Jordan Peterson’s strange version of Christianity (part 2)

Jordan Peterson’s strange version of Christianity (part 2)

“A Jungian gnosticism that is essentially Pelagian at key points.”

That was my claim in “part one” of this series on the Christianity of the now-famous Jordan B. Peterson.

(If you missed part one, go back and read it (here) before continuing.)

I should begin, however, by admitting that I have already changed my mind about one aspect of my prior post.  I said there that Peterson’s version of Christianity is “strange”—and I even used that word within my title.

I now regret that word choice.

Because, in some ways, it is the lack of “strangeness” within Peterson’s theology that makes it different from my own.

Historic Christianity is, after all, quite odd by human standards.

We assert belief in an unseen, all-powerful, and all-loving God despite a world awash with evil.  We affirm the inspiration of Scripture despite the many oddities contained therein.  We believe in a “Trinity” and in a Christ who is fully human and fully divine.

Thus, most heresies can be seen as attempts to resolve the strangeness of the faith, so that it reconciles more easily with whatever form of human “reason” now in fashion.

But while I recant my “strange” word-choice—I maintain the part about the “Jungian gnosticism” with a dash of old Pelagius.

Now to explain those terms.

“JUNGIAN GNOSTICISM”

Unlike his mentor, Freud, who dismissed all religion as an “illusion” based on “wish-fulfillment” (I want a strong and loving dad, so: “Accio Heavenly Father!”)—Karl Jung took seriously the utility of religious “myths” and archetypes.

So too Peterson.

Yet an important point in both Jung and Peterson is how quickly they divorce the biblical material from history, even as they homogenize it with all other pagan myths.

Hence, when Peterson talks about Genesis (or Jesus in John 1), he ends up concluding that the Babylonian Enuma Elish tells us pretty much the same thing—and in more interesting fashion.

After all, the Babylonian account is way-more Quentin Tarantino.

For Peterson, Marduk seems as good as YHWH, who makes great wonders out of chaos.

There is some validity to the comparison, since every first-year OT student learns the similarities between the Enuma Elish and Genesis. (Even as they also learn the massive differences!)

The problem, however, is that neither Peterson nor Jung need their sacred texts to be historically rooted in any sense.  They merely need the “knowledge” (gnosis) to gleaned from a psychoanalyzed decoding of them.

Thank-you Marduk-YHWH!  

Having read your tale, I too will go into The Unknown and make great wonders out of chaos, like when people try to force me to use “Ze” and “Zur” as pronouns.

(While one may agree on the pronoun point, the way of reading Scripture is deeply flawed.)

In both Peterson and the gnostics, “salvation” comes not through a flesh-and-blood person, but by the knowledge to gained from an intellectual guru who alone can decipher Scripture’s hidden meanings.

As Irenaeus long ago argued (c. 180 AD), that’s a bunch of hooey.

Now for the link to old Pelagius.

“WITH A DASH OF OLD PELAGIUS” 

In its particulars, Peterson’s version Christianity is of course quite different from that of the 4th c. Pelagius (thus I don’t want to “lump” them incautiously). Even so, a commonality exists in the downplaying of the necessity for supernatural grace.

Such grace is, I must admit, a very strange thing—but one cannot have Christianity without it.

For Pelagius, Christ-given forgiveness was not required for salvation, since what humans really need is to “buck up” and live responsible lives as Scripture commands us.

In other words, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” (Rule 1); “Tell the truth” (Rule 8); “Set your house in perfect order… ” (Rule 6)—each from 12 Rules for Life.

None of this is bad advice, mind you. And if it prevents even one resentful young Incel from  shooting up a middle school, we will all be grateful.

Yet as Charlie Clark notes (here), Peterson’s whole self-improvement project is driven by a form of macho pride, and a conspicuous absence of the sine qua non of Christianity—“grace.”

So what does Peterson think you should do?

You should act like a dominant, alpha lobster and assert yourself: “Quit drooping and hunching around. Speak your mind. Put your desires forward, as if you had a right to them—at least the same right as others.” As a man, you’ve won the game of life when you present yourself as “a successful lobster, and the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention.”

While such testosterone-laden preaching may produce external changes, it also has a cost.

As Clark concludes:

Peterson is, in fact, precisely the character that [C. S.] Lewis describes in Mere Christianity, one of those teachers who,

“appeal to a boy’s Pride, or, as they call it, his self-respect, to make him behave decently: many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper by learning to think that they are beneath his dignity—that is, by Pride.”

So:

Just as theological and social conservatives have too often compromised with sub-Christian political movements to prop up the illusion of a Christian nation, they would now put their hope in Peterson—at best, a good pagan—to teach their sons morals.

This is an enthusiasm born of desperation.

But to make his Pelagian error is to put our faith in ourselves rather than in Christ.

The righteousness that Jordan Peterson preaches is self-righteousness and it is not saving. The Pride it nurtures will prove spiritually fatal. The church owes young men better guidance than this.

CONCLUSION

My broader view of Peterson is more positive (See “part one“).

After all, we need not agree with someone entirely in order to learn from them. So let’s give our “sons” some credit for being able to separate the good from bad. Peterson has many noble points.

Still, at the end of the day, I must acknowledge that my brand of Christianity is far stranger than his. It holds that Scripture gives us not just disembodied ideas on how to “make order out of chaos” but a re-embodied Jew who is, himself, the hope of the world.

And it contends, quite strangely, that we require far more than Stoic admonitions on how to be good, “upright Lobsters.”

We need more than “good advice”; we need good news.

Jordan Peterson’s strange version of Christianity (part 1)

Jordan Peterson’s strange version of Christianity (part 1)

Sixty million.

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.”

JP kermit

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?

SOME POSITIVES

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:

  1. It “makes the group subordinate to the individual.”
  2. 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.)

“Hi-ho.”