Podcast episode 015: What’s the deal with Jordan Peterson?
Like most cultural sensations who seem to have come out of nowhere, Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson has, in fact, been building a large and passionate following in various corners of the internet over the past several years.
But it was his recent interview with the BBC’s Cathy Newman that went viral and introduced him to a new level of fame—not only as an opponent of political correctness and the progressive Left, but as the teacher of a bracingly down-to-earth vision of practical wisdom for living.
Many Christians aren’t sure what to make of Jordan Peterson and his 12 Rules for Life. In this episode, we talk to David Höhne about the foundations and main elements of Peterson’s program, and how Christians should understand and respond to his ideas.
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Tony Payne: His fame had been building in various corners of the internet for quite some time. But it was after this interview with the BBC’s Cathy Newman —and after this exchange in particular—that Jordan Peterson’s name went mainstream and viral:
Cathy Newman: Let me move on to another debate that’s been very controversial for you. And this is—you got in trouble for refusing to call trans men and women by their preferred personal pronouns—
Jordan Peterson: No—
CN: I wonder what—
JP: —that’s not actually true; I got in trouble because I said I would not follow the compelled speech dictates of the federal and provincial government. I actually never got in trouble for not calling anyone anything.
JP: That didn’t happen.
CN: Wouldn’t follow the change of law, which was designed to outlaw—
JP: Not once it was law—
JP: —no, no.
CN: Why should your—
JP: Now, well, that’s what they said it was designed to do.
CN: Okay. You cited freedom of speech in that. Why should your right to freedom of speech trump a trans person’s right not to be offended?
JP: Because in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive. I mean, look at the conversation we’re having right now! You know, like, you’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that? It’s been rather uncomfortable.
CN: Well I’m—I’m very glad I put you on this path!
JP: Well, but you get my point—
CN: I’m very glad that I can exercise my freedom of speech!
JP: You get my point. ‘Cause like, you’re doing what you should do, which is digging a bit to see what the hell’s going on.
CN: So do you—
JP: And that is what you should do.
CN: And you using—
JP: But you’re exercising your freedom of speech to, certainly, risk offending me. And that’s fine! I think—more power to you, as far as I’m concerned.
CN: So you haven’t sat there and … I’m just trying to—I’m just trying to work out that out. I mean …
JP: Ha! Gotcha!
CN: You have got me! You have got me! I’m trying to work that through my head—
JP: About time!
CN: Yeah, yeah. Took a while! Took a while!
JP: It did! It did, yeah!
CN: Took a while.
TP: Cathy Newman’s silence and discomfort at this point suggest that she’d never really considered that freedom of speech cuts both ways, and that the risk of offending someone is a necessary part of free thought and free speech. She obviously thought that she was entitled to ask hard questions of Jordan Peterson, and thereby risk offending him, but apparently she thought he wasn’t allowed the same freedom in case it offended trans people. The whole interview is worth listening to as an example of what happens when the usual progressive mode of TV interviewing comes up against someone who calmly and knowledgeably holds his ground.
And the reaction to Peterson—the attention he’s received since this interview and as people have become familiar with his work—is really quite extraordinary: he’s become a kind of strange cultural phenomenon—a quietly spoken, Canadian, erudite, liberal psychology professor who enrages the progressive Left, but has a massive and devoted following, particularly among young men. His book 12 Rules for Life is a massive bestseller.
So what’s the fuss about Jordan Peterson, and why are Christians unsure whether to cheer for him or to reject him? That’s our subject on today’s episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast.
TP: Hello, I’m Tony Payne and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast, coming to you from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. Our goal in this, as in every episode, is to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues—to apply a theological and biblical frame for understanding the world to the various things we confront day by day.
And today we’re talking about the apparently sudden rise of the Canadian psychology professor and cultural commentator Jordan Peterson and his rules or guidelines for successful living. As we’ve already seen, Peterson is a growing phenomenon—not just on YouTube and in the podcast universe, but through a sold-out international speaking tour and a book, 12 Rules for Life, that has shot to the top of the bestseller list.
