Jordan Peterson is a professor and clinical psychologist in Canada. He’s best known for a series of Youtube videos, some of them punchy and designed to be snappy and useful:
and others ponderous and monumental:
This places him between two separate genres I have reviewed before. His new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is clearly a self-help book. It is also a biblical commentary especially the Genesis, the wisdom books, and the New Testament. The themes of grace and wisdom are central to understanding the book. Jordan Peterson belongs in the same class of thinkers as St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom.
The Old Testament
The Hebrew Bible comes from the cultural world of the old Canaanite religion — a world of sea monsters, stars joining in battles, gods building homes, and old Judge River. That world seems not only improbable to a Western mind — it seems fundamentally antithetical to philosophy. Of all the western religions, only Mormonism approaches the focus on Organization and Order that pervades ancient Near Eastern thought.
Works such as The Lost World of Genesis One or The Unseen Realm are excellent Biblical commentaries because of their deep understanding of Canaanite cosmology. Yet, the price of these is accepting a non-western world view of Temples and Super-natural entities.
How to reconcile the western philosophical tradition with the near eastern Order tradition? Peterson’s solution is to read the Old Testament as a list of signs and symbols — which he calls archetypes and are related to Saint Paul’s theories of *types of Christ.
Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many.
These signs, archetypes, and types refer to the use of a figure in a story to stand for a larger figure or a larger truth. Peterson’s own approach derives from Carl Jung, whose analytical psychology found archetypes in ancient stories throughout the world.
In The Weekly Standard, my friend Tanner Greer denies Peterson’s belief in “the living word of a Living God,” but also emphasizes the role of archetypes in understanding Peterson’s Christology. (I suspect he’s wrong on the one claim, and right on the second).
Thus Peterson’s lectures on Biblical stories and the large passages of Biblical exegesis in Twelve Rules for Life. Peterson does not read the Bible as the living word of a Living God, but as a series of archetypes that provide a pattern of order and structure for human life. The appeal this has to millennials who have lost faith in God but still yearn for order and belonging probably shouldn’t be surprising. Peterson’s aim is to take such myths and stories and reformat them as rituals that can be re-enacted in the modern day: the building blocks of a new moral order.
Tanner Greer, “Jordan Peterson Saves the World”
Greer, though, considers Peterson’s use of Jung’s archetypical system as “painfully limited”. Can this really be true, as the system is at least as rich as St. Paul’s?
Yes, it’s true that some elements of Peterson’s quest to totalitarian-proof the Western world are shallow. His analysis of world mythology and religious imagery is built almost entirely on the writings of Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade. This a painfully limited foundation for the task at hand. And yes, there are a hundred ways one might pick at Peterson’s civilization-revitalization project.
Tanner Greer, “Jordan Peterson Saves the World”
Peterson’s approach to the Bible is ultimately traditional, and follows other thinkers in trying to read the Hebrew Bible as revealing Truth and exhorting good works, not as a literal chronology of events. Like Peterson, the Church Father John Chrysostom read the Hebrew Bible psychologically. For instance, preaching on this passage of Cain’s murder of Abel:
Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.
Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?”
He said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground. So now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. A fugitive and a vagabond you shall be on the earth.”
And Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Surely You have driven me out this day from the face of the ground; I shall be hidden from Your face; I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth, and it will happen that anyone who finds me will kill me.”
And the LORD said to him, “Therefore, whoever kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord set a mark on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him.
Chrystom emphasizes that:
God neither said nor did anything like that. Instead, God came again to him, corrected him, and said: ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ When Cain said he did not know, God still did not desert him but he brought him, in spite of himself, to admit what he had done…
‘I have committed a sin too great for pardon, defense, or forgiveness; if it is your will to punish my crime, I shall lie exposed to every harm because your helping hand has abandoned me.’ And what did God do then? He said ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain shall be punished sevenfold!… For the number seven in the Scriptures means an indefinitely large number..
St. John Chrysostom, Against the Jews
Augustine, Chrysostom’s contemporary in the late Roman Empire, likewise used a symbolic reading of the Old Testament. To John Chrysostom’s psychological turn, Augustine added an explicitly allegorical layer. Taking this passage in Genesis:
Then the LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Augustine read these gifts as symbolizing God’s works of mercy generally.
