For the past year and a half, Professor Jordan Peterson has become an unlikely hero to millions and a fierce critic of the radical left’s ideological agenda. Peterson’s impact cannot be overstated. His book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, has topped many sales charts including Amazon in the anglosphere (despite a deliberate exclusion from the New York Times bestsellers list). He has over a million subscribers on YouTube and close to 600K followers on Twitter. Through such a wide reach, he is literally rescuing a generation of young men who have been emasculated by a decadent society hostile to male virtues. Western societal elites are strangely bent on denigrating them and subverting the traditional sociobiological roles of both males and females. Women are feeling the brunt of this as well since they, for the most part, desire strong, faithful, and competent men with which to build a family. Given the aftermath of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, there have been unprecedented rates of sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, widespread abortion, absentee fathers (including those pushed aside), broken homes, and acrimonious custody battles. Due in large measure to these trends and the feminist ideology that justifies them, distrust between men and women is at unacceptably high levels.
In Canada, Peterson has been in a dogfight against the destructive effects of identity politics that stifles free speech. He has opposed the compelled use of made-up gender-neutral pronouns advocated by Bill c-16, which became federal law last June. I have dealt with this issue at length in two articles, which can be found here and here. The destruction of the traditional family has made it harder to resist threats to common law rights and that loss of liberty has put the future of Western civilization at risk.
A Christian Ally
12 Rules for Life is geared at offering a cure to these great malaises of modernity. Unlike, his first book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, which stands as a very dense academic treatise of various complex subjects, 12 Rules for Life is a more accessible read. Peterson demonstrates over 20 years of experience as a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology. He aims to help people transcend their pain and suffering through bearing the burden of life by taking up their own “cross,” as he states:
How could the world be freed from the terrible dilemma of conflict, on the one hand, and psychological and social dissolution, on the other? The answer was this: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of Being and to take the heroic path.
He offers sound and motivating advice to help avoid many of life’s common pitfalls such as addiction, depression, lack of meaning, resentment, etc. Overall, the book is a strong refutation of the nihilistic tendencies found in our contemporary culture. It is also offers an accurate outlook on the harsh realities of existence while simultaneously offering a viable path forward to combat evil and suffering. His emphasis on personal responsibility over instant gratification answers a deep need for meaning in every human heart that too often is left unsatisfied.
The book’s 12 rules are not mean to offer an in-depth theological reflection, nor an erudite exegesis of biblical texts, but rather, practical advice through the lens of a clinical psychologist who is extremely well equipped to provide antidotes to both individual and collective pathologies. It is not surprising, therefore, that a practitioner of a modern discipline would employ modern philosophical language. For example, when Peterson uses the term “Being” he does so in a Heideggerian sense. In brief, Being encompasses the totality of human experience—what we experience at the individual level and in relation to others. It refers to the phenomenological experience of reality or what philosopher David Chalmers has dubbed “the theater of experience” (with all five senses). Our capacity to exercise free will in the world allows us to experience Being, to know reality.
One of the strengths of Peterson’s book lies in his use of Carl Jung’s archetypal psychology to interpret biblical texts. This is done in a masterful way that has captivated the secular mind. Nonreligious truth seekers are increasingly willing to learn about the wisdom contained in sacred scripture due to Peterson’s ability to package his message it in a non-threatening way. Because of the way he uses scripture, nonbelievers are rethinking their secular views and are returning to the Church. Peterson is a friend of Christian belief, not an enemy. He is doing more for Christ than many Christian ministers, theologians, and philosophers (I can attest to this first hand). But don’t take my word for it. One of the greatest Christian apologists of our time (in my humble opinion) has stated recently on his podcast about his discussion with Peterson that he didn’t have to evangelize because Peterson was doing a good job preaching the Gospel!
Another reason why Peterson is an ally to Catholics is his opposition to the postmodernist and neo-Marxist infiltration of Catholic institutions. The “philosophies” of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and Jean-François Lyotard have penetrated deeply into the psyche of both Catholic philosophy and theology. The influence is made unabashedly explicit. The associated Frankfurt School and critical theory are taught at reputable Catholic universities. Peterson’s public challenge to cultural Marxism makes him an ally to Catholic theology and a critic of theological dissenters.
It is undeniably true that Peterson’s tendency to focus on God as an abstraction of the collective unconscious, rather than a God who affects our personal lives is inadequate because it does not convey the whole Christian message. Having said that, Peterson is refreshing in how seriously he takes Christian texts and the role they played in the formation of Western civilization. He has chastised atheists like Sam Harris who believe we can develop our own morality without reference to God. In other words, Peterson acknowledges that we cannot design our morality because right moral conduct is built into the structure of “Being.” In theological language, morality that works conforms to the natural law. Furthermore, without the transcendent there is no grounding for objective morality and what is left is relativistic and subjective. Apologist Frank Turek has critiqued this atheist delusion in his book Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case.