Many—particularly on the progressive Left—don’t like Peterson or his message at all, and have hammered him for it. And in much the same way in the Christian world, some see him as a fellow traveller; others are more cautious and think he should be avoided. But Peterson is a really interesting case study in how we respond as Christians to non-Christian thinkers and writers, and to their suggestions and prescriptions, because Peterson is quite openly not a Christian person himself. But he says things that Christians both resonate with and also feel uncomfortable with.
Now, I’ve consumed quite a few of Peterson’s YouTube videos and podcasts to get some sense of what he’s about and what he’s saying, but I haven’t read the book 12 Rules for Life. However, my friend and colleague here at Moore College David Höhne has, and so I sat down to talk with David about Jordan Peterson, about 12 Rules for Life and about what the fuss is really about. And I started by asking David what the book, 12 Rules for Life, is basically about.
David Höhne: It’s quite a remarkable piece of work insofar as it operates at a number of levels. At the most basic level, it’s a self-help book: “12 Rules for Life”. One of the basic ideas that Peterson operates with is that life is chaotic, but human beings don’t function well in chaos; they need order; here’s 12 rules to bring order to your life. It’s one of the most basic premises of why he’s written the book. And so, he describes 12 things which, if you implement them in your life, you’ll increase the amount of order. You’ll function better, you’ll live a … I don’t want to say “more happily”; Peterson’s not a big fan of the concept of happiness, which we can talk about in due time. He takes what many would consider to be a very pessimistic view of life—that it’s very hard, that people suffer a lot constantly, and really, only a very few people manage not to suffer all the time throughout life and then they die. So from that point of view, it’s kind of strange as a self-help book: you’re not going to have a life of shiny green grass lawn with flowers and rainbow unicorns on it by any means.
TP: It’s not Anthony Robbins, is it. No.
DH: Nothing like that at all—nothing like that. He’s not a self-help coach or a life coach or anything like that. He’s—well, really, whether you agree with him or not, he’s far more substantial as an intellectual than the usual kind of lifestyle gurus.
TP: And so is he basically saying, “From my observation of life—from my years of clinical practice trying to help people put their lives together—[from] my research into what—how life works, here are—here’s what I’ve discovered about life and what life is really like, and if you understand this about reality, your life will be more bearable and fruitful and orderly and …”
DH: At one level, yes.
TP: Essentially? Is that—
DH: At one level, yes. But it’s—I think one of the—one of the things that catches people off-guard is that he specialises in the psychological theories of Carl Jung, the nineteenth century/twentieth century psychoanalyst, and one of Carl Jung’s … major contributions to the whole area of psychology was the idea of generational memory—that is, we have memories within us—within our psyche or consciousness—that have actually belonged to our people group, or our culture. And they’re thousands of years old.
Now, Jung’s description of it at times was a little bit mystical and, say, little “s” spiritual in terms of almost at a genetic level we have predispositions—consciousness predispositions—almost as if consciousness is like this great pool of humankind’s memory that we’re all attached to somehow. Now, Peterson’s a big fan of this, and so when he brings you observations about his clinical practice, it’s not in the purely scientific sense of “I had this conversation with this person and this person and this person, and they all seemed to be talking about the same thing”. Peterson takes it to a different level and says, “Ah, what we see here is in the variety of conversations with people reflecting the same kind of things, there’s evidence of Jung’s theory of a generational memory”—
TP: That they’re tapping into something common.
DH: And it’s actively affecting them as well. So I don’t come up with these mem—ideas all by myself; my connection to the generational memory actually manifests itself in my behaviour, in your behaviour and our interactions between us. So that’s at a level of … classic psychoanalysis, which is kind of at odds with other parts of what appeal to people. At one level, Peterson appears to be a Mercurialist—that is, he’s very big on evolution theory, for example. And he’s quite a naturalist—that is, the natural world is all that there is and the way that we act is really quite similar to the way animals act. So it’s got this kind of naturalist bent to it, on one hand, then on the other hand, it’s got what to naturalists would sound like a kind of kooky—
TP: Spiritual—kind of—
DH: —spiritual, mystical thing of Jung’s generational memories. And then there’s a third layer, and this is one of the things that I think has drawn attention from Christians, is that Peterson identifies Christianity as one of the foundational generational ideas for Western culture. And he’s read an incredible amount of the Bible. And he talks about it all the time—all the way through the book—that here’s an example of a generational idea, which belongs to our subconscious, and we act it out all the time.
