Jordan Peterson, despite the often undeserved controversy that he is stooped in, is a unique figure in the currents of pop intellectualism. Peterson has an independent mind and does not utter political and cultural cliche’s associated with the right or the left. In many ways, I believe Peterson is a great voice to have in the current cultural climate. His message of taking responsibility, finding meaning and avoiding the reality of evil within every heart, is very important, and we can certainly do with more of this. This is especially important when pop culture seems to be mostly defined by sentimentalism and hedonism. With this backdrop, any person who emphasizes the importance of duty, responsibility, and of some higher meaning and purpose ( even when he himself seems unsure of what it is) is direly needed. However, this post is going to examine his beliefs about religion, and especially Christianity.
What do you mean by “believe” and “God”?
So what does Jordan Peterson believe about God? Well, no one really knows… Suffice it to say that he does not typically answer the question when it is posed to him, and only speaks about how difficult it is to answer the question properly. For example, in his exchange with Susan Blackmore on Unbelievable, Peterson says the following when asked directly by Justin Brierley, even while Justin notes his discomfort with the question: “Well I don’t know what people mean when they say ‘believe’. It’s as if that question explains itself when it’s asked. It’s like, it doesn’t. What do you mean by ‘believe’? And what do you mean by ‘God’? And what makes you think the question I’m answering is the same one that you’re asking. This is not something that you can say yes or no to in any straightforward manner. So I find it an off-putting question. And I don’t think it’s because I’m avoiding the issue. I think that to answer it properly requires books and lectures…”
What is Christianity?
However, Peterson sees himself as religious in some sense, because not only does he very often draw on biblical stories and Christian concepts, he calls himself a Christian. However, it becomes clear when you listen to him that Peterson defines what it is to be a Christian quite broadly, and seems to mean that Western culture is largely defined by Christian principles. So to be Western and to hold to Western ideals is to be a Christian perhaps regardless of whether you believe in God. When asked by Justin whether he locates himself at least in the Christian tradition, he responds: “Well, there’s no doubt about that, because I’m a Westerner. There’s no escape from that. I’m conditioned in every cell, as a consequence of the Judeo-Christian worldview.” Now there is great advantage to this and it is certainly better than the scores of intellectuals and literati who do not seem to care much for Christianity. Peterson recognizes the contribution that Christianity has made to the West, where probably most others with a similar background to him, would not. Moreover, he believes there is wisdom to be found in the biblical stories and in Christian concepts, even if it is not entirely clear whether he takes them literally or how literally he takes them.
What is the value of the Bible?
From the way Peterson uses biblical stories in his talks and his book, he seems to take a approach which has been called “existential theology.” Existential theology is a usually theologically liberal, that is heterodox, way of seeing Christianity in which the stories and concepts of the Bible give insight into human nature, into the dilemmas of the human condition, but are not (necessarily) in themselves literally true. The stories didn’t happen and the concepts only have metaphorical truth. Paul Tillich was an existential theologian who believed that the only literally true statement that can be made of God is that he is the “ground of being” which seems to imply some sort of pantheism or panentheism. But everything else that Christianity says about God is thought to be just a metaphor, even the notion of God as personal. The same general idea can be found throughout liberal theology. Liberal theologians tend to believe in some sort of God, but they think that the specifics of revelation should be seen metaphorically (regardless, it seems, of whether the authors of the Bible understood themselves to be imparting literal or metaphorical truths). Also, liberal theologians like to reduce Christianity to its moral principles (which is also something that Peterson seems to resonate with).
The Wisdom of Philomena
First off, I should say that I disagree with Peterson that it is difficult to answer the question (properly) of whether God exists. In fact, Peterson’s exchange with Justin reminded me of a clip from the movie Philomena. Philomena is a Catholic woman on a mission to find her son, who was taken from her when she was a young mother. The Oxford-educated journalist who wants to write a “human interest” story about the affair, accompanies her to America where they hope to find her long lost son. In one scene, Philomena asks him whether he believes in God. He responds that he always thought it was very difficult to give a simple answer to that question. He asks her the same question and she responds simply “Yes.”
You will find many people, especially artistic types, give similarly vague answers to the question of whether they believe in God. They will say that it’s difficult to answer the question, that they believe in some “higher power” or life force, or some such thing. I always dislike these answers, because it seems to me that those who give them are not being honest or are trying to avoid the responsibility of making a decision about what they believe about God.
There are many things Peterson can do to answer the question clearly. If his own idea of what “belief” means and what “God” means is different from the ordinary, then he can explain what he believes “belief” means and what he believes “God” means. Then he can tell us, based on those definitions, whether he believes in God. This is not a complicated question and Peterson is making it excessively so. True, there are different ways of interpreting the word “belief.” It can mean simple assent to a certain proposition as true. Or it can mean something more profound, a trust in or dependence on or commitment to, the thing. “Believing in” usually means the latter. We can state the question even more simply. Do you believe that there is a God? This leaves aside any question of how committed you are to God, or how important God is in your life, i.e. whether you believe in God and not merely believe that there is a God. So, he can at least specify this meaning of belief and then declare whether he believes it. Let’s put the question another way. Is the proposition “God exists” true? This leaves out the concept of Peterson’s relationship to that truth entirely. Is it true, Jordan, or isn’t it? As to what “God” means, Peterson knows what people normally mean when they say “God,” which would be, as he recognized, something like the Christian definition of God: an immaterial, all-powerful, all-knowing, morally perfect being. So the fact that Peterson so resists giving a simple answer to the question, and resists defining his terms if the ordinary meaning of those terms are not to his liking, makes it difficult not to come to the conclusion that he is trying to avoid it.
