“Like Pelagius, Peterson thinks we can achieve salvation through our own efforts of will, without the grace of God. Like the aforementioned Gnostics, Peterson repeatedly argues that we each have a spark of the divine in us, so can manifest the divine here and now in our damned world of suffering.”
I find Jordan Peterson interesting, and I’ve written in praise of Peterson before, as his discussions of suffering are moving in their honesty. However, while Peterson the psychologist and self-help motivator is an interesting thinker born of long experience and deep knowledge, Peterson the theologian is less convincing. None of this would be an issue, but Peterson has called himself a Christian, and from what I’ve read and heard him say, he doesn’t fit any conception of being a Christian that I’m aware of. I’m far from an authority or expert on theology, but I’ll present a few ways I believe he is mistaken. I will be writing from a specifically Christian perspective, so I’m aware that many will disagree with both that and my criticism of Peterson itself. Many criticisms of Peterson and his ideas have been in incredibly bad faith, not worth the ink or pixels in which they’re displayed. They don’t add anything to the conversation and instead contribute to the vitriolic rancor that swirls around every aspect of the culture war. I’ve endeavored to keep as far away from that as I can in this essay. If people disagree with what I say, that’s fine, but I hope they can see that I’ve argued in good faith. In this piece, I’ll focus on where Peterson goes wrong in his approach to Christian doctrine, married to his approach to truth. In the second part, I’ll focus on how this relates to his view of culture.
To begin, let’s look at Peterson’s approach when considering God. He defines God by way of a collection of abstractions that allow him to give an elastic definition, stripped of the transcendent and immanent nature of God as most Christians would recognize it. In a debate with Sam Harris in Vancouver in the summer of 2018, he described God as “how we imaginatively and collectively represent the existence and action of consciousness across time” and “that which eternally dies and is reborn in the pursuit of higher being and truth.” God is “the highest value in the hierarchy of values,” is the “voice of conscience,” and is the “source of judgment and mercy and guilt.” He is the “future to which we make sacrifices and something akin to the trascendental repository of reputation,” and “that which selects among men in the eternal hierarchy of men.”
For Christians, God and truth are bound together. The lack of clarity around Peterson’s conception of God also pertains to the meaning he attaches to “truth.” As with morality, Peterson sees truth through a Darwinian lens.
Christ, according to Peterson, is the logos, that which draws order out of chaos through speech, achieving total balance of Being in all things. Peterson’s take on the Resurrection is that if we can achieve the same balance of Being, perfectly striking the line between archetypal chaos and order, we could do the same. This description of Christ is Jungian rather than Christian, with Gnostic echoes that have troubling implications. Much of this bears little relation to the scriptural God of Christianity: if one does not accept that Christ is who he says he is in the Bible, and that he was not incarnated and resurrected as laid out, then one is not a Christian—that is, unless one redefines “Christian” to mean something completely different.
For Christians, God and truth are bound together. The lack of clarity around Peterson’s conception of God also pertains to the meaning he attaches to “truth.” As with morality, Peterson sees truth through a Darwinian lens. According to Peterson, truth is “this harmonious balancing of multiple layers of Being simultaneously, and that’s a Darwinian reality, I would say. Your brain is actually attuned to tell you when you are doing that. And the way it tells you is that it reveals that what you’re doing is meaningful. That’s the sign. Your nervous system is adapted to do this. It’s adapted to exist on the edge between order and chaos.” For Peterson, truth is something evolved, that which enables Balance of Being and thus survival and which avoids chaos. However, as Chris Antenucci argues, if morality and truth are simply the evolved process of neurons firing, why do they matter? What gives them meaning? This is connected to the problem that religious thinkers like Alister McGrath have with the New Atheist view of how our morality and ability to perceive truth developed. We are not evolved to perceive objective truth—but to orient ourselves to that which helps us survive.
These issues throw up the same problem: what provides the means for us to comprehend the true and the good? How do we get the ethical “ought” from the biological “is?” How do we live good lives? As Antenucci points out, from a Christian perspective Peterson’s conception of truth and morality fall down unless there’s something exterior to the universe which sustains and undergirds the true and the good. For Christians, this is God. Without this underpinning, there is no objective truth, hence Peterson’s calls to articulate “your truth” and to speak that which doesn’t make you feel weak, which is what makes you stronger, better able to compete in the dominance hierarchy and therefore survive. The problem with the variations of this worldview is all that remains, if one takes it to its honest conclusion, is exactly the moral relativism that Peterson warned against. This moral relativism goes on forever, unravelling and dissolving everything. Of course, this is unsustainable, which is why the religion of social justice and identity politics is filling the void of meaning.
To be fair, Peterson doesn’t claim to mean the same as other people when he talks about “God” or “belief” or even “truth,” but this isn’t always clear. His repurposing of commonly-understood terms is frustrating. He can avoid direct, specific questions about subjects like the Resurrection, often saying that it’s too complicated a subject to say anything about. I sometimes feel that Peterson espouses a form of Christianity that no one else believes in or can even understand, using similar terms in a completely different way, positing it as the underlying reality to which people really adhere to without realizing it. Given his repeated references to Mircea Eliade when discussing religion in this way, his view of religion reminds me of the Perennialism of thinkers like Eliade and Rene Guenon: all religions are equal, as they all touch on, in different ways, an underlying, ultimate transcendent form of truth, of tradition. Needless to say, this is wrong: religions are not all the same, nor are they all equal.
