Central to the plot of Ayn Rand’s classic 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged, is the repeatedly posed question, “Who is John Galt?” The novel is about an increasingly tyrannical government undermined by a mysterious individual who workes to sabotage the bureaucracy by helping entrepreneurs and business owners vanish from the workforce; Galt covertly subverts the system by robbing it of its best minds and starving it of its greatest resources.
In hushed tones and with sideways glances, that question, “Who is John Galt?” spreads and evolves into a kind of counter-propaganda, a spirit which harasses incessantly at the establishment and invigorated the oppressed with the possibility of hope. I have a congregant who has the question—a kind of statement—on the back window of his truck.
All this came to my mind last week when having overheard a conversation before our men’s bible study, my dad asked, “Who is Jordan Peterson?” Go ahead, you can laugh at the association, but the mention of Peterson’s name—just as often whispered—has become almost as controversial, almost as propagandized as Galt’s.
Who Is Jordan Peterson?
While Galt worked in the shadows, Peterson appears more frequently on the stage, yet their influence on shaping our national conversations are strikingly on par. It’s still hard to answer the question. Who is Jordan Peterson? A psychology professor, having taught at Harvard and the University of Toronto. A Youtube celebrity. A No. 1 best-selling author in almost every country. Or as David Brooks of the New York Times has called him, possibly “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.”
I get questions about Peterson every week, and for the most part, I’ve stayed quiet. I’ve been digging and doing a lot of thinking. Like others, I have read Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life; I’ve streamed hours of his Biblical presentations, subscribed to his podcast, watched his past classroom lectures, and I’ve read countless articles categorizing him as everything from a right-winged misogynist to the savior of Christianity in the West.
For all the controversy, some things are undisputed. Peterson works hard. He’s everywhere right now, on a world book tour and dominating the Youtube algorithms. He also has his pulse on culture. From politics and psychology to classic Russian novelists and cold war ideologies, Peterson thinking feels universal—it feels religious. Mixed with a hard-to-place Canadian accent and a meteoric rise to public attention, it’s as if Peterson is a personality simultaneously from our past and our future. He seems to know things we’ve all felt but never been able to articulate. He seems to grasp something about where it’s all heading. And, contrary to some of the media’s best attempts at vilifying him, much of his advice has been immensely helpful. His promotion of individual responsibility and the often quoted, “learn to clean your room before you criticize the world” is refreshing and resonating.
But when it comes to reading Peterson as a Christian—or, particularly, as a 30-something evangelical pastor—that’s when my brain starts to hurt.
Attempting to Sort it Out
Peterson is often described as, using a line from The Federalist, a gateway drug to Christianity. Maybe a more tactful title would be as “religious apologist.” It’s a term he feels comfortable using to describe himself. Take for example his highly anticipated two-night debate/discussion with atheist Sam Harris. Peterson is a constant defender of the power of religious belief, the deep significance of the Biblical narrative, and the inherent worth of the Judeo-Christian value system for supporting Western culture and liberty. There is no disputing that Peterson has people considering faith and the Bible in much deeper ways than they had before. You might go so far as to say, Peterson is making it cool for twenty-two-year-old guys to talk about the Bible in their college dorm rooms. That’s an achievement worth taking note of.
But don’t mistake Peterson for a modern Lewis or Chesterton. Peterson’s religious apologetics refuse to bend a knee to the traditional tests of Christian orthodoxy, much to the frustration of many an interviewer. For Peterson, complicating seemingly simple “yes or no” questions is intentional. He’s not interested in being a theologian or becoming a mouthpiece for legitimizing evangelical dogmatics.
Take, for instance, each time he has been pushed to acknowledge whether he believes Jesus physically and literally rose from the dead. Peterson has responded, “I can not answer that question.” Given another opportunity, he explained that he would need forty hours to try and answer. Elsewhere he’s requested three more years to further develop his thinking on the issue.
