Will Jordan Peterson Lead People to God? Or Seduce Them With a Substitute?
Dante Witt lays out the best and the worst case scenarios.
Jordan B. Peterson’s the Canadian psychology professor who found 15 minutes of fame while having his life destroyed when he refused to obey a law mandating transgender pronouns. Okay, he didn’t have his life destroyed. To the delight of millions, he survived the attacks of the P.C. mob and skillfully turned his 15 minutes of fame into long-term fame, huge influence over young men, and a second career.
It’s delightful to see someone speak truth to power and end up defeating a singularly irritating Goliath. But still, Christians need to ask: Is Peterson a force for good?
What He Preaches
I’ve listened to a good bit of Peterson. Nowhere near all of his many lectures, but enough to get an idea of what he preaches. I think of him as a character-building coach for guys who don’t play sports, and whose dads didn’t teach them these things.
The gist of his teaching is, “You influence those around you, so get your act together and be responsible.” He’s earned the title “the dad of the internet” by giving good advice on how to discharge your duties to society and family, and how to become the sort of person who can shoulder such responsibilities.
But why should we bother? Peterson has answers, answers that are … unusual.
He isn’t sure if God exists. He greatly admires Jesus, but sees him as a symbolic figure we can imitate successfully without his help. Peterson doesn’t know whether the resurrection happened. He believes in self-sacrifice, the inexpressible value of each person, the infinite importance of truth, pretty much all of Judeo-Christian morality, the fallenness of human nature, and the ultimate worthlessness of seeking happiness instead of truth and love. All of this he believes based on a mash-up of psychological research, evolutionary theory, and Jung’s writings on mythology.
Given that some people who believe that the Bible is divinely inspired by a real live God don’t get this much right, it’s fairly impressive that Peterson does. Yet he has no consistent philosophical ground for his beliefs. He isn’t even sure we have souls. I have seen him talk about how the Bible works as myth, and then admit that it also works as history, biography, etc. Then he sasy something like, “It’s almost as if … Oh, I don’t know.”
But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. As the apostle Paul explains: “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them” (Romans 2:14-15, RSV).
Reverse Engineering Christianity
Peterson seems to be reverse-engineering as many Christian beliefs as he can while remaining agnostic. This doesn’t mean he’s insincere. It may be that his conscience and instincts are telling him things his mind doesn’t know, so his mind finds (sometimes false) explanations for them.
Yes, we’d be more comfortable if instead he were a Southern Baptist. However, if Peterson were a Southern Baptist, he probably would never have become a cult figure. It would have been too easy to label him as a religious nut. No one would have wondered why he was risking everything to call a man “him” and a woman “her.” He would never have convinced many to try to live for the truth and for others.
Those many might never have discovered. The agnostic young C. S. Lewis explained how this works in Mere Christianity. “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good,” nor had a chance to turn to the Cross in humility after learning that about themselves.
Peterson said recently that he will spend the next three years examining the evidence for the resurrection of Christ. If he were a lifelong Christian, he would not have thousands hanging on his words when he begins to examine the evidence for the resurrection.
Best and Worst Case
Best case scenario: The young men listening to Peterson listen more to his you have a duty to those around you message than to his Jungian theologizing. A large portion of society chooses to grow up and help repair American and Canadian society. He converts, thereby converting many of his fans. He converts far more people than if he had been a Christian to begin with.
Worst case scenario: Peterson’s audience mainly absorbs his incoherent theology. They feel morally superior for listening to his get your act together message, without actually getting their acts together. Then Peterson announces he’s disproven the resurrection to himself — and his fans. His fans are inoculated against evangelism because they think they already know what the Bible’s all about: mythology and symbolism.
It could go either way. If that’s not something to pray about, I don’t know what is.