A lot of young college-age millennials have been listening to Dr. Jordan B. Peterson as of late. Being a University of Toronto student, I heard about Peterson long before he became famous. I found myself listening to many of his lectures, and lately, so have many of my friends. It is a remarkable phenomenon–how could a psychology professor garner such attention?
It all started with a controversy a year ago when Dr. Peterson released a series of videos critiquing political correctness and the notion of gender-neutral pronouns. There was an immediate controversy and backlash over this. At the same time, however, a large contingent of sympathizers and free speech advocates came to his support. This led to Peterson and his supporters fighting back against censorship and political correctness. And very soon, a movement focused on the ideas of Jordan Peterson was born.
What began as an interest in his views on politics quickly expanded to interest in his psychology work. His work on personality, as well as his “maps of meaning” lectures (which attempts to give students the resources to develop a worldview based on Jungian ideas) have been the most popular and well-publicized lecture series in the University of Toronto this past year. He has charmed many youths with his no-nonsense approach to politics, as well as his practical advice for living a better life, messages which resonate with a generation that is searching for meaning and coherence in life.
Of greatest interest to me, however, are his views on religion and spirituality, especially as they relate to God, Jesus and the Bible. I’ve had a chance to listen to him speak about religion long before he became famous. After his name blew up, he delivered lecture series called “The Psychological Significance of the Bible.” This series is his most sustained demonstration of his approach to religious matters, as well as his most detailed exposition of his personal worldview. Most of my thoughts on Jordan Peterson’s relationship with religion in general (and Christianity in particular) stem from what he has said in this lecture series.
As I listen to Peterson expound on his understanding of the Bible, four central themes stood out, which are:
1. The timeless wisdom of the practical truths of the Bible. This is one of the key strengths of Peterson’s analysis of the Bible. Even though he doesn’t approach the Bible from a Christian theological perspective, he nonetheless arrives at many similar conclusions. For example, in his treatment of Creation (lectures 2-4), he speaks of importance of the idea of humans being created in the image of God for maintaining some form of belief in inherent human dignity and worth. He rightly points out that the neglect of this idea has also led to the neglect of the dignity and worth of individual human beings (especially in 20th century Totalitarian regimes). He also speaks of the importance of the doctrine of Original Sin in understanding human nature, and of the innate tendency towards darkness and chaos that lies within everyone, which he connects to the aforementioned doctrine.
Another brilliant insight comes from his comments on the Tower of Babel in lecture 8. He correctly understands that the lesson behind the story is that when human beings try to find a substitute for God, they come up with Utopian visions that ultimately collapse and fail or become Totalitarian, because the visions cannot bear the weight of reality. This has great practical import for many of the ideologies that Peterson seeks to confront, be it Neo-Nazism or Marxism.
Which brings me to his second theme…
2. The Folly of Modern Atheism. Peterson gave his initial critiques of the New Atheism in his two-hour long dialogue with Sam Harris. He has since expanded on these critiques in this Bible series. He has pointed out how many of their criticisms of religious faith are way too simplistic. For example, Peterson points out (in lecture 4, among other places) that the common assertion (which comes from Freud’s views of religion) that religion is a form of wish-fulfillment is contradicted by the notion of an eternal hell. As Peterson argues, the doctrine of hell is not the kind of thing that someone would posit when trying to invent a religion of comfort and convenience.
Aside from that, Peterson also points out the surface-level readings of most New Atheists when it comes to the Bible, and how they fail to interact with some of the most serious attempts by intellectual Jews and Christians to interpret and make sense of their holy texts. The task of Biblical Hermeneutics is not an simple one, but anyone trying to mount a critique of the Bible ought to know at least something of it before they attempt to dive into the text.
So far, I have expressed basic agreement with Peterson’s points. The remaining two themes are where I found myself disagreeing more with his thoughts, which are…
3. The predominance of Jungian ideas and Evolutionary Psychology in interpreting Biblical language. When Christians approach the Bible, they do so with certain presuppositions, namely that it is breathed out by an infinite-personal God (2 Timothy 3:16-17), who used his Holy Spirit to guide the authors of the Bible to write precisely what he intended (2 Peter 1:20-21), and that this inspired word is the means by which we are to make sense out of life, the universe and everything else (Psalm 119:105). Hence, many Christians throughout history (from Tertullian in the early church, up to the modern “Fundamentalist” movement*) have historically resisted the idea of subordinating the Bible to disciplines such as Philosophy and Psychology, seeing this as an attempt to make God’s word subject to the standards of fallible human beings.
*Note: When I use the term “Fundamentalist,” I do not use that term the way it is used in most popular discourse, i.e. as a catch-all for highly-devoted religious people who have a simplistic understanding of their faith. I’m using the term in its original sense, to refer to conservative Protestants in the Anglophone world who resisted the liberalizing trends that were going on in mainline seminaries, and wrote highly scholarly rebuttals to liberalism. The best example of their work is the multi-volume work called The Fundamentals, which remains the gold standard for what defines a “Fundamentalist.”
