Jordan B Peterson is the most thought-provoking person I’ve come across in a long time so it’s apt that my 100th blog post is about him. There are already more than a million videos of him. People on both the Left and the Right regularly get offended by him. To some, he is a bigoted extremist; propagating harmful lies—to others he’s a profane heretic; undermining the inerrancy of Scripture. Yet to others, he is a brave hero; a prophetic genius daring to speak the truth. One thing is clear, he’s gaining followers and enemies at an exponential rate!
I keep discovering that people I respect are following him e.g. the editor of Four Views on Hell:
I’ve been listening to this guy… his name’s Jordan B Peterson and he’s not like an orthodox Christian guy but … he has these lectures where he’s talking about Genesis one through four. And he loves the story of Cain and Abel, and one of the things that he said that’s really stuck with me is … he goes, “I don’t get it, this story of Cain and Abel is so densely packed with wisdom … it’s only like two paragraphs long and this story does so much and explains so much about reality!”
One of the reasons he’s generating so much interest is that it’s remarkably hard to put him into a box. I’ll admit that the first time I came across him I thought, “Who is this crazy man?”! While he definitely is unconventional and controversial (not your classic conservative or liberal), it’s obvious that he is highly intelligent, well-read, and educated. So who is he and what exactly is he saying?
His areas of study and research are in the fields of psychopharmacology, abnormal, neuro, clinical, personality, social, industrial and organizational, religious, ideological, political, and creativity psychology. Peterson has authored or co-authored more than a hundred academic papers.
The list above gives an indication of the topics he formally covers—although, given he does many informal Q&As and interviews, he actually discusses an even greater range! So it’s difficult to know where to start… He has fascinating and practical insights into personality traits, emotions, goal-setting, education, addiction, mental illnesses, relationships, racism, politics, why people behave the way they do, etc. (e.g. Jordan B Peterson Clips, 20 Minutes on UnderstandMyself.com, and Self Authoring), but today I’m only going to briefly introduce a few of his philosophical and theological ideas.
He honestly values all sorts of people, no matter where they are on the Left/Right spectrum. He explains the essential contributions of different views in our ever-changing social, political, and physical environment (e.g. Why It’s Useful to Talk to People You Don’t Agree With).
He emphatically promotes the need for articulate, truthful, and free speech—Logos. To survive we need ongoing conversation, dialogue, negotiation, and open communication, especially between people who see the world so very differently from each other. Truth is also the antidote to suffering, it’s the means by which we can overcome chaos, create good, and discover meaning (e.g. The Articulated Truth).
He has an interesting argument about how we can know what is real. Logically, given we are finite beings, we have limitations that cause suffering. The resulting pain is self-evidently real. But we can go further, we know that we can do things that make the pain worse. Therefore, we have some idea of what we can do to reduce or mitigate the pain, and indeed it’s then conceivable that there is an opposite to the pain—namely, something that is good (e.g. Is Your Pain Real?).
We should try to aim for the highest and greatest good—good for you, your family, your community, and the world, not just for today but for tomorrow, and the foreseeable future. If we don’t, we risk going around in circles, or worse, descending into chaos and hell (e.g. Dare To Aim For The Highest Good).
In order to have any chance of making the world a better place, we must first sort out our lives rather than assuming we can go around “fixing” others (e.g. How to Change the World—Properly).
We need to voluntarily face and defeat our “dragons” before they get too big and eat us. All sorts of problems can become “dragons”—from small things, like not cleaning your room or paying a bill, to large things, like abuse that you’ve suffered (e.g. Slaying the Dragon Within us).
We want to try to walk with one foot in chaos and the other in order. If we go too far into chaos we will drown, if we go too far into order we will become frozen (e.g. Living a Proper Life between Chaos & Order).
He soberingly articulates the many ways we can make life hell for ourselves and those around us, frequently citing frightening examples from the past 100 years. But he doesn’t leave it there, he encourages us forward.
