Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson
Dr. Jordan B. Peterson's career since the 1990's has dealt with issues of meaning, truth and religion. In the four years since he became a viral pop-psychologist, he's developed a reputation as a somewhat indecisive voice for Christianity and gained some infamy for some of his intellectual eccentricities. Ron Dart and ten other essayists offer Christian criticisms and analysis of his extensive body of psychological analysis in this brisk essay collection.
March 25th, 2020
Author: Edited by Ron Dart; Essays by Bruce Riley Ashford, Hunter Baker, Alastair Roberts, Ron Dart, T.S. Wilson, Laurence Brown, Esther O’Reilly, Esgrid Sikahall, Stephen M. Dunning, Matthew Steem and Joy Steem
Publisher: Lexham Press
Genre: Theology / Philosophy
Dr. Jordan B. Peterson has become one of the most infamous pop-psychologists to enter the public arena since his initial controversy at the University of Toronto in the fall of 2016. Since then, he’s been embraced by Christians and atheists alike as a fascinating new voice in the worlds of religion, ethics and moderate politics. Even so, his approach to these topics hasn’t been without controversy. As an agnostic scientist approaching the issue of religion, he’s stepped on numerous Christians’ toes in his attempts to rediscover religious truths without believing in God.
Spiritual Content: Significant and overt discussion of theology. Christian themes and reflections on the nature of human life.
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: None
Drug/Alcohol Use: None
Other Negative Themes: None
Positive Content: Themes of religious meaning, human nature, God, ethics and truth.
This author received a review copy of Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson from Lexham Press. The author also cordially knows one of the book’s essayists, Esther O’Reilly, and has interviewed her for a podcast outside of Geeks Under Grace.
In the two years since I have reviewed Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, the popular Canadian psychology professor has endured a great deal of intellectual criticism from all sides. Progressive critics castigate him as a nutcase and a closet bigot who wants to institutionalize transphobia and curb academic freedom on college campuses. Conservative and reactionary critics castigate him as a closet globalist and a half measure. They view his eccentricities and his agnosticism as a means of subversion, and they criticize his work as being fundamentally empty. To them, he’s just a vessel reflecting whatever the reader wants to hear in a time when loads of people are seeking help. At the worst, his harshest critics write him off as a liar, a charlatan, and a cult leader.
Indeed, numerous angles can be used to tackle the complex subject of one man and his effect on the world. Speaking for myself, the Christian critique of Dr. Peterson is one I’m particularly interested in. Given his fascination with the Bible, and reluctance to approach the material on metaphysical grounds, he does seem to be trapped at an interesting standstill as an intellectual. He sees great cultural value in the Bible and wants to teach people how to analyze it and learn its lessons in a secular context. However, his inability to make the leap of faith has off-put theists who want him to take that final step. When asked to elaborate on the nature of his faith, he offered the uncathartic answer that he “lives as though God exists.” In other words, it’s better to act as if God is real, even though he doesn’t believe in God or the Resurrection.
A recent book from this year, Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson, offers us a comprehensive look into criticisms of Dr. Peterson from this perspective. This look is not malicious or angry, by any means. It’s clear most of the writers are Christians who like Dr. Peterson’s body of work. The enjoyment is, however, quite nuanced in the discussions of his ideas. The book is an essay collection, assembled by University of the Fraser Valley professor Ron Dart and comprised of eleven writers offering different perspectives on the eccentric professor’s philosophy. Each of the ten essays discuss a different aspect of this philosophy and explores what kind of insight Dr. Peterson’s work offers as a secular, agnostic psychologist seeking truth in religious tomes.
According to Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson, Dr. Peterson’s intellectual sensitivity to the Bible starts from a place of skepticism, both towards the state of the modern world and the solutions that modern life has created. Religion has faded from the mainstream foundation of social life. This creates a great malaise with the populace, leaving much of the public feeling alone, lost, and confused about life’s purpose. As a result of the widespread cultural atomization, large political ideologies like Neo-Marxism, intersectional progressivism, postmodernism, and white nationalism are trying to fill the space left by religion with a totalizing political, moral vision for the world.
Peterson is obviously disturbed by all of these social movements. He recognizes the meaninglessness of life yet fears the power of political ideologies to sway the hearts of the lost and alienated. Because of this, his work as a psychologist and a biblical scholar has largely focused on trying to shift the burden of human suffering as an internal struggle rather than an external one. He wants people to redefine their perceptions and understand that suffering is baked into the fabric of human life.
Refocusing that nexus as an internal reality allows people to improve and grow with a more rational understanding of life. By fostering and improving our own lives, we’re able to maturely weather life’s storms and find meaning in the midst of chaos and suffering. This sentiment is often infamously dismissed with the derogative quote from his book, “clean your room.” However, that saying is a comprehensive point about our ability to foster change within the world. If we cannot fix our own lives, how are we supposed to fix the lives of others?
