Book ReviewsTheological Anthropology

The Bleak Gospel of Jordan Peterson

On paper, I am someone who should be a tremendous fan of Jordan Peterson. Like Peterson, I care greatly about the centrality of symbolism and narrative in human lives, particularly as bulwarks of meaningfulness in an increasingly chaotic world. Like Peterson, I reject the view that history is little more than a chronicle of illegitimate oppression. Like Peterson, I think the pop-cultural touchstones that move us most strongly are those that tap into universal structures of human experience, which often manifest in something akin to Jungian archetypal forms. Like Peterson, I believe that human beings are happiest when they live in ways consistent with their finitude, rather than seeking to escape it—such as settling into family life rather than desperately trying to “keep options open” forever. And like Peterson, I tend to think young men in particular crave heroic and mythic understandings of life, over against those who would promote an entirely desexed neoliberal paradigm of production and consumption.

And yet despite all this common ground, I’ve always instinctively felt that a certain shadow hovers over Peterson’s work. As salutary as the insights in books like 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos and Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life may be, it’s hard not to notice that a large chunk of Peterson’s fan base could properly be described as “alt-right”—by which I mean overtly anti-egalitarian, committed to a version of “natural law” that would generally sanction the domination of the weak by the strong. No doubt Peterson himself, as a longtime scholar and critic of totalitarianisms, would reject such a social theory, and his writings take a positively anti-ideological stance. And of course it would be unfair to indict Peterson himself on the basis of views held by a portion of his fanbase. But from a certain academic distance, the question seems worth asking: is there something latent in his project that, despite Peterson’s own best intentions, naturally tends toward conclusions that he himself would find loathsome?

More significantly, though, Peterson’s higher-order metaphysical commitments have often remained opaque. His books are shot through with invocations of cosmic powers—order, chaos, Being—but the ontological status of these principles is profoundly unclear. Are the philosophical arguments of the past about genuinely mind-independent realities, or are they simply explorations of the necessary psychological structure of human experience? Precisely the same question was once posed to Carl Jung, Peterson’s intellectual predecessor, by Jewish philosopher Martin Buber—and characteristically for him, Jung demurred, pleading the limitations of his own psychoanalytical approach. In his own words to Buber:

I make no transcendental statement. I am essentially empirical, as I have stated more than once. I am dealing with psychical phenomena and not with metaphysical assertions. Within the frame of psychical events I find the fact of the belief in God. It says: “God is”. This is the fact I am concerned with. I am not concerned with the truth or untruth of god’s existence. I am concerned with the statement only, and I am interested in its structure and behaviours.

With such a major issue unsettled, how, then, should one begin to approach Peterson’s lengthy discussions of subjects like Christianity and the Bible? The question, after all, is one of “master narrative”: is the Christian faith “true” (perhaps in a metaphorical sense) because it expresses the psychological truths so powerfully explicated by Jung, or is Jungian thought true because it describes the structures of the intellect created by a transcendent God? It does no good to simply assert that “both can be true,” because these two traditions diverge at an important point. In his Answer to Job, Jung sought directly to revise what he viewed as problematic elements of the Christian tradition, specifically by articulating a concept of God as containing “evil” within himself. At some level, Jungian and orthodox Christian claims conflict, and it’s far from clear where Peterson himself comes out on the matter.

Questions like these lie at the heart of Christopher Kaczor and Matthew Petrusek’s new book Jordan Peterson, God, and Christianity: The Search for a Meaningful Life (Word on Fire Institute, 2021), the first comprehensive treatment of Peterson’s own theological commitments. Indeed, the question of symbol and referent is perhaps the overarching issue throughout the volume, beginning with Peterson’s analysis of the Book of Genesis and culminating in the melancholic ethical reflections of Beyond Order.

From the start, it should be noted that Jordan Peterson, God, and Christianity is not, strictly speaking, an academic text. In lieu of attempting a grand synthesis of Peterson’s views and evaluating that schema in turn, it proceeds step-by-step through Peterson’s biblical commentaries, 12 Rules for Life, and Beyond Order, offering remarks along the way about points of convergence and disagreement between Peterson’s claims and Catholic tradition. Kaczor and Petrusek’s assessment of Peterson is, all told, largely positive: across his corpus, they identify a number of crucial themes such as the multilayered nature of biblical interpretation (contra a crude across-the-board literalism), the unavoidability of arguments from natural law in the cultivation of a good and meaningful life, the role of narrative in human beings’ journeys through time, and so on. In particular, they highlight Peterson’s proficiency in communicating these themes to audiences that otherwise would never encounter them.

