Welcome to a new week on the Ask Pastor John podcast. Today we have a guest with us who is going to talk about the Jordan Peterson phenomenon. Jordan Peterson has a video debate that has been viewed over 10 million times on YouTube. So who is Jordan Peterson? Where’d he come from? And what can we learn from this Jordan Peterson phenomenon taking the world by storm? To answer those questions, we’re releasing a special long-form APJ conversation today.
Our guest is Dr. Alastair J. Roberts. He’s a theologian in Durham, England, a podcaster on the Mere Fidelity podcast, and author of two books, one with Andrew Wilson, Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption through Scripture (2018), and another one in process, titled Heirs Together: A Theology of the Sexes (forthcoming).
I began by asking him to explain the surge of interest around Jordan Peterson, and how it began in the first place.
It’s a very good question, because many people have different forms of exposure to Jordan Peterson. I think for many people, their first exposure was in the context of his opposition to a bill, Bill C-16 in Canada that passed few years ago.
“When we start telling little lies, the entire fabric of society is placed in jeopardy.”
He saw that as an example of compelled speech, where people had to use the preferred gender pronouns of transgender persons, even in cases where they might not believe that those were the appropriate pronouns to use. He opposed that quite vehemently, and for many people, that was the first introduction to him, seeing him as someone who was a figure within the culture wars, someone who was opposed to the restrictive and oppressive form that certain progressive movements have taken in recent years. He is someone pushing back against that tendency.
More recently, he’s been famous for, first of all, an interview that he gave to channel 4 in the UK, with Cathy Newman. He spoke about the issue of the gender pay gap and other issues like that. The interview hit a nerve for many people. He was arguing calmly, and yet the interviewer was constantly pushing back against him in a very aggressive way: “So you’re saying that . . .” and then mischaracterizing his position quite severely.
Yet within that interview, Peterson expressed his concern for the well-being of young men who have formed a significant body of his followers. Now to understand the place that Peterson has for young men, it’s also important to understand that Peterson has not just been a figure within the culture wars. He’s been someone who, behind the scenes, has amassed a considerable following. He is someone akin to a self-help guru for some. But it seems to be going further than that.
He’s making some deeper claims about reality itself, and so he has set up a YouTube channel, which many people have followed, and more recently he’s published a book, 12 Rules for Life, which has been a wildfire bestseller in all parts of the world. Already it has been translated into a number of different languages.
Within that, he expresses a vision for life and for finding meaning within it — meaning in the context of chaos and disorder. But it is also in the context of a quest for a sort of oppressive order. Totalitarianism is what so many people are drawn towards. His thought comes from a more academic position than many of the people that you see within the culture wars, or in the context of self-help.
He’s a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto. He’s on leave for the time being, going around the world giving speeches and talks, filling halls and stadia, just talking about his philosophy.
Many people have been attracted to this, particularly young men. Understanding that is complicated because some of them are coming from the culture-war perspective — but a great many, perhaps the majority, are coming simply in need of meaning in their lives. They feel a need for order, a need for a sense of purpose, and a need for a sense of reality as a place in which they can act with weight and with significance.
He speaks to that. He speaks with great compassion. He has often had interviews in which he’s broken down in tears when he’s talked about the plight of young men who have suffered with a lack of meaning and a lack of purpose. He speaks to these young men, not in terms of a victim mentality, but telling them that they need to, in his famous phrase, “Clean your room. Set your house in order before you criticize the world.”
He’s speaking to them in terms of responsibility, in terms of purpose and meaning, in terms of contribution to a society beyond themselves. As they set themselves in order, they will become sources of life for people around them.
Now this has provoked considerable controversy in various quarters, for a number of different reasons. Some valid, many not so valid.
Yeah, really interesting. A lot of different people are drawn to him. So how much of the Jordan Peterson phenomenon centers on him as a political figure in the culture wars? How much of it centers on him as a self-help guru mentoring young men toward responsibility?
Well, it’s complicated. Peterson didn’t start off trying to reach young men, nor did he start off as a figure in the culture wars. He was a clinical psychologist and an academic.
“His system is built on a different foundation from a Christian understanding, so that’s important to bear in mind.”
My first exposure to Peterson was through a talk that he gave on TEDx at the University of Toronto, where he was speaking about meaning and reality. He was talking about the way in which we need to move beyond a nihilist and materialist view of reality, to see reality itself as meaningful and weighty. He was saying that we need to see our place within reality as something that was significant.
