I Went to a Dr. Jordan Peterson Lecture. Here is What I Learned

By Jeff Gardner Published on February 22, 2024

Over the past eight years, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson has risen from an obscure Canadian professor of psychology to an internet-driven cultural phenomenon. If you have never heard of him, you are likely in the minority.

Peterson’s following, which is in the millions, is composed significantly of conservative Christians and is driven by the success of his two popular books, the Twelve Rules for Life series and hundreds of YouTube videos. Through his videos, books and public lectures, Peterson preaches a kinder, gentler Ayn Rand-like “You are your own master, so get to it” approach to life.

But unlike Rand and many 21st-century thinkers, Peterson stresses the importance of dependence in our lives: Our dependence on one another and our dependence on understanding how we fit into the created order. As a result, and in a collaboration with The Daily Wire, Peterson released a series of talks focused on the book of Genesis called Genesis: The Psychological Significance of the Bible Stories, in which he explores how biblical stories serve as instructions to unify us and direct our action towards what is good.

Drawing on these talks, Peterson will publish his next book, We Who Wrestle with God, in November 2024. To promote the book, Peterson is on a 51 US-city lecture tour.

What I Learned From Jordan Peterson

My wife and I had the opportunity to listen to Peterson in St. Louis, Missouri, on February 14, 2024. Here is what I learned.

Peterson has a commanding stage presence. At 6’1,” Peterson is tall, lanky, and, as my wife put it, “prowls the stage like a cat” as he talks and gesticulates with his hands and fingers.

By way of subject matter, Peterson spent the evening focused on values, notably Judeo-Christian values and especially what has become of those values in the 21st century. As a trained clinical psychologist and emerging cultural anthropologist, Peterson rightly pointed out that the “facts” of who we are, those things that we assume about ourselves to be “true,” are always filtered through the values that we hold, collectively and individually.

We need to be careful, Peterson noted as the evening got underway, about the stories we tell ourselves because, factually right or wrong, we tend to believe our own narrative, such as “anyone can be a woman.”

Values, as Peterson continued to explain, are passed along through stories. For Western Civilization, scripture, both Old and New Testament, is the collection of stories we must know and understand to make sense of ourselves and direct our actions toward the good.

The Good and the Bad

It is here, in the discussion of “the good,” that the casual listener or someone not well-read in the great thinkers of Western Civilization might get lost at a Peterson lecture. Although Peterson spends a considerable amount of time discussing our duty to do the “good,” he does not define “good” or “bad” as nouns, that is, as things. Rather, Peterson stresses that “good” and “bad” are better understood as adjectives, words that describe the outcome of an action. Thus, Peterson told a packed theater that what is “good” is the outcome of any action, say, trying to earn a living or seeking to be loved, that benefits social conditions and the well-being of others. For example, to provide for oneself, one could get a job and cash a paycheck: These actions organize the social order and benefit its members. This is “the good.” Robbing a gas station as a means to support oneself, on the other hand, disorganizes the social order and is harmful to its members. This is “the bad.”

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This distinction between how we judge “the good” and “the bad” has its roots in great Christian thinkers like St. Augustine of Hippo and is at the heart of the Christian enjoinment to “hate the sin but love the sinner.” The sinner wants fulfillment of a natural desire, but in his actions, he is in the most literal sense, doing it wrong and disorganizing himself and others in the process. How to organize ourselves and the world towards “the good,” Peterson pointed out, is at the heart of Judeo-Christian values and something that we should all deeply internalize.

Is Jordan Peterson Christian?

But is Peterson Christian? During the course of his lecture, he never raised the issue. In interviews and public comments, Peterson has been circumspect about the question, though it is clear that he has been flirting with the Christian faith for years. His wife Tammy, who kicked-off the evening by introducing herself and then her husband, has recently been very open about her conversion to the Catholic faith but has said nothing about her husband.

