Initial Reflections on Jordan Peterson’s Biblical Series

Jordan Peterson

This last week I began to listen to Jordan Peterson’s lectures on the psychological significance of the Bible. A good deal of popular discussion has grown up around Jordan Peterson in what has been hailed as ‘the Jordan Peterson phenomenon’. A Canadian academic who has heavily criticized rabid forms of political correctness, Peterson has also spent some time philosophizing and reflecting on the Bible from his own discipline of psychology. It is worth noting at the outset that Peterson doesn’t claim to be a Christian. However, what I’ve found quite remarkable in my first hour of listening to Peterson, are the similarities between his understanding of the Bible and G. K. Chesterton’s analysis of myth. I think Chesterton articulates himself more concisely and with greater clarity, but it is interesting to see the significant parallels between what Peterson is saying and what Chesterton, Lewis, MacDonald, and Tolkien were saying in the early to mid twentieth century.

The first hour or so of Peterson’s lectures don’t treat any specific stories from the Bible but lay a kind of philosophical, theological and psychological groundwork to frame his future discussions of the biblical stories. Peterson asks, ‘What is it about the Bible that has meant that it’s had such a profound and enduring impact on human society and psychology?’ His answer to that question is that the Bible provides a kind of integrated worldview that holds things together in a way that does justice to our experience of a world that isn’t reducible to rationalistic analysis.

Peterson makes much of the existential questions that prompt this ubiquitous interest in religion. ‘Is there a God? Where did everything come from? What is my place in the world?’  And he develops this initial observation in conversation with the atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. According to Peterson, Nietzsche thought that Christianity’s demise was inevitable since it had to be integrated with every area of human life. Since, according to Nietzsche, Christianity was false, it could never be fully integrated with every area of human life and would eventually undermine itself.

Of course, this particularly Nietzchean form of the observation assumes atheism, but minus the atheism, what Peterson wants to say is that Christianity and religion in general is pervasive and powerful because it seeks to be an all-encompassing worldview integrating all the different facets of human experience. Christianity seeks to answer the existential questions that cannot be adequately answered by scientific explanation alone. This observation has been made over and over again by Christian theologians in recent years. Its not that Christianity and science are incompatible, but that they seek to answer different questions in a complementary manner. If science answers the ‘how’ questions, Christianity answers the ‘why’ questions. Christianity enables us to properly frame scientific discovery within an integrated whole.

One thing that Peterson stresses is the necessity of such integration for psychological satisfaction and wholeness and he is adamant that ideologies (fascism, marxism, feminism, democracy, etc) while significant, fail to answer these existential questions because they are not intended as integrated worldviews, or all-encompassing frameworks for making sense of the entirety of human experience. When we promote ideology to the space reserved for some sort of religious or mythological (myth in Chesterton’s sense explained in previous blogs) explanation there are terrible consequences. The example that Peterson uses to demonstrate this is the horrific growth of fascism in Nazi Germany. In Nazi Germany, fascism became religious.

So the Bible is significant inasmuch as it successfully integrates the entirety of human experience. This includes both its ability to explain those things that we understand, but also its ability to speak into those things we believe subconsciously or have yet to articulate. The Biblical story is psychologically significant in that it speaks to the pressing existential questions that continually get asked by humans in everyday life. Here too Peterson notes that these questions are rather peculiar to human beings. Chimpanzee’s don’t have this moral or existential reflective capacity. Anyone that has read Chesterton will see the parallels; human experience is radically different from the experience of other animals and it prompts questions and reflections that are both moral and existential in character. Stories and art reflect these rhythms and graspings at truths in a way that demonstrates the exceptional character of human experience and reflection.

Since these moral and existential questions press themselves so repeatedly and with such overwhelming force we all develop some kind of underlying mythology (worldview) to frame those questions and experiences. Peterson counsels us to be aware of our underlying mythology because it could well be that our mythology is inadequate.  Again, this insight has been pointed out in recent years by theologians. Everything, according to theologians like John Milbank, is theological. When people claim to have found some sort of secular space free from considerations of wordlview or theological assumption they inevitably do make theological assumptions that end up being rather questionable indeed.

So, having taken almost an hour to say all this we can sum up what Peterson has said in three stages. Firstly, humans begin with their own experience of things or phenomena. Secondly, those things cry out for explanation and find themselves articulated in a variety of forms; art, dreams, and music. Humans begin to try and articulate their experience of the world. Thirdly, these explanations reach full conscious articulation and are codified. Peterson seems to suggest that the Bible has had such a psychological impact because it is humanity’s best attempt at articulating the questions that arise from human experience.

