The Church, The Christ, and Jordan Peterson

By Esther O'Reilly Published on February 18, 2018

Like many people, I had no idea who Jordan Peterson was until last month. Most of you likely saw the interview with Channel 4’s Cathy Newman that turned him into the stuff of viral memes. It’s unheard of for a 20-odd-minute video to generate 7 million views, but this one did, and people have been trying to figure out why for weeks, including Peterson himself.

My sophisticated hypothesis? It was cool. It was cool because Peterson kept his cool, and because he looked cool doing it.

But apparently, we’re late to the party. Dr. Peterson has been stirring things up since the fall of 2016, when he spoke out against a Canadian bill that mandated preferred pronoun usage for transgender citizens. The bill passed, but people took notice. By 2018, he had already attracted a large YouTube following by uploading his lectures on life, the universe and everything for free, topics including but not limited to: the Bible, Jungian archetypes, communism (he’s not a fan), and old Disney movies (he’s a fan). Then The Interview happened.

One month later: The news cycles have moved on, and the memes are fading, but we’ve been getting to know Jordan Peterson. We’re reading his book, whose release coincided with the viral interview in a perfect marketing accident. We’re binge-watching his lectures. And the verdict is in: We really like him. But we have a few questions.

Questions, Questions

Who is Jordan Peterson? Is he the new Messiah? Is he the stupid man’s smart person? Is he a high-brow Joel Osteen?

Short answers: No, no, and no — quite the contrary. Of the three, only the author of the first piece linked agrees with me (seems obvious, but some fans say yes — really).

Here’s the big one: Is he a Christian?

No. Importantly no. We’ll get there.

But first, who is he?

He’s a clinical psychologist. And a good one too.

The Tragic Visionary

Right now, there might be someone outside the Church who understands human nature better than Jordan Peterson. I haven’t found that person yet.

Just watch him speak on marriage, on “real Marxism,” on sin, or on suffering. This is what it looks like when an intellectually honest modern man wrestles with the ways of God and men. It’s a gift. Celebrate it. And take notes.

Self-help pabulum sells, but that’s not what Peterson is selling. His words have weight. They are defined by what Thomas Sowell called “the tragic vision” of life: There are no solutions. You can’t “fix” the world. But if you pick up your cross and bear it, you can make life merely tragic and not hell.

Young men are lining up to hear this. Why? They’re hungry for truth, and Peterson speaks it with clear eyes and a full heart.

So, if Christians are to contend with the professor (and we must), we first need to understand the void he is filling. And we need to admit that this void does not only exist “out there.” As Dr. John Mark Reynolds aptly put it to me, “He is what young men need and the church is not giving: straight talk that is smart.”

This is not to ignore the yeomanly work of pastors like Alistair Begg, Matt Chandler, Tim Keller, and others. But one glance at the best-selling Christian books of 2017 proves that mainstream American Christianity is being smothered with fluff. If our teenage sons would rather stay home and watch Jordan Peterson on YouTube than go to youth group, can we honestly blame them?

Professor or Preacher?

For a guy who doesn’t go to church, the professor has ushered a surprising number of people through her doors. Some have called him their “gateway drug” to Christianity. Perhaps it’s because he forces men to confront what they already know: Truth matters. Human beings are valuable. Sex is not casual. Marriage vows are sacred. Children are blessings. Good and evil are real, and the fabric of your life is woven with choices for one or the other.

This is not mere “moralism,” mere “family values.” This is the breaking in of the natural light on souls walking in darkness. We cannot underestimate its saving power.

But neither can we overestimate it. Because the surest way to annoy Peterson is to ask him outright whether he believes in God.

Why? He thinks it’s the wrong question to ask. It’s not the point. The point, as he tells us here, is this: “I act as if God exists.” If you ask him if the Bible is true, he will ask you what you mean by truth. It is true insofar as it teaches us to live not by lies. But did the stories happen? Who can really say?

And what of Jesus? “Is his resurrection real?” Pause. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Aye. There’s the rub.