He appreciates a wide range of art, music, culture, beauty, and wisdom—which, combined with his authentic, conversational style and everyday topics, make him accessible to a broad audience I think, although some people might think he’s too coarse or intellectual at times.
He is great at showing how religions, mythology, archetypes, and psychology are interrelated—which actually gives me a greater appreciation for all of them. Out of this, he explains why Postmodernism is self-defeating and an inadequate philosophy for life. While there are numerous ways to interpret things, many interpretations can be demonstrated as false.
Religion shouldn’t be written off as mere superstition as it’s the distillation of countless generations of profound wisdom and the acting out of deep psychological truths. He sees Christianity as the most thoroughly developed example.
I’m unwilling to rule out the existence of heaven. I’m unwilling to rule out the existence of life after death. I’m unwilling to rule out the idea of Universal redemption and the defeat of evil. Now I know perfectly well that all those things can be well conceptualized metaphorically… but I’m not willing to make the claim that those ideas exhaust themselves in the metaphor.
Justine: From the Centre for Public Christianity, you’re listening to Life & Faith. I’m Justine Toh.
Amy Orr-Ewing is the director of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. She’s addressed audiences from Westminster, to the White House, speaking about the truth and beauty of the Christian faith. But her story starts right here, in Australia.
Simon: You were born here we understand?
Amy: That’s right.
Simon: But you did leave when you’re two years old so I’m going to say, “Welcome home!”
Amy: Thank you!
Simon: Great to have you here. So tell us about…
Justine: Amy was back in Australia as a speaker for our annual Richard Johnson Lecture and while she was in town, Simon and I couldn’t miss the chance to have her on the show. Next week Amy will be back this time telling us about her doctoral studies on a remarkable woman—who was a contemporary of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and deserves to be much better known than she is—Dorothy L. Sayers. But this week we’re focusing on Amy’s story and it turns out in the years that Amy’s parents were in Australia they experienced a couple of life-changing events. Yes, one of them was the birth of their daughter but they also experienced an unexpected challenge to their faith, or rather their atheism.
Amy: My dad had grown up in a very strongly atheistic home. My grandfather was an East German scientist and absolutely committed atheist who forbade any talk of God in the home and forbade anyone reading the Bible even. So my father had grown up in a strongly atheistic context with no sort of churchy conditioning and whilst here (in his thirties, happily married to my mum, two fantastic children, great lifestyle, loved the life here) he began to just ask questions (“When I get to the end of my life, when I’m retired and I look back what will it all have been for? Is this enough?”), and that sort of question worried him. A colleague at the University took him along to hear a Christian speaking—an apologist actually—speaking about the resurrection of Jesus. He said that it sort of struck him as quite odd frankly but that there was one thing that this guy said that sort of was like a bit of a dagger to the heart, which was, “The only reason you should be a Christian is because it’s true.” My dad thought religion is about superstition, it’s about wish-fulfilment. Truth and God are opposite categories—it’s a category mistake. But that worried him and then a few weeks later he had an extraordinary personal encounter with Jesus Christ and ended up kneeling on the floor thinking, “I need to say something to respond to Christ, to his offer of forgiveness to me” and thought, “I don’t know what to say I have no religious upbringing”, and he found himself just saying, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” Later he bought a New Testament and found himself reading that in Mark’s Gospel, which was slightly surprising.
The only reason you should be a Christian is because it’s true
Simon: Wow! Coming to Australia for spiritual enlightenment—that’s the path that people come on in the tourist brochures. Now you are also a believer these days, you just believe it because your parents were?
Amy: That is a great question. I think because my mom and dad were intellectuals—and none neither of them were kind of conditioned by the Church—I had a slightly unusual upbringing in terms of a Christian family, in that they encouraged us to question, to read, and to come to conclusions ourselves—both my sister and I. Growing up in Britain as a Christian I was always the only churchgoer in my class at school, there was a tremendous amount of peer pressure to disbelieve. So I think that that encouragement from them to own this yourself, or not, was incredibly important. And for me that journey of questioning took me to Oxford—to university to study theology—where every presupposition about the Bible, about God, about faith was challenged.
