Jordan Peterson doesn’t claim to be a theologian, but he does put himself forth as an authoritative interpreter of the Bible. He devotes dozens and dozens of pages to decisive commentary on familiar stories from Scripture.
He thinks those stories are only worth talking about because they contain archetypes with a psychological meaning. In his bestseller 12 Rules for Life, for example, his chapter on “Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)” discusses the theme of sacrifice in Scripture.
But we find out that the only thing sacrifice means for Peterson is “delayed gratification.” He minimizes the fact that sacrifice involves bloodshed, presumably because he would then have to take sacrifice as more than a bloodless psychological metaphor.
The most interesting historical fact (namely, that only Christianity, by transforming culture, abolished the universal human practice of bloody sacrifice) thereby escapes his notice. Instead he offers a pedestrian agnostic understanding of Scripture that edits out its most puzzling and interesting features. These flat readings of the Bible treat it as equivalent to any other example of religious mythology.
Peterson talks about Jesus and Satan the same way he talks about Horus and Set in Egyptian mythology: they are archetypal figures in an imaginary story. When people make him into their personal Internet champion for political debates, they are probably not fully aware of whom they have chosen as their digital avatar.
“I had outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth”
On Page 196 of his book, Peterson summarizes his intellectual history, starting in 1984: “I was truly plagued with doubt. I had outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth by the time I could understand the fundamentals of Darwinian theory. After that, I could not distinguish the basic elements of Christian belief from wishful thinking.”
But readers will search Peterson’s book in vain for any consideration of what a “deep” Christianity might be, as a possible intellectual contender to replace the “shallow Christianity” he learned in his youth. Instead, he’s simply moved on, now passionately engaged with other ideas instead.
After Christianity, what he implicitly adopts as his own personal metaphysics is itself pretty shallow. He talks like a pretentious undergraduate who learned a little Heidegger in philosophy class, and who has now declared himself to be an “existentialist” who (like Heidegger) has moved beyond “shallow Christianity.”
Peterson’s bestseller is littered with evidence that he hasn’t replaced a “shallow Christianity” with much more than an extremely shallow existentialism. Again and again he speaks of “Being” (with a capital “B”), but this intellectual affectation is simply one that he picked up from reading dated English translations of Heidegger (which capitalize the word “Being” whenever it renders the German word “Sein”).
Yet his mysteriously capitalized word “Being” functions only as a synonym for “existence.” There’s no reason for Peterson to capitalize “Being” as a technical term as Heidegger does, to distinguish “Being” itself (whatever that might be) from “beings” in particular. There’s no serious engagement with Heidegger’s philosophy, which argued for a rejection of traditional metaphysics.
Peterson simply assumes that metaphysics and theology are obsolete
Instead, Peterson simply assumes that metaphysics and theology are obsolete as a matter of course, offering no substantive argument either way. He’s moved beyond a “shallow” conception of the Christian “God,” but the spectre of Heidegger’s “Being” (with its mysteriously unexplained capitalization) haunts his text, as a kind of substitute deity.
Impressively, Peterson seeks to confront the full horror of existence, and to choose a life lived for good rather than for evil. Yet philosophically he is unable to define evil as anything other than “something that is not good.” Confronting evil, he is unable to articulate the good as anything other than “whatever is diametrically opposed to that.”
(These existentialist pseudo-profundities are found on Page 198 of his bestseller, as the conclusion of a lengthy discussion on the ultimate meaning of the mythological archetypes of Scripture.)
I get why people like him. He’s anecdotal and engaging. He articulates the way many people think about men and women, better than they can themselves. He seems to mean well, and strives to be a decent person.
But he’s also needlessly cranky and myopic. If I try watching him on YouTube, I wince. But I can understand why people have an emotional investment in him. His Internet persona punches back, hard, at large groups of people they don’t like. But maybe our world needs less digital pugilism and more empathy. Not to mention better political options.
For anyone intrigued by Peterson’s 400-page book, I would recommend they read the Confessions of Saint Augustine instead, in the translation by Henry Chadwick. Much like Peterson, Augustine grappled with the existential meaning of evil. But Augustine offers a classic metaphysical and theological meditation that will endure long after the noisy Peterson craze is forgotten.