Never far from view, though, is Kaczor and Petrusek’s strong metaphysical realism—a conclusion, they rightly note, toward which Peterson’s work naturally points. Kaczor and Petrusek point out that, residual Jungian skittishness about the noumenon notwithstanding, it doesn’t make much sense for Peterson to praise virtues like truth-telling and to explore the salience of sex difference if those ideas don’t actually correspond to anything objective. If beliefs in such things are no more than therapeutic fictions, on the basis of what standard can Peterson critique those whose comforting delusions skew in a more deconstructive direction? Some kind of realism is clearly implicit throughout Peterson’s work—what else are his appeals to evolutionary biology, such as in 12 Rules for Life’s famous lobster discussion?—and Kaczor and Petrusek appropriately drive that point home.

To my mind, though, the core challenge of Peterson’s “theology” doesn’t really come to the fore until Chapter 10 of the volume, an exploration of creation and redemption. Here, the question of the nature of evil—a central rupture between the Christian and Jungian traditions—at last surfaces.

As Kaczor and Petrusek note, the Augustinian Christian tradition has long described evil as privatio boni, the absence of the good. To grasp this concept, simply imagine a cracked mirror: the “evil” here is the fact of the mirror’s brokenness, its inability to do what a mirror ought to do (provide an accurate reflection). The cracks themselves do not have the same kind of ontological reality as the physical matter of the mirror; their existence is entirely contingent upon the reality of a primary “positive” thing. One can conceive of a mirror without cracks, but not cracks without a mirror. So too, for the Augustinian, where human sinfulness is concerned: since all realities ultimately emerge from God, who is wholly good and in whom there is no evil, “evil itself” can have no freestanding ontological character.

The Jungian view of “evil,” by contrast, identifies the term with chaos and instability, something juxtaposed directly against principles of order. As G.C. Tympas explains, “Jung ultimately views the discourse of evil not as an ‘opposite’ of Christian virtues but as a psychic potential, something that Christian theology appears not to discuss.” In that spirit, in the Answer to Job Jung evaluates the Book of Job’s Yahweh as a psychological subject characterized by whims and petty desires, who must ultimately be interrogated by the human Job. God’s response to Job from the whirlwind, for Jung, is not in any sense a vindication of divine sovereignty or providence; it is an explosion of petulant frustration over the fact that Job’s long-suffering faithfulness has exposed a contradiction in Yahweh’s character. On Jung’s view, “Job is no more than the outward occasion for an inward process of dialectic in God.”

For Jung, the Christian notion of privatio boni is “nonsensical doctrine” that “would never have been necessary had one not had to assume in advance that it is impossible for the consciousness of a good God to produce evil deeds.” The traditional Augustinian formulation is a futile attempt to paper over a problem which continually resurfaces: on Jung’s account, the Book of Revelation’s depiction of a conquering warrior Christ is yet another emergence of God’s hidden shadow side. Rather than positing a Trinity of persons in God, Jung argued, a Christian tradition truer to itself would theorize a divine quaternity, with an element of chaos and disruption fully integrated into the fullness of the divine. In the words of Jung scholar Peter Homans, for Jung “[t]he doctrine of the Trinity . . .  repressed the principle of evil and the principle of femininity from the nature of God, and hence also from the consciousness of man. The quaternity, on the other hand, made room for these elements and as such was a more complete and also fully natural symbol of the godhead.”

Kaczor and Petrusek do not directly outline this contrast (a significant omission, in my view). Yet they are keenly aware of the ambiguity about the nature of evil that pervades Peterson’s work. Peterson frequently appears to shift, almost unconsciously, between the Augustinian and Jungian conceptions of evil, without ever clearly coming down on one side or the other.

At times, this theoretical vagueness produces baffling results. To name one example, early on in Beyond Order Peterson sets out to analyze the mythic/archetypical significance of the climactic battle in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. It’s a great sequence, to be sure, and fertile ground for such interpretations: our hero Harry literally duels a giant Basilisk serpent with a historic sword in order to save his friend’s young sister from something like demonic possession by the evil Lord Voldemort, and he is only saved from death through the tears of a phoenix. (I’d go so far as to say this is the symbolically richest scene in the entire seven-book saga.)

Petrson’s reason for including it in Beyond Order, though—a reason tied to the title of the volume itself—is surprising. For Peterson, the mighty Basilisk stands for “the chaos and potential that continually lurks under the order of our familiar worlds, psychological and social,” serving as a kind of narrative spur to Harry’s maturation. And in the course of a life worth living, Peterson argues, it is not enough to simply struggle against chaos: one must, to a certain extent, make peace with disruption in order to avoid the ossification that can come from an excess of rigidity and order. According to Peterson, “[n]either the state of order nor the state of chaos is preferable, intrinsically, to the other.” Consistent with that ambivalence, he stresses that he does not wish to “imply in any manner that chaos should be eliminated (an impossibility, in any case), although what is unknown needs to be managed carefully . . . . Whatever is not touched by the new stagnates, and it is certainly the case that a life without curiosity—that instinct pushing us out into the unknown—would be a much-diminished form of existence.” As such, the scene in Chamber of Secrets is, for Peterson, a symbolic depiction of the eternal order-chaos dialectic that engenders personal growth.

