Ok, Church. Watch Jordan Peterson. Here’s Why.

...or how listening (and thinking) prepares us for loving the world

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“My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
‘Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.       
‘What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?   
‘I never know what you are thinking. Think.”
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

 

I started binge watching Jordan Peterson videos shortly after a millennial asked me what I thought about him. Others have continued to ask. Lately, I’ve been absorbing his lecture series on the ‘Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories.’ Peterson has had substantial audience for a while. He’s got the YouTube and Twitter following and Patreon cash flow to prove it. Then the firecracker interview with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 in Britain shot his name recognition through the roof. But, there’s more to Peterson’s influence than an effective social media presence. There’s a depth to it not transparent in the stats.

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His reach is of the pedestrian kind – without the ad firm polish.  Yet, because his ideas step on the toes of the academic elite they opine that he is a “dangerous man.” On the other side of the spectrum some Evangelicals swiftly dismissing him as a mommy blogger in photo negative. Their thoughts on other areas of concern for the Church are helpful. On this not so much.

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So is Jordan B. Peterson dangerous? …if not, is this Peterson swell just another episode of the culture rushing to the latest thing? …and why should the church, especially Evangelicals, be paying attention to him?

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The recent debate ‘Is There Meaning to Life?’ hosted at Wycliffe College is an excellent case study for why the church should learn from Jordan Peterson. We see in it 3 perspectives on this key question and ironically none of them get it exactly spot on as we would hope.

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During the debate several of us who have a common interest in these questions gathered online. While it streamed we shared many on the spot observations. The conversation about it continues as we ponder its implications. We agree there are philosophical questions that need further development. But, there are many practical implications from Peterson’s influence, I suggest, that the Christian church needs to take into its bosom.

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Shortly after the debate Alastair Roberts noted why pastors should be paying attention to Peterson. I commend that post to you even if you aren’t a pastor. If you are involved in any teaching or mentoring for the church Roberts thoughts are worth your time. Parents too.

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The focus of this post is that Christians who love the world will watch and learn from Jordan Peterson. This debate between Jordan Peterson, Rebecca Goldstein and William Lane Craig is especially significant for our growth in Christian wisdom. In one place and short time frame you get a vivid contrast on different answers on the “meaning to life” question. Get a stead grip on that question wrapped in Christian wisdom, the world will listen and they will know you care because you have learned to listen.

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To lighten your listening load I am working on a crib notes/critique on the debate. I’ll publish that in a future post. My hope is that these notes can give you key ideas and phrases to keep an ear for. As our listening skills improve we are in a better position to love the world according to the Gospel and according to Christian wisdom. So for now let’s look at what we can learn from Peterson out of this debate on the “meaning to life” question.

 

BTW, I hear there is an excellent seminar this Summer on this endeavor of Christian wisdom. You can learn more about it at the Davenant Institute website.

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Across the wider environs of Petersonville the reactions by commentators, thus far, seem to pool in 3 camps:

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  • “Jordan Peterson is “dangerous” and here’s 7 reasons why…”

{Their warnings come is varying levels from code green to code orange}

. there’s a neo-Marxian sorta POMO knee jerk response to the danger that is Jordan Peterson

. there’s also a fundamentalist-tinged Evangelical knee jerk response to the danger that is Jordan Peterson

{Both are fun to watch. A cool thing to watch is how Jordan Peterson’s public persona has recently become a cleansing agent of sorts. He speaks. The neo-Marxists come up for air and oh the filthy spray! }

 

 

  • “Jordan Peterson is a cool brand so let’s see how we Evangelicals can re-package it.”

{From here on you can expect to hear preachers and pulp Christian self-help writers quoting Peterson as though he is an authority on the Christian psyche. We should learn from him, but “redeeming” him is not the way forward. A fine line no doubt.}

 

  • “Jordan Peterson is an astute observer of culture. Listen and learn.”