Confronting Evil with Good – a Mode of Transcendence
The section “Vengeance or Transformation” in chapter 6 is the most powerful passage of the book. Peterson’s deep reflection here suggests that he is moving toward “the way, the truth and the life.” It is here that Peterson confronts evil in its most radical manifestations. He also understands that if evil exists, so must goodness. Implicitly he recognizes that there is a way of discerning between the two. Despite showing much openness, for the time being he is hesitant to identify a metaphysical source for goodness. Nevertheless, he did tweet a link to Gary Habermas’s “minimal facts” concerning the death and resurrection of Christ. By recommending the work of someone who specializes in the historical evidence for the resurrection, Peterson appears willing to consider the historicity of the gospels.
Peterson juxtaposes those who repay evil with evil from those who transcend this vicious cycle. For the former, he draws on the example of a brutal rapist and serial killer, Carl Panzram, who brutalized his victims to compensate for the suffering he endured due to the malevolence of others. His crimes were a desecration of the image of God, not only in himself but in other humans he wrought his vengeance upon. Ultimately, writes Peterson, they are an attack on God. In this category you can take your pick of other serial killers, mass murderers, and ruthless demagogues who have inflicted unspeakable suffering and injustice on others. Because nihilistic materialism denies both good and evil, it inevitably leads to unrestrained suffering. Peterson appeals to Nietzsche as a prophetic voice who foresaw the totalitarian mass murder of the twentieth century due to modern man’s “murder” of God.
Peterson contrasts Panzram’s evil with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s personal transformation. Solzhenitsyn suffered at the hands of both Hitler and Stalin. He had been imprisoned in 1945 for distributing anti-Soviet propaganda. During his time within the gulags he had the opportunity to reflect deeply upon his life. Solzhenitsyn endured tremendous amounts of psychological, physical, and spiritual torment. But, instead of allowing his resentfulness and bitterness to consume him, as it did Panzram, he underwent a radical transformation. He took inventory of the things he had done wrong and found ways to repair the failures of his past life. Inspired by this experience, he wrote the 3-volume Gulag Archipelago that served as an intellectual death knell to the pernicious ideology of communism.
This intense introspection into the deep and terrifying caverns of our own moral consciousness, is where the fundamental message of his book lies: we must turn our own personal suffering into goodness so as to transform the world beginning with ourselves. In other words, stop complaining and bear your cross. In line with this is the notion that, if we take seriously Christ’s words from the Sermon on the Mount, we would begin to usher in God’s Kingdom today (Matt. 5:43-48).
Peterson: The Well-Tempered Antidote to Modern Chaos
Despite my significant disagreements with Peterson, which are laid out here and here, his book offers a message that we surely need in our desperate times. I recommend it to anyone who dares embark on the adventure of regenerating themselves through first acknowledging and then confronting the true evil that lurks in their hearts. In order to transcend our broken selves, we must let parts of ourselves die, to bring order out of chaos, as Peterson states:
In the Christian tradition, Christ is identified with the Logos. The Logos is the Word of God. That Word transformed chaos into order at the beginning of time. In His human form, Christ sacrificed Himself voluntarily to truth, to the good, to God. In consequence, He died and was reborn. The Word that produces order from Chaos sacrifices everything, even itself to God. That single sentence, wise beyond comprehension, sums up Christianity. Every bit of learning is a little death. Every bit of new information challenges a pervious conception, forcing it to dissolve into chaos before it can be reborn as something better. Sometimes such deaths virtually destroy us.
There is an interesting similarity with Peterson’s antidote to chaos (restoration of order) and the late philosopher and literary critic, René Girard’s mimetic theory. In this theory, Girard argues that the best way to transcend chaos, groupthink (ideological possession), violence, and evil is through Christ’s words and ultimate salvific act through the cross. Girard, like Peterson, was a skeptic and a great admirer of Dostoyevsky. His conversion was influenced by reading Dostoyevsky and had consequently become a committed Catholic. Whether Peterson will follow suit remains to be seen. But, whether he acknowledges it or not, the ultimate antidote to chaos lies with the One who relies on no-one; the only One capable of restoring the most hardened of hearts. We must surrender ourselves to the one uncreated Being, who gives being and potentiality to all of creation, without which there would be no order, no chaos, but pure nothingness.
In February of 2017 in Ottawa, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Peterson. I had mentioned to him that I was working on an article that began as a conference paper where I pit him (defender of truth) against Jacques Derrida (wishful mortician of the absolute). He asked me to send it to him. One thing that struck me about Peterson, aside from his intellectual capacities and his ability to captivate audiences, was his patience and his humility. He is doing his part to rescue a troubled civilization; will we do ours? Peterson has flung down the gauntlet; who is willing to take up his challenge?