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Jordan Peterson and Belief in God

"Peterson’s psychological interpretations of Scripture, however brilliant they might sound at first, are arbitrary. If God can be construed as an abstract psychological concept, then he can be construed however one pleases."

Dr Jordan Peterson’s psychological takes on God and the Bible, particularly as expounded in his lecture series on the Book of Genesis, have captivated Christians and secular people alike. His message has been widely received as a welcome remedy to the nihilistic, collectivist chaos of secular society. Furthermore, Peterson has become an ally to Christians engaged in the culture wars, helping them to understand the philosophical underpinnings of wokeness when many Church leaders have been woefully subservient to the prevailing ideological milieu.

I have previously praised Peterson’s teachings as essentially being compatible with Christianity, albeit missing the bigger picture and viewed Peterson as an insightful, truth-seeking thinker who espouses Christian ideas who would likely convert to Christianity. One reason for this is that I found in his psychological insights a depth of understanding that was missing from most contemporary commentary on the Bible.

I now view his message with scepticism, and I believe that Christians should engage his Jungian perspectives with caution. Simply put, although Peterson’s teachings, such as his famous twelve rules for life, can be practically beneficial, his interpretations of Scripture undermine the Christian faith. The good he offers is of temporal, rather than eternal, value, and is good despite, not because of, his views of God. I must note that Peterson does not claim to be a Christian theologian, although he does have a lot to say about Scripture, and has at times taken it upon himself to directly address Christians, who comprise a large part of his audience.

Being a Christian means, at least, that one believes in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Peterson has never claimed to believe in the resurrection, but to myself and others, his ideas seemed consistent with Christianity. After all, his message is one of taking personal responsibility for one’s faults, aiming at the highest possible good, and telling the truth. On the importance of the literal resurrection of Christ, St. Paul tells us that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins… If our hope in Christ is for this life alone, we are to be pitied more than all men.” Simply put, a man can have a very clean room and impeccable discipline, but if his faith is not in the resurrected Christ is still subject to his sinful nature and a pitiable creature.

Peterson’s ideas also appealed to me because I was an embittered young Christian man living in a hostile culture. I perceived that many Christian leaders lacked the courage to oppose wokeness or challenge young men to pursue discipline and virtue, yet a quirky Canadian psychologist was doing just that. Peterson spoke into a void made possible by the indifference and cowardice of Christian leaders.

Peterson did not fill that void with the good news of the New Testament, but with a message of self-improvement coated in religious language. His perspectives on God and the Bible are psychological twists of Christian concepts that fit into an atheistic worldview. In Peterson’s teaching, God is an abstract concept, not a Trinity of divine, living persons. This results in God being subordinate to one’s subjective vision of an ideal life, rather than a vision of the good life as defined by God, which is the only way to genuine spiritual renewal and eternal life.

In his introduction to his biblical series, Peterson said, “The initial formulation of the idea of God was an attempt to abstract out the ideal and to consider it as an abstraction outside its instantiation.” In other words, our ancestors invented God to conceptualise the highest possible good. The idea is that humans invented, or imagined, gods as a way of understanding and engaging with the world around them, and that this concept gradually developed into a more sophisticated monotheistic one.

One of the fundamental propositions of Christianity is that God has revealed himself to us, primarily in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. God created us, pursues us, and actively wills our good. As a psychological concept, God may be useful for subjectively improving one’s life (think a “higher power” in Alcoholics Anonymous groups), but that is not what Christianity is about (although the improvement of one’s character accompanies faith). Christianity is about literal, eternal communion with the living God through Christ.

The recurring theme of Peterson’s answers to the question of whether he believes in God is that he does not know whether God exists and does not consider himself to be equipped to make such a judgment, although he has referred to himself as a Christian in the past. When Timothy Lott of The Spectator asked Peterson, “Do you believe that Jesus rose again from the dead, literally?” Peterson replied, “I cannot answer that question… It depends on what you mean by Jesus… I would say that at the moment I’m agnostic about that issue.” In his widely viewed 2017 conversation with Ben Shapiro and Dave Rubin on Rubin’s program, Peterson explained that he thinks the existence of a literal God is possible but that he, at least at that point, was “not willing to claim that certainty.”

One sympathises with Peterson’s hesitancy, but it should not be controversial to say that this is not a Christian position. To be “willing to claim that certainty” is an essential part of what it means to have faith – to trust that God not only exists but has revealed himself to us. That is the Nicene Creed affirms, “I believe in one God…”

In another lecture, Peterson tells his audience:

“Maybe we [our ancestors] had to imagine God in that form [a patriarchal judge who requires sacrifices] before we could understand… that there was a future. Perhaps we had to imagine God in that form in order to conceive something that we could bargain with so that we could figure out how to use sacrifice, to figure out how to guide ourselves into the future.”

