Madeleine Davies

The strange theology of Jordan Peterson

In Uncategorized on August 22, 2018 at 1:14 pm

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IN the opening pages of 12 Rules for Life: a antidote for chaos, Jordan Peterson describes a vision that gave rise to an epiphany. He is clinging to a chandelier suspended in the dome of a cathedral, directly above the centre of cross. He makes his way down, but is dragged back to this point. Months later, he discovers the meaning: “what the great stories of the past continually insist upon: the centre is occupied by the individual.”

The individual occupies the centre of this book, too. Fix yourself, Peterson says. Stop looking to ideology for answers. “Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganise the state until you have reordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city?”

There’s a lot about heaven, too. He who seeks to create it on Earth (and “He” is important here) will “pursue the path of ultimate meaning. And he will in that manner bring salvation to the ever-desperate world”.

A coda ends the book with the revelation that, when it comes to his wife, Peterson’s task is to “Treat her as if she is the Holy Mother of God, so that she may give birth to the world-redeeming hero.” I was not surprised to learn that he is a huge fan of Nietzsche.

/…

I came across Peterson, like many I assume, after watching his encounter with Cathy Newman, on Channel 4 News. The interview focused on Peterson’s views on gender. I noticed it was being shared keenly by Christian men on Twitter.

I don’t think it’s hard to grasp why he’s so popular, and particularly among young men. “The hunger among many younger people for rules, or at least guidelines, is greater today for good reason,” writes Dr Norman Doidge in the foreword. Spliced with meditations on Scripture, citations from social science, and extracts from Russian literature, are instructions that will be familiar to readers of self-help literature: get a good night’s sleep, stop drinking so much, stand up straight with your shoulders back. It promises order, meaning, and purpose; the possibility of having an impact on the world, of one’s life mattering.

Another aspect of its appeal, I sense, is its conservatism. “Horror and terror lurk behind the walls provided so wisely by our ancestors,” Peterson warns. “Something new and radical is still almost always wrong”. For some, this will be an incredibly reassuring book. In a world of marches, alight with talk of structural inequality and injustice and loud with demands for radical change, Peterson summons forth science, history, and myth, in defence of the status quo, while constructing a frightening picture of the consequences of revolution.

“Each person’s private trouble cannot be solved by a social revolution, because revolutions are destabilising and dangerous,” he warns. “We have learned to live together and organise our complex societies slowly and incrementally, over vast stretches of time, and we do not understand with sufficient exactitude why what we are doing works. Thus altering our ways of social being carelessly in the name of some ideological shibboleth (diversity springs to mind) is likely to produce far more trouble than good.”

“A long time”, or versions of it, is a refrain in this book. I was reminded of Dr Elaine Storkey’s analysis of functionalism: “Societies can ‘function’ in ways that might be draconian or complacent, discriminatory or unjust . . .”

Despite Peterson’s fondness for stirring calls to arms (“let your light shine, so to speak, on the heavenly hill, and pursue your rightful destiny”), this is also a book about limitations, about the beauty of individual endeavour and the danger of the plural, of “slavish adherence to the group”. It is a book that places its faith in the cumulative effect of individual actions, and shies away from the collective: “We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world.”

Finally, it is popular, I think, because it contains what are celebrated in the foreword as “truth explosions” [Dr Doidge mentions their detonation in games of “Speak your mind”, held in the home of “de-repressed” Polish émigrés]. For Peterson, lies come straight from Hell. “It is deceit that produces the terrible suffering of mankind: the death camps of the Nazis; the torture chambers and genocides of Stalin and that even greater monster, Mao. . . It is deceit that still threatens us, most profoundly, today.” He comes to us as the brave truth-teller. There are “plausible psycho-biological reasons” for a preference for boy babies, we are told, “and they’re not pretty, from a modern egalitarian perspective.”

There are things that I think Peterson gets right. He writes brilliantly about the human capacity for evil, observing that “only man could conceive of the rack, the iron maiden and the thumbscrew” and about our longing to return to Eden, as creatures made in the image of God, each bearing a “divine spark”. His defence of Christianity as a break with barbarism carries echoes of Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual, as does his acknowledgement of Christianity’s “surprising claim that even the lowliest person had rights”. He engages energetically with theodicy, grappling assiduously with the suffering that blights human existence.  I found the final chapter, which tells the story of his young daughter’s illness, truly beautiful, including the realisation that “what can be truly loved about a person is inseparable from their limitations”.

