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Peterson vs. Christianity: On Being, Suffering and Meaning

by Cole DeSantis

For anyone who has spent enough time on the internet, one name that will come up is Dr. Jordan Peterson. A pop intellectual of sorts, he has, over the course of the past two years become an internet superstar in his own right. Dr. Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, who gained popularity in 2016 for his critique of a Canadian law which threatened to impose fines on those who refused to use the proper gender pronouns of transgender/transsexual individuals, if such misgendering was believed to have been done maliciously, and thus could be classified as hate speech. Peterson claimed that this law could easily be abused to censor speech concerning the nature of gender and sexuality which members of the transgender/transsexual community disagree with or find offensive, and thus could shut down honest or authentic dialogue or debate. [1] He has also claimed that such measures bring about a forced or contrived development in how the larger language and culture speaks of sexuality and gender identity. While open to future changes, he has claimed that such changes need to occur as the result of organic developments within the language and culture. [2]

 

Since then, Peterson has developed a larger social view centered on an anti-political correctness and an anti-SJW worldview – and, by extension, an anti-post-modernist worldview, since Peterson sees post-modernism as the main culprit in the rise of political correctness and the radical ideologies surrounding it. His consistent view is that proponents of this ideology thrive off of considering themselves as “victims” fighting against what they perceive as an “oppressor,” and desire sympathy and intervention from the government and larger society as the main means of resolving their issues. This runs counter to the attitude he promotes, namely one of taking responsibility for ones actions and trying ones best to cope with the problems of life. [3] Peterson has thus gained a reputation as a self-help guru of sorts, which can be seen in his most recent book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

Peterson has an extensive knowledge of psychology, as well as of philosophy and literature. He has even dabbled in the field of theology, recently delivering a lecture series on the Bible (though he has spoken on the topic of God and religion frequently over his career). While not a Christian [it’s complicated – Peterson self-identifies as a Christian for practical reasons, i.e., for Christianity’s social and ethical importance – but tends in a more agnostic direction concerning the existence or non-existence of God], he has defended Christianity as being more philosophically and ideologically nuanced than what its enemies say, and claims that the preservation of religion is necessary to maintain the larger ethical framework of civilization. (He interprets the Biblical stories in accordance with the Jungian notion of the archetypes). [4]

 

If we compare the thought of Peterson with the thought of the big names of Christian thought we can begin to perceive a truth which Christians have known for some time, namely that secular thought can approximate to the truths of Christ, but is ultimately incomplete without it. As early as the A.D. 2nd century, this was something which St. Justin Martyr picked up on. Noting how one of the terms used to describe the Second Person in the Trinity was the same term used to describe the Stoic concept of the universal principle of rationality (Logos), St. Justin Martyr brilliantly synthesized these two concepts together by claiming that the ability to think rationally was bestowed onto the soul by the Divine Logos (Christ). This capacity to think rationally was known by St. Justin as the logos spermatikos (“the seed of the Logos,” or, broadly, “the seed of reason”). The presence of this capacity within the soul, and our use of it, is the means by which we participate in the Divine Logos. Prior to the Logos manifesting Himself in His fullness to us, by literally assuming flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, reason was man’s best tool to know God. Any who think and act rationally thus know part of the Divine Logos. Yet, the reason for error and contradiction within the thought of those who lack faith in the Gospel is because they do not know the fullness of the Logos. This can only come about by faith in the Christian religion. [5]

 

 

A side-by-side comparison of Peterson’s thought with that of any major Christian thinker can easily show the truth of what Justin said. Peterson has stated his belief – now a staple of his thought – that a certain amount of our suffering is caused by our own failures and wrongdoings. Yet, there is a certain amount of suffering that is built into existence. The inevitability of suffering is “a fundamental ontological truth,” “a fundamental statement about the nature of being,” and “an integral part of being.” And human self-awareness, which creates an awareness of suffering, only increases our suffering. Yet, we need to ask the question, “Does existence or life justify the sometimes unbearable amount of suffering we undergo? Is that on account of which we suffer worth it?” Peterson states that, “[T]he process of asking and answering these questions underlies everything you do all the time.” Peterson postulates that life or existence is worth the suffering we undergo, since that which causes suffering is inseparable from that which gives life meaning, namely limitations. Humans are finite beings, and the universe by comparison is infinitely complex. When limited humans go up against an exponentially complex universe, the limited nature of our being will inevitably cause pain and hardship. Yet, if there are no limitations, there can be no direction, and thus no meaning. He compares it to a game: we cannot play a game meaningfully without limits. Of the potentially infinite number of ends we could act towards, we need to chose a specific one; of all the logically possible ways we could attain that end, we need to chose a specific set of means by which to attain that end. Rules thus represent limitations, but these limitations give the game a specific order and meaning. Because there are limitations, there is suffering and hardship; but, because there are limitations, there is also direction and meaning. We thus need to fix that which we have it within our power to fix, and for those things which we cannot fix, we need to bear our hardship with a sense of patience, searching for the meaning lying beneath our suffering. By this we transcend our suffering. This thus makes Christ an “axiomatic” figure, particularly within the West: one who suffered unjustly, but who bore His sufferings for the sake of a higher good. [6]

