Jordan Peterson and Jesus?
Many of my friends are fans of Jordan Peterson. They appreciate his pragmatic and inspiring call, particularly to men, to take responsibility for themselves, and become agents of good. “No matter how bad a situation is, you can make it worse.” This is a good mantra. He speaks passionately, to the point of being choked up. I appreciate his deep desire to speak the truth, and I love some of the archetypal inferences on human psychology that he’s been describing in his examination of Genesis in his current lecture series. But the examination of Biblical morality and human psychology cannot end with Genesis. In fact it ought not to even begin with Genesis. Properly, it begins with Jesus, who IS the Truth. Jesus is the Truth personally revealed. A commitment to Truth is a commitment to a living person. Following him requires daily meditation on who he is, who we are to him, and what he did in the first century as recorded in the New Testament.
What About the Prophets?
Jesus follows in a long line of Hebrew prophets who spoke out against the organization of human sinfulness in unjust power structures. He went around challenging these power structures and creating a new way of thinking and being which he announced as the Kingdom of God. I agree with much of Peterson’s examination of how sin began with Adam and Eve and self-consciousness, but Peterson overemphasizes the role of the individual in the shaping of society in my opinion. The individual speaking truth is his main hope as far as I can tell. I really do appreciate this perspective. When I was younger, heavily influenced by the elite Marxist intelligencia that Peterson thoroughly condemns, I was convinced that I ought to lead the revolution (hopefully nonviolently) in some way, shape or form; but I experienced a conversion. I was converted to a commitment to the Church. I chose a community of transformation over an ideological movement because I realized that no matter what the laws might say, real change is a matter of the human heart. Societal change would only occur with the transformation of millions if not billions of individual hearts, and God’s chosen means of that transformation was the Church—a community committed to the in-breaking Kingdom of God. In this regard I agree with Peterson, however, the heart that Jesus compels me to have is so heavy with compassion and grace for the poor and powerless–the outcast and the stranger–that I cannot help but sympathize and even mobilize with the social justice movements in our society that cry out with the voice of the Hebrew prophets and, dare I say, the voice of the Lord. Peterson would disagree with this conclusion.
These movements have many, many faults. Our participation at various levels with them requires our utmost creativity and resolve. We need daily discernment and much dialogue to effectively maintain our difference as Christ followers in the slough of bitter ideology that dominates the discourse and the practices of many (but certainly not all) who work for justice. I am still convinced, as I was when I was converted (now 15 years ago) from Marx’s revolution to Jesus’ revelation, that the best alternative for the world is the Church. We need to be committed to the reality that Jesus revealed and is revealing in himself. Our calling as the Church is to relate to each other and to our neighbors in a way that condemns and conquers the enmity of the world. This is third way thinking that prejudices peace and justice without using the weapons of the world—violence, coercion and hate. We are empowered to do this by a Holy Spirit who grows in each of us abundant love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Individuals Can’t Get all the Credit (and Blame)
Let us not be convinced by Peterson’s elevation of individual choice and truth as a means of salvation, as if preventing another Pol Pot or Stalin is the only thing we live for. I am not compelled by Peterson’s pragmatism. He assumes that history’s alternatives are limited to what governments and markets have done. The threat of human wickedness is not a new reality. The 20th century provided a horrifyingly powerful accelerant to the fire of human evil with the development of catastrophic technology, but it didn’t reveal a new facet of humanity; it magnified the old. It’s as old as Genesis (I think Peterson and I agree about this too–I love his common refrain in the Genesis lectures, “These people who wrote this [Genesis] were not dumb. They were bloody brilliant!”) But I do disagree that we should believe that individuals are powerful enough to do as much evil as we have done if they were not organized in a system greater than themselves. As early as the age of the prophets in Hebrew scripture, the trend of the rich to organize against the poor was decried justly, and with the authority of God. Our individual evils have the capacity to coalesce and metastasize in unpredictable ways. Individual self reflection is absolutely necessary, yes, but there is more to it than that.
I follow Walter Wink’s thinking in “The Powers that Be” (a good book- I recommend it to you). Wink suggests that societal injustice, though begun by individuals, develops to the point that it takes on a reality and even a will of its own. Wink attributes this to spiritual forces (which Peterson rarely acknowledges). But even if we consider social injustice strictly sociologically and historically, it is reasonable to conclude that the powers are now so complex and endemic that it is nigh on impossible to deconstruct them without years (maybe hundreds of years) of concerted effort by millions if not billions of individuals. Changing the laws will not achieve transformation. Just as changing the laws about discrimination against trans people in Canada will not necessarily make the lives of trans people in Canada better (which is the debate that has gotten Jordan Peterson famous).
I do not have much hope for this hundred year, billion person project, but I do have hope in creating an alternative society in the Church that lives a life in service and discipleship of Christ who goes to the least of these and will judge us by our service to them (Matthew 25). I think Jesus would likely hang out with trans people if he had his first advent in 21st century Canada instead of first century Palestine. I do not demand a grand narrative for why or how people of color, gay people, or trans people are so poorly treated and disproportionately disadvantaged in our society (even if some individuals aren’t and some individuals who are not part of a minority group are equally disadvantaged). I do, however, demand justice from my elected officials, and I will use the tiny power I have to join with the Hebrew prophets of old to speak for those who do not have as much voice as I do. This is not my primary task (that’s building the church which is a grand narrative that lasts into eternity with its Head, Jesus, the risen Christ), but it would be poor discipleship of my Master to not do what I can when I can as often as I can.
Circle of Hope is an Alternative
In Circle of Hope we can do more together as a collective if we can agree about our task—we live in the Truth, with the Truth, including others in the Truth through cells and Sunday meetings, facilitating a 24/7 community that is a viable alternative to the powers that be and the discord which dominates all sides of political discourse. Our mutuality as people of justice has been a distinguishing characteristic since we began. We have participated with many justice movements, but we have always maintained our particularly christocentric stance. We participate as “invasive separatists.” We agree with social justice movements as much as we actually agree with them. We recognize their need for transformation even as we join with them in solidarity. We are not corrupted by their ideologies, though this is a real danger if we don’t maintain a robust dialogue among us.
I love Jordan Peterson because he makes me think, but I am not going to follow him, and I recommend that my friends take his insights with the grains of salt I am suggesting. I love his Jungian analysis of human behavior and the Genesis stories, but I am disagreeing with his political advocacy more and more as I see him engaging with trans people around the C-16 Bill in Canada that passed in May of this year. Regarding his demeanor and some of what he has said, kindness is not weakness, and weakness is not as weak as Peterson thinks. As Christian-esque as he appears with his year-long meditation on Genesis and his frequent quotations form the Sermon on the Mount I wonder about his relationship with Truth, whose name is Jesus the Crucified. I hope, if he hasn’t already, that he can access a personal connection to the Truth himself, through his zealous commitment to personal truth that has made him famous and worthy of conversation on my blog.