{We should not ‘fan boy’ Peterson nor should we ignore his message. Receive his insight as a ‘common grace.’ Listen carefully; apply Christian wisdom and from this capital, love the world.}

. again, there’s a secular or non-theological following, probably Peterson’s largest group

. then, there’s a smaller Evangelical segment that aims to listen and study him while our feet are firmly planted on the verdant grounds of Christian wisdom.

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Because the money

So why should the Church, Protestants in America especially, be watching Jordan Peterson? Because the money. Yeah, I said it, but listen for what kind of money it is.

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The moderator of the Peterson, Goldstein, Craig debate, Karen Stiller, begins by welcoming the sold out crowd and “half the world” watching on YouTube. William Lane Craig’s loyal following was present, but the evening belonged to Jordan B. Peterson. As the exchange progresses between the three speakers you can sense that he has the crowd. Yes, Toronto is his home turf, but with his stance against Bill C16 he hasn’t always had the wind at this back.

 

As of this month Social Blade reports that Peterson’s YouTube channel has over 720,000 subscribers and over 38 million views. This doesn’t include the numerous video clips and mashups his fan boys upload. In the Education category this is quite significant, especially since his video postings are just one man doing his thing, one man without slick curation by a content management and marketing team.

 

His Twitter account shows over 400k followers. Till Peterson stopped showing his monthly take on Patreon he was up to $60,000/mo. Again, this is remarkable given that this isn’t the result of an effective Ad campaign or a well-executed business plan. This is gift money. It’s the kind of “money” that brings to mind the old Southern preacher who gives thanks for “the abundant free-willing offering.” This is the kind of money that TV evangelists would give money to tap into. Many of Peterson’s Patreon subscribers contribute out of gratitude to Peterson because “you changed my life.” Reading the comments is like watching a revival unfold. They have a wound and he has the salve.

 

I realize that by telling us that we should learn from Peterson I run the risk of lending support to the copy cat impulse in the Church. This will happen anyway. Evangelicals will find a way to do their own sanctified shtick from the Peterson persona. One reason the academics of secular psychology warn Peterson is a “dangerous man” is that he has gathered the audience they want or at least the audience that has been its whipping post. On the other hand, the problem with the Peterson phenom for the church is that like so many other things it will find a way to “redeem” his alchemy for the Evangelical crowd. James Dobson’s era is gone and a new one may be on the horizon.

 

Yet, none of these idiosyncrasies are a reason to ignore Peterson or to vilify him. Young men are sitting at his feet and supporting him because he has found entry into their receded or hungry manhood. Who doesn’t want to be a hero, if even an ordinary one? The kind of money he gets indicates that deeper longing met.

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Because Nietzsche

Peterson quotes and alludes to Friedrich Nietzsche with such frequency you’d think they were neighbors. Evangelicals typically demonize Friedrich Nietzsche or use him as a favorite silent opponent. Christian apologists especially keep Nietzsche in the top 10 line up of most likely suspects who instigated the moral decline of Modern man into Secularism.

 

Yet, it’s just as likely that most Evangelicals haven’t studied Nietzsche much less read one or more of his works from cover to cover. If he is such a virile opponent they why so little awareness of what he actually taught? So the common word among the church folks is that Nietzsche was the spearhead of two evils: the “death of God” movement and the march toward Nihilism.

 

About the first “evil” – scholars, both religious and secular, are still arguing about that. He was an atheist, no doubt, but he was mostly a loner. So how could he have conscious led a movement? About the charge of Nietzsche being a Nihilist overlord – it just isn’t true. He envisioned a time when man could and would live blissfully with God. That’s not Nihilism (in the debate Craig kept insisting it was). Of course, the passage to that other “safe” shore would be painful, abyss like. But, on the other shore Nietzsche’s own brand of optimism springs off the pages of his writings; often with bravado; nearly always without blush. Nietzsche assigns himself pride of place as the first psychologist of all philosophers. “Who among the philosophers before me was in any way a psychologist? Before me there simply was no psychology” (Ecce Homo).