That is where the real source of his position lies. That’s where everything else has arisen from. He’s had a particular concern with oppressive governments, particularly communism and Nazism, which he sees as a response to the tragic loss of meaning following the “death of God.”
He’s dealing with a Nietzschean reality, and the response of totalitarianism is an attempt to establish order in a situation of chaos.
He’s written and thought and spoken an awful lot about Soviet Russia and about Nazi Germany. He’s got a personal fascination with these things as well. His house is filled with Soviet propaganda, because he just finds it fascinating and compelling as a subject matter. He loves to see exactly what leads people to follow such a belief system.
Whereas the typical clinical psychologist is attempting to enable people to be well-adjusted members of society, Peterson has always had this deeper concern of getting people to engage with reality in a meaningful and a powerful way. He wants them recognize that reality itself is glorious, that reality has meaning. He wants them to know that when we act, we should act with purpose and significance, and not just in a world that is bare and materialistic.
But then he’s also very concerned about the way in which society itself can become dysfunctional. So he’s trying to form people who would be able to resist a Stalin or a Hitler — people who have courage and conviction.
He is concerned about telling the truth. I’ve never seen anyone who writes with such force and conviction about the importance of telling the truth. Telling the truth for Peterson is something that has an existential significance, but also a political significance. He believes that societies where people become accustomed to these small lies are societies where people like Hitler or Stalin rise to power.
His concern about Bill C-16 wasn’t about the gender issues primarily. It was about a government that was enforcing speech, enforcing people to tell what might seem to be just little lies in order to make society run more smoothly. As Peterson argues, when we start telling those little lies, the entire fabric of society is placed in jeopardy because those little lies seldom remain little. They tend to balloon in size, and they often come at the sacrifice of the soul of society.
He’ll talk about, for instance, Soviet Germany, where you have Eastern Germany and the Secret Police. Their power rested, in large part, upon all the petty animosities between people and their neighbors. Our individual issues are bound up with the structural and systemic issues of society, so we must begin by setting ourselves right.
Now many people have criticized Peterson for not taking enough account of the structural and systemic injustices and dysfunctions within society. I think that’s an unfair concern. Rather, he’s saying, “These concerns are important, but we must begin with ourselves. We must set ourselves right first.”
There’s much to commend. But how should we critically assess him? What would you say to Christians about how to go about discerning his works and influence?
I’d tell them to start off by recognizing where he’s coming from. First of all, he’s not speaking as a Christian. He will occasionally speak of himself as someone who holds to Christian beliefs, or is motivated by Christian principles, but he is not a Christian, not in any orthodox sense of the term.
“Responses, both positive and negative to Peterson, are a response to what he represents, not just what he is saying.”
He believes in Christianity as a true myth. He sees it as a myth that has weight within the world, but not as something that actually occurred historically in the way that we would believe that it did.
He’s also speaking as someone who is a Jungian. As a Jungian, he’s very much concerned about the collective subconscious, about things like archetypes. So his concept of chaos and order, male and female, all these sorts of things, are very much bound up, not with primarily Christian understandings of these things, but with the Jungian understandings. Now, those can be very helpful and informative, but we need to be aware, we need to understand, where he’s coming from there.
He’s a Darwinian who, in many ways, is taking the concept of evolution further, and dealing with it in the very context of human meaning structures. He thinks those are evolved structures too — not just human physiology, but our very meaning structures. His Jungianism is inflected by Darwinianism, and so that’s another thing to bear into account.
He’s a strong individualist — not in the sense of the way that we usually use that term, but as someone who believes that things must start with the individual. Not in terms of self-actualization and hedonism and indifference to the common good, but in terms of being responsible, in terms of seeing the individual as the source and the spring of the integrity of society. If individuals are not faithful, then society will crumble. That’s another part of his ideology that he’s working with.
Then there’s the phenomenology, which again is a way of looking at reality, framing reality in terms of moving beyond a subjective-objective distinction. When we look at the world in terms of science, we can often end up with a humanity that is detached from the world. In this, we stand over against the world, and the world is primarily a realm of material objects that are shorn of meaning.
He’s trying to connect the human perception with the world as a world that’s lived in, a world that’s a realm of habitation, and a realm which is inherently meaningful. It is a world where the realities that we encounter are not just bare objects in motion according to certain forces, but they are charged with meaning, beauty, glory, life, all these sorts of things.