I would also say, O Lord my God, what the following Scripture minds me of; yea, I will say, and not fear. For I will say the truth, Thyself inspiring me with what Thou willedst me to deliver out of those words. But by no other inspiration than Thine, do I believe myself to speak truth, seeing Thou art the Truth, and every man a liar. He therefore that speaketh a lie, speaketh of his own; that therefore I may speak truth, I will speak of Thine. Behold, Thou hast given unto us for food every herb bearing seed which is upon all the earth; and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed. And not to us alone, but also to all the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the earth, and to all creeping things; but unto the fishes and to the great whales, hast Thou not given them. Now we said that by these fruits of the earth were signified, and figured in an allegory, the works of mercy which are provided for the necessities of this life out of the fruitful earth.
St. Augustine, Confessions
Both men surely miss something by not being aware of the Canaanite origins of the Hebrew Bible. But to accuse Peterson of failing to do still leaves him in rarefied company. Like Augustine, Peterson reads the Old Testament philosophically; and like Chrysostom, he reads it psychologically.
The New Testament
The bigger concern for many Christians is Peterson’s view of Christ.
Robert Barron, a Catholic Bishop generally critical of anthropocentric Christology, worries of a “gnosticizing tendency” in Peterson’s work…
I have shared just a handful of wise insights from a book that is positively chockablock with them. So do I thoroughly support Jordan Peterson’s approach? Well, no, though a full explication of my objection would take us far beyond the confines of this brief article. In a word, I have the same concern about Peterson that I have about both Campbell and Jung, namely, the Gnosticizing tendency to read Biblical religion purely psychologically and philosophically and not at all historically. No Christian should be surprised that the Scriptures can be profitably read through psychological and philosophical lenses, but at the same time, every Christian has to accept the fact that the God of the Bible is not simply a principle or an abstraction, but rather a living God who acts in history. As I say, to lay this out thoroughly would require at least another article or two or twelve.
Bishop Robert Barron, “The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon“
Yet it is not that simple, for Saint Augustine emphasizes the philosophical dimension of the New Testament — at the expense of its historical nature. For instance, given this account of The Transfiguration:
Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
But how didst Thou speak? In the way that the voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son? For that voice passed by and passed away, began and ended; the syllables sounded and passed away, the second after the first, the third after the second, and so forth in order, until the last after the rest, and silence after the last. Whence it is abundantly clear and plain that the motion of a creature expressed it, itself temporal, serving Thy eternal will. And these Thy words, created for a time, the outward ear reported to the intelligent soul, whose inward ear lay listening to Thy Eternal Word. But she compared these words sounding in time, with that Thy Eternal Word in silence, and said “It is different, far different. These words are far beneath me, nor are they, because they flee and pass away; but the Word of my Lord abideth above me for ever.” If then in sounding and passing words Thou saidst that heaven and earth should be made, and so madest heaven and earth, there was a corporeal creature before heaven and earth, by whose motions in time that voice might take his course in time. But there was nought corporeal before heaven and earth; or if there were, surely Thou hadst, without such a passing voice, created that, whereof to make this passing voice, by which to say, Let the heaven and the earth be made. For whatsoever that were, whereof such a voice were made, unless by Thee it were made, it could not be at all. By what Word then didst Thou speak, that a body might be made, whereby these words again might be made?
St. Augustine, Confessions
The Transfiguration is the central moment of the Hebrew experience of God, the central moment in God’s love affair with Israel. Maybe a philosophical reading strips it of wondering and meaning — frankly, I think so. But Augustine is a central figure in the Christian faith, and that is how he reads it. Even when wrong, there is worse company than Augustine.
In Christianity, “grace” can refer to either God temporarily helping man perform better works or supernaturally helping man achieve eternal salvation. Both are important, but any Christian discourse focused primarily on our old Earth, or the coming New Earth, is likely to focus on one at the expense of the other.
Even great writers, if they are not aware of the kinds of grace, can be led astray:
Peterson has critics from the Christian right, too, who seem to be disappointed that the answer to how to build a new moral order is “not them.” Charlie Clark’s [review for Mere Orthodoxy is the best of the genre. [sic] Peterson “is not the next C.S. Lewis” (which is true) and noting that, his book concludes that people can save themselves “without God’s grace.” (Also true.)
Tanner Greer, “Jordan Peterson Saves the World”
I think part of this attack is Peterson’s lack of explicit use of the word grace. But the word “grace” just signifies the meaning of God’s temporal assistance in the work of salvation. The presence of grace throughout Peterson’s works hits the reader over the head, given Peterson’s human-centered Christology:
Christ is He who
transcends death by voluntarily accepting death. Christ is He who
rejects the kingdoms of this world for the Kingdom of God. Christ is He who
speaks the truth that creates the habitable order that is good from the chaos of potential that exists prior to the materialization of reality. Christ is He who
wields potential as the sword that cleaves death. Christ is He whose
radical acceptance of the conditions of life defeats the hatred, bitterness and vengefulness that the tragedy and malevolence that taints Being otherwise produces.