And that’s what gets Christians in, at one level, I think, because they hear Peterson talking positively and quite knowledgeably about the whole of the Bible story where there was Adam and Eve in the Garden of the Eden, or Jesus interacting with the Satan in the wilderness. He’s read the Bible very carefully and has quite articulate things to say about it, which many—many of us as Christians would say, “Yeah, actually, that’s what I think the Bible says too!” The key difference is that Peterson is—comes across more often as believing that the Bible is functional as a generational myth, rather than true in a metaphysical sense. In one respect, it doesn’t make any difference to what Peterson says; whether the Bible is true or not, the fact is that the “myth” in inverted commas, it works: you can see it—
TP: Because as a Jungian he believes that’s what myths do.
DH: Yeah, that’s right.
TP: Whether it’s in our culture or in a different culture, or a different set of—if he was writing this book, we could suppose if he was writing his book in an Asian subculture, he might connect with a whole different set of myths and traditions and—
DH: And, in fact, he does that. At times—he—while he—I think credibly, for the sake of professional reasons, says, “I’m not an expert in Eastern culture, but I have noticed this in what I’ve read: they have a light and dark, good and evil kind of dichotomy, and you can actually see that—”
TP: Yin and yang.
DH: That’s right. Well, so, yin and yang is one of the first things he goes to—
DH: —and talks about how, in many cultures … oh now I can’t remember which is which, but the white is order and the black is chaos, whichever is yin and yang. And he says, “Well, that’s the ideas of chaos and order working themselves out in that particular culture.” And he says, “And they’re reflected in the Christian culture Bible story as well.”
TP: Is he saying, then, that these are things that are true about reality that these myths kind of tap into? Or is he just saying, “These are—this is the way the human cultures have made sense of reality, and we tap into that human consciousness”? In other words, is he saying that chaos and order are, in reality, part of our—part of the world, part of the objective reality of the world—or is he just saying that they’re part of the human consciousness—or the human understanding that’s come down through the centuries and that we tap into?
DH: Well, that’s one of the most intellectual powerful things about Peterson’s work is that he doesn’t make that contemporary radical distinction between the mind and the body. The mind and the body are integrated—
DH: —and that means that the mind and the world are properly integrated. So he doesn’t see any credibility with this sharp distinction between what we say about the world and the way that the world actually is. He’s far more coherent in that sense. And so, from that perspective, he’s much more of what people would call in political terms a “conservative”. He’s a—
TP: He thinks—
DH: —naturalist in that sense.
TP: He thinks that the world is a certain way.
DH: That’s right. So if you were a fan of natural order, for example, or natural law, even, Peterson will be saying things to you that will resonate, because—this happens because of the way the world is. We think this way because of the way the material world actually is. And the material world shapes our minds as much as we interpret the world in which we live.
TP: It strikes me from just what I’ve read of him and seen and heard of him that one of the reasons he struck a chord with so many people—especially so many non-Christian people and why his book has flown off the shelves so much—is this thing that you’re—you’re kind of alluding to—that he thinks—he speaks and writes as if the world really is a certain way—
DH: Yeah, that’s right.
TP: —not just—not just by our labelling it or by us projecting something onto it, but reality actually has a certain shape, and if you acknowledge and live by the—by that, you’ll likely actually to get on better because you’re—you’re living in line with the way things really are.
DH: Yeah, that’s right. So part of what is recognising order in the world is living in accord with it. The world operates a certain way, and if you try and work against that, your life will go worse.
TP: In other words, we would say, if … So his thing about the tragic—his tragic view of reality, in other words—that things go bad, that suffering is endemic, that bad stuff happens to everybody and you just got to get used to that and live with that … and that that’s—that’s the nature of the way the world is—that runs quite counter to a different narrative and to the narrative that we’re much more used to in our contemporary world—that everything’s improving, that we have the power, that we have the technology, and that if only we get the education right and everything else right, everything will improve and things will get better and better.
