Cathy Newman’s train wreck of an interview with Jordan Peterson could well be one of the defining moments in how public discourse is now conducted in the West. During the interview Newman employed the question “So, what you’re saying is…” twenty-eight times—yes, I actually went back and counted. On each occasion, Peterson calmly and carefully corrected her deliberate misrepresentation of his views. Unfortunately for her, she has now become the subject of a whole new internet meme, as the following example illustrates:
I was intrigued then to read Peterson’s most recent work, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Allen Lane, 2018). And I must say that it’s 350 plus pages did not disappoint. Peterson is learned, engaging, humorous, articulate but most of all, intensely helpful in a practical, self-help, kind of way. It was a conservative breath of fresh air. No wonder The Spectator endorsement on the book’s front cover says that Peterson is: “One of the most important thinkers to emerge on the world stage for many years.”
Peterson is rightly critical of political correctness, and the pervasive influence of cultural Marxism within the major universities of the West, explaining that this has been especially negative for men. Peterson states:
The strong turn towards political correctness in universities has exacerbated the problem. The voices shouting against oppression have become louder, it seems, in precise proportion to how equal—even now increasingly skewed against men—the schools have become. There are whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men. These are the areas of study, dominated by the postmodern / neo-Marxist claim that Western culture, in particular, is an oppressive structure, created by white men to dominate and exclude women (and other select groups); successful only because of that domination and exclusion.
Peterson demonstrates that the so-called thesis, ‘oppression of the patriarchy’, is intellectually vacuous. This is because it is not men alone that create culture, but humankind in general (males and females together, although even that is a controversial thing to say to those who view a person’s gender as being non-binary).
What interested me most though, was his novel way of understanding religious texts, especially those of Judeo-Christianity. According to Peterson, “The Bible is, for better or worse, the foundational document of Western civilization (of Western values, Western morality, and Western conceptions of good and evil.)” I believe that is entirely correct. But then Peterson employs a unique Jungian perspective, rather than a classic historic hermeneutic, to re-interpret it in a symbolic (i.e. “archetypal”) kind of way.
So, for instance, when the Bible’s opening chapters describe God as bringing order out of chaos, for Peterson ‘chaos’ is psychologically “the domain of ignorance itself. It’s unexplored territory.” Whereas, ‘order’ is “by contrast…explored territory.” The book of Genesis though is not concerned with subconscious realities per se, but with how and why the world was created.
Ironically, Peterson is rightly critical of those who would superimpose the twentieth-century scientific method onto the Bible, but then he himself makes precisely the same error by imposing a modern psychological one. As Dr Noel Weeks, formerly of Sydney University, explains, it is a false dichotomy to posit—as Peterson does—that Genesis 1-11 addresses “what matters” (i.e. meaning) and not, “of matter” (the physical or material universe).
However, Peterson’s hermeneutical misstep is at its most serious when considering the Biblical doctrine of salvation. On the one hand, Peterson acknowledges the validity of “the strange Christian insistence that salvation could not be obtained through effort or worth—through ‘works’”. (Significantly, Peterson then places in an important footnote the Scriptural references to Ephesians 2:8-9 and Romans 9:15-16 which correctly prove that particular doctrine.)
Peterson helpfully explains that “the development of such doctrine prevented king, aristocrat and wealthy merchant alike from lording it morally over the commoner.” What’s more, Peterson goes on to further state:
The society produced by Christianity was far less barbaric than the pagan—even the Roman—ones it replaced. Christian society at least recognised that feeding slaves to ravenous lions for the entertainment of the populace was wrong, even if many barbaric practices still existed. It objected to infanticide, to prostitution, and to the principle that might means right. It insisted that women were as valuable as men…It demanded that even a society’s enemies be regarded as human. Finally, it separated church from state, so that all-too-human emperors could no longer claim the veneration due to gods.
However, Peterson surprisingly then sides with the atheistic philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, believing that it was the idea that, “Christ’s sacrifice, and only that sacrifice, had redeemed humanity” which was the underlying problem with Christianity since it implied, “that the primary responsibility for redemption had already been borne by the Saviour, and that nothing too important to do remained for all-too-fallen human individuals.” As Peterson quotes Nietzsche as saying:
The Christians have never practiced the actions Jesus prescribed them; and the impudent garrulous talk about the ‘justification by faith’ and its supreme and sole significance is only the consequence of the Church’s lack of courage and will to profess the works Jesus demanded.
But Nietzsche’s objection is completely unwarranted. For how could a belief in being saved by the sacrificial act of God’s Son, cause so much social good, but at the same time remove all “moral responsibility from Christ’s followers”? That completely contradicts what Peterson himself has just acknowledged was true!
Tragically, Peterson’s psycho-religious philosophy leads back to a burdensome salvation by good works. And by denying the efficacy of the atoning death, as well as bodily resurrection, of Jesus it is nothing more than a heretical form of Christianity. Except, Peterson gives those who would follow him twelve commandments to obey—two more than was originally given to Moses on Mount Sinai. It’s worth remembering that even the Ten Commandments though were set within a context of salvation by God’s grace, as the Israelites were called to keep them only after they had first been graciously and miraculously delivered out of Egypt (see Exodus 20:1-2).
There is a lot for conservatives to admire and appreciate about Jordan Peterson. Not least his ability to winsomely engage with a largely leftist and hostile media. Peterson is especially good at critiquing postmodernism and identifying its flaws.
But his approach to religion raises some serious reservations and concerns to be put to Christians in regard to the mediatorial work of Christ and the doctrines of grace. In keeping with the current zeitgeist, the spirituality he is presenting is that of ‘therapeutic moral deism’ rather than Biblical Christianity.
The thing about a scholar like Peterson though is that one gets the impression that he is intellectually humble and personally courageous enough to sincerely engage with those questions when challenged by them. At least, I hope he is when he reads this.
Mark Powell is the Associate Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, Strathfield.
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