Discover more from ubique naufragium est
On Jordan Peterson and God
I recommend watching Peterson’s discussion with Rubin (obligatory disclaimer that I'm no Rubinite), the 2nd link I provide. It substantiates some of the observations I make about Peterson's thought.
‘I act as if God exists’.
That is Peterson’s response when asked if he believes in God. It has become a maxim of his. It honours the unutterable complexity of his understanding, or non-understanding, of God. At the same time, it defies the nihilism which agnosticism threatens to beget.
Peterson is a Christian apologist on quite pragmatic grounds: he admires the way Christian faith orients one’s life around meaning and compels one to live with purpose. He admires the way it fuses great narrative with experience for believers. But he cannot truthfully call himself a Christian because he simply lacks the faith necessary to haul him over the chasm of his theological doubt. He is not sure what exactly is meant by ‘Christ’, but he knows for certain that Christ’s spirit endures in a historic sense. Did His body resurrect?
“I don’t know. I don’t know. The accounts aren’t clear, for one thing. What the accounts mean isn’t clear. I don’t know what happens to a person if they bring themselves completely into alignment. We don’t understand the world very well. We don’t understand how the world […] could be mastered completely. We don’t know what transformations that might make possible.”
Perturbed by Christology, Peterson prays and gives thanks to God anyway. He advises that we all do so:
“I try to conduct myself as if God exists. I try to conduct myself as if being is good. That’s faith, I suppose, and I think to some degree that’s also a kind of courage. […] I’m not claiming that my faith is entirely courageous because I waver, of course […] given all the catastrophe that’s rained down upon my family and I. But I still believe that you become corrupted if you become resentful about existence. You have to act as if existence is good, and that the truth is good.” He says this around the 25 minute mark of the discussion with Rubin.
In the same breath as he admits to an uncertainty which harrows so many reluctant agnostics, he offers a piece of wisdom: it is good to pray and to actively participate in a culture of religious tradition regardless of one’s religiosity. To live in gratitude, one must honour beauty and meaning over truth, especially if you are liable to catastrophise truth’s unknowability. It’s very easy to suffer if you want to believe in God and to believe that the truth is beautiful but can’t quell agnostic doubts. Peterson insists that whether you suffer (or at least, the degree to which you suffer) as a result of this destabilising incertitude is very much in your control. Repeated action shapes thought and emotion; being grateful is a voluntary act. He says that when he prays with his wife, it’s the best part of his day.
In 2018, Peterson asserted: “That's the fundamental hallmark of belief. It is how you act. It's not what you say about what you think you think.” This might sound like a surrender to cognitive dissonance or, at least, to a fundamental uncertainty in cognitive belief (the belief that you know something). Indeed, the source of a great deal of criticism directed at Peterson is his admission of uncertainty of belief while advocating for decisiveness and responsible action in his capacity as a self-help guru. If you are a public intellectual bound up in the ‘IDW’ whilst belonging neither to the rationalist atheistic ilk nor to the ‘Husband. Father. Christian.’ school of Republicans, you are going to frustrate people. Here is a man with hundreds of hours of lectures on Scripture online who has called himself ‘religious’ but who cannot call himself a Christian, or even a conservative, to the scores of people (among them many Christians and conservatives) who look to him for answers. He was catapulted to fame based on his outspoken stance on one particularly divisive issue, the infamous Bill C 16. In light of his pedagogical and psychological career, and his plain mission to help people get their lives together, he was then heralded as a man with ‘the answers’. But he does not have all of them, and about this fact he does not lie. In fact, unknowing is as important to Peterson’s rules of order as knowing.
Knowing and unknowing interact in the Jungian Logos. Peterson’s Logos is more ineffable than Jung’s and not less important. As he explained six years ago, the Logos is that which ‘pulled order out of chaos at the beginning of time’ and has endured since as a transformative force, endowing humanity with the capacity to likewise make order out of chaos: it ‘dismantles you and rebuilds you’. He also figured Christ as an emblem to which Christians attached the preexisting Logos: the incarnation was an expression of ‘articulated truth’. Beyond that, his religious convictions have appeared rather shifting and opaque; he employs words like ‘spirit’ with regards to Christ’s enduring cultural presence and attaches divinity, defined as ‘ultimate transcendent value’, to the Logos. That is, the Logos is of utmost importance, from which it follows that the Logos is divine.
