Typically, Christians roll their eyes, heave a sigh, or start building up steam when an atheist or agnostic starts talking about Christianity. Why, then, is an agnostic psychologist met with praise and fascination?
If you are unclear on who exactly Jordan Peterson is, here are the basic facts. He is a psychologist at the University of Toronto, and the author of the self-help book primarily written for men titled, 12 Rules for Life. He became a more widely known public figure when in 2016 he objected to a Canadian bill which added gender identity to prohibited grounds of discrimination, arguing that it was a government mandate on what pronouns one is allowed to use, and thus a restriction of free speech.
For this reason, Peterson was popular with the political right as a sort of free speech martyr, but he’s also controversial for a couple of other reasons. First, there’s his statements on masculinity. Peterson’s audience is largely young men, and if we’re to believe Peterson and those who speak about him, young men that have lost their sense of purpose. They find it in Peterson’s message, partly because he speaks to increasing appreciation for masculinity. Among other metaphors, he speaks of order versus chaos, typifying order as masculine and chaos as feminine. He also believes Frozen is a propaganda subversion of Sleeping Beauty because it’s not the masculine that awakens the feminine out of sleep. Thus continues his legacy as a politically incorrect intellectual.
But the second reason he has been increasing in popularity relates more directly to religion and society. While not a Christian himself and most likely an agnostic, Peterson has very positive things to say about the legacy of the Judeo-Christian worldview, especially as it pertains to ethics and social structures. This is so much the case that he has embarked on a lecture tour on the book of Genesis, and has packed stadiums doing so.
Well, why is a non-Christian so fascinated with faith? The answer is complicated. First, one must understand how exactly Peterson views faith; it’s not as simple as orthodox Christians view it. When asked if he believed in God on the Unbelievable podcast, he said “(the answer) takes books, lectures.” The reason for this is that Peterson speaks in a sort of postmodern understanding of truth – I mean this not in the sense of full-blown relativism, but in the sense of overarching metastories. He sees the Christian worldview as a critical metastory to Western society, and as a believer in Western society, applauds it for that. That’s why he speaks in cryptic language when asked about his belief in God – he believes in God in a metaphorical sense, but not in a literal sense – what is called the “correspondence theory” of truth. While he avoids the label, this is why he is best categorized as an agnostic. It’s also why people frequently misunderstand him – they aren’t speaking his language.
But while he spends a great deal of time exploring the fascinating ways that the Bible has shaped the Western world, there’s also an important fact to keep in mind – those attending these lectures are not receiving the Christian message. Take this statement from one of his Genesis lectures last summer:
“The God of the Old Testament is frequently cruel and arbitrary and demanding and paradoxical.”
To his credit, he says the Bible is all the more fascinating for this, and considers God a complicated character. But to expound the Bible as myth, even meaningful myth, and even meaningful myth worthy of respect, is not to preach Christ. No one has left a class on Homer praying to Zeus.
There’s a reason I think this is important. Christians have for so long been seen as the anti-intellectuals that it’s sorely tempting to grasp onto someone like Peterson, who was an associate professor is psychology at Harvard before moving to Toronto, and claim him as part of your camp. This has been so tempting in fact, that one piece asks, “Is Jordan B Peterson the Saviour of Christianity?” (The author, Justin Brierly, is not claiming he is, but analyzing his appeal).
Now certainly, we can celebrate the fact that Christianity is being treated with respect by a public intellectual. This site is all about building bridges, and Peterson’s broad appeal seems like a very good opportunity to do that. In fact, one recent discussion between a Christian blogger and secular atheist shows this could be happening already, in some small sense. But even in crossing bridges, nuance is needed. Peterson’s statements on Christianity may be helpful in some degree, but he is it the godsend to Christianity some believe him to be. His politically incorrect statements and his ideas on gender, which I haven’t delved into here, must also be evaluated on separate grounds. We must always be cautious of allowing tribalism to cause us to argue in terms of people and public figures, rather than principles and ideas.