Christianity is not a collection of clever fables
Interpretation of the Bible depends upon the intent of the author and you cannot just interpret it any way you want to. Some of the Bible is written in verse, makes use of poetic devices, and is clearly intended to some extent to be taken metaphorically. Other parts of the Bible are clearly intended to be taken literally. There is a more journalistic style and an attempt to chronicle events. Ignoring this, and interpreting it whichever way you want, or giving it a metaphorical interpretation when it wasn’t intended, is irrational.
Also, the truth or untruth of the biblical stories are important, crucially important. Think of them as clever fables, if you will, that can teach us great truths. However, the question of whether they are in fact real history, the question of whether the man Jesus really existed, and really was the Son of God, is important and central to Christianity. The question of whether the biblical God truly exists is central. I would agree with you that they do contain profound insight into the human condition. But if that is all the value you think they have, then you have missed the entire point of Christianity and have only scraped the surface of it. Believing that Jesus is the Son of God, that Yahweh is God the Father, and that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and rose again on the third day, is what gives life to Christianity. And the source of the Bible’s insight into the human condition is the living God himself. When the Bible declares that belief in Jesus and belief that he is the Son of God, is required in order to avoid condemnation, they do not only mean metaphysical assent, but also commitment. But believing that Jesus does exist is clearly a necessary condition on trusting in him and “believing in” him in other senses. The strength of Christianity, it’s life blood, comes from the metaphysical truth about God and Jesus that it conveys. Without this it would not have the insight it does have and there would be no need to go to the Bible over other texts, or your own imagination, to give you stories to teach life lessons. And what makes us able to resist the “abyss” as Peterson calls it, or escape the evils in our hearts threatening to consume us, is not our striving to Heaven, but Heaven’s striving toward us. We do not climb up to Heaven. We would never manage it. It is Heaven that came down to us and bore the penalty that we deserved. It is not we who love the Good, but the Good who loves us. The Good is a person not a concept, and you must give your life over to him and commit yourself fully so that he can change your life. Without the blood of Christ, none of our will power or striving, no amount of taking responsibility, will do anything to help us and would only drive us further into the mire.
If Christianity is true then the primary actor in our lives is God, and his existence provides the purpose and motivation for our betterment. This makes it irrational to take the Bible and its stories as primarily existential lessons, when it’s primary message is clearly a call to serve and obey and believe in a God who is very real and very present. If Christianity is not true, then we don’t even need the stories of the Bible to provide us with important lessons, because we can easily enough use any other stories, or devise new stories, to teach us moral lessons. If the Bible is not inspired by God, then why pay any special attention to it? The importance of the metaphysical side of Christian belief is exposed in another topic that Peterson frequently covers: meaning.
A Meaningful Life
Peterson is known for emphasizing the importance of a meaningful life and for having a purpose in life beyond your own happiness. This is connected with one of his 12 rules “Do what is meaningful, not what is expedient.” Having some purpose in your life ( that is not your happiness) helps you to deal with suffering and gives you a reason to go on when the going gets tough. He quotes Nietzsche as saying: “He who has a why can bear any how.” In an interview on Fox News, Peterson says that he thinks the best way to get to a meaningful life is through responsibility. But one thing that is conspicuously lacking in Peterson’s discussion of meaning is that he does not recommend any particular purpose to make life meaningful. He only says that you must find that meaning, and you can apparently fill it with almost whatever you think best. I wonder if Peterson realizes the irony of this. He says that life has to be meaningful, but by affirming that almost any meaning goes, he denies that life has meaning. To affirm that any meaning will do implies that no meaning existed in the first place, because in order for purpose to be truly meaningful it must be objective, otherwise you’re only chasing a subjective preference. If your meaning is only a subjective preference then it is not meaningful. If your purpose beyond yourself is a subjective preference, then it is not a purpose beyond yourself. If everything is morally permissible then objective morality does not really exist. If every meaning will do then objective meaning does not really exist. The issue is not just getting a purpose in your life, it is getting a purpose which is objectively valuable and true.
Telling people to find a purpose and to live a meaningful life without giving them the purpose does not solve the problem at all. People can take responsibility to destroy as well as to build. One of the wise insights of Peterson’s work is that people can be truly evil and can have truly evil intent, contra the rehabilitative notion that people are only traumatized, mentally ill or uneducated and badly parented, never truly evil. So taking responsibility can go many different ways. The best Nazis and communists had no lack of purpose and weren’t slack about taking on more responsibility in order to achieve those purposes. Many of them were very “engaged” and passionate about what they were doing. They lived very meaningful lives, at least according to Peterson’s definition. So, without giving people a specific purpose, merely telling them to have purpose beyond their happiness, only opens the door to other horrors, most of which are either worse than, or equal to, the aimless hedonic self-indulgence in which we now languish. There is a purpose that puts all other purposes to shame. Not a concept, not a principle or set of principles, but a person: the way, the truth and the life. Jesus is the solution.