DH: Yeah, yeah.
TP: He’s saying—
DH: It cuts—this cuts two ways—
TP: —“Wake up and smell the coffee. It doesn’t work.”
DH: That’s right. You can talk about the world as much as you like, and if you get together with a group of friends and furiously agree over the way the world should be and therefore the way the world is, that’s not actually going to change what happens. People will still behave at their worst. They’ll still be self-seeking, and even amongst a group of friends, there’ll be competition—that people will, inevitably, when push comes to shove, they’ll choose themselves over even their closest friends—their mate, their spouse—that sort of thing. And … that grates! That grates. He is able—and when he challenges those sorts of attitudes, he doesn’t do it just from the sort of talkback radio “I’ll shout louder and you’ll have to pay attention” approach. He’ll say, “Well, scientific research that is open to everybody says this.” And “Scientific research that shows—that actually has been showing for some time that there are key differences between men and women”, for example—
DH: —he says, “Actually, that hasn’t changed, and we’ve been talking about it for years. We’ve simply chosen not to focus on that at the moment in our popular culture.” And so, one of the … most famous, ah, well, the breakout event of Peterson’s in terms of the interaction between himself and a female reporter on a BBC interview over gender differences and pay gaps, that was Peterson in action, working out—living out—the way he approaches the world: firstly, you can’t just choose one factor and say, “This is the root cause for all the problems between men and women.” He’s—he kept just simply pointing out, “Well, it’s far more complicated than that”, and when you look at what he calls “multivariate analysis”—that is, when you look at a whole bunch of different factors, it’s a completely different picture.
Now, what he was doing there is appealing to, basically, scientific method in the social sciences. And so he’s bringing out a division that, say, naturalists might have who think that we’re basically just chemicals and everything happens by accident. They, on the other hand, live with this romantic view of human beings that are getting better and better and better because of their education. Peterson’s the kind of person who will come along and say, “Well, there’s really no evidence for that.”
Peterson won’t let you play language games. One of the things about the philosophy of language in the 20th century, thanks to Wittgenstein, was the idea that words only mean what we—they do when we use them, and language is just like a game, and as long as you learn the rules of the game, you can contribute to the conversation. Well, at a—at the level of linguistics, there’s some credence to that. That idea has grown into, thanks to social media, the way that culture operates, and people think that, well, words only mean what they mean when we use them. Human beings are only what they are when we talk about them. The world is only what it is in the way that we talk about it.
So provided we’re very careful about our language—and this is another one of the things that … where Peterson rubs people up the wrong way is that he says—he’s the kind of person who says, “Well, you can try and change words—you can say that love equals love—but that kind of exercise actually cuts down conversation. It stops people from thinking, and if people can’t speak all their thoughts because the language has been controlled—those are bad words, these are good words, you can only use the good words”—he says, “Well, people are going to—they can’t think. Unless they can experiment, even, out loud, they will never actually be able to think their ideas through and possibly discover that they’re bad ideas.” So this is where he’s kind of come out as an advocate of free speech. It’s by now common—it’s a common part of the Jordan Peterson introduction in a segment, you know: “Jordan Peterson was the academic who spoke out against government laws about the pronouns—”
TP: Gender neutral pronouns, yeah.
DH: That sort of thing. And thing is, he stuck through that all the way, because he’s dedicated to making sure that language really is freely available to everyone, and because he does uphold the connection between language and thought, and the way we understand the world; part of what he criticises in the liberal agenda is closing down words and saying, “Hate speech is this” and “Phobia is this” and all that sort of thing.
TP: It’s funny how that’s become to be known as the liberal agenda, I always think.
DH: Yeah! Yeah!
TP: Such a strange perversion of what classical liberalism was. [Laughter]
DH: Or that—and one of the things that he’s managed, at least, to bring out in the conversation is that the sorts of things that currently are attributed to a liberal agenda are an awful lot like the Marxist agenda of the nine—late nineteenth/early twentieth century. That is, there’s dedicated group think and that’s a good thing.