 

Living by this philosophy is, in Peterson’s view, better than the alternative, which is to act out the resentment that we are frequently tempted to have as a result of the pain and suffering we experience. This can be seen in the character of Mephistopheles, one character in Johann von Goethe’s play Faust. This character is similar to the devil, in that he is the perpetual antagonist of God and of being as such. Why would the character of Mephistopheles adopt such an attitude? In the creation story, every time God creates something, He declares it to be good; yet, the philosophy of Mephistopheles is the opposite: existence is full of despair, suffering, and violence. Existence is not something to stand in awe of or revel in, but rather something to mess with or antagonize. Life is not worth living. There is nothing in life worth appreciating or loving. This is the mindset of people who suffer with suicidal tendencies: their life is so out of control, they believe that it would have been better had it never happened. People who commit suicide want to have the final say – they end their life on their own terms, and in doing so end the pain. Yet, in spite of ending the pain for themselves, they make it worse for those around them.

 

There are thus two modes of living: one which justifies our existence and makes it tolerable, and another which makes life miserable. This is what is represented by the story of the Fall: man obtains a certain level of self-consciousness or self-awareness, whereby he realizes that he is finite and flawed, sometimes severely so. Yet, the rest of the Biblical narrative from there on out is centered on the question, “Given our knowledge of the way things are, how can we live our life in a meaningful manner?” The entire Biblical narrative is a dialogue between these two ways of life. [7]

 

All of this presupposes that there is an objective meaning underlying life. This was, in fact, a point that Peterson raised earlier this year during a lecture at the University of Toronto: meaning and value is not something we create, but rather is something we discover. [8] Peterson, in many ways, accepts the Jungian notion that the self encompasses both everything man is and everything man could be. Man has the potential to improve himself, to change for the better. If man, in the present, can gain some insight into what his full potential is, that will illuminate a path forward which is meaningful. And, to some degree, this includes walking the line between order and chaos. We are constantly pushing the limit of what is possible. The fullness of man’s potential is unmarked territory; what man is now is what is familiar to him. To remain in the latter state is complacency; greatness and meaning comes when man pushes the limit of what is possible. When man pushes the limit of what is possible in a way that is meaningful, he is reaching another level of potential without falling into a mentality of, “I can do whatever I want,” which is complete chaos. Peterson uses the yin-yang symbol to represent this: the white represents order, the black represents chaos, and meaning comes from walking on the line between these two things. We see this, for example, with athletes: when an athlete unlocks another level of their physical (and to a certain extent psychological, emotional and moral) potential, and do something amazing, the reaction from the crowd is born out of the athletes feeding into our inborn sense of meaning. [9]

 

The problem with Peterson’s view can be summarized in the question: What is human potential? If meaning stems from man being all that he could be, what is man meant to be? And this is where Christianity comes in. One of my favorite Christian thinkers of our time is Dr. David Bentley Hart. In 2007, Dr. Hart delivered a lecture at the University of Minnesota titled “Nihilism and Freedom: Is There A Difference?” He begins his lecture with a story of a student at the University of Virginia, where Hart briefly taught. The student, in spite of being a top student, decided to commit suicide. The exact reasons were never discerned, but it was later discovered that his friends knew about it, and said nothing. This showcases an underlying mindset: That’s the way he wanted to go out; who are we to tell him he’s wrong? His choice to kill himself was valid on the grounds that that is what he desired.

