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Impressions of “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief,” by Jordan B. Peterson

I was impressed by Jordan Peter’s 12 Rules for Life and before that, his series Introduction to the Idea of God. I knew that Peterson considered his earlier work, Maps of Meaning, the best summary of his beliefs, and that both 12 Rules and Introduction were specific applications of it. I waited until it was available on unabridged audio, narrated by the author, and read the book in that manner.

This post covers the material in Maps of Meaning in roughly the same order as the book does. First, I describe the psychological foundations Peterson presents for his theory, and how it ties into mythic stories.

Maps of Meaning is composed roughly in fourths, starting with a foundation in cognitive psychology, then mythic stories, then Christianity in general, and finally alchemy. Next, I give a history of the allegorical approach of Biblical exegesis, comparing Peterson with St Augustine. Following this, I highlight the two most important aspects of Jesus Christ for Jordan Peterson, as Redeemer and Logos. I then describe two paths taken by Peterson for applying Christianity in everyday life: the path mentioned in this book (alchemy) and one he seems to have adopted later on (a focus on the Holy Spirit).

Psychological Foundations

Peterson begins with a discussion of neuropsychology and cognitive psychology, emphasizing the biological foundations of thought. This is important because of Peterson basis his entire theory on the existence of a mental modular shared by not just humans but most animals: unknown-detection. Peterson argues that the the psychological process of habituation is not a simply a consequence of learning that a stimulus is neither harmful nor beneficial in the moment — rather, it is the primary result of a stimulus ceasing to be unknown and becoming known. Peterson inverts B.F. Skinner’s defense of behaviorism, noting that while establishing the full history of reinforcement schedules can be incredibly difficult, it is now easier to measure brain activity and detect the existence of mental maps of the known and unknown.

Carl Jung is heavily featured in Maps of Meaning. I had always considered the most controversial part of Jung’s psychology to be his theory of the "collective unconsciousness." Peterson cleverly (and I think fairly) rehabilitates Jung by arguing he worked before the modern understanding of cognitive psychology. Peterson explicitly states that the "collective unconscious" is a term for "episodic memory," a well-accepted theory of how narrative memory is formed. Specifically, because the human mind encodes events into its salient pieces, and the salience of those pieces has a biological foundation, the collective unconscious is simply those pieces which have been universally encoded by appropriately developed humans. Thus, the collective unconscious is part of our species cognitive extended phenotype.

If known and unknown are basic categories, in the way that pleasurable/hurtful and hot/cold are, then it makes sense that known and unknown act as characters in mythic literature. Peterson argues ‘known’ as a category is conceptually gendered as male or an old king, and ‘unknown’ as female or a monster, given the capacity of the known to inflict vertical rules and the capacity of the unknown to generate new things into being. Hence Peterson argues that stories involving a Great Father or Great Mother are in fact stories of the known and unknown.

Mythic Structures

Peterson then moves from experimental psychology to mythic literature. The central stories in religion and myth in human societies are part of the collective unconscious through their mapping to salient episodic memory:

  • the temporary capture of the Father by the Mother
  • a younger male, the hero, called to rescue the Father
  • the murder of a younger male by a brother or co-equal
  • the resurrection of the hero
  • the hero’s possession of a virgin
  • the hero’s kingship.

I don’t believe this specific series of events happens in any myth. But parts of it happen in stories. For instance, in the Ba’al Cycle the events occur out of order

  • Ba’al (hero) wishes to build a house for himself
  • God allows for a war between Ba’al on the monsters Yam (Sea) and Mot (Death)
  • Ba’al splits Yam in half with a club
  • Ba’al is killed by Death
  • Ba’al defeats Death
  • Ba’al builds his house

The same pattern can be seen in the Christian religion

  1. Creation falls
  2. The Son of God becomes a Creature
  3. The Son of God is born of a virgin
  4. The Son of God proclaims himself King
  5. The Son of God is murdered
  6. The Son of God returns from Hell
  7. The Son of God reigns at the right hand of God

Stories from Egypt, pre-modern Europe, and elsewhere are shown to be general instances of this pattern.