By insisting on the superlative importance of the Logos, Peterson also insists on the idea of divinity as something real and describable as well as numinous. For many, Peterson’s almost-but-not-quite-religious explication of divinity is frustrating to witness. For some, it simply appears as a sterile, rehashed version of the Christian narrative minus faith in the miracle of Christ. In ‘True Believers in the Dark’, Benjamin Roberts offers an interesting iteration of this critique of Peterson’s dubious religiosity:
“The Canadian psychologist is often referred to as a guru and a father figure for young men, and he is both in more than one sense. Yet his semiotic project, despite being often described as an antidote to postmodernism, is responsible for ‘postmodernizing’ Christian themes and icons. […] Peterson undertakes a program of positive deconstruction, whereby the eternal archetypes forerunning and culminating in Christ are stripped bare and freed, dancing again into our collective imagination. Christianity’s signs and signifiers are present, but its Event is not.”
I believe that Peterson has tried his best to reconcile his inability to subscribe to a Trinitarian doctrine with his fervent appreciation for how Christianity has shaped Western culture. Crucial to his apology for Christianity is that he dreads what might replace it: “What happens when we don’t turn to more traditional forms of belief, we turn to forms of beliefs that are far more dangerous. […] The rationalists, for example, are not doing a great job at defending the culture.” It might serve him in the public arena to scrap the Jung and join the Church but, in the end, he is unwilling to lie about himself.
Another cause of much criticism is that Peterson’s branding dulls the nuances of his thought. In spite of the (in my view, rather unfortunate) phrasing of his first book’s subtitle, wherein order is the antidote to chaos, Peterson does not suggest that we totally conquer chaos with order. Rather, he offers ways in which we can fold inevitable chaos, in its various instantiations, into a broadly ordered and sustainable way of life. It is not a matter of displacement; the two have to interact. For instance, where he associates ‘chaos’ with femininity and ‘order’ with masculinity, he doesn’t attach a good-and-evil binary to these complementary forces, and certainly doesn’t claim that they map onto one another wholly. Instead, he offers ways in which they can unite synergistically to produce good outcomes for all. In romance, he says that intermittent chaos is necessary to sustain the overall ‘order’ of durability and security in marriage. In this way, Peterson’s worldview has a kinship with the yin yang mandala, which in turn has a kinship with Yeats' gyres.
Peterson’s rather mystical affinity with Yeats goes further in his regard for myth. In art, myth does something to truth which fosters what Yeats calls the ‘emotion of the multitude’, representing multifarious and hidden ‘shadowy’ phenomena in clear plots of chronological action, emblematised by individual figures. Myth ascribes latitude and social bearing to things which we all experience commonly-but-differently. For these reasons, myth is extremely important to Peterson, featuring in most of his Biblical lectures. In an early lecture he read out a gnomic story he wrote - about a gnome, in fact - which stands, I think, as a small-scale myth. In language suited for children, Peterson imparts a moral about the futility and destructiveness of developing permanent attachments to things with impermanent value. It’s a story about the necessity for sacrifice.
I think that myth is so important to Peterson precisely because myth is not the same as truth. Myth is a societal good because it frames local truths as so fundamental as to be perennial. It allows accessible truths to be very important, to be enough. It’s no good to be harrowed by the truth - the theory of everything, the tantalising singularity which might allow us to know Hawking’s ‘mind of God’ - because accessing that truth is almost certainly impossible. Mystery is truth which resists being told in myth (perhaps this is my definition of God). God is ‘dark with excessive bright’, as Milton said. Peterson has long reckoned with mystery by folding unknowable truth into the describable Logos, which is as much as he can do while remaining honest about his view of God and religion. More recently, he has explicitly advised us to honour the beauty and truth (and the beauty of truth) which is accessible to us, especially when the fear that the truth of all Creation is not beautiful looms large.
Recently, Tammy Peterson spoke about her journey to Christianity and her hope that Jordan would eventually acquire the sufficient faith which she had gained, that he may officially become a Christian. Perhaps the transformative horror of Peterson’s recent ordeals with ill-health will somehow endow him with this faith. Regardless, Peterson stresses that it is possible and good to live according to a religious schema while being religiously sceptical. I think this is very important for the survival of the Church as well as the well-living of individuals.
Peterson knows that to wrestle with God is to wrestle with oneself. This can be crippling. I have looked at earnestly bent heads in the pews in front of me and felt moved only by my envy of successful believers. It is ghastly to be agnostic in the awful presence of the Eucharist - to writhe quietly in all the bitterness and resentment of envy, an envy so ugly as to beget self-loathing which one recognises as a kind of self-indulgence which in turn distends that surging tide of self-loathing - and so on ad infinitum. Envy is paralysing and contrary to gratitude. Gratitude, for Peterson, is the greatest thing you can feel, and more often than not you have to make yourself feel it. In the interview with Rubin, still in near-constant pain following months of grave illness, he wept as he said so.