TP: Well, we’ll resume in just a moment. But first some of the things that we always do at this point in the podcast—first of all, encouraging you to subscribe and to review and rate us on iTunes, yada yada yada. You know the drill. If you’re enjoying what we’re doing here, it would be a great help to us if you reviewed us on the iTunes store because it raises the podcast up the list and lets more people see it. And more particularly, just tell your friends about the Centre for Christian Living podcast and share it with them, so they can benefit as well.
We’re also keen for you to get in touch. So, by all means, send us questions or thoughts about this episode, or any of our episodes, all of which are available on the website, of course. And also send us in any questions you’d really like us to deal with. We—we do appreciate getting your emails and they do affect what we cover here at the Centre for Christian Living.
The other thing to tell you about is one of our upcoming public events that’s happening in just a few weeks’ time on May 30th here in Sydney at Moore College. It’s one that we’re really quite excited about, because we have Os Guinness coming as a guest of the Centre for Christian Living. Os Guinness is a well known international speaker and apologist. I’m guessing if you’re over 40 or 45, you know exactly who Os Guinness is and you’ve no doubt read some of his books. I remember reading his book on doubt back in the 80s, and since then, he’s written a stack of different things on the nature of being a Christian—especially being a Christian in a Western, hostile and increasingly non-Christian culture, and how we should respond as Christians to the cultural trends and waves that keep—that keep breaking upon us.
And at the event on Wednesday May 30th here in Sydney, he’ll be speaking on freedom—on the fact that the greatest enemy of freedom is, in fact, freedom itself, and at how Christian freedom and the illusory contemporary freedoms that are offered to us are quite different things. It’s promising to be a very exciting event. I’m sure it will be sold out. So if you’re in the Sydney region, I would get in fast to get your tickets—that’s ccl.moore.edu.au—and if you’re listening to this outside of the—the reach of Moore College, of getting here yourself in person—then go on and register for the livestream. It promises to be an exciting event. “The greatest enemy of freedom is freedom” with Os Guinness on May 30th here at Moore College—our next CCL public event.
Now, in terms of the book special for this month at CCL, it’s something new and quite different, and I think a brilliant idea; why someone hasn’t thought of this before, I don’t know. But Ian Carmichael over at Matthias Media thought of it and here he is explaining what The Sermon Notebook is.
Ian Carmichael: Most of you watching this video are blessed with a good diet of Bible teaching each week in your church. Your pastor serves up some really solid spiritual food for you. But many of us hardly touch our food most Sundays. We don’t savour it. We don’t let it nourish us. My goal for The Sermon Notebook was to provide a resource that would help every Christian get the maximum benefit from that Sunday meal. It’s not just an empty notebook; there’s a lot of thought and design gone into it. So please check it out and give it a try.
TP: For more details about The Sermon Notebook and what it is and how you can get hold of it, just head over to matthiasmedia.com.au/ccl.
But now back to Jordan Peterson and his 12 Rules for Life, and I asked David to talk us through some of these rules, starting with Rule #1, which is:
DH: “Stand up straight with your shoulders straight”. It’s one of the—one of the key contributors to the whole “Jordan Peterson is my fath—the father I never had” kind of talk—that here is Peterson’s contribution to young men in their—you know, 18-25-year-old men about how to live well in the world. So rule #1 is “Stand up straight with your shoulders straight”, and the thrust of this rule is, as I said before, if you behave like a dominating person, you’ll succeed like a dominating person. It’s simply a matter of doing what the people who get ahead do to get ahead.
There doesn’t need to be something about you which will mean you’ll never get ahead. You may not be the first in the class or the promoted, but if you do the kinds of things that people who do get ahead do, your life will improve. It starts off with this—our—I—illustration, as I said, of the way that lobsters behave. But he soon brings in his clinical experience of having dealt with people and, you know, thousands of people over the years. He’s been a psych—counselling psychologist for decades, really, and basically what he has observed is that if you act in a way that is negative towards yourself, you’ll effectively train other people to relate that way to you, and it creates a cycle in which you can never get out of. You become one of those lesser lobsters, going with the analogy, and that pattern of behaviour reflects on your physiology. You—even human beings have the kinds of brains which are affected by their behaviours.