 

Such is the modern view of freedom. The modern Western view of freedom places the right to free choice at the center. Yet, this represents a deviation from the Classical and Christian view of freedom, so much so that Hart was prompted to say in the lecture: “The whole history of  modern political, economic, and social doctrine is to a large degree the long, laborious history of Western cultures’ departure from a certain Classical and Christian view of freedom that worked very differently.” Modern conceptions of freedom center on the question, “What does man have the right to do?” The Ancient and Christian view of freedom centered on the question, “What does it mean to truly be man?” From the perspective of Ancient and Medieval thought, man was seen as having a particular telos – end, purpose or goal – which man’s nature was ordered towards on a fundamental level. Freedom rested in acting in accordance with such an end. [10]

 

Within the context of such a view of freedom, having a well-defined understanding of what man’s telos is is of the utmost importance.  The modern conceptions of freedom separate the right to freedom of choice from man’s ultimate purpose, therefore leading to nihilism. The abandonment of the concept of God is, in many ways, the final death toll to the traditional view of freedom, for how can man be truly free, in the modern sense, if there is a Higher Being Who controls all things, Whose Will is the driving force of history? God’s freedom and sovereignty thus becomes a competitor to human freedom.

 

In the Christian tradition, man’s telos is union with God. But, that wasn’t the only view in Antiquity. For Aristotle, it was to live a life of virtue in accordance with reason, which was expressed in its highest sense in the forming or participating in a just, rational society; for the Stoics, it was union with the Logos (the overarching principle of rationality and order). Most Ancient Greeks defined man’s telos in terms of happiness, but usually this happiness had a certain specific character, which can be seen in the different terms used for happiness in Greek thought (i.e, ataraxia, which means “calmness” or “imperturbability”; eudomania, which means “to have a well-ordered soul,” that is, a soul ordered by virtue).

 

For the sake of argument, let’s take the Christian perspective as the end-all and be-all (this is a Catholic website, by the way). Man’s end is happiness. Happiness is seen as blessedness or beatitude. What does this beatitude rest in? It rests in seeing God (Matthew 5:8), in being the beneficiaries of His mercy and justice (Matthew 5:6-7), in being sons and daughters of God (Matthew 5:9, Galatians 3:26, Romans 7-8 [especially 8:14]), in undergoing hardship and persecution for the sake of God’s kingdom (Matthew 5:10, 2 Corinthians 12:7-9), in becoming members of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 5:3b, Matthew 5:10b). This thus requires purity of heart, the longing for peace and justice, mercy, humility and an openness to His grace. In a word, happiness, meaning and fulfillment rests in a relationship with God, which reaches its epitome in union with God in heaven.

 

Both Peterson and Hart would be in agreement that life is not without purpose. A meaningless existence is no existence at all. Both have spoken out against the nihilism of our time. But, without getting into the accuracy of his evaluation of any particular school of thought, Peterson has laid the blame for contemporary nihilism squarely at the feet of post-modernism, whereas Hart, to some degree, sees it as a function of modernity’s warped understanding of freedom. Nihilism, atheism and materialism is merely the final stage of it. [11]

 

 

Now, Hart claims that we ended up where we are due to the voluntarism of Late Medieval and early modern thought, which saw Divine sovereignty merely in terms of God having unlimited power and using that power without any limits. It didn’t take too long before this view was applied to man. [12] One can debate the historiography which Hart presupposes, but as a Catholic I see some truth to his larger point: when the Classical and Christian view of freedom is lost, a context which saw a close connection between freedom and objective meaning, values, and moral obligations, nihilism quickly follows. Peterson sees the value of such a mindset, but does not fully or completely endorse it. Hence, Peterson grasps at straws to retain at least a vaguely Judeo-Christian worldview, but comes up short.

 

What is the “Petersonian” view of the meaning of life? It seems reasonable to say that one is approximating to an overarching, Petersonian definition if one were to say: the purpose of life is to take responsibility for ones actions and maximize human potential, so that one could reduce that suffering which could be prevented or alleviated, and accept and cope with that suffering which cannot be alleviated with with a sense of dignity (and hopefully in the process we can find some meaning in our suffering). Good start. But, to ask a question that touches at the core of Peterson’s philosophy, why should I alleviate or bear my suffering? Why is my life or the life of anyone worth it? What is that on account of which I bear my suffering? What is the standard by which I can find meaning in suffering?