But this interpretation does violence to J.K. Rowling’s story. Placed in proper context, the Basilisk decidedly does not represent a productive chaos-principle; it is an extension of the evil Lord Voldemort, who positively epitomizes the Augustinian idea of evil. Voldemort is a villain who is parasitic upon life, splitting apart his own soul and scattering the pieces hither and yon in a vain attempt to escape his mortality. (The cracked-mirror analogy is plainly apposite here.) One of these disembodied soul-shards—a metaphysical expression of the idea of privatio boni, evil as fragmentation of the good—is the vehicle by which Harry’s friend’s sister is spiritually attacked and through which the Basilisk is controlled. The story of Harry Potter does not conclude with anything remotely like a Jungian coincidentia oppositorum—a reconciliation of order and chaos in which Harry and Voldemort are seen to be expressions of a pluriform metaphysical principle—but with the victory of the ontologically grounded Harry and his friends over the reality-denying Voldemort. Peterson’s reading, in short, forces a fundamentally Augustinian, tale into an ill-fitting Jungian frame.

Why, in the end, does any of this matter? To grasp the significance of all this, one need only extend a point made by Kaczor and Petrusek at the end of the volume: the way in which one conceives of evil will have massive consequences for one’s view of fundamental reality and the final destiny of all things.

For Peterson, life within the horizon of Being is fundamentally characterized by suffering—a truth which logically follows from the principle that evil, conceived as chaos, is always going to remain a constituent of reality and will disrupt any temporary order. By contrast, for the Christian tradition, the suffering that follows from an unstable order/chaos dialectic is not fundamental, but “accidental”: evil, conceived as privatio boni, has no reality of its own and so can in theory be overcome. A broken mirror can, in the end, be repaired—and therein lies the eschatological promise of the Christian Parousia.

And it is here that a fundamental, and fascinating, paradox of Peterson’s work emerges.

Perhaps the defining characteristic of contemporary social-justice movements is a concern for what Thomas Sowell called “cosmic justice”—the settling of all historical accounts and the final reckoning over past sins and oppressions, so that everyone can really and truly be given what they are due. As Joshua Mitchell argued in last year’s American Awakening, this is an essentially “Christian” moral impulse: it assumes the universality of a standard of moral justice and is characterized by a longing for the healing of harms. As Mitchell phrases it, “[i]dentity politics elicits man’s deepest longing for justice in a broken world, the resolution of which was long understood to be so mysterious, so awesome, and so apocalyptic that justice was placed outside of mortal reach.” Absent from such a vision is any willingness to “settle” for the vicissitudes of Fate or Being; where there is injustice, it ought to be resisted.

This dream of cosmic justice, Mitchell notes, is not going away anytime soon, so “[h]ow, we must ask, is a tomorrow possible–through a mysterious Divine remedy or through forgetting?” Peterson opts, in essence, for the latter path. Peterson’s work—by espousing a conception of God/Being that always includes “evil” within itself, and denying any promise of eschatological justice or resolution—is the ultimate metaphysical no to that longing. On his view, all one can really do is modulate their own, private response to the world’s inevitable suffering; the sooner one gets over their longing for a Parousia, the better off they’ll be.

Jung famously wrote of “enantiodromia”—the tendency of phenomena to, in time, give rise to their own opposites. Following that logic, Peterson’s implicit disavowal of the possibility of final harmony cannot help but give rise to the very kind of social-justice moralism he rejects. You say justice is impossible? Fine! I’ll show you! And so too, Peterson’s fans on the alt-right must surely discern in this eschatological ambivalence a warrant for taking concepts like Peterson’s “hierarchies” as justifications for the natural rule of the weak by the strong. If there is no final justice, why shouldn’t the mightiest always prevail, in Nietzschean fashion? Thus Peterson’s own philosophy morphs into a sanction for the very authoritarian tendencies he formally repudiates.

This, to my mind, is the shadow looming over Peterson’s project. It remains to be seen, in my judgment, whether Peterson’s ideas are—as Kaczor and Petrusek suggest—an invitation to forms of traditional belief, or whether they inevitably trend toward a new-pagan atavism devoid of a transcendent orientation.

Like Kaczor and Petrusek, I hope the former turns out to be true. But the question remains open.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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