays in his thinking. As far as I can tell, one of the major differences between Jung and Freud is that Jung holds to a vision of the triumph of the human spirit that is more expansive than Freud’s. Jung conceives of human beings as motivated by their shared unconscious, the mythic aspects of the human experience, and the hope contained in future aspirations. Freud is mostly known for tracing human behavior to repressed sexual impulses and fantasies.
The most obvious disjunctions with Christianity is the doctrine of original sin and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Peterson is interested in behavior modification, but the primary way he sees this happening is through cognitive behavioral therapy. This isn’t to say that seeing a psychologist is a bad idea; CBT produces powerful results. The problem is Peterson never appeals to anything outside of the individual to solve their biggest problems.
The universe is a struggle between order and chaos and humanity is thrown in the middle of these two. Each person has to learn how to bring order out of chaos. In this way, Peterson has a pseudo-doctrine of original sin, but it’s far closer to something you’d read in Heidegger than in the New Testament. In fact, Heidegger himself had a similar relationship with Christianity. But an existential understanding of sin and the doctrine of original sin are not the same thing.
One quick corollary to the last point is that Peterson’s model is a derivative of evolutionary psychology. This doesn’t mean there’s nothing good about it, but simply that he derives human worth, dignity, and the measure of human potential from an evolutionary framework. This may be the biggest contribution of the intellectual dark web; people like Joe Rogan, Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, Bret Weinstein, Dave Rubin, and others.
The intellectual dark web is an intriguing movement. They have all embraced the podcast medium. They are all over the map on social issues and politics. They are all engaged in supporting free speech, free thought, and rejecting political correctness. They’re also all heretics of one stripe or another - by their own admission. Sam Harris is one of the four horsemen of the new atheism. Ben Shapiro is an orthodox Jew.
The chip on their shoulder is an important part of their identity and appeal. Maybe the most important common thread is that they all conceive of human nature through a roughly Darwinian lens. Shapiro may be the exception, here, but the IDW will have a legacy in fighting political correctness and calling those who have been written off to think critically and make something of themselves, but they will also have a legacy for producing accounts of morality and meaning that have no religious underpinning.
Meaning and Self-Help
On a popular level, Peterson has drawn comparisons to C.S. Lewis. He’s far closer to this generations’ Norman Vincent Peale - the guy who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking. They both have a psychological approach to humanity, see myths as a key to unlocking wisdom for human potential, and have a genuine desire to help people make meaning in their lives.
Where Peterson separates himself is in his account of meaning. One of the things he nails is that people are not apathetic, they’re ashamed. They don’t know how to justify their own existence, and so one of the invisible currents undergirding postmodern society is debilitating shame. So in order to do self-help in the 21st Century, Peterson has to give his listeners a way to justify their own existence. What makes life worth living?
In short, creating order. Peterson offers his followers an impetus for existence in the style of Sartre’s Existentialism Is a Humanism. Somehow the pursuit of imposing order on chaos, through truthful speech, discipline, or behavioral modification will bring about enough self-worth and satisfaction to make life worth living. While I admire the effort to justify existence, it doesn’t work. Unless there’s a hard-wiring for meaning, no amount of bringing order will do. The despair of existentialism is just too ferocious.
In one of the best critiques of Peterson from a Christian perspective, Micah Meadowcroft has written, “And there lies the difference between Lewis and Peterson; where Lewis has the creeds—Trinity, God-Man, and Church—Peterson has a kind of Heideggerian Being, archetypal man, and some idea of the West.”
Unfortunately for Peterson, and even more so for his listeners, myths don’t always end well. Sometimes in real life, the would-be hero is eaten by the dragon, and giants change back into windmills. Sometimes making meaning isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The Future of Jordan Peterson
I’m so curious to see what ends up happening to Peterson. It’s possible that he will drift off into relative obscurity about as quickly as he came to prominence; he’ll continue to have a strong following but won’t be as well known nationally. This seems unlikely to me for two reasons. First, Peterson doesn’t have the marks of a passing trend. He’s extremely smart and versatile, he’s broken out of the millennial guy niche, he’s constantly being attacked by the liberal media, and he hasn’t used any of his popularity for overt personal gain. Of course, he’s making a lot of money from his Patreon, books, and speaking tours, but he appears to be saving it to finance his future goals. We’ll see if he can avoid turning his popularity into a corrosive power play.
If it were up to me, I would love to see Peterson continue to do two things; fight for young people who feel defeated by debt, depressed, apathetic, and ashamed, and stand up for free speech. These are the areas where he can have the biggest long-lasting impact. His success with unmotivated millennials is unbelievable, and it’s only going to grow. He’s given a lot of people a reason to get out of bed and work hard every day. I applaud him for that and hope he continues to do that on an even larger scale.
As an extension, he’s talked about funding an educational institution where he can put down roots and broadcast his ideas and programs to an even larger audience. I think this is the best of both worlds. For one, he has the appeal and the credentials to team up with people like Jonathan Haidt and Sam Harris, and the literary ability to command the respect of grassroots journals like Quillette, to take on the problems of censorship and cultural Marxism in the academy. There are few people who are both intellectually gifted enough and popular enough to make a sizable difference in campus culture, and I think he could do wonders there. Second, his self-authoring course is one of the unknown gems in his arsenal. Setting up a college or training center would give him the opportunity and platform to send thousands of people through that program, teach them healthy emotional and social skills, get a plan together, and figure out how to arrange resources behind worthy groups and individuals. That would be an excellent path for Peterson.
I have two further hopes. First, I hope he stays out of the grind of American politics. He tweeted about the Kavanaugh hearings last week and it was a disaster, predictably. There is no good end for him in the mire of Washington D.C. He’s been at this a long time, though, and appears to know what he’s doing in the age of social media.
Second, I truly hope he becomes a Christian. While I think he’s making a difference now, I know he’s missing the most important parts of what it means to be human, what brings life meaning, and what will ultimately last. I hope that he continues his work and surrenders his life to Christ. Until then, he is a useful ally and a stimulating thinker, and we can all learn a lot from him. I hold out hope that maybe the Lord will bring him into the fold.
This post is part of a series: See the other post - 5 Things Jordan Peterson Is Absolutely Right About.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
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