Without the acceptance of death, bitterness rules, and Hell triumphs.
Jordan Peterson, “On the ark of the covenant, the cathedral, and the cross: Easter Message I“
There is no denying this is the mediation of grace through human hands. Reformed theologians like Van’t Veer or William Dumbrell may deny the importance of good works, but few other Christians or Jews do. This is the meaning, of Peterson’s calls to charity, as well as the humility of accepting charity
What shall I do when I’m tired and impatient. Gratefully accept an outstretched helping hand…
What shall I do with my infant’s death? Hold my other loved ones and heal their pain.
Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life
This total acknowledgment of human participation both in working Salvation and building Hell is entirely in accord with the Catholic tradition. Christians participate in the crucifixion of Christ and the construction of Hell through their sins, as they participate in the works of salvation by their co-working with Christ. As the Catholic theologian Thomas Merton writes:
For in my greatest misery He would shed, into my soul, enough light to see how miserable I was, and to admit that it was my own fault and my own work. And always I was to be punished for my sins by my sins themselves, and to realize, at least obscurely, that I was being so punished and burn in the flames of my own hell, and rot in the hell of my own corrupt will until I was forced at least, by my own intense misery, to give up my own will.
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
And immediately continues:
But now, at least, I realized where I was, and I was beginning to try to get out.
Some people may think that Providence was very funny and very cruel to allow me to choose the means I now chose to save my soul. But Providence, that is the love of God, is very wise in turning away from the self-will of men, and in having nothing to do with them, and leaving them to their own devices, as long as they are intent on governing themselves, to show them to what depths of futility and sorrow their own helplessness incapable of dragging them.
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
Grace, the temporary assistance of God, is a gift to allow us to see the pattern ordering the Scriptures. But to see this requires wisdom.
Wisdom comes from God, it is the gift of understanding what to do and when. Wisdom when applied to salvation is actual grace. It’s temporary because we are not always wise, but by acting wisely — by performing wise works — we can fall into a habit of wisdom, and open ourselves to a habit of grace.
Peterson frames his advice as twelve morally neutral concrete steps. Tim Lott’s article in The Guardian lists them as:
- Stand up straight with your shoulders back
- Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping
- Make friends with people who want the best for you
- Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today
- Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
- Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world
- Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
- Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
- Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
- Be precise in your speech
- Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding
- Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
Dave Ramsey’s “baby steps“, as superficially amoral as Peterson’s advice, are:
- $1,000 to start an Emergency Fund
- Pay off all debt using the Debt Snowball
- 3 to 6 months of expenses in savings
- Invest 15% of household income into Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement
- College funding for children
- Pay off home early
- Build wealth and give!
And in the Scriptures, we read political advice. And for the same reason! Wisdom is the proper ordering of knowledge. It is the antidote to mental chaos. Peterson’s career and personal advice, Ramsey’s financial advice, and Ecclesiastes’ political advice are all a part of living a well-ordered life.
Because of laziness the building decays,
And through idleness of hands the house leaks.
A feast is made for laughter,
And wine makes merry;
But money answers everything.
Those who ignore the Bible’s wisdom literature — not only Proverbs and Ecclesiasties, but also Wisdom, Sirach, and Job are doubtless confused by Peterson. But those who adore Holy Wisdom are refreshed. Order is morally virtuous. Order is from the Father. Order was with God from the beginning.
“I, wisdom, dwell with prudence,
And find out knowledge and discretion…
“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way,
Before His works of old.
I have been established from everlasting,
From the beginning, before there was ever an earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
When there were no fountains abounding with water.
Before the mountains were settled,
Before the hills, I was brought forth;
While as yet He had not made the earth or the fields,
Or the primal dust of the world.
When He prepared the heavens, I was there,
When He drew a circle on the face of the deep,
When He established the clouds above,
When He strengthened the fountains of the deep,
When He assigned to the sea its limit,
So that the waters would not transgress His command,
When He marked out the foundations of the earth,
Then I was beside Him as a master craftsman;
And I was daily His delight,
Rejoicing always before Him,
Rejoicing in His inhabited world,
And my delight was with the sons of men.
The Bible is the story of God ordering the universe out of chaos – from the waters in Genesis, to the land of Canaan, to the great purifying terrors of Ezekiel and Revelations. Part of having faith in God — that is imitating God through obedience — is doing the same in our own lives. Wisdom literature in the Bible provided an way for an individual to begin battling chaos. Jordan B. Peterson’s new book, subtitled An Antidote to Chaos, offers the same.
I read 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, written and narrated by Jordan Peterson, in the Audible edition.