Now, it should be clear that there are a lot areas where Peterson’s views do not square well with Christian understandings. But there will be common points of reference. For instance, his Darwinianism and his Jungianism give him a strong account of human nature that pushes against many of the modern ideas of social constructivism and human nature as nonexistence — we can make ourselves to be whatever we want ourselves to be. He pushes very strongly against that.
It leads to a strong idea of differences between male and female and these sorts of things. But it’s built on a different foundation from a Christian understanding, so that’s important to bear in mind when we’re dealing with him.
Also, he uses Scripture a lot. When you’re reading most self-help books or books of philosophy or psychology, you don’t expect to encounter Scripture. Whereas within Peterson’s work, it’s everywhere.
Much of his book 12 Rules for Life is concerned with exegesis of a kind. But it’s exegesis that’s more akin to a sort of modern, psychological allegory of Scripture than to close exegetical and careful grammatical-historical handling of the text.
Now his understanding of Scripture is something that we can learn from. We see that there are structures of meaning and archetypes and these sorts of things. These are represented in Scripture. For example, he comes up with a statement like this (this is in 12 Rules):
The Bible is, for better or worse, the foundational document of Western civilization (of Western values, Western morality, and Western conceptions of good and evil). It’s the product of processes that remain fundamentally beyond our comprehension. The Bible is a library composed of many books, each written and edited by many people. It’s a truly emergent document — a selected, sequenced and finally coherent story written by no one and everyone over many thousands of years. The Bible has been thrown up, out of the deep, by the collective human imagination, which is itself a product of unimaginable forces, operating over unfathomable spans of time. Its careful, respectful study can reveal things to us about what we believe and how we do and should act that can be discovered in almost no other manner.
Now that’s a striking statement. It shows the contradiction of Peterson’s thought, or the complex character of Peterson’s thought, for a Christian.
On the one hand, he’s coming to the Scripture with a great respect for this document. This document, in the form of myth, reveals certain truths about our collective subconscious. It reveals something true about our nature and about our place within the world, and how we are to find meaning and purpose and significance in the world. But it’s not true the way that Christians have traditionally understood it. So it’s not a book that’s come from God in the way that we understand it to have come from God. Rather, it’s thrown up out of the collective human imagination.
He sees the Bible as a deep document from which we can learn things. But at the same time, it’s not inspired, infallible, or inerrant. It’s not the sorts of things that we as Christians would hold as absolutely essential to an orthodox doctrine of Scripture.
That point is so very important; it’s worth underlining it. As a Jungian archetypalist, he’s not seeing one author for the Bible. The Bible is a collection of psychological allegories. In other words, Scripture emerges, for him, from a set of universal patterns that exist inside the collective unconsciousness of humanity. That’s a great point for us all to remember as Christians whenever we see a New York Times bestseller making use of the Bible — often that’s where it comes from. But maybe the most important question I want to ask — the one I want you to elaborate most on — is, What lessons can church leaders and pastors take from Jordan Peterson’s impact on young men?
Yeah, I think that’s one of the areas where Peterson’s example is most striking. He attracts a wide range of people, but especially young men. He’s resonated with young men in a very powerful way. That itself is a phenomenon that needs to be reflected upon.
“Peterson speaks with authority, and people do need and value authority.”
I’ve heard people comment that these young men’s mothers have been telling them to clean their rooms for years, but then Jordan Peterson comes along and tells them to clean their room, and it’s deep wisdom from the dawn of time.
There’s something about that that needs explanation. What is it about him that is so charismatic and magnetic for young men? I think even within his own structures of thought, something like the archetype of the father within his Jungian perspective, explains something of his impact.
He speaks, not just as an academic, not just as a general self-help guru. He speaks as if he is a father. People recognize in him a father figure, and they respond to him as a father figure — someone who represents a man who cares about them, who’s concerned for their well-being, and who speaks with authority into their situation.
Now, the sorts of responses, both positive and negative, to Peterson, are in large measure a response to what he represents, not just what he is saying. The negative responses are to the fact that Peterson represents a father figure, and for many people, that’s associated with the patriarchy. It’s associated with male oppression and all these sorts of things.
It represents the ways in which men have dominated women within society, and so many people react against him. The reactions against Peterson are remarkable — the vehemence with which people resist him and oppose him, and the way in which they write about him as this figure that’s only one shade removed from Hitler himself. It’s very hard to understand why that is without recognizing that he represents something that’s more than just an individual guy speaking certain ideas. He represents an archetype which people respond to.