He doesn’t use these words, but really, our brain is the shape of our behaviours, and our body shaped them. So the fact that you don’t make eye contact means that when people look at you, they don’t think you’re interested in what they have to say, so they stop talking to you. Simple things like that. Whereas, if you stand up straight and look people in the eye, they’re more likely to engage with you. It’s those kind of—what feels like … well, what his detractors call “homespun wisdom”—simple observations about the way that human beings interact—that’s reinforced. He usually brings in—he’ll bring in some kind of example from his clinical experience, he’ll tell a story about some young guy whose life was going in one bad direction, but with a few applications of this rule, he was able to break some bad habits, create good habits and his life was changed.
He will then often bring in some more … reflective thought on the generational myth that might be going on here. So I think it’s in this episode he talks about Cain and Abel and the way that there’s inherent conflict between people over the idea of acceptance. Abel seems to be naturally accepted by God; Cain is struggling. So Cain does the bad thing and reacts violently against someone who seems to have everything in his way. Peterson says, “Well, you can react that way, and some people think that being aggressive and assertive is doing what Cain did. But it leads to disaster.” Alternatively, people will withdraw into themselves, and say, “Well, I can’t compete, I’ll never be able to make it.” And once you start saying that to yourself in enough contexts where other people can see and hear it, they’ll say, “Oh, David is that kind of person who will never be able to make it. There doesn’t seem to be anything I can do for him. I guess we’ll just have to leave him.” And so, those are the ways the rules work throughout the book—various ones. So the next one is—
TP: Give us a couple of your favourites. We won’t be able to go through all twelve, but some that struck you as being—
DH: Well, this one I thought—
TP: —particularly interesting.
DH: This one I thought was very interesting. It’s actually just the second rule: “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.” And he brings—starts with the simple observation that often we take much better care of other people than we do of ourselves. So if we see someone who’s struggling, we listen to what they have to say. He’s very big on listening and learning to listen, by the way, so that’s a skill we need to learn. But—and you can see it—you can see it in yourself: we immediately look to give other people advice, which, when the situation is reversed, that’s the first thing we stop listening to—other people’s desire to help us. So his maxim is, “Well, treat yourself as if you were caring for yourself, or you were caring for somebody else.” Be vulnerable. Be open to those suggestions. Don’t just—in sort of building on the “be more open person so that you can get ahead”, well, listen to the kind of advice that you’d actually want to give if you were caring for somebody else. And so the rules kind of develop in that sort of way.
And then, going on from that, if you’re wanting to get ahead, you’ve got to act a certain way before people. If you’re wanting to get help, then you have to be the kind of person who listens to advice, and so rule #3 is “Befriend people who want the best for you”. That is, and so he goes into a number of lengthy stories about people he met when he was younger—he talks a lot about his own home town and how he was—see—he sees himself as having been affected by that town in, you know, Armpit, Canada, wherever it was—always freezing cold—and talks about the experience of having moved away from that, being educated in other places, setting himself up as, you know, an independent adult, but coming back to his own town—home town—and meeting the people that he was at high school who never got away. And they were kind of perpetually caught in a downward spiral. And he could—what he could see is that one of the things that he had been fortunate enough to have is a group of friends who were worth being friends with. They were good for him. Whereas he saw these other people who hadn’t gotten away from town—they were stuck in networks of relationships that were negative in and of themselves. So people were trapped in that sort of situation.
TP: It’s interesting how you could—it strikes me with that one in particular, but I wonder how much this is true of other—of other of his rules, that you could find a parallel in the Proverbs about the effect of good company, for example.
DH: Completely! Completely! And at the level that this book is … constructive for anyone, it’s because it operates on the kind of principles that we see in the wisdom literature—that if you have a—the right perspective on the way the world is, that there are things that are bigger than you—at the very least, as long as you see that the world is bigger than yourself and that you need other people, not just in a horizontal sense—that is, the people who are around you today, but the people who were around you before and the people who will come after you—if you have some sense of that being important to your life and act accordingly, well, then your life will go better. That’s what wisdom does for people.