Pay Attention

In a recent interview with Catholic show host Patrick Coffin, Peterson said he needs “three more years” to understand the Resurrection. When LifeSite snapped it up, Peterson tweeted the report with the comment, “Some Christians aren’t so sure about me,” clearly enjoying the speculation. But his remarks to Coffin ring sincere. Indeed, throughout his work, he presents as the kind of guy who knows what he doesn’t know, but wants to know.

So should we be worried? Well, consider this comment, from that Twitter thread: “As an atheist who lost his faith years ago. Your talks have made me realize that the veracity of the historical Jesus and a literal interpretation of the bible is not necessary. It is in fact the least import [sic] part of the Christian experience.”

Are you still taking notes? I hope so, because there will be a test. And Jordan Peterson can’t take it for you.

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Be Prepared

Jordan Peterson has got this much right: You’re not good. You’re pretty bad, actually. And you’re not strong. You’re breakable, and brutally so.

So can you be good? Can you be honorable? Can you be strong and courageous? Can you love what is good and hate what is evil? Can you do that which you ought to do and leave off that which you ought not to do?

Well, you can try. But without Christ crucified and resurrected, Christ seen and handled, Christ with fleshy, pierced hand outstretched across the bridge of history, over the gulf of time, you will fall. And you will die.

So, fathers in the church pew, be prepared. Mothers in the church pew, be prepared. Be prepared to give an answer when your son asks you why the resurrected Jesus is not only necessary, but real. And not some pat, pre-packaged answer either. It’s not enough to rattle off a list of “minimal facts” and be done with it. You must make the argument your own and touch it with the color of your own imagination. You must study the opposition and ask yourself honestly if you have the evidence to rebut it. If you do not, you must gather that evidence, piece by piece. Do not let skeptics bully you, and do not let scholars patronize you — scholars conservative, liberal or otherwise. Because your son is not asking them the question. He is asking you.

Be prepared, but be of good cheer: What you seek, you will find, for God has not left Himself without witness.

A Note for the Doctor

There is much I would say to Jordan Peterson, if I could. Perhaps next decade, when he’s not the most wanted man in the world.

But on the off chance that he should read this, I will say this much: Dr. Peterson, you said once that you are afraid God might exist. That’s good. To not be afraid would be lunacy. God is not safe. He is not tame. And He asks your life of you. But you know this.

You are a man of science. You deal in evidence. You do not accept glib soundbites in answer to your questions.

So here’s what I ask of you. You have no doubt read John 19:34-35 many times: that moment of vivid, piercing specificity when blood and water flow mingled from Jesus’ side. I ask you to read it again. Read the words of the evangelist: “And he that saw it bare record, and his record is true: and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye might believe …”

I hope your next three years are fruitful. I hope that you find what you seek. There are some of us who would gladly assist you in the search. You have but to ask.

For now, I leave you with an encouraging thought:

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

— John Updike, “Seven Stanzas at Easter”

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  • jamie pate

    Just discovered J Peterson a few weeks back. I immediately liked him. And I immediately wondered why no one in the church talked like him. Thank you for this provocative article on a provocative man.

    • Ken Abbott

      Ravi Zacharias talks like this. Os Guinness talks like this. R. C. Sproul talked like this. John MacArthur talks like this. The problem is, those men don’t dance around the claims of Christ but make those central in their speech, which creates a stumbling block for many. Peterson, for all of his good qualities, does not do this, as Ms. O’Reilly aptly observes, and therefore is more acceptable to the broader culture.

      • Jeff Weddle

        Well said, Ken. There’s a reason Peterson is popular: he appeals to our humanistic nature that can rescue itself. It’s the conquering man conquering himself and then the world. Rather the opposite of “You must lose your life to save it.”

        • Esther O’Reilly

          This is a little bit simplistic, because Peterson is very much aware of the idea of losing one’s life to save it. He discusses it in some detail, in fact. The concept of sacrifice fascinates him and is a running theme throughout his work–the notion of laying down or killing the part of yourself that is evil (he calls it “letting insufficiencies burn off like deadwood” — in a refiner’s fire, if you will). The problem is that he believes this is a work one can accomplish on one’s own steam.

          • Jesse Pals

            This problem, you say, is why I’m confused by your description of JP’s teaching as “natural light” and that we can not underestimate it’s saving power. What do you mean by saving power?