This is an evolutionary observation that, while sympathetic to religious belief, is compatible with atheism. Here, Peterson argues that the idea of God was conceived by humans as a way of “bargaining” with the future, a means to the end of one’s continued existence in a potentially harsh and indifferent world. When Andrew Klavan of the Daily Wire asked Peterson if his experience of God had become more personal since first teaching on the subject, Peterson replied:

“I discovered… that the word Israel meant ‘those who struggle with God.’ Well, that’s fair enough, and so then I’m a member of the camp of Israel. Is that faith? I don’t know… Have I bet my life on God? Well, yes. Does that mean that I know God exists? How would I know? I can’t know and neither can anyone else.”

Peterson frequently appears sceptical of the idea that one can truly know, or claim to know, that God exists. Christians trust, through faith in divine revelation, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and rose from the dead. As the Catholic thinker Hilaire Belloc wrote in his 1938 book The Great Heresies:

“The man who is certain that he is going to die for good and for all [as opposed to him who believes in eternal life] may believe that Jesus of Nazareth was Very God of Very God, that God is Triune, that the Incarnation was accompanied by a Virgin Birth… he may recite a great number of Christian prayers and admire and copy chosen Christian exemplars, but he will be quite a different man from the man who takes immortality for granted.”

Belloc described how a man can be orthodox on many points, but if he is defective on one point then he will be different to the man who is orthodox (Catholic, in Belloc’s view). A little leaven leavens the whole lump. This means that a society shaped by a religion that closely resembles Christianity, but is not quite Christian, will be different to one shaped by true religion.

What, then, would a society shaped by Jordan Peterson’s worldview be like? It would not have the hope of eternal life or be able to trust that suffering has an objective purpose, or that God gives us supernatural grace to defeat vice and pursue virtue. There would be no objective reason to believe that human beings are created with dignity in the image and likeness of their Creator, or that sin and evil were defeated at the cross.

Indeed, just as in an atheistic or nihilistic society, the assignment of the labels “good” and “evil” would be arbitrary. That society would have many clean rooms and honest people, but it would not be Christian. It would be comprised of people pursuing (likely conflicting) ideals that have no objective basis, making the cross an impossible burden because one is perpetually carrying it. Christ would be an abstract idea, however brilliant, and therefore an impossible example to imitate.

Peterson’s psychological interpretations of Scripture, however brilliant they might sound at first, are arbitrary. If God can be construed as an abstract psychological concept, then he can be construed however one pleases. There is a profound difference between being asked, “Who could you be,” and “Who were you created to be?” Regarding Peterson’s approach, Bishop Barron put it well during his appearance on Peterson’s podcast:

“They [the New Testament authors] knew about literature that was conveying deep psychological truth… but it’s not exactly news… the New Testament is people who grabbed everyone they met by the shoulders to say, ‘something happened…’ I don’t think people trading in mythic talk use that kind of language.”

Christians (including myself) have been eager to think of Peterson as “one of us” because his message of responsibility and truth resonated with us. Again, Peterson has never claimed to be a theologian, but his popularity among Christians reveals that Church leaders have largely failed to offer people, particularly young men, a noble vision of life.

The danger with Peterson’s popularity with Christians is that his listeners might become preoccupied with the self and value God insofar as he can be utilised to achieve self-fulfilment, subjectively defined. Fundamentally, what Peterson teaches is a worldview that is preoccupied with the self, and his call to develop a noble vision, according to some arbitrary standard, and pursue it is itself a means to the end of self-actualisation is a different journey altogether than that of being sanctified by divine grace.

On that, C.S. Lewis’s words from one of his radio broadcasts seem fitting:

“It’s just no good at all going to Christ for the sake of developing a fuller personality. As long as that’s what you’re bothering about, you haven’t begun, because the very first step towards getting a real self is to forget about the self. It will come only if you’re looking for something else… No man who cares about originality will ever be original… Give up yourself and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Look for Christ and you will get him, and with him everything else thrown in. Look for yourself and you will get only hatred, loneliness, despair, and ruin.”

Or, as Lewis also said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” Aim at God and you become your true self, too, but aim at the self and you will get neither your true self nor God.

As Peterson continues to wrestle with God, I pray for his conversion. I am grateful for the role he has played in my life, as I often come back to the eighth of his twelve rules – “Tell the truth, or, at least, don’t lie,” because it helped me to go wherever the truth, as I understand it, leads.

That Peterson’s advice has helped many people improve their lives cannot be denied. However, the purpose of our existence is not self-actualisation but communion with God himself. When we seek this, God makes us who we were made to be anyway.