TP: It strikes me that in many ways—I’ll put this to you and see what—see how you react—that the way we should as Christians appropriate and use and read and benefit from, if we’re going to, from a book like this is as a piece of secular, or, in this case, Jungian wisdom literature that, from a particular viewpoint, observes things about the world and makes recommendations for successful living with the world on the basis of those observations.
DH: Yeah, that’s right. Wherever you can agree with someone that the material world changes you and you have a part to play in that material world—of which the same stuff that you’re made of—wherever you can gain some kind of agreement with people that being a creature in God’s creation, even if you don’t mention God, is going to have an effect on the way you live in the world, then we can say, “Well, yeah, actually, you’re probably right. Good observation! Thanks for pointing that out.”
TP: How have you seen the Christian world relating to Peterson and reacting to it, and as we kind of come almost past the initial white hot heat of his fame and, it will now kind of, I’m assuming, just settle into him being one of the people who had their 15 minutes of fame, and may continue to have a following or not, what do we learn about how Christians should react and relate to things like this—who come—who pop up in the popular culture and, in some ways, we like, and in some ways, connect with some things we believe, and in some ways, not?
TP: —How should we respond generally, do you think?
DH: A couple of things I’ve observed—
TP: —What lessons do we—yeah—
DH: It depends on the way you react to Christianity yourself. So if your tendency is to be totally focused on what we call “gospel priorities”—that everybody hearing the gospel and being converted is the most important thing in life—what people really need to hear is that Jesus died for their sins so that they can be forgiven. If your tendency is towards that, other things like how we live in the world—we might call them “ethics”—they tend to be less important, and Peterson sounds like he’s just talking about life issues. So he doesn’t really have anything to say for us. Well, the Bible’s not really like that either. And so, from that point of view, insofar as Peterson is talking about how we live together with others, well, we could afford to pay more attention to what he has to say. Or, perhaps more importantly, it’s a wake-up call that Christians are converted to more than evangelism and one-to-one Bible reading: we do actually have to live together in the world, and the Scriptures themselves have got a lot to say about how that should happen.
Conversely, if you’re the kind of Christian who has, for whatever reason, become more focused on how we live together as good people in the world, forming communities and living together, there’ll be a lot in Peterson’s work that you might resonate towards—forgetting the fact that nothing that Jordan Peterson advocates will make you right with God. It might enable you to live better with others around you, but as one of our local commentators pointed out, if Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life was Christianity, then it would be Pelagianism: if you do the right thing, you’ll be declared right—you’ll become righteous and God will accept you in the time of judgement.
So there’s two things I guess I’ve noticed. One is a reminder that there’s much more to the Christian gospel than simply being converted. At the other time—at the other extreme, if you could say it, that’s a bit harsh—
TP: At the other pole or—
DH: The other pole is that no matter how well we might live together in communities, we’re still going to face the judgement of God. And what we believe about who Jesus is and what he has done is the first thing we’ll be asked about, not the quality of our community.
TP: One of the—one of the strange things I observed in some of the reactions to Peterson I observed in social media and in commentary and stuff, was an interesting reversal of the normal sorts of—those normal sorts of reactions. So normally it would be, if I can—put a caricature things this way.
DH: Yeah. It’s hard to know what to do.
TP: The more—yeah, that’s right. We’ll forgive each other for caricatures. The more conservative evangelistically minded Christian who might be expected to not want much to do with Peterson, in this case, seem to be more energised and excited, because here was someone saying, as you put it, conservative things about reality—about men and women being different, for example, or about the nature of the world as a place where this is suffering, and so on—about taking personal responsibility for your own life before you start instructing—that’s one of his rules, isn’t it?
TP: “Make your own bed.”
DH: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. He’s a conservative intellectual who’s getting good press.
DH: Go team!
TP: Yes, that’s right. [Laughter] And so, a number of commentators I read who are Christian were therefore more positive—much more positive about him than you would normally expect, in terms of the taxonomy you just talked about.
TP: And some of the commentators who are more, if I can put it on the Left or progressive wing of evangelical Christianity were all of a sudden saying, “No! It’s all about grace. It’s all about the gospel.”