Peterson argues that one can deconstruct widely and deeply shared stories to understand the psychological constructs that generated them. That the stories, the structures, the archetypes, and their lessons are not merely a tax on human cognition but the method that it has operated in the social-political-moral for an extremely long period of time.

My son, hear the instruction of your father,
And do not forsake the law of your mother;

For they will be a graceful ornament on your head,
And chains about your neck
Proverbs 1:8-9

Allegorical Exegesis

It is after all of this — the psychological foundations of memory, the comparative religion or mythology — that Peterson begins his most controversial and most ambiguous point. Peterson then provides an extended allegorical apologia for Christianity.

The allegorical approach — defending Christianity by asserting fundamental truths of the Bible without defending the Bible’s literal text — goes back at least to Augustine. As he wrote in Confessions:

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

Augustine is a forerunner to Peterson’s approach. The ending of Confessions is almost incomprehensible, as it is an extended description of the Christian religion and then a treatise on the Roman science of psychology. This did not make sense to me until I read Peterson and watched his series Introduction to the Idea of God, which combines contemporary psychological and the Christian religion.

What Peterson seems to do far better than Augustine, though, is to integrate the Semitic worldview into both Christianity and philosophy. Consider for instance their takes on the very beginning of the Bible:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
The earth was without form, and void; and darkness [a]was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.
Genesis 1:1-2

Augustine presents a wordy (not surprising) exegesis on the view that the waters were uncreated matter:

For should any attempt to dispute against these two last opinions, thus,

"If you will not allow, that this formlessness of matter seems to be called by the name of heaven and earth;
Ergo, there was something which God had not made, out of which to make heaven and earth;
for neither hath Scripture told us, that God made this matter, unless we understand it to be signified by the name of heaven and earth, or of earth alone, when it is said,

‘In the Beginning God made the heaven and earth; that so in what follows, and the earth was invisible and without form (although it pleased Him so to call the formless matter)’,

we are to understand no other matter, but that which God made, whereof is written above, God made heaven and earth."
St. Augustine, Confessions

Augustine emphasizes the unconditional nature of God, but ignores the near-eastern view of ordering as Creation that inspires the passage. (To their credit, Mormon theologians pick up this theme). Peterson tackles the same passage as Augustine, but I think derives a deeper meaning:

It is primordial separation of light from darkness — engendered by Logos, the Word, equivalent to the process of consciousness — that initiates human experience and historical activity, which is reality itself, for all intents and purposes. This initial division provides the prototypic structure, and the fundamental precondition, for the elaboration and description of more differentiated attracting and repulsing pairs of opposites:
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 228-229

It is his words immediately following the passage, however, that present a sotorology (theory of salvation) different than any I had heard before:

Light and darkness constitute mythic totality; order and chaos, in paradoxical union, provide primordial elements of the entire experiential universe. Light is illumination, inspiration; darkness, ignorance and degeneration. Light is the newly risen sun, the eternal victor of the endless cyclical battle with the serpent of the night; is the savior, the mythic hero, the deliverer of humanity. Light is gold, the king of metals, pure, and incorruptible, a symbol for civilized value itself. Light is Apollo, the sun-king, god of enlightenment, clarity and focus; spirit, opposed to black matter; bright masculinity, opposed to the dark and unconscious feminine. Light is Marduk, the Babylonian hero, god of the morning and spring day, who struggles against Tiamat, monstrous goddess of death and the night; is Horus, who fights against evil, and redeems the father; is Christ, who transcends the past, and extends to all individuals identity with the divine Logos. To exist in the light means to be born, to live, to be redeemed, while to depart from the light means to choose the path of evil — to choose spiritual death — or to perish bodily altogether.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 229

In what manner was Christ redeemed by the Father?

God the Son

The Redeemer

Christ’s genealogy explicit includes our Father-in-Faith, Abraham, as well as the biological father of the human race, Adam, and the father of all surviving humans, Noah.

Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, the son of Heli, … the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalalel, the son of Cainan, the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.
Luke 3:23,36-38

Jesus, the perfect man, literally redeemed his fathers. He redeemed his-step father, Joseph. His redeemed his fathers, and in His image we will live:

The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.
1 Corinthians 15:47-49

It was men…

who nailed perfection to the cross:

And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, one on either side, and Jesus in the center.,.

Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments and made four parts, to each soldier a part, and also the tunic. Now the tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece.
John 19:17-18,23

And God the Father…

who nailed sin to the Cross…

And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.
Colossians 2:13-15

… and now is our Father.

And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this:

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:7-10

Not that God the Father is missing anything, or lacks anything. But Christ restores our relationship with God the Father, getting us back to a place where God the Father can be called our Father.

In the Roman liturgy, the Eucharistic assembly is invited to pray to our heavenly Father with filial boldness; the Eastern liturgies develop and use similar expressions: "dare in all confidence," "make us worthy of. . . . " From the burning bush Moses heard a voice saying to him, "Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." Only Jesus could cross that threshold of the divine holiness, for "when he had made purification for sins," he brought us into the Father’s presence: "Here am I, and the children God has given me."

Our awareness of our status as slaves would make us sink into the ground and our earthly condition would dissolve into dust, if the authority of our Father himself and the Spirit of his Son had not impelled us to this cry . . . ‘Abba, Father!’ . . . When would a mortal dare call God ‘Father,’ if man’s innermost being were not animated by power from on high?"

Catechism of the Catholic Church 2777

Man and God, the Suffering of Sin and Glory of Perfection, meet in our Lord Jesus Christ. But Peterson presents Christ as the mediator between order and chaos, as the line between Yin and Yang, the One in whom all things may hope, and the One without which there is no hope

The Logos

Peterson’s preferred term for Christ is logos, the Word:

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is the Logos — the word of God — that creates order from chaos — and it is in the image of the Logos that man ["Let us make man in our image, after our likeness" (Genesis 1:26)] is created. This idea has clear additional precedents in early and late Egyptian cosmology (as we shall see). In the Far East — similarly — the cosmos is imagined as composed of the interplay between yang and yin, chaos and order — that is to say, unknown or unexplored territory, and known or explored territory. Tao, from the Eastern perspective, is the pattern of behavior that mediates between them (analogous to En-lil, Marduk, and the Logos) — that constantly generates, and regenerates, the "universe." For the Eastern man, life in Tao is the highest good, the "way" and "meaning"; the goal towards which all other goals must remain subordinate.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 87

Peterson emphasizes this point, emphasizing the use of The Way to identify both the Logos and the Tao. All things outside the Logos are harmful. Order inside the Logos is the protective ruler, while Order outside the Logos is the tyrannical father. Likewise, Chaos outside the Logos is the Dragon, while Chaos inside the Logos is the virgin.

The hero is a pattern of action, designed to make sense of the unknown; he emerges, necessarily, wherever human beings are successful. Adherence to this central pattern insures that respect for the process of exploration (and the necessary reconfiguration of belief, attendant upon that process) always remains superordinate to all other considerations — including that of the maintenance of stable belief. This is why Christ, the defining hero of the Western ethical tradition, is able to say "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6); why adherence to the Eastern way (Tao) — extant on the border between chaos (yin) and order (yang) — ensures that the "cosmos" will continue to endure.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 152

Paul the Apostle argues that all things, both life and death, are beneficial in Christ:

"But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.
Galatians 2:17-21

This centralization of Christ, relative to Order and Chaos, may be visualized as showing the divine or redeemed nature of Order and Chaos within Christ, and that without Christ, which will be destroyed

The Spirit of Truth

The False Dawn of Alchemy

Peterson spends an extended part of the conclusion of the book on alchemy, which initially appears inexplicable (or a misguided defense of Jung), but the analogies become clear. Gold is to rocks what Christ is to man, the ideal toward which we strive