Dr. Peterson, who does not approach the Bible from the perspective of someone who believes it (as “belief” would have been historically understood), applies his Psychological expertise to his interpretation of the Bible. For him, many of the Biblical stories can be explained in two ways: 1) They are a manifestation of certain religious archetypes that have been embedded in human consciousnesses across cultures, an idea that he got mostly from Joseph Campbell, who in turn adapted it from the ideas of Carl G. Jung. Also, 2) they are a product of our evolutionary past, having developed from primal instincts that we have developed over millions of years because they aided in our survival.
Coming at the concept of religion from a Christian perspective, I have no problem with the idea that certain religious ideas pervade across cultures. After all, if God created everyone, if he embedded something of himself in all of us (namely, his image), and if we have a shared history as a result of his having created all of us, then it would be expected that certain ideas would exist universally among humankind. At the same time, however, the Biblical stories cannot be just another version of the archetypal story. In fact, if the Christian worldview accurately describes reality, then the Biblical stories aren’t versions of the archetypal stories, they are the archetypal stories, from which all the other stories emerge. However, this would require one to view the Biblical stories as being historically significant (a point which I will elaborate below).
And as far as similarities between stories across cultures go, Joseph Campbell has been known to exaggerate the similarities somewhat, in order to make them fit into his theory of mythological archetypes. This is why I find that, insofar as Dr. Peterson draws from Campbell to form his conclusion, his analyses of the Biblical stories falls short.
The evolutionary psychology approach to the Biblical stories has some problems of its own. This approach tends to treat the stories as just another product of our evolutionary development, with no transcendent ontology or teleology besides that which we’ve assigned to them. This is an imposition of an external worldview onto the Bible, which has nothing to do with the Bible’s own worldview or how it presents itself, and denies that there can be an objectively existent infinite-personal Being, such as that described in the pages of the book itself.
Which brings me to the last theme of Peterson’s Bible lectures…
4. The relevance (or lack thereof) of history to interpreting the Bible. That Dr. Peterson is approaching the Bible ahistorically became increasingly clear as I listened to more of his lectures. One of the major signs of this for me was his reliance on the Documentary Hypothesis to explain how the Book of Genesis came together. While this hypothesis is still fairly common in various academic circles, it has its weaknesses, which I have pointed out in the past (See here for example, as well as here). Dr. Peterson, however, either does not seem to know about these weaknesses, or else does not care about them. He simply takes it for granted that the Pentateuch came about as a result of a long process of editing and piecing together of disparate documents.
Another way that this comes out is in the way he treats many of the Biblical characters. For Peterson, these characters are often used to represent various life situations, or various types of personalities. There isn’t much attention given to the question of whether or not they are real historical characters, as doing so would detract from the Psychological focus of the lectures. In fact, at certain points, Peterson seems to imply that only the simple-minded would regard these characters as historical, and that a truly sophisticated individual wouldn’t entertain the notion of their historicity, but simply see them as symbols and archetypes.
And yet, this attempt to brush aside the question of the historicity of the Biblical stories and characters can only go so far. This came out most clearly in the Question and Answer period of Lecture 4. In the Q&A, one of the audience members pointed out the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul states that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus have no significance unless they were real historical events, and that apart from such historicity, the entire narrative would be totally meaningless. Peterson’s response to the question was that he quite simply did not know what to do with that assertion, and that he was still trying to sort out his answer to that question.
This brings out the most crucial differences between Peterson’s approach to God and the Bible, and the historic Christian approach. Christianity historically affirmed that God, far from being a distant and abstract entity, is actively involved in humanity’s history, and was most intimately involved in it in the life of Jesus Christ. Christ’s life, death and resurrection are not just archetypal stories, but are the central historical events of the Christian narrative, because they provide the answer to humanity’s deepest woes. But this can only be so if they really happened. As Paul said in the aforementioned epistle, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19, ESV).
Having listened to Peterson’s lectures, my conclusion is that he is a brilliant lecturer and Psychologist, and undoubtedly have many positive things to offer a generation that is searching for something more than the Nihilism and Postmodernism that characterizes our society. However, I have to disagree with him at a fundamental level on the nature of God, Jesus, the Bible, and the universe. There are many truths that are in his lectures, but those truths only have unity and coherence when understood in light of the Christian worldview. That coherence that will come as one goes beyond simply listening to lectures about the Bible, but goes on to read the book for oneself.
For anyone interested in pursuing the question of God, religion, and the Bible in more depth, I would recommend reading two books New York Times bestselling author Timothy Keller: Making Sense of God and The Reason for God (see here and here for a talk he gave based on the ideas found in the books). For another comprehensive overview of the Biblical narrative, I recommend the lecture series The God Who is There by D. A. Carson. Finally, anyone interested in understanding the Bible, I would recommend obtaining a good study Bible, which contains detailed notes and articles explaining the Bible in more depth (one of the best out on the market is the ESV Study Bible). I hope that this will encourage readers to continue digging into these religious topics and think about them in greater depth.