/…

Much has been made of Peterson’s engagement with the Bible, with some suggesting that we should celebrate his success in drawing young men towards it. Reading 12 Rules, it would be easy to assume, like Tim Lott, that Peterson regards it as a work of myth. He describes it as “thrown up, out of the deep, by the collective human imagination”.

Yet he told Lott that he was unwilling to rule out the possibility of the literal, physical resurrection of Christ: “I don’t know the limits of human possibility,” he explained. Lott seemed surprised, yet Peterson’s reverence for humanity is a thread that runs throughout his book. What it gives rise to is a rather strange theology.

Atonement will not be undertaken by Christ, but by the individual, who must work towards Heaven: “That would atone for your sinful nature, and replace your shame and self-consciousness with the natural pride and forthright confidence of someone who has learned once again to walk with God in the Garden.”

Peterson calls on his followers to: “Aim high. Set your sights on the betterment of Being. Align yourself, in your soul, with Truth and the Highest Good. There is habitable order to establish and beauty to bring into existence. There is evil to overcome, suffering to ameliorate, and yourself to be better.”

All things considered, Peterson suggests, we are unduly harsh on ourselves: “We deserve some respect. You deserve some respect.”

It’s a stirring call, designed to combat the shame Peterson has identified as endemic in his audience. I’d be interested to hear him in conversation with Brené Brown, whose work on shame has proved so popular, particularly among women.

Walking with God, however, does not entail following Christ’s example in all things. Yes, Christ befriended tax-collectors and prostitutes, Peterson writes, “But Christ was the archetypal perfect man. And you’re you. How do you know that your attempts to pull someone up won’t instead bring them – or you – further down?”

Christ’s death serves as “an example of how to accept finitude, betrayal and tyranny heroically . . . not as a directive to victimise ourselves in the service of others.”

This analysis appears in a chapter devoted to exploring the perils of helping others. “It is not easy to distinguish between someone truly wanting and needing help and someone who is merely exploiting a willing helper,” Peterson warns.

Perhaps a connection can be drawn here to his eschewing of the collective: a challenging person could overwhelm a single person, an entire church could embrace him or her. Must everything be done alone?

Certainly Peterson’s engagement with the Bible is selective. The parable of the talents, for example, is cited in a chapter exploring the “brutal principle of unequal distribution”, in which he argues that “dominance hierarchies have been an essentially permanent feature of the environment to which all complex human life as adapted”. This is sometimes referred to, he suggests, as “the Matthew principle” (“to those who have everything, more will be given; from those who have nothing, everything will be taken”). His analysis of those of “low status” in society is stark: “The bottom if not a good place to be. People are unhappy at the bottom. They get sick there, and remain unknown and unloved. They waste their lives there. They die there.”

With the individual firmly at the centre, the prescription, when it arrives, feels almost comically inadequate, boiling down to “stand up straight with your shoulders back (this is one of the 12 rules). It’s a pattern repeated throughout the book: things are the way they are because of biology (“cold pre-reptilian mechanics”), beware those who suggest that they should change, especially if they have fallen prey to ideology, and the best course of action is to turn your gaze inward, to fix yourself. I was regularly reminded that this book will be filed under “self-help”, and would not be out of place next to a Tony Robbins title. “Maybe you are a loser,” Peterson writes. “And maybe you’re not – but if you are, you don’t have to continue in that mode.”

/…

Much has been made of the fact that the guidance offered by Peterson has attracted something of a cult following among young men. At the beginning of one lecture, he read a letter from a follower who, under the spell of psychedelic drugs, received the message that Peterson was a prophet appointed to re-establish the patriarchal spirit in Western society, prompting applause. Alistair Roberts has suggested that he has something to teach the Church, including the power of combining “compassion and firmness”. Peterson is, “for a great many young men in particular, the father they never had”.

I don’t disagree with all of Roberts’ analysis but the claim that Peterson “does not render young men a new victimhood class” is undermined by the grievances set out in 12 Rules, which argues that “Boys are suffering in the modern world.”

“Boys can only win by winning in the male hierarchy,” Peterson explains, in a chapter that explores the growing presence of women in universities. “They will lose status, among girls and boys, by being good at what girls value. . . Are the universities – particularly – the humanities – about to become a girls’ game? Is that what we want?”

