Like many people, at least in the UK, I first came across Jordan Peterson when his interview with Channel 4's Cathy Newman went viral. See here if you've been living on another planet of late and haven't yet seen it. I was impressed with Peterson's ability to hold to his own under sustained onslaught from Newman with her liberal bias against conservative views. He refused to be misrepresented when she repeatedly took his arguments to their illogical conclusion. At one point Newman was lost for words.
Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Canada. He rose to public prominence when he refused to comply with his University's policy of enforcing staff and students to refer to transgender people by their chosen pronouns. He regarded the guidance as intellectually dishonest and a violation of free speech. Angry protests followed.
Peterson's 12 Rules for Life has sold over two million copies. His lecture tours have attracted huge crowds across the world. Young men especially have fastened onto his message of personal responsibility. The professor often appeals to the Christian faith when articulating his views, drawing upon biblical stories to illustrate his points. I was intrigued and wanted to find out more; following him on Twitter (@jordanbpeterson) and watching interviews and talks online. When Audible offered me a free download as a trial offer, I chose 12 Rules for Life.
Audiobooks aren't really my thing. I'm a pretty fast reader, so having a book read to me seemed like a ponderously slow process. When reading a book I feel like I'm working, but sitting and listening I'm tempted to start doing other things rather than concentrating on what I'm hearing. Anyway, in fits and starts stretching out over several months I finally made it to the end.
Others have offered reviews in which they work their way systematically through each of the '12 Rules'*. I'm not going to do that. In case you're wondering what they are, you'll find them listed at the bottom of this post. What I propose to do is reflect on some of the big themes Peterson touches upon in his book and subject them to theological analysis. You see, although the writer is happy to mine the Bible for parables and principles, he gets a bit cagey when pressed on his own personal faith position. Peterson recommends we live as though God existed because the Nietzschean alternative is too awful to contemplate. For the Christian God is not a hypothesis invented to make life bearable. He is the one who makes life both possible and meaningful.
Many people on nodding acquaintance with the Bible say they find the God disclosed in the pages of the New Testament more appealing than the one revealed in the Old. The ancient heresy of Marcion persists. Yahweh is a jealous God of wrath and rage. How different is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But there is only one God according to Christian belief. Both covenants testify to his mercy and justice. The supreme demonstration of which divine attributes is seen in the love-placarding, sin-bearing, wrath-averting death of Christ at Calvary.
Unusually, in a kind of reverse Marcionism, Peterson prefers the God of Moses to the God of Jesus. A God of wrath seems somehow more fitting, given the state of our sin-ruined, suffering existence. The problem of evil weighs heavily in 12 Rules of Life. Peterson does not shy away from the reality of sin in the human heart and the suffering it causes. It can be a struggle to resists the nihilistic pull of hatred for the world and chose life. Hence the injunction of Rule 1 'Stand up straight with your shoulders back'. Don't be cowed by what life throws at you. Adopt a confident posture and begin a journey of self-improvement one step at a time.
There is a lot of good practical wisdom to be found here. You can see why Peterson's message is proving so popular, particularly among men, who have long been told they are either dangerously 'toxic', or totally useless. It's great that millions of his readers are being taken to the Bible as a source of truth and insight, whether that's the story of Cain and Abel, or Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. This is not to say that Peterson has grasped the gospel, however. In a coda at the end of 12 Rules for Life he quotes Matthew 6:33, "But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." He takes the text as a cue for us to pursue the highest priorities in life in terms of our self-development, career and relationships. Husbands should honour their wives as Mothers of God, fathers treat their sons as Sons of God, men should look out for their daughters, adult children care for their parents.
Rules or redemption?
Fine sentiments indeed. But this is not the gospel. Such is the nature of sin-ruined humanity that 12 Rules for Life isn't going to set us straight. Not even the Ten Commandments could do that. What we need isn't rules, but redemption. The Son of God had to be born of his virgin mother, suffer and die on the cross for ours sins, and be raised bodily from the grave. In Christ the believer has died to the old life under the reign of sin and been raised to a new one under the reign of grace. We need the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives from within that we may walk in the way of God's rules for life. The message of the Bible is not one of self-help, but grace.
The great Puritan divine John Owen wrote pithily, 'A Socinian Christ for a Pelagian man'. In other words, a Pelagian message of self-improvement does not require God the Son to die for our sins. With the appropriate teaching and the aid of good examples, we can find the right path. The trouble is, as Owen knew, 'A Chalcedonian Christ is needed for an Augustinian man'. Peterson's conception of human nature might seem gloomy, but it is nowhere near gloomy enough. Human beings are made in the image of God. That is what gives us our value, dignity and moral responsibility. But we are fallen creatures, totally depraved and ruined by sin. The 'chaos' for which Peterson's Rules are the prescribed antidote has its roots in the fall of human beings in rebellion against their Creator; "sin is lawlessness [anomia]", 1 John 3:4. Augustine understood that sin warps our love, causing us to turn away from God and in upon ourselves. That way lies ruin and eternal loss. Only by grace can our track record of failure be forgiven. Only by grace can we be rightly ordered to love God and others above self.
But the church does have something to learn from Jordan Peterson. He is unafraid to voice and defend his socially conservative views in public and will not allow the hostile media to misrepresent his position. All too often the church had buckled under pressure when it comes to upholding biblical marriage, and so on. Peterson works hard to apply his teachings to his readers and listeners lives in helpful ways. This has made a real difference to people who have acted upon his guidance. Preachers also need to 'state, illustrate and apply'. Yes, our imperatives must be based on the indicatives of the gospel, but transformational imperatives there must be. Let's not forget that the aim of preaching is to equip believers to play their roles in the drama of redemption in which evil is defeated and God's good purposes prevail. Peterson's success also shows that there is an audience out there for a message that addresses what it means to live a purposeful life in a broken world. The church should have something to say about that, right?
12 Rules for Life
- Stand up straight with your shoulders back
- Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
- Make friends with people who want the best for you
- Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
- Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
- Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
- Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
- Tell the truth – or, at least, don't lie
- Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't
- Be precise in your speech
- Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
- Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street