 

He called psychology “the queen of the sciences” so given this, it’s natural Peterson would be walking in his train. Peterson is smart enough to know by now there are different schools in the study of Nietzsche. From these breed a variety of Nietzsche-like group thinks – an alt-right Nietzsche, a liberal Nietzsche and an academic Nietzsche are a few varieties. Peterson manages to by pass these edgy varieties and line up with a positive Nietzsche, the self-transforming guru that Nietzsche thought he was.

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From the perspective of Christian wisdom the most effective approach to Nietzsche is not to attempt to liquidate all his assets with fideist fervor (which is what Craig tried to do in his opening statement in the debate – not convincing). Peterson is the latest and probably one of the most effective in recent times to bring Nietzsche out of the ivory towers of academia and into our little screens and cafés. He thinks Nietzsche is “pretty damn amazing” – which is the Peterson equivalent of a 5 star rating.

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We, the Church, should be listening – a listening with thoughts engaged, not a listening which is a waiting to get in our next opinion. Like the apostle Paul in Athens (Acts 17:23, For as I passed along and observed…) Christian wisdom slows our pace enough that we can listen carefully to voices the culture listens to. Their hero tales are stories about their gods. Peterson likes to think he can separate psychology from theology, but all psychology is laced with a theos of some kind at its center. So when you are listening and reading what the world is taking in it’s like you’re god hunting. You can bellow about their nasty gods and lift the sword of ad hominem over their heads (call Jordan Peterson “an Aryan Christ”) or you can with gentle wisdom find out why they are drawn to those gods in particular. The former approach has the rattle of gang warfare. The later is the like the gentleness of Christ whose yoke is easy and burden light.

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And Peterson likes to pair Dostoyevsky with his Nietzsche, so there’s that too. Poetic and story forms help humans think and feel. There is a lot to sort through in the abundance of their aphorisms, poetic lines, stories and symbols.  This is a sorting that only Christian wisdom can do – do with cogency, do it gently, fittingly. The Christian worldviews (yes, there are several) method tends to do the sorting as with a blunt instrument.

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It’s tempting for Christian apologists and also their hordes to dump a hill of bricks on Nietzsche like he’s Christianity’s Hannibal Lecter. He was a loner mostly. He didn’t force his ideas on the masses. They came to him. And we should keep in mind that the ideas he trumpeted have a genealogy. For example, Nietzsche is known for his model human, the Übermensch (‘Superman’ or ‘Overman’). Yet, this did not originate with him. We can see it with different cast in Lucian of the 2nd century AD. Then before and after Lucian there is a long thread of cultural icons or criteria meant to call forth a philosopher king; the longing for a Jewish messiah being among these.

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So you see what Nietzsche is offering may be closer to home than many Christian apologists want us to think. Joseph Campbell’s “hero myth” may contain myth, but its messianic trajectory is not myth. Christian wisdom calls forth in us the urge to stop and listen for these theos echoes in the culture. Not so we can justify a cause to replace the true Christ with a pastiche of him, but by listening and thinking on what they are listening and thinking on we will see how, where and with what pains the wounded lie on the battlefields. Even in their rebel tents they have a messianic longing. You can show them.

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The Gospel itself is quite simple, but the work of evangelizing it is not. It calls for the unction of wisdom and love in us for those who need Christ. In Bunyan’s classic work, Pilgrim’s Progress, did not the man named Evangelist go and find the lost fellow more than once? We enter the worlds of the world, not so we can mimic them, but so we can show the way out. This requires that we neither dismiss Peterson and his Nietzsche nor receive him and his mentors uncritically.

 

 

Because Jung

Viewpoint mag probably thought it was with the angels when it spanked Peterson for not genuflecting at Freud’s couch (or other of their favorite intellectuals). They also said he conflates Postmodernism with Marxism. Ha. They haven’t listened to him – like a old butcher in the slaughterhouse – make lean steaks of Critical Theory and its cousins.