Amy: And to the nth degree! And it was my experience that the Christian claims and the Bible stood up to that scrutiny. I remember sitting with the Dean of my college—I was at Christ Church towards the end of my degree—and him saying, “We haven’t cured you of your religion have we Amy? We’ve tried everything but it hasn’t worked!”
But seriously, for me it has been my experience that if something is true, it stands up to scrutiny and questions are not to be feared—that the pursuit of of truth ultimately, for me, has led me to Jesus Christ.
If something is true, it stands up to scrutiny and questions are not to be feared
Justine: Before we get more into that question, can I just rewind you a little bit? I read that when you were 15 you actually had cancer. You’ve talked about how you were the only believer in your disbelieving class so when you’re 15 and get this diagnosis, all the other girls your age are mooning over rock stars or something like that but you’re grappling with the experience of disease and thinking about God in the midst of all that. What was that like?
Amy: I think the strongest memory I have from that time is the contrast from the fear and anxiety that was absolutely overwhelming. When the consultants sort of blurted out this diagnosis I was with my mom in the hospital and it was not done kindly at all—I mean she was horrified, and the shock of that and the sort of sense of just waves of blackness overwhelming me. And then over the next few days processing that and actually reading the Psalms, I found to be an extraordinary experience because here was an opportunity to vocalize what I was feeling: frustration with God, questions, fear. And then to experience actually meeting God, or God meeting me, in that place.
I think today, certainly in the context where I am, there’s an epidemic of anxiety related experiences, particularly for young people. In my life it was through that that the God that I was questioning and had kind of an intellectual path to come to know about him (“Was this really real?”, “Was this substantial?”), that that actually then overlapped and intersected in my own experience, and God met me in the pain and suffering of this world.
Justine: And so these days you must draw upon that union of that intellect but also that life experience, in order to do your work as an apologist? Now, can you take us through that because it sounds like you go around apologizing for things but it’s not quite like that is it?
Amy: No. Yeah, it’s a slightly unfortunate word, I think, “apologist”. It comes from the Greek word apologia, which really means to give a reasoned defense. It’s what a defense lawyer would stand up and do when you’re in court in order to persuade people of your case. So yeah, apologetics is really about grappling with the intellectual dimensions of the deepest questions: about whether God exists, about whether this is fair and just, does the way the world is cohere with the Christian worldview? But it’s not only intellectual because we as human beings are more than just brains on legs—we think (and obviously that’s really important) but life has other dimensions. How we feel, what we experience, the capacity—the possibility—of relationship, that desire, that thirst for meaning and purpose and fulfillment. Those different dimensions of human experience, Jesus speaks into all of them. So for me, any apologetic—any reasonable defense of the Christian faith—needs to engage at those different levels.
How we feel, what we experience, the capacity—the possibility—of relationship, that desire, that thirst for meaning and purpose and fulfillment. Those different dimensions of human experience, Jesus speaks into all of them.
Simon: Now despite that clarification of the definition, there are nonetheless plenty of things that Christians ought to feel sorry for or be apologizing for. What do you say to people who say, “Well, yeah, I’m okay with Jesus but gee, Christians have been rubbish!”
Amy: I’m right there with you. My friend is a brilliant Christian writer in the UK—called Dr. Elaine Storkey. She says, “The Church recruits from the human race.” There’s no expectation in the Bible that there’s a sort of moral bar that we have to have reached in order to own the name Christian. A Christian is simply someone who’s recognised our own brokenness and sinfulness and need for forgiveness. And therefore it ought not to surprise us that a lot of the brokenness that is in the world is also in the Church. So I think as the Church we do have a lot of apologizing to do for things that have been done in the name of Christ and in the name of the Church that do not legitimately represent Him.