Jordan Peterson, God, and Christianity: The Search for a Meaningful Life by Christopher Kaczor & Matthew R. Petrusek. Word on Fire, $29.95, 240 pages
Christianity in Jordan Peterson is for many a source of fascination, edification, and frustration, sometimes by turns and sometimes at the same time. To the Christian exploring his work and looking for a direct statement about the nature of Peterson’s faith, Christianity can seem like a playful but mischievous will-o-wisp that flashes out brilliantly and grabs your attention, and then skitters away like a Neverland sprite. To the committed atheist, Christianity can seem to stretch elastically from old-fashioned metaphors propping up practical wisdom to dangerous polemic potentially leading his readers back into superstition (precisely Sam Harris’s concern in their debates). As someone who was familiar with Peterson’s work well before his controversial emergence into a greater sphere of public scrutiny with Bill C-16 in 2016, I have watched Peterson’s discourse on Christianity with great interest because, somehow, he seems to be able to move the ball on the line between atheists and theists in a way YouTube-comment-section debates have long made seem impossible. What makes him so gripping and compelling to both sides is that he gets the hero’s journey of one of his predecessors, Joseph Campbell, and the archetypal qualities of interpretation of another, Northrop Frye, in a way that taps into the heart of the search for meaning that runs deeper than ideological postures. But when the question, “Do you believe in God?” is posed to him, he offers the frustrating, “I act as if I believe God exists,” to the exasperated sighs of theists and atheists alike. Kaczor’s and Petrusek’s Jordan Peterson, God, and Christianity: The Search for a Meaningful Life serves, in my view, as an excellent and rich dialogic engagement with Peterson that can help people navigate a nuanced catholic response to Peterson’s thought.
Misunderstanding and mischaracterization beset discourse around Peterson. But Peterson talks about ultimate questions, and discourse about ultimate questions will inevitably offend or unsettle many. So I have developed three criteria that I think should mark any Christian writing about him: 1) it should try to fairly and accurately depict where Peterson is coming from, and not let challenges of language justify easy or hasty critique; 2) it should engage how Peterson can be profitable to the Christian from an informed understanding of both special and general revelation; 3) it should firmly and lovingly delineate how Peterson’s engagement with Christianity falls short of, but also invites defense of, traditional Christian theology, philosophy, and metaphysics. Blessedly, I found similar criteria set out by Petrusek, who set out with three goals in mind: 1) understanding Peterson, 2) learning from Peterson, and 3) critiquing Peterson with an evangelical eye–meaning to show how Christian orthodoxy (what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity”) provides a more comprehensive and accurate accounting of, and solution to, the problems Peterson so brilliantly diagnoses (79). Of course, a single book cannot begin to exhaust this discussion, but I hold this book as an excellent step forward in promoting that discussion.
The respective sections of the book meet these goals with different emphases, and so readers will, if they share my criteria, respond with different levels of satisfaction. The more Rogerian reader who is interested in how Christians can learn from Peterson will find Kaczor more to their liking, where for the most part he focuses on conceptual overlap between Peterson’s Biblical series and biblical theologians both ancient or medieval (such as Augustine, Aquinas, and Hugh of St. Victor), and modern (Barron, Prager, Ratzinger). At times these chapters will strike those more strictly interested in critique as sometimes perhaps too irenic–as with the chapters on Creation and the Fall for example. Differences between Catholic and Protestant models of interpretation will emerge here, though Kaczor is for that reason probably a better entry voice for the agnostic wary of eager apologists. Kaczor’s “ecumenical” posture with Peterson (for lack of a more precise word) truly shines in the chapter on Cain and Abel, the flood narrative, the Tower of Babel, and Abraham, where he intersects Peterson’s archetypal reading of the passage with rigorous biblical and theological voices to craft a call to heroic life appealing to pagan and Christian alike, thus reading very much like a Christian presentation of the Petersonian call to responsibility. Kazcor’s tantalizing chapter on C.S. Lewis and Peterson, where he broaches the debate between the Petersonian “the Christian myth is true enough to live by” perspective and the Lewisian “Christianity is myth become fact” view, is a discussion managed well but too briefly. I find it puzzling, however, that even as he appeals to Eleonore Stump’s masterpiece, Walking in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering, he does not engage the Catholic voice who most informed Lewis’s own Protestant take on mythopoeia, and one much discussed by Peterson: J.R.R. Tolkien.
