So why is he so popular? David Brooks argues that prior generations and institutions have failed young men and Peterson is filling the gap. He writes, “Parents, universities and the elders of society have utterly failed to give many young men realistic and demanding practical wisdom on how to live. Peterson has filled the gap.”
And yet: if young men of the world have been failed by prior generations and institutions, would the same be true about young men in the church? While it’s impossible to give a definitive answer, the ever-growing contingent of young, Christian men who are following Peterson anecdotally suggests that the answer is, “Yes.”
In light of this, should Christians listen to Peterson? Is he filling the gap that families and churches have failed to fill (I am not claiming this but merely asking the question)?
What Do Christians Think of Peterson?
If social media can give us a sense of someone’s influence, then we can safely say that many Christians follow Peterson. And we probably all know someone or at least have heard of someone who appreciates Peterson and is a Christian.
And Christians are now starting to publicly discuss Peterson. For example, Louis Dizon outlines four themes that he discovered in Peterson’s work, many of which he finds agreeable to Christianity. Alastair argues that Jordan Peterson can teach pastors to communicate better. And on January 26th, 2018, Peterson spoke at Wycliffe College, the Protestant wing of the University of Toronto.
Christians, thus far, appear to like Peterson.
What Is Peterson Saying?
One thing seems clear: Peterson advocates that all people should pursue virtue and avoid seeing themselves as victims. Life is suffering, and we ought to accept that and pursue what is good and worthwhile. In short, he is giving a robust vision of human flourishing to young people, especially young men.
Here Is What We Should Be Concerned about:
Being. Peterson argues that Being is central to life, but this doesn’t include the Transcendent Being we know as the Triune God. So while some of his language overlaps with how we understand reality, there’s a fundamental difference. We confess that God is Father, Son, and Spirit. He does not.
Heroism. When it comes to practical living, Peterson understands life as a heroic pursuit of meaning despite Being (the entirety of our lived experience which includes suffering). And to some degree, he is right. Apart from outside intervention, we live our lives enslaved to the fear of death (Heb 2:14-15).
To avoid facing this fear, we find meaning by living out a heroic myth—we pursue excellence at work, we try to get better day-by-day, we work 80 hours a week to prove ourselves, we gain more and more followers on Instagram, and so on. And yet this is an expression of being is life long slavery to death, the realm of Satan (Heb 2:14).*
Christ’s incarnation and all that he did (e.g., the resurrection) frees us from this slavery to death, from this pursuit of heroic meaning. We are free from the dominion of principalities and powers; we’re their worst enemies (Eph 6:12). We’ve no compulsion (slavery) to pursue excellence at the cost of our family and church.
Peterson, therefore, rightly affirms that life is a heroic pursuit of meaning despite suffering, but he has yet to accept the next step: Christ sets us free from this pursuit, because the pursuit of meaning (defined in this way) is really a denial of death.
Order. Peterson argues, thirdly, that life is suffering and we ought to bring order to chaos, to find meaning within Being and make the best of it. But this is essentially a hopeless or a non-eschatological view of humanity. Christianity, in contrast, teaches a deeply eschatological view of hope. We suffer for the joy set before us.
Competition. Next, Peterson advocates competitively succeeding for the benefit of self and society. So, certain traits like compassion or kindness may not always bring the greatest benefit in Peterson’s paradigm. And yet: Christianity teaches that certain virtuous traits are good and may, in fact, lead to bad results (you will suffer for my namesake, says Jesus).
Bible. Lastly, Peterson reads the Bible by divesting it of its historical significance. Instead, he excavates the archetypal truth in the biblical stories that he is studying. For example, Romans 6:23 (the wages of death is sin) is, for Peterson, about failing to prepare and so dying (12 Rules for Life, 157). In contrast, Christians understand sin to be a moral failure that offends God, which results in death (the wages of sin are death).
So should we listen to Jordan Peterson? Only if we listen to him critically, discerning what is good and what is not, what is wheat and what is chaff.
*I owe these insights to Richard Beck’s The Slavery of Death.