In 2022, Peterson spoke at an event with Bishop Barron and Father Mike Schmitz in which, when asked about how he “relates his conception of Christ” to that of Christ as God incarnate, Peterson responded that “It seems right,” to him that Christ embodied what he claimed to be, namely, that he was “the King of Kings.” This is encouraging, but it is hardly a confession of faith.

Does it matter if Peterson is Christian? To quote Peterson, “Well, that depends” on what direction he ultimately takes his work on Judeo-Christian “stories” and what he says we should draw from them. If, like Joseph Campbell, who built a career on telling us what Christian stories did and did not mean but then quipped that the Judeo-Christian belief in bodily resurrection was “a clown act, really,” Peterson someday asserts that Jesus was nothing more than a historical figure upon whom we collectively placed our need to believe in a hero, then, well, that’s a problem. If, however, Peterson comes to a place where, like C.S. Lewis, he finds that “I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ,” that would signal a very different chapter in Peterson’s public story.

But throughout the evening, Peterson used stories from the book of Genesis, like that of Creation, the fall of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and even Noah, to walk my wife, me and the audience through an exploration of the all-important values of the relationship between us and God.

Lessons on Relationships

While his presentation was compelling, and this is tricky ground, I am leery of those who dabble in biblical exegesis. Speaking competently about what the Bible “means” requires a deep knowledge of scripture, including its complex history and its numerous linguistic manifestations, and among Christians and non-Christians alike, biblical exegesis is often done badly.

At least on the evening that my wife and I listened to him, Peterson handled the meaning of these stories well, sticking to lessons about relationships and steering clear of any discussion of divine inspiration. The over-arching theme of these stories from Genesis, Peterson asserted, is a sharp rebuke to our modern belief that any of us becomes who we are without a lifetime of dependent relationships. We are designed, Peterson rightly pointed out, to change and grow over the whole arc of our lives. To believe that we do this on our own is a sin of presumption, leading to such horrors (among others) as abortion, which supposes, falsely, that a dependent person is not a “real” person and, therefore, not entitled to protection from murder and mayhem.

The Sin

It was not until the last thirty minutes of his ninety-minute talk that Peterson reached the central point of his lecture: The relationship between Eve, Adam, their expulsion from the Garden, and all the rest of us. Understanding this triad, and especially the sin of Eve and Adam, Peterson said, is key to understanding the principal threat to Western society in the 21st century, namely, that the fundamental sin of Eve, which is echoed down through the ages to the present, is to assume that her compassion was powerful enough that it could redeem anything or anyone. This sin of unrealized pride, Peterson concluded, let evil into Eden, the well-watered place that is within the walled center of Paradise, which might be understood as a blend of our social structures and the natural world.

Adam’s sin, Peterson pointed out, was to accommodate Eve’s folly in the hope of impressing her. These sins, which are not to be understood as gender-specific, currently run amok in our age and, in the name of “compassion” and “accommodation,” are upending our Judeo-Christian social order and all of the benefits we have inherited from it. To “affirm,” that is to accommodate someone in whatever “identity” they take on, is not compassionate. It is an open door to chaos which brings real harm to the person in question and all the rest of us.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As the evening wound down, I couldn’t help but wonder, where, then, is the way back to the Garden? But as he sat and answered a few questions submitted by the audience, Peterson did not say, and his silence reminded me of the psychologist’s joke: “How many therapists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None, the lightbulb will screw itself in when it is ready.” In other words, at least for the evening that my wife and I spent with him, Peterson’s answer to the all-important question of “OK Doc, how do we fix this?” is, “Well, I suppose that’s up to us.”

 

Dr. Jeff Gardner holds an MA in history and a Ph.D. in Communication and Media Studies. For over a decade, he has worked in media, writing and taking photographs for various publications and organizations across North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. His work has been featured in numerous national and international publications and broadcasts. He teaches courses in media, culture and government at Regent University. You can reach him at jeffgardner.online.

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