Peterson rejects both the failures of modernism and the solutions of radical political ideologies. He sees a fundamental value in the old visions of religion and classical myth-making to find truths about the nature of human life. As such, his work mines for the structures, patterns, and meanings conveyed in the religious texts of Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. Much of his work since 2017 has been built in this vein. His famous lecture series in 2017, wherein he psychologically analyzed the Bible, offered many fascinating points about the Good Book’s transcendent truths. He analyzes these texts through a psychological lens, parsing out thematic meaning while discarding the question of literal truth claims. He does this exercise with contemporary fiction, too. Many of his most famous lectures discuss the archetypes in popular modern fiction like Disney movies and Harry Potter. His methods of plumbing the depths for transcendent truths in these texts are, at times, awe-inspiring.
This rejection of modernism and political extremism makes his message attractive to many Christian listeners. That said, even fans of the man can acknowledge the roundabout way he comes to these facts and the nuances he gets wrong. One later essay compares his work to the Danish Lutheran theologian Kierkegaard. The author, Stephen Dunning, makes the point that these two intellectuals share similar preconceptions and roles within the context of their times. Though they share some similar approaches to improving the human soul within their time’s failures, Peterson has numerous downsides a classic theologian lacks. Instead of attempting to understand the living church and its failures from within, he takes the position of exhuming a dead religion’s corpse for remnants of truth.
In doing so, he’s created a therapeutic set of advice that encourages ethical living and truth-seeking but can’t quite hit bedrock. His ideas are also twinged with the cynicism of his intellectual heroes, like Jung, and he walks away from Christianity with an understanding of nature which is at odds with the Christian understanding of nature. He ultimately believes that life is suffering and our meaning comes from standing strong in the face of that suffering, which amounts almost to Nietzschian pride and defiance. Peterson traffics in numerous minor heresies and is better labeled a well-intentioned secular humanist than a Christian in any regard. To quote Lawrence Brown’s essay:
Yet while Peterson’s lectures may be a doorway through which many empirically minded people can begin to understand the faith, his interpretations can only serve as a cairn at the beginning of one’s path to a deeper knowledge of God. The contemplative journey of a Christian extends beyond the material and even psychological aspects of reality, proceeding deep into the metaphysical being at the essence of the human soul – a place where the religious impulse supersedes the rational, and where the pure light of grace, forgiveness, and love can truly be experienced in its divine fullness.
Dr. Peterson is brilliant, but his work is a half measure, at best. He’s trapped in a strange position as a man outside of the church who points people to the church without the possibility of crossing the threshold himself. He’s useful to a degree insofar as he encourages self-reflection, humility, and intellectual honesty. However, he’s only going to find so much truth in the works of Nietzsche, Jung, and Solzhenitsyn. As interesting as these men are to read intellectually, they won’t save his soul. Stephen Dunning writes, “For as stimulating as it is to dialogue with Peterson [outside the church], it would be far better to worship with him in the sanctuary.”
Thankfully, Dr. Peterson himself has stated he isn’t beyond hope for the possibility of transcendent truth. In all honesty, it would appear religious truth and divinity haunts Dr. Peterson. Maybe his reluctance stems more from fear than intellectual stubbornness. Esther O’Reilly’s essay describes a dream he once experienced that seemed to suggest the direction of his soul:
It is unlikely that Peterson’s thinking will undergo a sea change in the near future. Paradigm shifts do not happen in a day. Yet God’s grace beckons always, in many places, by many means – even by dreams. In Jung’s dream, he was worshiped as the Christ. But one of Peterson’s dreams offers a very different picture. He recalls that he was walking in the cemetery of an old cathedral, full of the graves of great men. Then suddenly, an armed king rose up and walked out of his grave. Then another, and another, until they confronted each other and began to fight. But one singular figure towered over all, causing them to lay down their swords and bow in worship. Peterson knew the figure instantly: It was Christ. He woke and wondered, “What does this mean?” Who is this man? Who is the King of Glory?
To quote an email exchange between Dr. Peterson and the Orthodox Christian artist Jonathan Pageau, Peterson lamented, “It is terrifying to think that those stories might actually be true.” The doctor’s ideas are complicated, and it’s clear he doesn’t feel particularly fond of Christianity as a religion to be lived out in all aspects of life. His Christian fans pray that he take the final step of faith and join us in the church, but he hasn’t gotten there yet. As it stands, his work has done more than anyone since Billy Graham to reintroduce Christianity as an intellectual tradition and an ethical philosophy to millions of people. Because he’s an older man in failing health, here’s hoping he manages to make that final step.
“Until that day comes, we may sincerely wish that Christ will continue to haunt his dreams.” – Esther O’Reilly
In summary, Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson isn’t a text I’d recommend to the uninitiated. It’s a book written by academic Christians and theologians who have all been inspired by Dr. Peterson’s rise to prominence and who want to correct the record on some of his excesses. It’s not inflammatory in its denouncements, like Vox Day’s polemical deconstruction Jordenetics. It’s also not an exercise in unabashed boot-licking praise like Jim Proser’s biography, Savage Messiah: How Dr. Jordan Peterson is Saving Western Civilization. It doesn’t have the political agendas of those authors. Myth and Meaning will be an engaging intellectual exercise for the discerning Christian reader with some level of background with this material.
Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson is available now.
+ Comprehensive Exploration of Ideas and Theology
+ Strong Ethical Vision and a Call to Pursue God and the Church
- Some Academic/Intellectually Dense Discussion May Make The Book Inaccessible for Casual Readers
- Some Criticism of Dr. Peterson's Work Could Use a Clearer Condemnation