          • Esther O’Reilly

            Good question. Ask a Catholic! In all seriousness, as someone who still lands on the Protestant side of the Tiber I cannot make the claim that good works will earn you a spot in Paradise. But I will say this much, which I have concluded from reading Lewis: the more you orient yourself towards The Good (as Peterson puts it, echoing Catholics) and follow what light you have, the closer you are to a place where you might receive Christ. If you teach yourself to love good things and hate evil things, you are bringing yourself into alignment with the mind of Christ whether you believe in him or not. Thus, you are in a position where the prospect of a relationship with him will make more sense and have a stronger pull for you.

            Peterson is already way ahead of most atheists in interpreting the Old Testament, for example, because he understands the justice of God’s actions in them. The fall, the flood, the giving of the commandments, etc., all resonate for him in a logical way. So where an atheist would dismiss God as cruel, childish, and never to be worshipped, Peterson sees we can’t brush God off so lightly, and we would do well to examine our own sinful frailty instead for the cause of our misfortunes.

            So in some sense, I do think Peterson’s work is having a salvific effect, to the extent that it is opening people’s eyes to the knowledge of good and evil, which many people have said put them on the path to theism and Christianity. Ironic that the man himself should still be wavering while others walk through the door ahead of him.

          • Ken Abbott

            Paul congratulated the Athenians on recognizing “the Unknown God.” At least it was a start.

          • stefanie lorimer

            God works in sovereignty through all the good gifts he has given us. To think that JP’s intellect in the pursuit of truth can not be used by our saviour to shed light into other mens souls is nonsense. The Holy Spirit can illuminate all truth, and does, leading to ‘saving power’ in your own heart.

  • BillySunday

    The cursing in this article is surprising for this site, and inappropriate.

    • Jay W. Richards

      Fair point. Sorry we missed that.

    • Esther O’Reilly

      One of the only two extremely mild instances is a quote from Peterson himself. And John Zmirak has said “damned” in his own voice on this site before. No offense was intended, but I did nothing that hasn’t been done on the site before.

  • JCC

    I took notice of JP some month ago and I commented to my teenage daughters. To my surprise they knew about him since a year or so. The eldest told me that he is catholic “just he doesn´t know yet. He needs to read Tolkien for that”.

    • David MacKenzie

      Jordan Peterson grew up inside the liberal United Church of Canada in Northwestern Alberta. Thankfully, that experience didn’t toxify him fully, nor did it vaccinate him against the quest for Truth.

  • David MacKenzie

    Yes, you are a little late to the party, and, given Canada’s tendency to be a progressivist canary-in-the-mine, you might want to note the Canadian situation more closely, in general.

  • stumpc

    You cannot think your way to God. You can collect the evidence, learn the arguments, practice the virtues but in the end is a step of faith. It will always be that day. If you have an honest conversation with God in which you are willing to listen to the answer, it will come.

    • Esther O’Reilly

      It doesn’t need to be a blind leap. As a Christian rationalist, I believe God can lead us to Him through reason and through the mind. I have seen it happen.

      • Howard Rosenbaum

        Right – though biblically speaking, faith is never “blind “. It sees things not seen with the naked eye . It is by faith that we understand ….

  • Paul

    Glad I took the time to read this article

  • Bill Nesbitt

    My exposure to JP is limited, but that is going to change. He strikes me as a pre-Christian C.S. Lewis. My concern is that without the guidance of the Holy Spirit he may be continuously distracted from the Cross by the Enemy, despite JP’s monstrous intellect. I would love to hear his response to questions like: Is there an absolute morality that exists independent of humans? If so, how can that be without a Divine Moral Lawgiver? If not, on what basis can we condemn Isis terrorists finding meaning through their struggle (jihad)? The Christian worldview is not religion, it is reality. It is verifiable by historical evidence, experience and reason in the illumination of Scripture. The celebration of the truth of Christianity is often so cloaked in religious jargon and behavior that it can become vulnerable to attack or ridicule, or generate conflict among different Christian groups. The essence of Christianity, however– Biblical, proto-Christianity–is a true description of the reality of the universe, the same as particle physics or cosmology. JP is very close to seeing the obvious. We really need to pray for him. Blessings.