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So why does Peterson not privilege Freud as much as they think he should? Not sure, but I have heard a rumor that we are living in the post-Freudian era where he is not entirely forgotten, but carried forward in an after-after-Freud sort of way. Freud was a controller, a priest of hidden power. If is what is behind his Freud’s method, then that’s not the means to healing.

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Regardless, the simplest answer is that Peterson is a practical man. He leans toward Jung because like Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn they tell stories. Freud had one story frame (or so it seems) and we’ve grown tired of it. Besides that – it’s creepy. Jung ran with the gods and Peterson knows it. So since Peterson is a practical man and since he knows there are symbols to unearth in the theos stories we live in and out of each day he doesn’t do the high-brow psychology thing. He wants to help you, not rule over you. I know it may sound odd at first glance, but Jung’s kollektives Unbewusstes (collective unconscious) seems more manageable, even potentially visible, than Freud’s subconscious abyss. If Jung’s kollektives Unbewusstes is unattainable, then why did he take so much time and labor to record its impressions in The Red Book?

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If you get a chance to look into this volume, know there is a reader’s version (no pictures) and a large folio version with Jung’s fantastic drawings and calligraphy. In Jung’s Liber Novus (another name for The Red Book) he quotes Scripture directly out of Luther’s Bible. From the perspective of a believer like myself I know I am seeing in him and as in most of humanity a collective impulse toward the divine while still remaining at distance from it. How should we react or respond those who are in that liminal stance with Christianity? Well, I know this – that cold logical argumentation is not the way forward with those who are on the fringes of Christianity.

 

We should ever be mindful that there’s a common humanity we share with the doubter in that so called “collective consciousness.” Calvin called it the sensus divinitas. That is a common “space” you share with the doubter. Raiding that “space” with the might of cold logic is not in the spirit of evangelical love. The Church should at the very least observe this “space” with cura, caring care (again, not to copy or ape, but learn). We are all made for stories and symbols of the divine; every human being is. In the modern Church we are more tuned in for propositions, which is a good thing, a very good thing. Those can’t stand alone, however. In the Church we aren’t good at listening to people’s stories because we are not accustomed to living in the meta-narrative of the Lord.

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For example, how habitual is it for American churches to focus mainly on the New Testament and treat the Old Testament like it’s too old and crusty to demand our studied attention? Leave that to others we think, if they are so inclined. The Story that is in the New Testament is the rising up of the Story that is the Old Testament which is echoed in the storied myths found in every culture and era of human history.

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Peterson knows the power of story. We have a real and cohesive Story, not a “collective” one and we should be learning how it unfolds in relation to the many myths the world has told. Trashing their myths is not the way to advance the Story that God is telling. They will know we are listening to them when we too resonate with an awe much like Sam Gamgee who asked, “I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?”

 

And speaking of Critical Theory, isn’t it kind a stupid – an uncritical thinking – to assume that all which is deplorable in Jung therefore makes Peterson deplorable? Peterson follows a school of thought, no doubt, but he isn’t Jung’s ghost on YouTube. He is eclectic as far as I can tell.

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Indeed, he does study Jung with an reverent focus. The academy doesn’t like that he does:

I was constantly warned as an undergraduate and as a graduate and then as a professor against ever talking about Jung in any way whatsoever. 

Hit a raw nerve did you, Dr. Peterson?

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I think there’s warrant for peering into their creative Gnosticisms, especially for what it uncovers about our common frailties and longings. Does this Gnosticism revive old paganism? No doubt, but that has been with us for a very long time. There are dualisms all around us. No surprise there. Jung was a chronicler of what is as much as he was a creative mentor with a Monist view of reality. Can you fault a man for spending his life trying to catalogue this, then sort out the dualisms and build a schema to plot them?  We, on the other hand, need not find shallow security in the entrenched false dichotomies often guarded by Evangelicalism, the fundamentalist varieties included. We have our own damaging dualisms too.

 

There are prudent ways of deconstructing the pagan symbols and their meanings. Throwing a Christian worldview torch at them is not one of the better ways. The contrast between worldview talk and Christian wisdom becomes more clear as we soak in the ways of wise thinking already served up for us in our rich Church history, especially in the Reformed tradition.