I want to be careful here. Too many Christians have reached this point and decided to stop listening. Peterson is trying to avoid being boxed in. There is a part of his hesitancy I understand and respect—though certainly, I would answer the question with a simple yes. Peterson understands what is at stake. He recognizes the historical complexity of the moment. He knows that nearly everyone is hoping to finally label and categorize him—some for the sake of an opponent, others hoping for a savior. His refusal to be reduced is part of his appeal. He knows that words we freely throw around can be understood in surprisingly different ways. He wants to start new conversations not be forced into the form of existing household idols. He may be a religious apologist, but he is not a typical Christian apologist, nor certainly not an Evangelical one.
Peterson has also indicated that he needs more time to come to a decision about his personal beliefs in the historical events of Jesus. That honesty is profoundly refreshing, and for me, garnishes him with more respect. In a world that expects theological declarations in 140 characters, maybe forty hours of thinking through the resurrection would do us all some good.
My Approach to Peterson
So as a Christian, I read Peterson recognizing I’m entering into a complicated and evolving middle ground, down a rabbit hole into a world dizzied with archetypal myths, subconscious impulses, evolutionary intuitions, bottomless piles of academic citations, and words which suddenly have much deeper meanings than I have previously given them. And I’m attempting to understand all of this without a doctorate in psychology, any technical experience in a clinical setting, or much knowledge with the literature that underpins Peterson’s thinking—mostly Jungian psychology. I’ve been reading quite a bit of Jung lately, and am humble enough to admit, I might only be grasping around 10% of it. Before you go quoting Peterson on lobsters or using archetypes to prove your points about the patriarchy, you would do well to make a list of what you aren’t clear on; it should be longer than what you are. I think Peterson would confess to the same humility.
The complexity means that all reading and discussing of Peterson should be done with humbleness, patience, and extreme prudence. But it should be done. It must be done, especially by Christians. Joe Carter, an editor at The Gospel Coalition, quotes Augustine to make this point.
Augustine once wrote that if pagan writers have “said things which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith,” their insights “should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use.”
“Just as the Egyptians had not only idols and grave burdens which the people of Israel detested and avoided,” Augustine said, “so also they had vases and ornaments of gold and silver and clothing which the Israelites took with them secretly when they fled, as if to put them to a better use.”
Peterson’s work is full of such vases and ornaments of gold. Take and read. Read and take. There is much to like. But read carefully enough to recognize there is a reason Peterson’s book is 409 pages, and his biblical lectures are usually more than 2 hours long. There is a lot to consider. Christians should be the most discerning in reading and discussing it.
Forming my Own Questions
So, my conclusion on Jordan Peterson? I’d probably need forty hours to answer that.
Instead, I’ll give you this list. Four questions I wish I could ask Jordan Peterson about faith and Christianity. Caveat, I’ve done my best to avoid yes or no questions. These aren’t religious tests—no trial with the stake already kindled in the background. These questions are things I would like to understand better.
Also, I’m not done thinking about or listening to Peterson. I may, from time to time, add questions to this list. Feel free to comment with your own questions or point out what I’m missing.
In addition to the questions, I include a list of articles and videos worth your time. Most are centered around the topic of Christianity and Peterson’s teaching. I’ll continue to add future links to the list.
Questions for Jordan Peterson:
1. In your Biblical lectures, you often point out that you are not a theologian and are attempting to limit your comments to “The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories.” What are the boundaries of psychological insight? How do you distinguish between a psychological insight and a theological one? Are there Biblical questions, outside your public consideration, that people should be asking?
2. Church tradition holds that the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. You often use “Being” to describe the aim of living. What do you see as the chief end of man?
3. Many Christians have associated Jung’s teaching, and by extension yours, with Gnosticism—the idea that salvation is attained by means of acquiring a deeper knowledge. The second-century church wrested with Gnostic teaching that understood the resurrection to be an inner process and not necessarily literal. Irenaeus wrote that Gnostics “claim to be constantly finding something new, and working out what no one ever thought of before.” He confesses, “it is hard to describe their views.” The early church developed creeds as a tool for defining Christianity. In claiming to be Christian, where do you derive your definition of Christian?
4. The Biblical narrative, as a whole, moves towards the hope of a new creation, a restoration of all things. Or as Revelation puts it, “all things made new.” Christ’s call for his followers to share in his suffering and to bear their crosses finds it’s resolve in Christ’s resurrection as the first fruits of a resurrection to come. Christian optimism is shaped by a hope beyond pragmatic self-improvement. You’ve argued for, “faith in the sacrifice of a current self for the self that could be.” You seem to find optimism in the potential of Being through suffering. Is there a discernable hope beyond what can be achieved for the self?