The lack of definitional clarity extends to Peterson’s understanding of the wider Christian faith. In 12 Rules of Life, Peterson, influenced by and in agreement with Nietzsche, raises three issues with Christianity:
1. Devaluation of the significance of earthly life, as only the hereafter mattered.
2. Passive acceptance of the status quo, because salvation could not be earned in any case through effort in this life.
3. The right of the believer to reject any real moral burden (outside of the stated belief in salvation through Christ), because the Son of God had already done all the important work.
With respect to Peterson, these arguments are straw men. They speak of unclear thinking, which leads to imprecise speech. What is frustrating, coming from someone as intelligent as Peterson, is that they could be rectified through reading a brief introduction to Christian theology.
For number 1, while it is true that Christians are warned against too strong attachments to our place on Earth, to argue that this somehow means that life doesn’t matter is just wrong; we still need to live in the world as though life matters. As John Stott says in Basic Christianity, “The balanced Christian who takes Scripture for his guide will seek to live equally and simultaneously ‘in Christ’ and ‘in the world’. He cannot opt out of either.” The knowledge of the relative shortness of life, and the transient nature of our time on this earth, can mean the exact opposite of point 1. I, as a Christian with a painful life-limiting disability, who four years ago experienced the cancer at 21 which could kill me before I’m forty, am very well aware of life’s transient nature. As such, life and our time on earth are bittersweet in nature, leading us to wrestle with the deepest questions of existence. In the end, for myself as a Christian, the answer can only be that it is better to have lived for the short time I have, with all the pain and joy that entails, than never to have lived at all. The fact that Christians see the hereafter as the ultimate promised destination does not take away from this. Indeed, it gives us something live for. Ironically, the knowledge of eternal life acts as a life-giver to societies in the here-and-now and into the future rather than a life-sapper. More on this in part two.
On number 2 and 3, the idea that being a Christian means being passive in the face of the status quo is again wrong, while the idea that, because Christ died for us, we can now do what we want and not take up any moral burden is also incorrect. Peterson seems to misunderstand the meaning of the Christian concept of grace. For Christians, grace is not something that you get free of charge and can then enjoy for the rest of your days without cost. God may bestow upon us the gift of grace, but we have to choose whether to receive it or not. This choice is not easy or simple, and it is not to be taken lightly. It can be a huge struggle. Just look at Augustine, and the turmoil he went through before accepting the grace of God.
Furthermore, we don’t strive to be and do good to achieve salvation through our own efforts, but we strive to be and do good because we were saved by Christ’s sacrifice and his forgiveness of our sins. We strive to be and do good out of a duty to justify his suffering and sacrifice and to glorify it, to honor him, and to express our gratitude and love, and as a result of God’s grace we are able to respond. This is a crucial distinction. Many of the great movements for humanitarian justice were motivated by Christian concerns. Contra Nietzsche, far from thinking that because Christ died for our sins, there was nothing left to do, those like William Wilberforce and others believed that they would be called to account for their actions when the time came. This still applies to many Christian organizations today.
I’m concerned that, despite Peterson’s warnings against the utopian totalitarian temptation that aims for Heaven on Earth and instead builds Hell, his worldview might precisely lead to the tendency to say that man can become God—able to bring about Heaven on Earth—given that it takes inspiration from ideas that have this conception of humanity at their core.
Following these arguments, I’ll move to my final point. Peterson arguably engages in a mix of Pelganianism and Gnosticism. Like Pelagius, Peterson thinks we can achieve salvation through our own efforts of will, without the grace of God. Like the aforementioned Gnostics, Peterson repeatedly argues that we each have a spark of the divine in us, so can manifest the divine here and now in our damned world of suffering. To fully unleash our divine essence in service to our will to salvation and to redeem the world, all that is required are the right rules and practices. In this worldview, in place of God and Man you have the god-man. Rather than being made in the likeness of God, Man is a lesser part of God, and can become God on earth. Man is the measure of all things and can be at the top of the hierarchy: the Jesus archetype that Peterson articulates is simply a human agglomeration of the virtues that combine to create God that he laid out at the beginning of the essay. I’m concerned that, despite Peterson’s warnings against the utopian totalitarian temptation that aims for Heaven on Earth and instead builds Hell, his worldview might precisely lead to the tendency to say that man can become God—able to bring about Heaven on Earth—given that it takes inspiration from ideas that have this conception of humanity at their core. This is exactly the reason for the utopian catastrophes unleashed on the world in the 20th century. This tendency is exactly what Eric Voegelin warned against.
In this essay, I’ve attempted to lay out some of my criticisms and concerns with Peterson’s conception of Christianity, and his view of truth. His core criticisms of Christianity are unconvincing. Added to this is my concern that by taking the line that he has on truth and man’s nature, he risks arriving at the destination he rightly wishes to avoid: namely, a meaningless and nihilistic relativism as the result of an inability to perceive objective truth. This is combined with a lean toward the utopian totalitarian temptation that springs from putting man in place of God, able to create heaven on earth. While I welcome Peterson bringing Christianity to a more serious place in the public conservation, his views on doctrine and truth are sometimes inaccurate, and sometimes concerning. In the next essay, I’ll consider what all this means for Peterson’s view of culture.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the first name of Mircea Eliade.