I’m going to say something about Jordan Peterson, who has risen to fame in a way that is quite gratifying to see: through the power of his words and reasoning, without stooping to least-common-denominator, ear-tickling moral exhibitionism. His popularity has grown organically. His willingness to take a stand against postmodernist absurdity has endeared him to a supportive listening public. You get the feeling that he’s a fresh breeze parting the fetid air, and large numbers breathe more easily as a result. I applaud him, and his listeners, too.
Dr. Peterson looks for psychological meaning in the paradigm-setting stories of the Old Testament, and any Christian would do well to listen, and listen hard. It would be immensely helpful to your understanding of the Bible.
For just one example, I have often wondered about the story of Cain and Abel. It’s not at all obvious from the text alone why God found favor with Abel’s offering, and not with Cain’s, and so the main point of the story was elusive to me, for a long time. That’s significant, because it’s not one of the more obscure stories of history whose meaning has eroded with time, which you can easily skim and move on to the next section of the Bible that seems to make more sense. The Cain and Able story is one of the stories of Genesis that explains who we are, and something of what God is, and how we’re to understand our relationship to Him. The Cain and Abel story is among the fundamental stories of our existence, like those of the creation of the world, the creation of man, the relationship of men to women, the fall, the tower of Babel, and the flood.
Archetypes and “God”
Peterson treats these stories as archetypal, being just as valid mythologically as if true literally in space-time. His insights are right, so does that mean his view of God is, too?
Everything Peterson says, nearly, is true, about human nature and about what the Bible says about human nature and the need to do things “properly;” that is, not to sin, and to grasp that human nature is in some way awry, so that we need to aim true to avoid missing the mark. But the ultimate mark, God’s perfection, is a vague concept, with Peterson, because of how he conceives of God. In fact, though he’s been asked many times about his belief in an actual God, Peterson seems ever to be dodging the question, despite his protestations that he’s not. He always wants to put God in quote marks; “God.” His usual initial response to the God question is something like: “What does that even mean?” It’s curious, because Peterson certainly doesn’t mince words about there being objective reality and a right and wrong way of doing things, and even of the value of conceiving of “God” as a repository or target for our thoughts and actions.
Peterson is a committed Darwinist, in all its implications beyond biological development, and that informs his take on human psychology. As a result, he says, we approach reality with a an a priori perceptual structure that is the result of biological evolution. This forms a story we live inside of, and that story, he would say, is manifested in archetypal myths like those contained in the Bible. Our thinking of what is “proper” and what is not is all ground-up. We developed ways of doing things and modes of thinking through our evolution, and that informs the meta-truths that populate our fables and myths, including the most significant and enduring myths (he would hold) contained in the Bible. So the Bible is a deep and reliable psychological resource. Truth matters, to Peterson, but the Bible is a book of meta-truths. The whole Christian story of God as creator and God-with-us, and of His redemption of us, is a story of myth-as-truth about human nature.
For all his deep explanation of the truth in archetypal stories such as those contained in the Bible, Peterson resolutely stops short of answering the question why we would not suppose there is a supernatural reality behind the mythological archetypes. Nor does he reverse the same question, assuming the absence of supernatural reality, and then trying to explain why we should strive, in light of that reality. Perhaps the interpretative story structure we are born with is in fact entirely the product of biological development, with no connection in our consciousness to anything else. So now we have the perceptual structure, but so what? On this understanding, our need and sometime desire to behave “properly” is explained, but there is no explanation for why we should not, in the exercise of reason, overcome the direction pointed by our interpretative structure. Ultimately it doesn’t matter. He’s right about the descent into chaos that these deep truths point to, but leaves us with no ultimate reason to strive away from them.
God is not merely a figurehead capstone to an archetypal structure. He is not a mere psychological avatar for the perceptual structure I was born with. If He were, I would have no reason to avoid the chaos other than the desire to live better, but that begs the question again: why? To what end do we live better? I don’t do the next right thing because in some abstract way I and society will be better off, and I especially don’t do the next right thing if I decide, in the exercise of my imperial reason, to act counter to the perceptual structure I was born with in a particular instance. Understanding the archetypal structure does not, by itself, direct me to act in one way or another. It only helps to explain my inclinations, psychologically. It’s an evolved phenomenon and nothing more, in Peterson’s view.
Just One More Step
Peterson is so sound on the psychology that it is seriously puzzling why he doesn’t take the last step on his thousand-mile journey, and consider that the God of the scriptures is not merely an avatar of our human consciousness, but is a real, “out-there” phenomenon. And, that He is so far beyond us that we are here to spend an eternity, not an academic career, unraveling our understanding one bit at a time.
It’s this lack of complete understandability of God, I think, that gets Peterson in the end. “What does that even mean?” he asks, about God. He’s gone 999 miles, but can’t seem to go the last mile. If you can’t accept the truth of God as a real Being until you fully understand Him, then you will never accept Him, because God’s ways are not ours; His understanding is so far beyond ours. It should be sufficient that we follow the evidence where it leads. We first accept that there is a God and then undertake to understand Him. It’s not the other way around. He’s not a psychology experiment.
I love listening to Jordan Peterson. Please don’t take these comments as a reason why you shouldn’t. To the contrary, spend some time with him in his lectures or writings, especially those relating to the stories of Genesis. He’s brilliant, and mostly right. But he walked into the banquet hall and stopped. The glorious banquet is laid out before him, now he just needs to take one more step forward, and taste and see that the Lord is good.