More To Come
Peterson admits that many of his ideas are evolving as he continues to wrestle through his lectures on the Bible. He is currently still in Genesis and planning on picking up where he left off after his current book tour. What follows for Peterson could be incredibly insightful to watch unfold. It’s possible, that as Peterson works through the Biblical narrative, his own conclusions may develop along with the story. Thanks to the democratized nature of online publishing, we all have a front row seat to that process—assuming Youtube doesn’t lock him out again.
As the Bible patiently unfolds its narrative theology how might Peterson’s views develop? Consider his definition of sacrifice from his lecture on Cain and Able, “The idea is that you could sacrifice something of value, and that would have transcendent utility. That is by no means an unsophisticated idea. In fact, it might be the greatest idea that human beings ever came up with.” That definition sounds very much like the world of Genesis—the human utility of sacrificing something of value for something greater—but that hardly captures the full Biblical magnitude of the sacrificial theme.
I wonder how Peterson’s definition will evolve when he reaches David’s great psalm of repentance, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart.”
Or what about when he reaches Hebrews 4, “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
Consider Peterson’s point to Sam Harris about the importance of reading the whole story, of considering the end before you conclude about the beginning. “Here is the problem with complicated texts, especially ones that actually constitute narratives, imagine you’re at a movie, and its a movie with a twist at the end. So the entire movie is set up to make you think one particular way, to have one set of experiences. But when you put the twist in at the end, it changes the entire structure. The Bible is a series of books, and they had an influence on one another, and they were sequenced with a very complex editorial process, and there is actually a developmental narrative that links all the chapters together. And what that means is that you have to read the beginning as if it’s also influenced by the end.”
So, what will Peterson do with Revelation, when John associates the return of Christ with the image of a sacrificed lamb. Or, how about the temptation to worship the beast who appears to have been mortally wounded, who only appears to have been sacrificial. Which sacrifice do we trust? Does what is pragmatic tempt us away from what is foolish? Is sacrifice ultimately something of utility or something of defeat? Is the ultimate nature of sacrifice to lead us to the inevitable need of one greater than we can make?
Like each of us, Peterson is on a journey. His narrative has not reached its end. For better or worse, his story is now public. We should be careful to remember that a person is not a position. More than almost anyone else in our culture, Peterson has stood for the virtue of speaking only what one truly believes. I trust him to continue.
“The true leader is always led.”
Things to Read
- Re|Knew: A Series of Articles on Jordan Peterson and Christianity
- Desiring God: What Can We Learn From Jordan Peterson — Podcast Audio
- The Gospel Coalition: Understanding the Jordan Peterson Phenomenon
- Christianity Today: What’s Behind the Sudden Rise of Jordan Peterson?
- Christianity Today: What are Christians to Make of Jordan Peterson — Podcast Audio
- Word on Fire: The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon
- Jordan Peterson: I need ‘three more years’ before I can give my position on the historical Jesus
- Classifying Jordan Peterson’s Hermeneutic
- Tim Keller, Jordan Peterson and a Different Approach to Engaging Atheists
Things to Watch
- Jordan Peterson: The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories
- Jordan Peterson: Harris/Weinstein/Peterson Discussion (Part 1)
- Jordan Peterson: Harris/Weinstein/Peterson Discussion (Part 2)
- Jordan Peterson — Am I A Christian Apologist?
- The Death and Resurrection of Christ: A Commentary in Five Parts
- CRC Pastor with Jordan Peterson on CS Lewis, the Resurrection, his Biblical series
- Jordan B. Peterson finally asked about the Catholic Faith
- Jordan Peterson — Do you Believe in God?
- Is There Meaning to Life? | William Lane Craig, Rebecca Goldstein, Jordan Peterson
- Bishop Baron on the Jordan Peterson Phenomenon
What questions would you add to the list? Leave a comment.
(Photo used under Creative Commons Liscense: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America – Jordan Peterson)