That’s approximately how many views Professor Jordan B. Peterson now has on his official YouTube channel. Which, by my count, makes him the most famous professor since Albus Dumbledore.
Not that I’m jealous.
While few folks had heard of Peterson just three years ago, he has since sky-rocketed to international fame for his critique of political correctness run amok (see here), his thoughts on personal meaning and motivation, and his new bestseller: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (which, as best I can tell, is a kind of Purpose Driven Life for western, twenty-something males).
It may also have helped that Peterson’s voice, by his own bemused admission, sounds like a Canadian Kermit the Frog—that is, if the world’s foremost puppet-amphibian were to swap out every verbal “Hi-ho” for a “Dostoyevsky” or a “Solzhenitsyn.”
A CONTROVERSIAL (CHRISTIAN?) GURU
Peterson is also controversial.
He is loathed by certain Leftist groups. His path to fame came by challenging the Canadian Government’s forced use of transgender pronouns. And his very mention has become a kind of Shibboleth in a culture war that seems increasingly “terrorized by the fringes” (whether Right or Left).
But none of that is what I want to talk about.
This post (and however many that follow it) is on Peterson and Christianity.
Because while waffling on whether he calls himself a Christian (“It’s complicated,” he says), Peterson takes the Bible seriously, as evidenced by his mammoth YouTube walk through the Old Testament.
As he states:
The Bible is, for better or worse, the foundational document of western civilization … Its careful, respectful study can reveal things to us about what we believe and how we … should act that can be discovered in almost no other manner.
On human sin, he says:
Only man will inflict suffering for the sake of suffering. And with this realization we have … full legitimization of the idea … of original Sin.
And on one occasion, he even claimed to view Jesus as a member of the Trinity
So why the somewhat snarky title to my blog post?
To be clear, my claim is not that Peterson is toxic, or that the extreme claims against him are fair or accurate, at least based on my limited exposure to him (see here for a critique of those who fail to listen carefully to him).
I actually appreciate some of his emphases:
- The crucial value of free speech
- The danger of radical postmodernism
- The abiding value of the Judeo-Christian narrative
- The flaws in fundamentalism
- The need to take “big questions” beyond the college lecture hall
- And the necessity to reach the so-called “lost boys” of the west, before they are snatched up by dangerous ideologies like those of the “Incels” and the Alt-right.
I am not even claiming that Peterson is not a Christian.
My point is that he is simply wrong about what Christianity is.
And I say that not as one of the many self-appointed internet heresy-hunters (shouting from a basement bunker beneath a pile of R.C. Sproul books), but as someone with a PhD in theology. Hence, this is quite literally the only aspect of Peterson’s program on which I am qualified to have a reasonably well-informed opinion.
This, then, is my thesis:
While Peterson talks often of the Bible and the need to “pick up your damn cross,” he also misconstrues some of the most basic claims of Christianity.
The result is kind of Jungian gnosticism that is essentially Pelagian at key points. And his approach to Scripture makes him something of a re-mythologizing “Joseph Campbell” for a tribal, YouTube culture.
(Rest assured, I will define these clunky terms more fully in “part 2”.)
For now, I’ll just get the ball rolling.
“AND THE GREATEST OF THESE IS ‘TRUTH’ (AND INDIVIDUALISM)”
Two quick examples:
In a recent interview with the atheist-neuroscientist, Sam Harris, Peterson argued (laudably) that the Judeo-Christian narrative ought not simply be discarded as a vestige of an intolerant and un-scientific past. It has abiding value.
But when pressed on what that value is, Peterson’s Christianity gets strange.
His claim, from a biblical perspective, is that Christianity matters for at least two reasons:
- It “makes the group subordinate to the individual.”
- It posits truth-telling as “the highest moral virtue.”
In his words:
the truth speaks chaos into order in the most beneficial possible way. And that is the fundamental ethical duty.
Unfortunately, neither of these claims are accompanied by even the barest attempt at biblical support. And at least one of them is flatly contradicted by the New Testament.
Let’s start with the second point: True speech as the highest “Christian” virtue.
RIGHTLY ORDERED LOVE > TRUE STATEMENTS
For both Jesus and Paul, it is not “truth-telling” but rightly-ordered “LOVE” that is the highest moral virtue (See Mk. 12.30 and 1 Cor. 13).
And while we ought not pretend that the two concepts are competing in a “hierarchy of dominance” (one of Peterson’s favorite phrases), it bears noting that one may actually speak true phrases in idolatrous and sinful ways.
To take just two examples: See Satan’s accurate quotations from the Bible when temping Christ (Mt. 4). Or secondly, the religious leaders’ turning of the Law into a “projectile” to be aimed at Jesus, with a woman’s life becoming little more than ammunition (Jn. 8).
So, no…, “the highest moral virtue” of Christianity is not truth-telling.
THE BIBLE AND THE INDIVIDUAL
Now for Peterson’s claim about the Bible making “the group” subordinate to “the individual.”
This too is rather odd.
To be honest, I can’t think of a single verse that would unambiguously support the claim–though there are a few that might be taken as such. Jesus leaves the “ninety-nine” to find the “one” (e.g., Mt. 18.12); and he makes the individual’s allegiance to earthly groups subordinate to allegiance to him. But this doesn’t seem like what Peterson is talking about.
For him, almost every conversation eventually returns to a critique of “Neo-Marxism.”
And while I dislike Marxism as much as the next guy, I get the sense that Peterson is a bit too liberal with his slinging of the label (In my view, adding slippery prefixes like “Neo-” and “Quasi-” is often a sign of lazy thinking).
As an ancient text, the Bible simply doesn’t buy into our Individualist vs. Collectivist dichotomy. That’s a modern thing. Scripture has a “participationist” ontology–and it’s better than both Individualist and Collectivist imbalances (See, for instance, the work of Colin Gunton in the published version of my PhD thesis ([here].)
This participation framework is rooted in the nature of the Triune God–who is neither a lonely individual, nor a faceless “collective.” This God has space within himself for other “persons,” without obliterating their particularity.
Hence the New Testament speaks NEVER of “Individuals” on a lonely hero’s journey (as does Peterson), but of a knit-together family, called the body of Christ.
For such reasons, Peterson’s claims about these two distinctly Christian contributions turn out not even to be Christian. That doesn’t make him evil or “a heretic”–but it does make his version of the gospel somewhat strange.
(As for the clunky labels in my thesis, those will have to wait till next time.)