Gold was, furthermore, the ideal end towards which all ores progressed — was "the target of progression." As it "ripened" in the womb of the earth, lead — for example, base and promiscuous [willing to "mate" (combine) with many other substances] — aimed at the state characterized by gold, perfect and inviolable. This made the "gold state" the goal of the Mercurial "spirit of the unknown," embedded in matter
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 322

The alchemist was a sort of priest, working on beings without souls:

The alchemist viewed himself as midwife to Nature — as bringing to fruition what Nature endeavored slowly to produce — and therefore as aid to a transformation aimed at producing something ideal. "Gold" is that ideal.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 322

Peterson had a shaky grasp of the Catholicism that imbued the medieval work while writing Maps of Meaning. His assertion that alchemy was a belief that sacrifice if not priesthood was still needed after the Crucifixion might be shocking to the college protestants he may encounter teaching…

The alchemical procedure was based on the attempt to redeem "matter," to transform it into an ideal. This procedure operated on the assumption that matter was originally corrupted — like man, in the story of Genesis. The study of the transformations of corruption and limitation activated a mythological sequence in the mind of the alchemist. This sequence followed the pattern of the way, upon which all religions have developed. Formal Christianity adopted the position that the sacrifice of Christ brought history to a close, and that "belief" in that sacrifice guaranteed redemption. Alchemy rejected that position, in its pursuit of what remained unknown.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 344

This is unintelligible from a Catholic perspective

Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us. But grace also includes the gifts that the Spirit grants us to associate us with his work, to enable us to collaborate in the salvation of others and in the growth of the Body of Christ, the Church. There are sacramental graces, gifts proper to the different sacraments. There are furthermore special graces, also called charisms after the Greek term used by St. Paul and meaning "favor," "gratuitous gift," "benefit." Whatever their character – sometimes it is extraordinary, such as the gift of miracles or of tongues – charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. They are at the service of charity which builds up the Church.
Catechism of the Catholic Church 2033

While certainly there were alchemists who wrote in a metaphysical way, it was at the time considered to be a physical science. St. Thomas Aquinas defended alchemical processes that actually work:

Many clerics were alchemists. To Albertus Magnus, a prominent Dominican and Bishop of Ratisbon, is attributed the work "De Alchimia", though this is of doubtful authenticity. Several treatises on alchemy are attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas. He investigated theologically the question of whether gold produced by alchemy could be sold as real gold, and decided that it could, if it really possess the properties of gold (Summa Theologiae II-II.77.2). A treatise on the subject is attributed to Pope John XXII, who is also the author of a Bull "Spondent quas non exhibent" (1317) against dishonest alchemists. It cannot be too strongly insisted on that there were many honest alchemists.
"Alchemy," Catholic Encyclopedia

If Peterson was more aware of the Christian tradition when he wrote this work, his concern might have been that the externalizing features of Protestantism (which deny man agency in the ongoing work of salvation) and Catholicism (which seemingly deny man the teaching authority, as that is possessed by the Church) both deny him agency.

Alchemy was a living myth: the myth of the individual man, as redeemer. Organized Christianity had "sterilized itself," so to speak, by insisting on the worship of something external as the means to salvation. The alchemists (re)discovered the error of this presumption, and came to realize that identification with the redeemer was in fact necessary, not his "worship" — came to realize that that myths of redemption had true power when they were "incorporated," and acted out, rather than "believed," in some abstract sense. This meant: to say that Christ was "the greatest man in history" — a combination of the divine and mortal — was not sufficient "expression of faith." Sufficient expression meant, alternatively, the attempt to live out the myth of the hero within the confines of individual personality — to voluntarily shoulder the cross of existence, to "unite the opposites" within a single breast, and to serve as active conscious mediator between the eternal generative forces of known and unknown.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 346

Which is to say, for Peterson, alchemy and not "Organized" (read: evangelical) Christianity took seriously the commandment

Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.
Matthew 16:24-28

There is no good King without a cross.