 

Without a full embrace of the Judeo-Christian worldview, such a view will be unable to answer such questions. Interestingly, one may find Peterson’s general philosophy to be edifying, but one aspect of Peterson’s philosophy that he has been somewhat ambiguous, even elusive, about his religious beliefs. What he does say about his core religious beliefs are, from a Catholic (or more general Christian perspective), disappointing. [13] Don’t get me wrong: some of his insights on religion and the Bible are interesting and thought-provoking. Nonetheless, his views are best expressed by Matt McManus at Quillette as “classical liberal principles filtered through secularized Judeo-Christian values.” [14]

 

To show an example of this, and why it, of itself, is insufficient, we can look at the lecture he delivered at the University of Toronto cited earlier. He was one of three speakers to speak on the question, “Is there meaning to life?” The weaknesses of Peterson’s view can be seen when compared to another speaker present – another favorite of mine – Dr. William Lane Craig. Both men’s speeches were, in a sense, predictable. They put forward points that they had frequently put forward previously put forward in other speeches and debates. Yet, there was a certain precision to Craig’s speech which was absent from Peterson’s. Craig asserted that God is the source of all morals and values, since God is the source of all good, and therefore God is the objective standard for goodness. Thus, from a Christian perspective, there are two alternatives: either you can deny God, and lack anything to ground our sense of meaning and values, or you can accept the existence of God, and life can have meaning. Peterson, on the other hand, asserted that meaning is something we discover, something which manifests itself to us while in the process of doing something worthwhile, as we discover that what we are doing is worthwhile. We need to thus look past our limits, our suffering, our hardship and find that which makes even our suffering worthwhile. Good point, but he should and must go further: what is the standard by which we are able to look past our suffering and see that which makes life worthwhile? What is it that makes our suffering bearable? THAT is at the heart of the question.

 

I think this shows that Peterson is, first and foremost, a psychologist and a clinician. He’s not here to tell you what the meaning of life is, with the same level of precision as an ethicist or a systematic theologian; he’s here to help people who are, psychologically, caught in dire straights, showing them that there is a way out, that there is a way in which they could discover objective meaning, and thus cope with their suffering. Yet, insofar as Peterson does have a very specific set of philosophical, moral, and social concerns, he seems to be caught in that strange middle ground found among those who, while rejecting the more radical views of late modernity and being sympathetic towards the more traditional Christian worldview, do not explicitly endorse the more Biblical worldview in its fullness. Yes, asking questions, debating, looking at things from different perspectives, is important, even necessary. Reality is more complex than the more simplistic interpretations of a black-and-white, this-or-that, mentality. Yet, in the end of the day, there are objective truths, including in the spiritual realm. One of the most fundamental spiritual truths is the Gospel message. When faced with the Gospel message, there are only two options: you can either accept it or reject it. There is no middle ground. Christ makes it clear: “He who is not with Me is against Me…” (Matthew 12:30). You can have all the debate and dialogue in the world in being led to the acceptance of the Gospel; you can dialogue and debate ad infinitum in order to deepen and nuance your view of the Gospel once you accept it. But, you can either accept it, or reject it. There is objective meaning, and, from a Christian perspective, it derives from our union with God. And, the Gospel message is: mankind cannot obtain such an end by their own effort due to sin, but they have been granted a way out by Jesus. Any search for a sense of meaning apart from this is ultimately in vain, and any search for meaning that approximates to this will stumble upon some aspect of the truth, but will ultimately be incomplete.

 

Sources:

  1. Jordan Peterson, “2016/09/27: Part 1: Fear and the Law.” Published on September 27, 2016. Accessed on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=418&v=fvPgjg201w0 (watch also, “Jordan Peterson Debates Linguistics Professor On Gender Pronouns,” June 28, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=339&v=E1PeOfbT_q0)
  2. “Transgender Professor INSULTS Jordan Peterson, Gets OWNED With Ease.” Published on March 19, 2018. Accessed on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=civE8_5SDYg
  3. “Jordan Peterson – Life is suffering, so get your act together!” Published on March 4, 2017. Accessed on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLvd_ZbX1w0
  4. “Jordan Peterson Discuss Sam Harris’ View Of Religion.” Published on June 25, 2017. Accessed on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjYQ48t4C8U
  5. For a more in-depth analysis, see St. Justin Martyr, First Apology, chapter 46, and Justin Martyr, Second Apology, chapter 10. These texts can be accessed online at: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm (First Apology) and http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0127.htm (Second Apology).
  6. “Jordan Peterson: Suffering & those with serious problems.” Published May 24, 2017. Accessed on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMoiwoZl_B4 (see also source #3)
  7. “Jordan Peterson – Is Life Worth The Suffering?” Published September 20, 2017. Accessed on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h194kSmK3SQ
  8. “Is There Meaning To Life? Jordan Peterson, Rebecca Goldstein, William Lane Craig.” Published January 26, 2018. Accessed on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDDQOCXBrAw
  9. “Jordan Peterson On The Meaning Of Life.” Published on February 1, 2018. Accessed on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rU64s0_38AE
  10. “David Bentley Hart – Nihilism and Freedom: Is There a Difference?” Published on April 15, 2016. Accessed on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ua2bSSO1iV8
  11. ibid.
  12. ibid.
  13. See, for example, this excerpt from Dr. Peterson’s speech after receiving the Canadian Values Award (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGaEcAeTiP0), in which he defines the term “logos” as the “coherent inerpersonal communication of the truth,” by which order is extracted from chaos. More specifically, Peterson states that the mindset underlying the Judeo-Christian perspective is that the world is chaotic, but by speaking and acting out the truth, we bring order into the world, and thus make it habitable. It is a concept that Peterson describes as having its roots in the very earliest days of civilization, even long before then. It was a common theme in most Middle Eastern mythology, and it was expanded upon with systematic precision in Jewish and Christian thought. An interesting thought shows the interconnection, at least on a literary or thematic level, between the Hebrew Scriptures, Ancient Near Eastern literature, Hellenistic philosophy, and traditional Christian thought, something which is well-established among scholars, but which is also the source of much interesting debate and discussion. Yet, where Peterson falls short is when he describes the order brought about by the logos as “the negotiated social agreement that we all come to, so that we can live among each other without tearing each other to shreds…” This seems to imply that the world is chaotic, and the default behavior for humans is self-interested chaos. Civilized society is meant to provide us with a way to live ordered lives amidst the chaos of the world. A valid sociological opinion, but it still fails to grasp the traditional Christian view of the logos as the Second Person in the Trinity. It is a personal entity within God, not a set of abstract truth claims or social norms. The order which reflects the Divine logos is not just correct human behavior guided by the truth, or in organized social structures, but is something even more fundamental – namely, the order of creation itself. See John 1:3, Romans 1:20, and pretty much any work of Christian natural law theory. In light of Peterson’s view, Christ is merely “the ideal man,” and the doctrine of the Incarnation amounts to “the instantiation of the logos in the body so that it is acted out in the world.” All of this represents a rationalized interpretation of the Incarnation. Concerning the resurrection, as of yet, Peterson has remained agnostic on the nature of the Resurrection. While he is open to new opinions, he has not affirmed the historicity of the Resurrection. In one interview, when asked whether he was a Christian, his first reaction was, “It depends on what you mean by Jesus.” When further pressed concerning whether he believed in a literal, historical Christ, and a literal, historical resurrection, he then went on to say, “I would have to say that at the moment I am agnostic about that issue, which is a lot different than saying I don’t believe it happened.” He goes on to imply that, since our view on the relationship between consciousness and the body, time, and corporeality and death in general is limited, the Resurrection is, in many ways, a mystery. He further says, “I don’t understand the structure of being well enough to make my way through the complexities of the Resurrection story. I would say it’s the most mysterious element of the Biblical stories to me…” (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIB05YeMiW8; see also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bDd2hXZPzb4) Elsewhere, he associates the concept of death and resurrection, or death and rebirth, with this rationalist interpretation of the logos, saying that the logos “dismantles you and rebuilds you.” Learning from our mistakes and improving as an individual means dying to our old self and being recreated in the image of the logos. For some people, this happens to such an extent that the experience literal death, but a certain select group of people are so conformed to the logos that they transcend death itself. In the case of Christ, this means that “His spirit lives on,” where “spirit” is taken to be a “pattern of being”. Jesus’ mode of existence is taken to be axiomatic or archetypal, and thus can inspire others, have an influence and be imitated long after his death. What this means on a historical level is not clear from the text. (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPIh1xQiuI8) That the early Church believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is clear, I believe, from the New Testament itself, particularly in St. Paul’s treatment of the resurrected body in 1 Corinthians 15. For all the questions it raises, it still, in my opinion, clearly presupposes a belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ. Peterson’s claims could be said to be valid, and I personally believe he raises some good points on these topics; nonetheless, Peterson here seems to show the desire to affirm the existence of a transcendent meaning that guides man’s life and gives it meaning, one which is rooted in the Biblical worldview, without actually endorsing the Christian worldview. Thus, Peterson’s religious view may represent the first step towards acceptance of the Gospel message, but ultimately fail to encapsulate its core meaning.
  14. Matt McManus, “Post-Postmodernism on the Left.” Quilette. Published on June 13, 2018. Accessed on: https://quillette.com/2018/06/13/post-postmodernism-on-the-left/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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