  • Sherri

    He sounds like he’s on a journey that Lee Strobel was on that resulted in his conversion to Christianity…I had not heard of him but will look him up. I’m grateful for the journalistic integrity that I find on The Stream; even if I disagree with the writer, I appreciate the challenge.

  • Maria

    It would be interesting for Jordan Peterson to read Rene Girard. The Bible from a social anthropological perspective – Girard takes us closer to Revelation as true from the human perspective.

    Peterson did say he took metaphysics seriously. It seemed that he knew this held a key. I do think the question of life itself, which is existence through our limited participation in God’s absolute existence is the key to our ultimate human reality. The necessity of Christ overcoming death for us in Resurrection is then apparent to our human cognition. Aquinas has the key to true metaphysics of existence.

  • Heygeno1

    I’m sure he KNOWS HOW to be saved but like all of us – we need to humble ourselves to come to God. JP is a very proud man. He has said many times that he has to weigh out his answers to questions because ( he never wants to slip- OR be wrong ) . He relies on Jung and pretty much seems to idolize him ( 00gle “Jung occult” ).
    I think he could be ( is dangerous too strong a word ? ) to snowflake christians ., because he teaches “godliness w/o God”.
    I think your article sums him up well Ms. O’

  • stefanie lorimer

    He is on my fasting/praying/intercession list for the next three years, that he will “choose Life” and escape the Chaos.

  • Mo

    Thank you so much for this! I’ve been watching him for a while. I love many of the things he says. But I’ve been a bit turned off – not by him so much, but by his followers. If you see the comments people write in response to his videos, it’s gotten a bit cult-like. He does say some important things. But people seem to be wanting him to fix their entire lives. Even if he had the power to do that for one person, it’s not humanly possible for him to personally counsel all his fans!

    I had not the heart yet to hear any comments on Christianity. I figured he wasn’t one, but I wasn’t sure if he was hostile.

    I’ve actually been praying for him and need to continue. I’d watched quite a few videos, and then went back and saw an earlier one, a bit before he became so popular. He looked like a different person. I realized then how tired and haggard he looked in the more current videos I had been viewing.

    This worries me, and continues to worry me. He’s seemingly EVERYWHERE. He often looks exhausted. And he’s embarking on a big tour soon as well. He does seem passionate about helping people. But he’s not the savior of the world. Only Jesus holds that title.

    Thanks again for reminding me to pray for him. I quite like the guy, from what I’ve seen. But he does seem like he’s doing way too much. And people are most certainly expecting too much of him.

    • Esther O’Reilly

      I’m glad you enjoyed it Mo! Yeah, some of the comments are cray-cray. I’m sure he would do a headdesk if he saw some of them. People are pinning their hopes on him, and that weighs heavily on any good man who knows himself too well.

      He is open about the fact that he’s clinically depressed. He also works like a machine. He seems to think he’s doomed to make a mistake and go down in flames. At this point he is so stubborn about embracing a literal view of a God who offers real atonement that while one hates to wish for something like this, it’s intriguing to wonder whether he could be brought to God by some catastrophic personal failure.

  • Shannon Kessler

    Excellent article! You identified the youth’s hunger for deep truth that must be addressed by Christians rather than the “fluff.” My family have been on to Dr. Jordan Peterson for a few years and are pleased to see him gain a wider audience. We pray that he will come to know the Lord personally just as another famous intellectual, C.S. Lewis did and like him continue to pursue and write/speak the truth from that perspective as well.

  • Chris Fellows

    To me, “I act as if God exists” is the best answer to the question ‘Do you believe in God?” If you’ve ever lain awake at night thinking about what the words ‘to believe’ really mean, and asking yourself if you really believe in God or not, especially if you’re used to thinking as an experimental scientist, you will find the meaning of ‘believe’ fading into cobwebs and moonbeams. There is no way you can compel yourself into a feeling of belief; you can keep fretting about it, and go mad like William Cowper, or you can resolve to act as if God exists, and pray “I believe; help my unbelief.” YMMV…

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