Jordan Peterson: A Theological Perspective
by Jacob Sparks
In the fall of 2016, a relatively unknown professor of psychology at the University of Toronto took the world by storm when he publicly opposed Canada’s bill C-16, which had the stated aim of “protect[ing] individuals from discrimination… as a consequence of their gender identity or their gender expression.”(1). This professor, a man named Jordan Peterson, claimed to the contrary that the bill violated Canada’s freedom of speech protections by forcing compelled speech, namely by compelling government employees to use transgender pronouns of any given individual’s choice. Peterson’s opposition to bill C-16 sparked protests at the University of Toronto in which he was compared to fascists and Nazis for his unwillingness to use transgender pronouns. He has since grown in popularity among those who agreed with his opposition to bill C-16 and grown in notoriety with those who opposed his opposition (2).
Now nearly two and a half years later, Jordan Peterson has immensely grown in popularity, particularly for his YouTube lectures discussing practical applications of modern psychology. He has become a public intellectual and social commentator who openly advocates for adopting personal responsibility, believing in objective morality, and bettering oneself to the greatest degree possible; he also openly criticizes the effects of postmodernism, political correctness, Neo-Marxism, and third-wave feminism on society. In the midst of all of this, he has published a book titled 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos in which he attempts to lay out general guidelines for living a more fulfilling and moral life. He has also produced a series of lectures on the psychological significance of the book of Genesis and commentated frequently on the concept of God and the positive societal consequences it can have.
Both Peterson’s book and his lectures on psychology have been immensely helpful for me in my personal life during difficult times. His book features profitable guidelines that are clearly based in Christian morality, such as tell the truth, pursue what is meaningful, and assume the person you are listening to might know something that you don’t (3). More than this, his reasoning for why to follow such rules is also profoundly Christian. For example, Peterson explains his rationale for his second rule (“treat yourself like you are someone you are responsible for helping”) by saying that Genesis 1 teaches us that because “God creates the world with the divine, truthful Word [Logos]”, the way we are to help ourselves (and others) is by “speaking out of chaos the Being (4) which is Good- but to do so consciously, of our free choice” and that thereby we begin to “embody the Image of God.” This is a remarkably Christian way to frame why we should care about how we treat ourselves and others.
And yet Peterson himself is not a Christian, at least not in any traditional sense of the word (5). He simply claims to be seeking out truth by exploring religious texts and recognizing the common archetypes therein. As a result of this, he has even drawn on texts that are explicitly rejected by Christianity: for instance, he openly quotes and attempts to interpret the gnostic gospel of Thomas in his book 12 Rules For Life. But Peterson is popular even among non-Christians, many of whom are now beginning to see the value in Christianity for the first time in their lives. He has managed in some way to make the value of the biblical narrative apparent to people who may not believe in its literal truth. He certainly has utility as someone who is able to show mainstream culture the value of religion without actually being religious himself. An Orthodox icon carver and author, Jonathan Pageau (who also happens to be friends with Peterson), puts it this way in his interview with the YouTube channel Rebel Wisdom (6):
Pageau: Jordan [Peterson] is obviously not a Christian. I’ve even said that Jordan is obviously a heretic… a lot of the things he says are completely wild. But I think that the way he’s talking about things, about these [biblical] stories… is not weird at all for traditional Christians. The idea that there are different levels of meaning in the text is very traditional… I think that Jordan has found a way to talk about it using neuropsychology, using the psychology of attention, using also evolutionary biology that is definitely surprising people... I think the fact that Jordan is not Christian is actually extremely helpful right now.
Rebel Wisdom: I think the media would stop listening to him immediately if he said that he was [a Christian].
Pageau: Exactly…. he’s not threatening to people. They don’t feel like he’s going to try to convert them…
But Peterson himself understands that there are limits to his views. He knows he can only go so far with having a purely metaphorical and psychological understanding of the Bible. Peterson said the following when asked directly whether he believes in the literal truth of Christianity and the resurrection of Christ (7):
Peterson has also had enough exposure to Orthodox Christianity to have a good grasp of how Orthodoxy tends to think. And, based on his own comments, he seems to be quite fond of Orthodoxy (8):
He clearly understands the Orthodox mode of salvation as theosis, as becoming more and more like Christ as we participate in his divine life and thus become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). It is of no small value that he has given good publicity to Orthodoxy to hundreds of thousands of his followers online, and we Orthodox should be very thankful for that.
I like Jordan Peterson. He has had enormous value in causing the culture to reconsider Christian ideas seriously, and he has helped the Orthodox a great deal by his positive comments towards us. But until Peterson puts his faith in the literal and bodily resurrection of Christ, there will be a threshold to how much he will be able affect and influence the culture.
1: “An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code”, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_Act_to_amend_the_Canadian_Human_Rights_Act_and_the_Criminal_Code
2: “Jordan Peterson”, Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jordan_Peterson
3: Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Random House Canada, 2018).
4: Peterson explains earlier in his book that he is using the term “Being” in a philosophical way to refer to God. However, his use of the term “Being” is similar to what God says to Moses in Exodus 3: “ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν”, which literally translates to, “I am The Being.”
5: Here I use the word “traditional” to refer to belief in the literal life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
6: “’Jordan Peterson the Heretic’ with Jonathan Pageau”, YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vzMwDKP-cUw
7: “Jordan Peterson: Does God Exist?”, YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfvVu7__vy0
8: “Jordan Peterson – Thoughts on Orthodox Christianity”, YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDqWnzr3V2c