Culture Opinion

Jordan Peterson and Man’s Search for Meaning

Drifting from our Christian heritage has caused us to lose sight of individual freedom, dignity, purpose and responsibility and to blame societal structures for all of our ills, as the revolutionaries of the Soviet Union did.

“Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.” Victor Frankl

Acclaimed Canadian psychologist Dr Jordan Peterson’s new book ‘Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life’ has, like its predecessor ‘12 Rules for Life’, topped the charts of all major booksellers. Clearly, people are searching for what Peterson is offering.

In ‘Beyond Order’, Peterson explores, with his characteristic insight into psychology, philosophy, mythology and with a bit of Bible and Harry Potter sprinkled throughout, more maxims to live by, such as “Imagine who you could be, and then aim single-mindedly at that,” and “Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens.” His books and online material have given guidance to many yearning for structure, discipline and meaning.

For instance, he tells of a young man who approached him after a lecture and said:

“Quick story. Two years ago, I was released from prison. Homeless. Broke. I started listening to your lectures. Now I have a full-time job, and I own my apartment, and my wife and I just had our first child – a daughter. Thank you.”

These stories abound, yet Peterson’s writing and persona have been harshly critiqued, even demonized, by many journalists and mainstream media outlets. He has been called a “Custodian of the Patriarchy” by the New York Times, and his now-legendary interview with Cathy Newman provided the arch-example of how progressively minded journalists view him as a sort of dangerous alt-right figurehead and attacker of feminism and transgender rights.

Not all of his critics are so belligerent, with others simply criticizing him for being “banal” and lacking a sense of humour. However, Peterson’s stern call to take responsibility for one’s own life, cultivate self-discipline, and courageously face life’s sufferings is, far from being banal, invigorating to a generation of people, particularly young men, who have been formed by frivolous entertainment, instant gratification, groupthink, and intellectual and emotional shallowness.

The most unfavourable reactions to Peterson are due to how he rose to prominence as the most important public intellectual in the world today. In 2016, Peterson opposed a bill in his home country of Canada which enforced the use of preferred pronouns when addressing transgender individuals. His defiance was on the grounds of the obstruction of free speech and thought, and he drew his conclusions from his study of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union.

In this bill, Peterson heard echoes of the ideology that made the horrors of the Soviet Union not only possible but actual, and he heeded gulag survivor Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s call:

“Even if all is covered by lies, even if all is under their rule, let us resist in the smallest way: Let their rule hold not through me!”

Peterson’s perception was accurate, even prophetic. The extreme Leftist assault on individual rights in the west via the ideologising of legislation, education and entertainment continues to intensify. The recent Equal Opportunity Act introduced in the U.S. could potentially see Christians and Christian organisations prosecuted for “discrimination” on the basis of gender and sexual identities (when they are actually refusing to accept propositions that are categorically untrue or defy Christian principles).

Peterson would not be vilified in a sane and moral society, but we do not live in a sane and moral society. Neither do we live in one that is utterly disordered, but the social, moral, historical and philosophical ties that once bound us together are loosening as the west abandons Christianity.

As the ties loosen, the west is falling apart, and the consequence is that people’s lives are falling apart. Despite many and various public health campaigns regarding mental health, depression rates continue to climb, with The Australian Bureau of Statistics reporting that “In 2017-18, around one in eight (13.0% or 2.4 million) Australians aged 18 years and over experienced high or very high levels of psychological distress, an increase from 2014-15 (11.7%).”

As the west dispenses with Christianity it is attempting to fill the religious longing of the human heart with the ideology of identity politics, or cultural-Marxism, a worldview that portrays human existence as the power struggle between social classes and identity groups; Man versus woman, black versus white, gay versus straight, etc. It is a reincarnation of Marxism, the ideology that gave rise to the Soviet Union which Peterson studied. Drifting from our Christian heritage has caused us to lose sight of individual freedom, dignity, purpose and responsibility and to blame societal structures for all of our ills, as the revolutionaries of the Soviet Union did.

We have forgotten what Solzhenitsyn taught us: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.”

What Peterson teaches is to acknowledge and put to death the evil in your own heart, to strive with all of your might to fully actualise the good, and to harness the moral power of your personhood with a realistic assessment of your own shortcomings and hope in your potential. That is a message that one would almost never hear in contemporary education or entertainment today.

Peterson’s ideas are really good old-fashioned Christian, conservative ideas with Jungian and mythological underpinnings, and people are searching for what Christianity, or at least the liberal principles derived from it, once gave them, even if they don’t realise it. His call to take individual responsibility, build discipline and confront suffering offers a remedy to the chaos.

The church ought to be encouraged that so many are seeking something that ultimately emerges from Christianity, and embrace the opportunity to speak gospel truth into the void.

As far as salvation and union with God is concerned, Peterson’s message only goes so far. The truth is, we need even more than what he is offering (although we do need that). We need divine forgiveness. We need new hearts through faith in Christ. We need the entirety of our fallen humanity to be redeemed by the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. We need the hope of Christ’s eternal reign. These are not merely archetypal concepts, awe-inspiring as they are, they are robust and objective truths about the One who is the way, the truth, and the life, who loved us and gave himself for us.