The other thing that pastors, I think, can learn from, is that Peterson speaks with authority, and people do need and value authority. Many pastors can beat around the bush, or they can hedge their statements. They can start to approach their statements just in terms of “This is what I have personally experienced — you can try it on for size too.”
But Peterson speaks with force and conviction into people’s experience. He speaks as one who cares about them and as one who gives them direction. He speaks as an older man to younger men. Now I think that’s powerful, and yet many pastors fail to speak in such a manner. They fail to represent that sort of figure.
I would suggest that’s a lesson that we can learn: people aren’t resistant to authority. When they see good authority, they will respond to it. Often we think of authority as something that is a force to keep people in place, to make sure that they stay in line. We see it as a tool so that they don’t hold false teaching or something like that.
But authority can be an attractive force. People want good authority in their lives, because good authority gives you purpose and direction and significance and value. It gives you a sense of what to do and where to go.
If you meet someone who really cares about you, and yet can speak with clarity and wisdom into your situation and into your life, you will respond to that person in a way that you won’t to many others.
We respond to people who care about us, and I think that’s one thing that Peterson exemplifies. He really does care about these young men. When you see him crying, it’s clear that his emotions for these young men are genuine. Yet it’s not just about treating them as victims who need to be cuddled, but as those who need to be given purpose and meaning. He speaks that into their situation.
I think pastors have the same capacity, but often they don’t show that same compassion for young men. Instead they speak in ways that just tear young men down, that blame them for things, that shame them, that accuse them, and constantly hold them up against a standard which they can’t attain to without help. That’s another area where I think pastors can learn from Peterson.
Peterson also is a preacher. He’s a psychology professor and a lecturer and all these sorts of things, but for the most part, his mode of discourse is akin to the preacher.
Preaching is not a dead medium. If people believe that a long sermon is something that is a relic of a few centuries ago, just look at the fact that people will go to YouTube and listen for two hours to a Peterson lecture. There can be something powerful and attractive about that. So I think that’s another lesson that pastors can learn.
Finally, pastors, I think, can learn from the fact that Peterson’s wisdom in speaking to people is not primarily about theory. It’s about having spent many, many years working with people and attending to people, listening to people and hearing what they say, learning from observing people.
That gives you a wisdom and a capacity to speak into people’s lives. Mere textbooks won’t give you that. One of the great benefits that the pastor has is the benefit of spending time with people, of being a pastor, being a shepherd to people, spending time with families.
Very few people have access to families as families. They have access to individual people, but pastors can become part of the lives of families. They can become people who join with people on the pilgrimage of the Christian life, over many, many decades, and learn from that experience. Then they can communicate their knowledge to other people.
Pastors, I think, are in danger of devaluing the importance of that time spent attending to people, listening to people, and learning from people. That is something that I think Peterson exhibits. That is important.
“Authority can be an attractive force. People want good authority in their lives.”
All of this, I think, goes back to something that is a very important and topical issue within our day and age: What is the nature of authority? We’ve increasingly had these issues within the church that have shown pastors and leaders who have abused authority, who have used authority as a means of power over people and as a means of taking advantage of people. They were keeping them in line and preventing them from actually flourishing. They were just making them do what they wanted them to do.
But Peterson, I think, exhibits a form of authority that arises by means of attraction. People see that, and they want to become like this person. They want to learn from his wisdom. They want to learn from his example and from his words that he can speak into their situation.
He speaks with an authority, not just of some office, but with the authority of experience and wisdom, and an authority that is based upon trust and compassion. He actually cares about the people he’s speaking to, and that gives him a practical authority in their lives.
When people who really care about us tell us that we’ve done something that’s really disappointed them, that stings in a way that nothing else quite can. When we know we’ve let down someone that we really care about, and whose opinion we value, or someone we admire, that really stings.
There’s a sort of authority there that is based upon trust and love, and yet many pastors, I think, are in danger of seeing their authority primarily as residing in the fact of their office. But the authority of a pastor who truly loves and is concerned with his congregation, who cares about them, who prays for them continually, someone who spends time visiting them and sharing their sorrows and their joys over many years — there is an authority that such a pastor has that no other person can really have in their life.
I believe as pastors face the crisis of trust within the church today, where people feel this deep distrust arising from a history of abuse, of spiritual mistreatment, of all these other sorts of problems, and there are so many competing voices of authority, I think there’s a lot to learn from this.
Authority can work, but it really does depend upon establishing a bond of trust. And on that bond of trust and love, you can have the movement of truth.