Evolutionary psychology underpins much of Peterson’s thinking on gender, married with bold proclamations about myth or archetype, including a repeated claim that, “presented imaginatively”, order is masculine and chaos feminine. Order, consciousness and culture are all male, in Peterson’s reading. Men represent order because they are “the builders of towns and cities, the engineers, stonemasons, bricklayers, and lumberjacks, the operators of heavy machinery…” Women represent chaos, he argues, because of “the crushing force of sexual selection”.

“It is Woman as Nature who looks at half of all men and says, No!’” he writes. “For the men, that’s a direct encounter with chaos, and it occurs with devastating force every time they are turned down for a date.”

This is one of several references, in the book, to the devastating impact of women’s rejection. Reflecting on the Garden of Eden, Peterson observes: “Women have been making men self-conscious since the beginning of time.” Later, he writes about “the terror young men feel towards attractive women, who are nature itself, ever ready to reject them, intimately, at the deepest possible level. Nothing inspires self-consciousness, undermines courage, and fosters feelings of nihilism and hatred more than that – except, perhaps, the too-tight embrace of too-caring mom.”

I was reminded several times of the Margaret Atwood quote: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” In a book that explores hierarchy, dominance, power, and culture, the fact of male violence is notable by its absence. An exploration of rape is confined to a chapter in which he reflects on a female patient who suspects that she may have been raped. She is, he muses, “a denizen of chaos and the underworld”.

It is telling, I think, that an author celebrated for his boundless curiosity across disciplines who has written a book peppered with wide-ranging references (Nietzshe, Walt Disney, Tolkein, J.M. Barrie, Socrates, Mark Twain…) cites so few women. Although Peterson claims that he does not subscribe to the belief that women contributed nothing to substantial to art, literature, and the sciences prior to the 1960s, it’s notable that one of the small number of female-authored works cited is 50 shades of Grey lauded as “the eternal Beauty-and-the-Beast plot of archetypal romance” (he doesn’t actually name the author). In a later chapter, in which he advises the reader to “dare to be dangerous” he encourages them to consider their “dark and unspoken desires” for their partner, musing that “the femme fatale and the anti-hero are sexually attractive for a reason…” Of the small number of women cited, three are mentioned explicitly for their physical beauty (alongside a celebrated male mathematician).

It is this, I think, that was bubbling away beneath the surface of the Channel 4 interview, but which couldn’t be grasped by Newman because it was never explicitly acknowledged. Peterson comes armed with social science studies, but his real influences lie in beliefs which, he argues, are rooted in archetype. We are back to “a very long time” (but with no evidence that these are indeed universally-acknowledged archetypes). The Little Mermaid for example, tells us that “a woman needs consciousness to be rescued, and as noted above, consciousness is symbolically masculine and has been since the beginning of time”. The Prince could be, he admits, “a woman’s own attentive wakefulness, clarity of vision, and tough-minded independence”. But these are, he immediately stresses, “masculine traits – in actuality, as well as symbolically”.

Socialisation theories are given scant credibility, in a book that contains a rather rosy view of the history of gender relations. “It looks to me like the so-called oppression of the patriarchy was instead an imperfect collective attempt by men and women, stretching over millennia, to free each other from privation, disease and drudgery,” Peterson observes. Perhaps, he suggests, it is childbearing and its attendant vulnerabilities that is “sufficient reason for the different legal and practical treatment of men and women” during history. It’s a rather extraordinary reading, devoid of any engagement with recorded thought. We don’t have to guess about what people believed about women, because it is written down.

We could also look around us. Even today, acts of violence against women aged between 15 and 44 produce more deaths, disability and mutilation than cancer, malaria and traffic accidents combined. “The truth is that violence on such a scale could not exist were it not structured in some way into the very fabric of societies and cultures themselves,” writes Dr Elaine Storkey, in Scars Across Humanity, which provides in-depth research about the extent to which women’s low status in society has rendered them vulnerable to abuse. Against this backdrop, Peterson’s list of male inventors who have developed creations that benefitted women seems wilfully obtuse. I also recommend reading Dr Storkey’s chapter on theories of violence for an in-depth account of the inadequacies of evolutionary psychology in explaining the world in which we find ourselves.

