Australia’s largest Christian newspaper, Eternity News, published an article titled, The never-ending search for masculinity (excerpts below). Journalist Tess Delbridge introduced Jordan Peterson and shared an assessment of him by prominent Sydney Anglican minister, Michael Jensen.
I like Delbridge and Jensen, and I appreciated them doing an article on Peterson but their evaluation often seemed unfair. It appeared they were assessing Peterson against an Evangelical preacher or theologian but Peterson is neither. I think it would’ve been far more helpful to compare him to others who have secular, scientific backgrounds, like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins.
Peterson deserves a fair go, so below I’ve pushed back against the criticisms.
Peterson himself is not a Christian. … Peterson said he was not ready to declare whether or not he believes in the historical resurrection of Jesus. “I need to think about that for about three more years before I would even venture an answer beyond what I’ve already given,” Peterson said.
It’s not as simple as that. Only a few months ago, Peterson considered himself to be a Christian:
Timothy Lott: Are you a Christian?
Jordan Peterson: I suppose the most straightforward answer to that is yes.
However, it appears Peterson was told he wasn’t a Christian because he didn’t affirm the Ecumenical Creeds, and to his credit, he took that feedback onboard and has now stepped back from that label while he carefully looks into the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. (From what I’ve observed, over the past few years he been slowly moving towards orthodox Christianity—possibly even Eastern Orthodoxy—rather than away from it.)
Jensen says Peterson “is both massively appealing and interesting and also potentially dangerous for Christians because he doesn’t really understand grace.”
I think it’s a shame Peterson doesn’t talk explicitly about grace very much and I’d love to see an interviewer press him about it, but I’d be hesitant to conclude that he doesn’t understand it. For example:
The Christian doctrine elevated the individual soul, placing slave and master and commoner and nobleman alike on the same metaphysical footing, rendering them equal before God and the law. … This was partly accomplished through the strange Christian insistence that salvation could not be obtained through effort or worth—through “works.”141
141. Ephesians 2:8—2:9 reads, for example (in the King James Version): “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” A similar sentiment is echoed in Romans 9:15—9:16: “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.” The New International Version restates 9:16 this way: “It does not, therefore depend on human desire or effort but on God’s mercy.”
Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, p186
I’m really puzzled as to why Peterson is described as “potentially dangerous for Christians”. Most Christians I know, already understand grace, and so wouldn’t be trying to learn about it from a non-Christian… Christians should be able to discern whether Peterson’s suggestions about everyday living are compatible with Christianity—most clearly are (e.g. speak the truth).
He’s after self improvement, and so his book (12 Rules for Life), appealing and inspiring thought [sic] it is, asks you to pull yourself up by your moral bootstraps. It says, ‘Wake up, get over it, be disciplined.’ And that is Pelagianism …
Peterson is encouraging so much more than mere self-improvement:
You should aim at the highest good that you can imagine and that would be a good that includes everyone. So if I wanted what was good for you, say, if I genuinely wanted it, I’d want it in a way that was good for you now and good in the long run—and good for you and your family and your community and may be good for me too. … I think that’s a good definition of love is—that you actually want the best. You want the best possible outcome and in the Gospels, of course, that’s extended even to your enemies.
If someone hasn’t read much of the Bible, they may think Jesus is promoting self-improvement, as he often does teach about being disciplined—changing our attitudes and actions (e.g. Sermon on the Mount, the Great Commandments, take up your cross). Sure, further reading reveals Jesus also said that we can never be good enough to earn salvation (God’s pardon is free). But my point is, simply teaching people to, “Wake up, get over it, be disciplined”, doesn’t imply Pelagianism (particularly when Peterson isn’t even discussing a way to be made right with God).
Was the Prodigal Son being a Pelagian by waking up and walking towards what he knew was good (his father)? Of course, walking would be futile if there wasn’t the father running towards him with open arms—graciously forgiving and restoring. However, Peterson already sees that as we try to crawl towards the transcendent Good (our Father), he starts to transform us (e.g. Pinocchio being transformed from a puppet into a real boy). I’d love to see Peterson more fully articulate God’s role but I think the concepts are already there, at least in embryonic form (a great start for someone who says he’s still learning about Christianity).
The trouble is, what we know as Christians is that in order to improve yourself, you can’t start with determining to improve yourself, you must start with grace. You must start with your own helplessness and your own sins.
Sure, Peterson’s approach starts with human suffering, which is a result of us becoming self-conscious of our significant limitations (see his lecture on the Fall), but his very next move is to acknowledge that each and every person sins—misses the mark—unnecessarily increasing suffering, which is evil:
As the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn insisted, the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, p47
Peterson acknowledges that each of us needs help:
Gratefully accept an outstretched helping hand. … note the reality of the limitations of individual being… accept and be thankful for the support of others—family, friends, acquaintances and strangers alike. … we don’t have to strive alone
Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, p365
It’s possible to see glimpses of Christianity in Peterson’s work because he is reading the Bible as part of his research
Not only does Peterson read the Bible, he spends heaps of time reading Christian commentaries before reading the Bible out loud to millions of people. For Christians who believe one of the primary ways God works is through the public reading of Scripture, what he is doing is way more than offering “possible” “glimpses”! Additionally, he openly says that many of his core propositions are Christian truths. He frequently quotes, and actually puts into practice, what Jesus taught (e.g. the truth will set you free, love everyone, be humble, courageous, and self-sacrificial).
his references to Christianity are removed from their historical contexts.
He regularly states that he’s not qualified, nor trying, to teach the historical context of the Bible. Instead, he is showing how the Bible and psychology are mutually reinforcing in so many ways—which is mind-blowing (some would say miraculous) given how ancient the text is.
“So [in Peterson’s teachings] you’re never going to get the true Jesus,” says Jensen. “You’ll get Jesus as a good teacher…”
But Jesus is more than just a good teacher, and that will never come through in Peterson’s work.
“The thing I think Peterson misses out on is that actually Jesus Christ is the better story. He’s a better story for all human beings,” says Jensen.
I’m baffled by these statements—numerous times Peterson has said Christ is way “more than just a good teacher”! For example, Peterson sees Christ as the Logos who brings good order out of chaos by speaking truth. He sees Christ as the divine individual and the ideal person/story—the archetypal hero—to be imitated by all humans. He sees Christ as overcoming the temptations we face (see “Evil, Confronted”, 12 Rules for Life, p178-185).
Jesus is the model for modern men. The truly masculine is actually the one who loves through sacrifice to glorify the other.
I reckon Peterson would heartily agree, although he’d probably say “encourage, embolden, edify”, rather than “glorify” (which requires explanation).
Peterson can take feedback but let’s give him a fair go and show him some of the grace that’s so central to Christianity.