What to make of Jordan Peterson? Some takes, then my own.

UPDATE: Read my post, “Two More Pieces about Jordan Peterson.”

If I remember correctly, I first heard of and listened to Jordan Peterson on an episode of The Art of Manliness podcast. (Or perhaps it was this episode.)

However, I could be mistaken, because Peterson’s been popping up in conversation all over the place in my circles.

Blog posts, podcast episodes, conversations with friends – Peterson has been popping up everywhere, so it seems.

Gerald McDermott’s Take

My old seminary professor, Gerald McDermott, has blogged about Peterson’s new book, “12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos,” saying:

It is a good book, blunt and inspiring.

We live in a time when so many young (and not so young) people feel lost, unsure of how they should approach their lives, or life in general. Mr. Peterson talks about the attitudes that will help find the path. It is not a politically correct or officially approved path, but it is an intensely practical and yet heightened one: This life you’re living has meaning.

Scot McKnight’s Blog’s (Patrick Mitchell’s) Take

Furthermore, Scot McKnight blogged (or rather, published a guest post by Patrick Mitchell) about Peterson’s 12 Rules:

What is he saying?

This is a big question because, as he says himself, he talks a lot, often too much and often at speed. He also covers a lot of ground from psychology, to philosophy, to men and women, to the Bible, to politics, to the world of work and freedom of speech. What follows is a snap-shot, drawn from listening to Peterson over the last year.

And the fact that what he is saying is now seen as ‘provocative’ or ‘radical’ or ‘patriarchal’ or ‘extreme’ says more about a contemporary culture of relativism and victimhood than it does about Peterson. Finding out more about his ‘reputation’, I have had to keep asking myself, ‘am I missing something?’. ‘Is this guy a member of some secret right-wing network?’ For I can’t see the evidence in his academic lectures, written material or YouTube videos.

The rest of the post is a pretty detailed look at various aspects of Peterson’s thought.

The Infamous Channel 4 Interview

Both of those blogs mention Peterson’s now infamous Channel 4 interview where Cathy Newman adopts some pretty aggressive and apparently unfair interviewing tactics (listen for “so you’re saying…,” followed by caricatures of Peterson’s claims):

Other Takes on Peterson

First, here are a couple explicitly “theological” takes:

First Things: “Jordan Peterson, Unlikely Guru” (Matthew Schmitz)

Schmitz’s entire piece is worth reading, but here was the kicker, in my opinion:

What critics and fans alike miss is just how unlikely a guru Peterson is. Though he brims with sympathy for the confused, he is uncertain about where they should go. He advocates for rules but is vague on who should set them. He believes in the importance of religion, but he doesn’t quite have one.

Schmitz concludes the piece with:

Young men look to Peterson for answers, but he is still turning the kaleidoscope, searching for pattern and form. Earlier this year, an interviewer for VICE asked him, “Who is your target audience, who are you trying to reach?” With eyes downcast he said, “Partly me.”

Think Theology: “Peterson, Driscoll, and the Millenial Man” (Matthew Hosier)

Mathew Hosier, at Think Theology, confesses that some of Peterson’s talk of personal responsibility reminds him of Mark Driscoll. Nevertheless, he admits that he thinks Peterson is different than Driscoll:

Whatever the rights and wrongs of what happened at Mars Hill, it is undeniable that Driscoll’s genius was connecting with and motivating young men. They responded in their droves to his yelling at them to take responsibility for themselves and others. He painted a picture of the possible that was more compelling for many Millennials than the needs-based, rights-oriented culture in which they had been raised.

Peterson has observed how his lectures attract a surprisingly large number of young men too. Peterson is a very different character from Driscoll, but his challenge to young men to ‘pick up the heaviest rock you can and carry it’ is strikingly similar. Many Millennial young men seem confused about what it is to be a man and something leaps in them when another man tells them what they can do about it: shoulder a load, take some responsibility, clean your room and make life better for you and for those around you.