“At a far deeper level than either ‘biology’ or ‘culture’, then, ‘sin’ helps us explain the ubiquity of violence against women,” she writes. “A Christian theology of sin places accountability for attitudes, culture and actions firmly on human shoulders; we have to own what we create.”

I found Kenan Malik helpful, too:

“The problem with evolutionary psychology is that it embodies an inadequate understanding of what it to be human, and hence leads to inadequate political policies. Humans are clearly evolved beings with an evolved psychology. But we are not just evolved beings whose behaviour needs to be regulated and curbed and counselled. We are also rational agents able to rise above our evolved tendencies and who, through collective action, can transform both ourselves and our world. Evolutionary psychologists too often forget that insofar as humans are ‘political animals’ we are not really like other animals at all. It’s a lesson that politicians, above all, should take to heart.”

I was struck by the prayers Peterson writes, in a Coda, for his family.

“What shall I do with my wife?” he ponders. “Treat her as if she is the Holy Mother of God, so that she may give birth to a world-redeeming hero.”

(Also included in this section is a meditation on the fact that “Hitler’s mother gave birth to Hitler, and Stalin’s mother to Stalin. . . Perhaps the importance of their motherly duties, and of their relationships with their children, was not properly stressed.” In a book that demands, repeatedly, that we take responsibility, it is interesting to note that, occasionally, some blame can be redirected: towards women – the “Terrible Mothers” of archetype perhaps).

I did find it hard not to conclude by this point that Peterson truly struggles to celebrate women as other than wives and mothers. They are denizens of chaos, causing men terror in their acts of rejection, keeping men from their rightful place in higher education. In a hymn to the heroism of the individual, of the importance of asserting oneself, making meaning, it is also odd that there is no acknowledgement of the fact that for centuries women were not able to enjoy this sort of agency, which, Peterson argues, is to crucial to the good life.

I’m not entirely sure that this book is good news, either, for his large male audience. I was disturbed by one story in particular, that of a young man who joined him working on a railway line and having failed to join in jokes about his lunchbox was subjected to rocks being thrown at him. “Don’t be a girlie man” is Peterson’s instruction. He goes on to laud an old bodybuilding advert that showed a young man motivated to train after being beaten by a bigger man, in front of his girlfriend. “The two-weak young man is embarrassed and self-conscious, as he should be. What good is he? He gets put down by other men, and, worse, by desirable women.” I thought of the teenage Audi mechanic who set himself on fire after being bullied by colleagues. The alternative to aggression is worse, Peterson argues: “If men are pushed too hard to feminise, they will become more and more interested in harsh, fascist political ideology.”

/…

I did not begin reading this book determined to find fault. I agree with Dr Doidge, in his foreword, that a hunger exists for teaching on what it means to live a virtuous life. But after spending many hours reading it – more than once! – I was left feeling both baffled, and troubled. It’s a brave person who attempts to construct universal rules for life, and Peterson has undoubtedly explored an intriguing mix of sources. What emerges is a strange combination of homespun practical advice and a vision articulated in capitals (it reminded me a bit of George Emerson in his tree, shouting his crede: “Beauty! Joy!”) that, wrested from a single, coherent foundation, must be difficult to build a life upon.

Incidentally, I was struck by the absence, among the endless citations, of theologians. Peterson claims that “what saves is the willingness to learn from what you don’t know” yet, his exegesis seems curiously uninformed by the work of those who have dedicated their lives to interpreting the Scriptures.

Those who suggest that Peterson is to be welcomed because he’s drawing young men to the Bible need to be alive to the fact that he has co-opted its stories to serve his political purposes, and consider who will be around to point this out to his audience. The Jesus I found in 12 Rules was a strange creation. I couldn’t find any reference to grace.

Peterson offers a hymn to the potential for human heroism, with Christ the heroic archetype, taking on the forces of evil. Yet Jesus didn’t talk about “the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of Being and to take the heroic path”. He wasn’t a symbol, but a person. For those seeking adventure, He says “follow me”. He promises challenge, change, suffering even, but with the promise that his power is made perfect in weakness, that his burden is light.  I don’t dispute that many men today feel adrift, uncertain about their place in society, and this book is not devoid of helpful practical suggestions. But the world-redeeming hero we need is not sitting in Peterson’s lecture theatre and his book is not, on the whole, good news.

 

 

 

 

 

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