DH: Yeah, yeah.
TP: This guy’s not a Christian. We shouldn’t take any notice of him at all! [Laughter]
DH: Yeah, yeah, and let’s—and let’s not—let’s not slip back into archaic views of men and women, for example.
TP: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, quite so. So I thought it was interesting how the kind of usual polarity almost, in this case, in some of the things I read anyway, seem to be almost flipped, when you had someone putting forward these kind of more conservative views, I guess, in a very interesting way.
DH: Yes, well, one piece I read, I think it was on manhood or looking at the phenomenon of the way that Jordan Peterson seems to have affected young men, the Christian piece that was interacting with Peterson, it was—seemed to be kind of dismissing, “Oh here’s another talk about how to be a man” approach—as if we needed more of that, when, in fact, what one of the things that I—we can possibly all agree is we do really need more of that!
TP: Oh, do we! [Laughter] We haven’t got a clue as a culture, and as Christians we can’t but help be affected and infected by all the narratives and thoughts of our world on that—
TP: —that—it keeps wanting to insist that to raise—even raise that question is a kind of … dodgy thing—a problematic thing to do.
DH: Well, our culture doesn’t deal very well at all with polarities. If we mention men, it must be because we don’t like women. Or if we mention the Left, it must be because we’re against the Right. Or those kinds of things. And that’s one of the things that Peterson—
TP: Or if we criticise the Left, it must be because we’re on the Right—
DH: Well, it can only be because we’re absolutely dedicated to a total Right agenda.
TP: Exactly, yeah! It’s not—
DH: And Peterson—one of the clever things about him is that he—he rides this problem in popular culture that we don’t know how to deal with—the yin and the yang—without being either one or the other, and being—therefore being absolutely opposed to the other. And so one of the ideas that he revisits again and again throughout the book is really the—there’s a reason why order and chaos are always together, because achieving balance between them is what makes life work.
TP: Final question, then, David. Should wrap this up; we’ve gone a little bit over time because it’s been fun. Thank you for—for talking about this. Would you recommend that Christians go out and grab the book and have a read? If not, why not? If so, in what sort of way should it be read? Any final words on that?
DH: Well, with all things, it’s permissible. And we’re free to read it. If you’re a regular and diligent Bible reader, you don’t have anything to be concerned about, because the gospel is the perfect love that drives out all fear.
Some of the things he says about the Bible might catch you off-guard. Often that might be because he’s read more of it than you have. But the response to that is read more of the Bible. Don’t be afraid of it. But, as I said earlier, because this is a—an empirical study of how we live in the world and the Bible is there because of works, that’s never enough. The Bible is true because of who Jesus is, and it affects and works in our lives. But it all rests on who Jesus is, what he said about himself and what God vindicated in him. And that is the source of our salvation, regardless of how we manage to live as functional people in the world.
TP: So we might find some useful—useful information and some insights into the nature of life and the world—
DH: Oh yeah.
TP: —that might challenge us, and in particular, that might challenge the normal narratives we get from the world. Here’s a voice from the world saying something different about the world than the normal narratives we get from the world everyday—
TP: —and that’s—
DH: Wise Christians throughout the generations have been telling us that—Calvin, Augustine and so on.
TP: Yeah, yeah. But, though, we shouldn’t read it under any illusions that this is a really Christ-centred gospel-centred way of viewing the world. It’s one thing it’s certainly not. And as long as we don’t mistake it for that, it can be useful. But we—
DH: One of the key thing to remember is that Jordan Peterson can’t give you hope. Only the resurrection of Jesus the Christ and the gift of his Spirit is where we get our hope from.
TP: Well I hope you enjoyed that little chat about Jordan Peterson with David Höhne. I certainly did. Why don’t you tell us what you think? Get in touch, send us an email: our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and our website, where you can find not only back issues and all the archives of all our different podcasts, but articles and video and audio from our public events stretching back several years. You can go to our website at ccl.moore.edu.au.
Thanks for being with us again at the Centre for Christian Living podcast. I’m Tony Payne. ’Bye for now!