Other, less (explicitly) theological takes on Peterson abound:

The Atlantic: “Why Can’t People Hear What Jordan Peterson is saying?” (Connor Friesdorf)

Focusing on the Channel 4 interview, Friesdorf concludes:

…this is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation of Peterson’s views. It is an argument that the effects of the approach used in this interview are pernicious.

For one, those who credulously accept the interviewer’s characterizations will emerge with the impression that a prominent academic holds troubling views that, in fact, he does not actually believe or advocate. Some will feel needlessly troubled. And distorted impressions of what figures like Peterson mean by the words that they speak can only exacerbate overall polarization between their followers and others, and sap their critics of credibility to push back where they are wrong.

Vox: “Jordan Peterson, Explained” (Zack Beauchamp)

Zack Beauchamp has a long write-up on Jordan Peterson in Vox magazine, which concludes:

But Peterson has inextricably intertwined his self-help approach with a kind of reactionary politics that validates white, straight, and cisgender men at the expense of everyone else. He gives them a sense of purpose by, in part, tearing other people down — by insisting that the world can and should revolve around them and their problems.

This painful contrast is on display later in that very interview, in which he explicitly argues that concern for sexism is to blame for the plight of the West’s young men.

“We’re so stupid. We’re alienating young men. We’re telling them that they’re patriarchal oppressors and denizens of rape culture,” he says. “It’s awful. It’s so destructive. It’s so unnecessary. And it’s so sad.”

The empathy that he displays for men and boys in his BBC interview and 12 Rules for Life is touching. The problem is that he can’t seem to extend it to anyone else.

NOTE: From what I know of Peterson, Beauchamp’s take strikes me as unfair. Peterson himself isn’t trying to validate “white, straight, and cisgender men at the expense of everyone else

The New York Times: “The Jordan Peterson Moment” (David Brooks)

In my opinion, David Brooks hits the nail on the head here:

Much of Peterson’s advice sounds to me like vague exhortatory banality. Like Hobbes and Nietzsche before him, he seems to imagine an overly brutalistic universe, nearly without benevolence, beauty, attachment and love. His recipe for self-improvement is solitary, nonrelational, unemotional. I’d say the lives of young men can be improved more through loving attachment than through Peterson’s joyless and graceless calls to self-sacrifice.

However, I wouldn’t exactly call Peterson’s calls to self-sacrifice “joyless and graceless.”

The New Yorker: “Jordan Peterson’s Gospel of Masculinity” (Kelefa Sanneh)

Similarly, I think that Kelefa Sanneh hits the nail on the head here:

Peterson sometimes asks audiences to view him as an alternative to political excesses on both sides. During an interview on BBC Radio 5, he said, “I’ve had thousands of letters from people who were tempted by the blandishments of the radical right, who’ve moved towards the reasonable center as a consequence of watching my videos.” But he typically sees liberals, or leftists, or “postmodernists,” as aggressors—which leads him, rather ironically, to frame some of those on the “radical right” as victims. Many of his political stances are built on this type of inversion. Postmodernists, he says, are obsessed with the idea of oppression, and, by waging war on oppressors real and imagined, they become oppressors themselves. Liberals, he says, are always talking about the importance of compassion—and yet “there’s nothing more horrible for children, and developing people, than an excess of compassion.” (This horror, he says, is embodied in the figure of the “Freudian devouring mother”; as an example, he cites Ursula, the sea witch from “The Little Mermaid.”) The danger, it seems, is that those who want to improve Western society may end up destroying it.

Alright, time for some thoughts of my own.

My Current Take on Jordan Peterson

First, he’s definitely on to something.

There’s no denying it, Jordan Peterson is striking a chord. And, I believe, that’s at least partially due to the fact that he’s RIGHT.

Despite the existence of structural sins and systems of oppression, it simply will not do to blame the world for all of one’s problems. At some point, we must take responsibility for our own lives.