 

I realize that working through these cultural deposits is not the Gospel itself. Not even close. Surely, the world needs the Gospel above all else, but along the way we might learn how to speak about it more effectively if we listen to the voices the culture is listening to. Dismissing those voices to the ash heap only handicaps our Gospel endeavors and furthermore it dims the lights in our bunker. Mediocre interest in others doesn’t signal love and it may, in fact, confirm that our awareness of the Gospel’s center of operations haven’t yet been impressed by the fact that Jesus gave up his last breathe outside the city walls, not within. Let us go out unto him.

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And it’s worth noting that while Carl Jung had his Red Book, J. R. R. Tolkein also had his own Red Book.

 

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Because Christ

In the Q&A portion of the ‘Is There Meaning to Life’ debate, Jordan Peterson told of a dream he had (min 1:33:20):

 

I had a dream once. I’m speaking psychologically, not theologically. I was in a cemetery of an old church, a cathedral surrounded by graves. There were indentations in the ground where all the graves were. All of a sudden the graves started to open. It was a grave yard where great people, great men of the past had been buried. A grave opened and an armed king stood up and another grave opened and another kind stood up. This happened all around me. These were very formidable figures. They were the great heroes of the past. After a number of them appeared on the scene they look around and saw each other. Being warrior types they immediately started to fight. The question is, ‘What stops the great kings of the past from fighting?’ I had a revelation…that was part of the dream.

They all bowed down to the figure of Christ. Then I woke up and wondered what in the world does that dream mean? What in the world could that possibly mean? Then I understood it. If you have twenty kings, let’s say, and you took the thing that was most king-like about each of them and then you combined it into a single figure, then you’d get a single figure of transcendent heroism, of transcendent good. 

Now what Peterson is putting on a pedestal is the reformative power of the archetype and the hierarchal structures in society. Well and good, but if there’s an archetype there must be an arche – “the ruler, the highest beginning, the true source.” If there’s a hierarchy, then there must be hieros – “the sacred, the holy, the priestly center.” You can’t do psychology without in some way or another touching up theology. Peterson needs to come face to face with the Arche (see Revelation 3:14), not just an archetype.

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After Peterson’s recounting of his wonderful dream I thought it would have been an even more wonderful for the Christian on that debate panel to reply with careful words, words that portray in beautiful form how Christ is not merely an idea, even a very great idea. He is the Arche, the Sovereign One embodied. He is the Holy One with us. He is the Sacred, the Sacred Head “now wounded,” who is the true Source of meaning, not a representation of a bland Theism (per William Craig). He is love itself.

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The other startling realization I had after watching this debate between Peterson, Goldstein and Craig is that none of them ever mentioned the place of love in the search for meaning in life. Peterson came close with his contrasting of “malevolence” with the good, but that too fell short. N. T. Wright has noted in the quiet tones of his lectures from time to time that though Descartes said, cogito ergo sum, we would be better to think of our own identity and meaning of life as, amor ergo sum along with amo ergo sum, “I am loved therefore I am” and “I love therefore I am.” That is truly at the center of our collective consciousness is it not? You want to be loved. You want to love. God is love. Therein is significance. But no mention in Toronto on that night.

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So you see when  we watch with Christian wisdom and think about it with Christian wisdom the doors of opportunity open before us and they widen all the more when we sit and listen to world saying by their theos stories. In the preface to his Institutes, John Calvin wrote to the King of France of what drove him to pen his magnum opus. He said,

And I undertook this labor especially for our French countrymen, very many of whom I knew to be hungering and thirsting for Christ; but I saw very few who had been duly imbued with even a slight knowledge of him.

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What he “saw” could not have been what he imagined the problem to be in the seclusion of dualisms or false dichotomies, could it? What Calvin “saw” came by observing, listening to and thinking with the people around him, his own people. When we listen and think alongside the world, then we are loving the world in way of Christ. This is wisdom.

 

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