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Jordan Peterson: an antidote to chaos?

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Posted by Tom Woolford, 6 Feb 2018

Tom Woolford watched That Interview of Jordan Peterson by Cathy Newman, and was persuaded to read his book. In it he finds more of Peterson's persuasive 'common-grace wisdom', despite its many sub-Christian, un-Christian and even anti-Christian elements.

If you use the internet enough to have found this blogpost, you will almost certainly have seen references to That Interview between Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson and Channel 4 News’ Cathy Newman.

If you haven’t watched the full half-hour exchange (like 5.5m already have), go and do so now. I’ve wagered with half a dozen people who claimed not to be interested that if they watch just five full minutes of the interview, they could then close it down if they so wished and I wouldn’t nag ever them again to see it. They have all watched the whole thing from start to finish. A one-word text, five minutes in, from my initially sceptical brother: “Hooked.”

Peterson was ostensibly promoting his new book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos; but the interview was mostly conducted on the basis of provocative things he had said in his lectures, broadcast on YouTube to a vast and fast-growing, mostly millennial, mostly male, cohort of devotees. How well Newman had prepared for the interview and how well she comported herself during it have been much debated and discussed; but what everyone who has seen the interview is agreed upon – from opinion-formers as diverse as The Spectator and The Guardian – is that Peterson was erudite, fun, and persuasive.

Among the subcultures with whom Peterson in his interview struck a chord was conservative Christians, many of whom wondered if Peterson was one. His devastating, evidenced critique of such things as gender ideology and campus ‘safe spaces,’ his warning that an antihuman nihilism undergirds postmodern culture, and his promotion of the traditional biological family could fit into a Christian Institute brochure. Peterson is self-professedly not, in fact, a Christian; which while obviously saddening, does bear a tactical advantage in the cultural battle – he is someone who cannot be ignored on the basis of unbelievers’ prejudice about us ‘bigots’ whose authority comes from an ancient book.

While atheists can’t dismiss him because he shares their methodological naturalism and inhabits their godless cosmos, Christians struggle to understand how his method and worldview produces cultural medicaments so close to their own. Perhaps it should surprise us less than it does: after all, the truth is one – the same God wrote both the ‘Book of Nature’ and the Book of Scripture – and how family, law, politics, economics, and society should be ordered is within that realm of ‘civic righteousness’ in which the Reformed conventionally believe common grace to be generally operative. But surprise us it does, if not because we believe that what Peterson perceives is beyond the ken of natural man, then because a secular voice contending in the public square for the merit, beauty, and wisdom of traditional structures and values is these days unspeakably rare.

Peterson gave the interview with Channel 4 to drum up interest in his new book. I was most interested – and fair’s fair: I bought it, and read it this week. Plenty of other Christian bloggers (of much more note) have done likewise:
Matthew Hosier usefully summarises each chapter and compares Peterson to Mark Driscoll.
The inestimable David Robertson has introduced Peterson and reviewed the book (again, chapter by chapter) in more detail.
The Peterson interview itself is analysed by Alastair Roberts for the benefit of preachers and for men in general.
Similarly, James Cary provides a commentary on the interview.
Of course, the prophetic voice of the Chairman of the Prayer Book Society, Prudence Dailey, shames us all by forecasting the rise of Peterson back in 2016.

To the book, then. 12 Rules is superficially a ‘self-help book.’ The 12 rules are supposed to help readers know themselves better and become more contented, resilient, and successful. But don’t let its claimed genre put you off – though there are paragraphs of personal pep-talk, this is really a book in which the author deploys his knowledge of the disciplines of psychology (Freud, Jung), philosophy (Nietzsche), sociology, political theory, evolutionary anthropology, and comparative religion, to analyse current cultural mores and malaise. Marxism (now morphed into a cultural, rather than purely economic/political form), relativism, and postmodernism emerge as the unholy Trinity that still drives Western culture toward the same nihilistic, antihuman totalitarianism of the concentration camp and the gulag.

As intimated, Peterson’s critique of such things does not emanate from a faith commitment, but from a position of good old-fashioned liberalism – freedom of thought, speech, association, religion, and the market. Peterson’s is, however, a liberalism that is self-consciously aware of its great debt to Christianity; and though not a Christian apologist, Peterson’s high regard for the lessons of Scripture mean that God’s Word is approvingly quoted and thoughtfully exposited (in a fashion, and sometimes very poorly) in every single chapter. The Bible is, however, treated not as the supreme authority revealed by God, but as a reservoir of supreme illustrations of what humanity’s greatest sages have realised and articulated long before science confirmed it. For this reason, Peterson will expound Hindu Vedas and the Tao Te Ching with equal reverence, if not equal frequency, to the Old and New Testaments.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Peterson’s professional experience, his greatest strength lies in his analysis of the human condition. He regards humanity as being made ‘in the image of God,’ as being ‘fallen,’ and as awaiting ‘redemption.’ Peterson will even use these very terms – though each concept has been radically re-cast to fit Peterson’s evolutionary metanarrative (for example, Peterson’s version of the Fall becomes the origin of self-consciousness, and is therefore at least morally ambivalent). Despite their corruption, however, the imago Dei and the Fall of man in Peterson’s treatment preserve enough overlap with the biblical notions to make his analysis of what it means to be human relevant, refreshing, and revealing. It is in (again, theologically unsurprisingly) Peterson’s version of ‘redemption’ that the greatest gap between his and our anthropologies opens up. The cross of Christ enjoys a remarkably high profile in the book, and is linked with the punishment of hell and vicarious suffering; but for Peterson it is an ingenious philosophical ideal and noble exemplar – it is not an event in history with power to save. Salvation, then, is the individual’s own quest (it is, after all, marketed as a self-help book!), not the gift that comes through faith in Christ crucified.

Despite its many sub-Christian, un-Christian, and even anti-Christian features – which mean it must be read with care and taken with a whole cellar-full of salt – there is a great amount of common grace wisdom in this book that we can mine to inform our public theology apologetic. Peterson’s arguments have the potential to become a significant ‘minority report’ against the seemingly-unstoppable broader cultural narrative in the West in the next decade or so – a sort of ‘antidote to chaos,’ as the book’s immodest subtitle has it. But we mustn’t be uncritical: though he is something of an ally in a cultural war against a worse common enemy, we must not allow our co-belligerence to mask our fundamental differences. 12 Rules illuminates the contours of both Christians’ commonality with and divergence from Peterson better than The Interview or others of his You-Tube hits. Reading 12 Rules with a critical Christian mind will, I think, make you a more discerning disciple of Peterson in the years ahead; able to appropriate what truly accords with revealed Scripture in a way that speaks powerfully and persuasively to Millennials who, it seems, are increasingly ready to see that the Emperor of the cultural zeitgeist has no clothes. If we are going to deploy Peterson’s arguments (and I think for the most part, we should), we do well to know their genesis as well as our Genesis.

Tom Woolford is the curate at All Hallows Bispham.

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