The Age of The Holy Spirit

Paul, immediately before describing living and crucifixion in Christ, talks about the importance of justification by faith in Christ. "Faith" is not an abstract mental idea or an emotional state. It refers to allegiance in Christ, of imitating Christ.

We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.
Galatians 2:15-16

Peterson comes to the same conclusion: the Spirit of the Law is not a watered down or easier Law, but a harder one: one that involves creatively combining the order of the Law with new events coming out of Chaos:

Denial of unique individuality turns the wise traditions of the past into the blind ruts of the present. Application of the letter of the law when the spirit of the law is necessary makes a mockery of culture. Following in the footsteps of others seems safe, and requires no thought — but it is useless to follow a well-trodden trail when the terrain itself has changed. The individual who fails to modify his habits and presumptions as a consequence of change is deluding himself — is denying the world — is trying to replace reality itself with his own feeble wish. By pretending things are other than they are, he undermines his own stability, destabilizes his future — transforms the past from shelter to prison.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 258

In the years since Maps of Meaning came out, Peterson seems to have talked about alchemy less and the Holy Spirit more.

Peterson’s later adaptation of the Blessed Joachim of Fiore’s understanding of Catholicism crosses the Catholic-Protestant divide in a very clever way. Emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit:

I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you."
John 16:12-15

and the "everlasting gospel"

And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people,
Revelations 14:6

Joachim theorized that:

There are three states of the world, corresponding to the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. In the first age the Father ruled, representing power and inspiring fear, to which the Old Testament dispensation corresponds; then the wisdom hidden through the ages was revealed in the Son, and we have the Catholic Church of the New Testament; a third period will come, the Kingdom of the Holy Spirit, a new dispensation of universal love, which will proceed from the Gospel of Christ, but transcend the letter of it, and in which there will be no need for disciplinary institutions.
"Joachim of Fiore," Catholic Encyclopedia

It is easy to see how such a view, of progressive revelation and a direct experience with the Holy Spirit, complements Peterson’s view of the centrality of the imitation of Christ in the life of every believer.

Conclusion

The truth seems painfully simple — so simple that it is a miracle, of sorts, that it can every be forgotten. Love God, with all thy mind, and all thy acts, and all thy heart. This means, serve truth above all else, and treat your fellow man as if he were yourself — not with the pity that undermines his self-respect, and not with the justice that elevates yourself above him — but as a divinity, heavily burdened, who could yet see the light.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 353

The Kingdom of Heaven includes the parts of material Christian within Christ. The Kingdom of Heaven is not just within heaven

Christ said, the kingdom of Heaven is spread out upon the earth, but men do not see it. What if it was nothing but our self-deceit, our cowardice, hatred and fear, that pollutes our experience and turns the world into Hell? This is a hypothesis, at least — as good as any other, admirable and capable of generating hope — why can’t we make the experiment, and find out if it is true?
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 353

Impressions of “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” by Jordan B. Peterson

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.
Romans 5:14-15

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.
Genesis 4:8-15

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.”
Genesis 2:15-17

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 enerally 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.
Matthew 17:1-8

Augustine writes:

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.

Grace

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 acknowledgement 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

Wisdom

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:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

Dave Ramsey’s “baby steps“, as superficially amoral as Peterson’s advice, are:

  1. $1,000 to start an Emergency Fund
  2. Pay off all debt using the Debt Snowball
  3. 3 to 6 months of expenses in savings
  4. Invest 15% of household income into Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement
  5. College funding for children
  6. Pay off home early
  7. 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.

Do not curse the king, even in your thought;
Do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom;
For a bird of the air may carry your voice,
And a bird in flight may tell the matter.
Ecclesiastes 10:18-20

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.
Psalms 8:12,22-31

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.

This is Genetic Epistemology

Recently, my man Jean Piaget has been burning up the twittersphere. Piaget is generally associated with “constructivism,” a very popular concept among teachers. Piaget’s theories are useful for teacher’s to know and keep in mind. They are not scientific widely used in the scientific literature. They are not worthwhile tools for policymakers. And they might be useful for politicians.