I believe that the Christian doctrine of the imago Dei — of humans being created in the image of God — can theologically underwrite Peterson’s emphasis on responsibility. We humans have been created by God and given stewardship over the earth (see Genesis 1-2). Perhaps, despite the effects of the Fall (see Genesis 3), we have more control over our lives than we might realize.

Furthermore, there’s plenty of content in biblical Wisdom Literature (see Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, especially) to support what Peterson is saying about how to live your life in a way that fights back against the chaos of the world.

And yet, his individualism worries me.

Sure, we’re created in the imago Dei, and that means we have control and responsibility for our lives.

And yet, humans are communal creatures. So, if we overemphasize individual responsibility, we might end up underemphasizing the ways in which we are responsible for one another, including — and especially — the oppressed and the outcasts.

Now, Peterson is prone to claim that any talk of systemic oppression these days is due to the Radical Left, but I don’t buy his over-generalizations on that count. The Bible seems to bear witness to the existence of structural sin, and Christians must take systems of oppression into account as they discern how to follow Jesus.

Granted, Peterson isn’t simply saying “it’s every man for himself, forget about the losers.” He’s much more nuanced than that.

But still, I find his views of the world — at least as expressed in 12 Rules for Life — to be more individualistic than the account I see in Christian Scripture.

Furthermore, he seems to fall into the very trap he attempts to avoid: victimhood.

Peterson is trying to provide an alternative, a middle way, to the Radical Left and the Radical Right. However, some of his rhetoric about the Radical Left — justified though it may be in certain circumstances, given what appear to be widespread mischaracterizations of his thought! — sometimes seem to fall into the very trap of “victimhood” that he encourages his audience to avoid.

It goes something like this: Peterson claims that it’s the Radical Left that’s oppressing people — specifically, men — by insisting that people are either oppressors or the oppressed.

Again, Peterson’s not flat-footed or unnuanced about this, but in some of his less-careful moments, he seems to fall into what he’s labeling as the Radical Left’s trap by painting himself and his audience as victims of a Radical Leftist conspiracy theory.

Then again, perhaps that’s because Peterson’s been the target of quite a few misinterpretations and attacks. Maybe he gets some grace to have certain less-careful moments, as it were.

And yet, if he’s really going to provide a middle way between Right and Left ideologies, he needs to avoid the victim/oppressed rhetoric consistently.

Finally, he plays fast and loose with divine revelation and religious traditions.

I think it’s great that Peterson has respect for religion and religious narratives.

And yet, I think it’s pretty awful that Peterson feels free to float lightly above all religious narratives and basically craft a Petersonian “meta-religion” of his own out of the bits and pieces of religious narratives that he finds most useful and compelling.

Sure, sometimes his theological interpretation of biblical texts seems pretty thought-provoking, excellent, and faithful to the Christian tradition. However, at other times I find myself bracing at the idiosyncrasies of his interpretations — not to mention the ease with which he pulls in building blocks from various traditions to craft his own narrative. It makes me wonder if adherents of other religious traditions would feel a similar unease when their narratives are used in such a construction project.

By respecting all/most religious traditions, Peterson may very well end up respecting no particular religious tradition. As a Christian theologian, I find that troublesome.

He’s worth reading.

After listening to the book on Audible, I bought myself a physical copy of 12 Rules for Life.

I plan to read the book again and discuss it with friends. It’s currently the top non-fiction book on Amazon for good reason: it’s thought-provoking and it will get you thinking deeper about how to live your life in this world.

Those Amazon links above are affiliate links. It’s a no-extra-cost way to support my writing. If you click the link and buy something, I get a small commission.

If you do end up reading or listening to Peterson, let me know what you think!

By joshuapsteele

The Rev. Dev. I solve problems with a pastor's heart for people and a programmer's eye for detail. Learn more at https://steele.omg.lol/

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