Where Kazcor emphasizes fruitful engagement, Petrusek brings a more agonistic (rather than antagonistic) voice to the table, explicitly working to delineate where Peterson’s ideas require the robust metaphysics that, as he argues, Christianity can provide. This difference may be due to Petrusek engaging 12 Rules for Life rather than the Biblical lectures. He does a masterful job treating the twelve rules under three subheadings: “The Problem of Meaning and Its Pursuit” dealing with rules seven and one, “The Problem of Pain and Its Antidote” dealing with rules eight, nine, and ten, and “The Problem of True Love,” considering rules two, three, and five (79). Among these, the first provides one of the most satisfying, punctiliar explanations of where Peterson cannot supply a satisfying metaphysics of meaning given his present stance: “If there is no ontological or even rational content to the existence of absolute goodness, then everything else in the system of meaning breaks down because its foundation, its touchstone, dissolves into sand” (93). Peterson calls us to the adventure, but the next stage of that adventure is to be found in Augustine and Aquinas, not Jung and Campbell (97). Peterson’s detractors often exaggerate the perception of pride and Darwinian self-advancement in his work, but Petrusek illustrates in the chapter on pride that there is an epistemic need for humility that the Christian theological tradition offers that can step in where Peterson’s own rules get muddled: if we cannot say that God exists but only that we must act as if he does, then human access to final truth is undermined, “and the cost of that is to obliterate Peterson’s truth-telling rules: if there is no truth, then it’s impossible not to lie because there is no truth (and thus no lies to tell either)” (110).
Chapter 9 provides a Christian response to a sort of Manichean angst in Peterson, an endless battle between order and chaos, pointing out that the Christian belief in cosmic love is a legitimate basis for optimism which Peterson desperately needs. The final chapter stands to my mind as an antidote to what can become a kind of psychological Pelagianism for the Christian immersed in Peterson: “Rather, where Christianity fundamentally departs from Peterson is in how following these rules is possible in the first place… We can be a worthy opponent to death perhaps (and that is a big perhaps), but not a victor. Nobody beats death. Well, almost nobody…. Jesus Christ creates the conditions for redemption. He establishes himself as the bridge to the fullness of life” (154-157).
The co-authored section on Beyond Order integrates those Rogerian and Toulminesque models of argumentation, balancing an obligation to afford Peterson earnest consideration with a necessary critique of the ultimate gulf between his views on suffering and those of Christianity. Although a short chapter, it underscores the fact that the relationship between Christianity being “psychologically correct” and the literal, forensic claims of the New Testament is not merely an academic discourse. Instead, “the difference between the two is as vast and relevant as the differences between reading a great love story and falling in love yourself” (177).
The transcript between Dr. Peterson and Bishop Barron which concludes the book was originally a YouTube video, one which I watched the day it went live. The living energy between two premier public intellectuals, one the ambassador between psychology and pragmatic life and the other one of the great Catholic apologists of our day, is real, and it is worth both listening to the video and reading the transcript to get the full impact of how much both interlocutors can pack into a breath. Indeed, one could say that the desire for this book was born in that lecture, where Peterson again and again exalts the idea of the Logos and Bishop Barron responding each time pointing to the need for that Logos to be real. It is particularly interesting to see how the discussion on evil develops between them, where they both agree on a lack of the Church’s discourse on evil and damnation. Bishop Barron says, “We’ve become just too much of a mercy Church, in a way,” and Peterson replies, “That’s what I think. I don’t think that you guys ask enough of your people. You’re not giving them hell.” A classic Petersonian pun. But more so than the “Jordan Peterson phenomenon,” this book is an encouraging sign that humanity’s search for meaning is being addressed by capable writers from a learned, sophisticated, and sober Christian perspective. No Christian would feel ashamed to hand this book to a friend who identifies as an agnostic Peterson fan.
One lacuna in the book is a lack of response to Maps of Meaning. That absence is understandable, given that Peterson’s first book lacks the currency of his more recent work. Yet a chapter on it would have better grounded the book in a fuller picture of Peterson’s perspective, rooting his popular discourse in his academic one. But this is a quibble. The book is eminently readable, professional, and poised. Those who find Peterson’s “rule books” accessible will find this book approachable and worthy of consideration. Worthy because the monsters of chaos, nihilism, and malevolence are not going away. As Peterson writes, “We think: if we’re careful and we’re quiet, the monster will avoid us completely. And everyone knows that’s a lie” (214). And this book will aid Christians and non-Christians in contemplating how Peterson and the history of Christian theology alike seek to equip us to face those monsters of the heart.
Dr. Anthony G. Cirilla is a Visiting Fellow at Davenant Hall and teaches writing and literature courses at College of the Ozarks. He has published widely on a variety of topics and serves as associate editor of Carmina Philosophiae, the journal of the International Boethius Society.
Peterson’s rules, for the unfamiliar, are:
- “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.”
- “Treat yourself like you are 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 skate-boarding.”
- “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.”