Confused? Don’t be. Instead, read on!

European psychology, for about a century, was divided between two campus, neither of which would fit comfortable within the bounds of ‘psychology’ as we know it today. One group approached psychology as a branch of applied physiology. Pavlos and his dogs, and French psychometricians who were measuring intelligence as a function of hand size, probably fit into this group. Another simply wrote philosophy and called it science. Freud, Adler, and Jung had all number of bizarre ideas, which would be classified under the term ‘mysticism’ today, and form the second camp. So European psychology was paralyzed between a group of mystics who took the mind seriously, and a group of scientists who did not.

Out of this morass came Jean Piaget, a man trained as a snail researcher with an early interest in Freud’s psychoanalysis. Of all the European “psychologists,” Piaget was thus one of the very few interested in the mind and familiar with science. This combination may have been as rare as the combination of art and technology that made Steve Jobs so influential in our lifetimes.

In either case, Jean Piaget soon develop a theory he called “genetic epistemology,” but which we call “constructivism.” Piaget identified learning as part of the species-nature of mankind. Small children, Piaget reasoned, learned to ‘think’ through physio-motor actions called ‘schemes.’ Grasping, shaking, and crying are examples of schemes. Gradually, interaction with the environment allow children to progress through ‘schemas’ (or schemata), which have mental characteristics. ‘All snails are smaller than dogs’ might be one schema. ‘All dogs are smaller than elephants’ are another.

Reasoning, according to Piaget, is the process of using schemes (or schemata) to manipulate the world. A toddler might ‘reason’ by shaking his fist, and be rewarded through a toy. The world has changed owing to the use of a scheme. An older child might reason through executing schemata. If ‘all snails are smaller than dogs,’ and ‘all dogs are smaller than elephants,’ these schemata can be manipulated to create a new ‘fact’ about the world: ‘All snails are smaller than elephants.’ (Piaget called this stage concrete-operational.)

I don’t want to spend too much time here, but eventually a learner could be expected to think logically with schemata about impossible states of affairs: ‘If all elephants are smaller than dogs, and all dogs are smaller than snails…’ ‘… all elephants are smaller than snails,’ an advanced thinker might say. ‘That is stupid,’ would say a child at the concrete-operational stage. *babble babble* the infant would scheme.

What makes Piaget important is not the specific predictions he made (which were often wrong), or his unifying European psychology (which, partially owing to the Nazis, was in a state of collapse anyway), but that Piaget provided an easy-to-explain description of the mind that focused on nurturing but also neatly matched scientific findings in developmental educational psychology.

Across the Atlantic, American psychologists were beginning to measure ‘working memory,’ the capacity for remembering unrelated bits of nonsense, and discovering that it increased as part of the developmental process. Small children, perhaps unsurprisingly, are low in terms of working memory capacity. Appropriate instruction for young children thus should not be taxing on working memory capacity. Instead, it should build up simple mental structures step by step, and getting exasperated at young children for being ‘dense’ would miss the point. As children get older they are capable of more advanced thinking.’ There is a genetic biological process that underpins this, regardless of what facts the children know. This is all similar to Piaget’s structural ideas, if harder to visualize.

That said, however, Piaget’s theory have an important shortcoming. Like Freud and like snail researchers, he was a big believer in the utility of focusing on the species-nature of his subjects. In modern psychology, this affection is shared by sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists. But much of modern psychology focuses on understanding differences, whether individual or on a group level (like the epigenetic destruction of the North Korean people under the Kim Family Regime, or differences among geographically-based human populations). People are more different from each other than Piaget thought, even and these differences should be recognized.

So what is constructivism, this genetic epistemology? Is it an outdated remnant of a dead stream of psychology? Yes. Is it useful for explaining psychology. Yes. Should policy makers use it? No. Should teachers think about it? Yes. Should politicians be exposed to it? Probably.