Now, I would want to press this further. The question that I want to ask in response is “why”? Why is the Bible our best attempt? This further question has been asked before. It is the question that C.S. Lewis and Chesterton both seemed to ask before their conversion. The obvious answer to the question is that the Bible is our best attempt at answering these questions and providing an integrated worldview because what it teaches actually happened. It most adequately meets human existential needs and speaks to human experiences because it has been put together by the one who created human beings in the first place.

What is odd about Peterson’s lecture though, is that he seems to veer away from this conclusion at the last minute. He seems so focused on the psychological significance of the Bible and its story that he reduces the idea of God to a psychological construct or abstraction. Like Chesterton said over a hundred years ago, the whole trouble with Peterson’s lecture, “comes from a man trying to look at these stories from the outside, as if they were scientific objects.” And having stressed the importance of the existential questions raised by human experience so heavily, it is odd that Peterson then goes on to speak of the biblical stories predominantly as reflections on what it means to be just or moral as opposed to attempts at explaining genuinely spiritual experiences. In contrast, I would want to say that unless God exists, not simply as a psychological construct but as a metaphysical reality, then the spiritual and existential character of human experience continues to cry out for adequate explanation.

Far from being a kind of moral allegory the Bible speaks in a way that does justice to our spiritual as well as moral experience of the world only if what it says is metaphysically and not only psychologically true. Peterson seems to have fallen into a trap that G. K. Chesterton highlighted n his chapter on “Man and Mythologies” in The Everlasting Man. Chesterton writes, “It is often said that pagan mythology was a personification of the powers of nature. The phrase is true in a sense, but it is very unsatisfactory; because it implies that the forces are abstractions and the personification is artificial. Myths are not allegories.” Ironically, after calling us to be aware of our underlying worldview, Peterson seems to interpret the Bible in terms of allegory. He interprets the Bible as an allegory of purely natural phenomena. I think this reflects a remaining hesitation on Peterson’s part. Peterson seems to be unsure as to whether people have genuine spiritual experiences which forces him to understand the Bible in terms of moral allegory right at the last moment. In other words, the problem with Peterson’s analysis of the Bible as a reflection on human experience is that he hasn’t fully understood, articulated or explained the nature of that experience. I look forward to seeing how this works itself out in the rest of his lectures.

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Chesterton Talks Demons

Chesterton described mythology as ‘day dreaming’. This was not in the sense of ‘fanciful lies’ but in the sense that they were imaginative ways of describing a world that can’t be reduced to natural processes. Mythology is a grasping at a spiritual reality. The flip side of day dreaming however, is nightmare. Moving on from God and the gods, Chesterton now treats ‘the demons’.

Underlying all of this rather innocent grasping at spirituality was the “weakness of original sin.” (11) “This disproportion dragged down the winged fancies and filled the end of paganism with a mere filth and litter of spawning gods.” (11). The problem with mythology is fundamentally rooted in a problem with human beings. Human beings have the curious habit of ruining good things.

The difference between mythology and this nightmarish alternative is that where mythology was about imagination; superstition is concerned with manipulation. The nightmare occurs when mythology is transformed by human sinfulness and selfish will to power. They moved from imaginative grasping to things of their own manipulative creation. “A South American idol was made as ugly as possible, as a Greek image was made as beautiful as possible. They were seeking the secret of power, by working backwards against their own nature and the nature of things.” (116).

With this Chesterton has noted a fundamental similarity between myth and its destruction and God’s good creation and its fall. The fundamental problem with the world isn’t God’s good creation, but human sin. The creation was originally good, but was corrupted by the sin of human beings. In the early chapters of Genesis we read, “The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (Gen. 6:5). The good news of Christianity is that God is seeking to restore all things to himself and make all things new. “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus],  and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col. 1:19-20).

 

Tim’s Dissertation for Beginners

Recently I finished a massive 15,000 word dissertation for my MA degree in theology! Needless to say, it was a wordy, complex, and at times tedious process. But I chose the topic of my dissertation with a practical goal in mind. The best kind of theology is theology aimed at deepening our love for God and worship of him, as well as our knowledge of him. I wanted to reflect deeply on one of the key elements of the Christian story academically so I could better communicate the amazing good news of that story to the people around me. In the next few posts I want to explain what my dissertation is all about so that those ‘sitting in the pew’ might better appreciate what it means to say that Jesus really is ‘good news’.

A great place to begin to unpack this is by considering the Bible itself. The Bible is basically a story of rescue. It constantly speaks of a God who becomes involved in human history in order to save and deliver people. God is repeatedly described as a rescuer and refuge, a deliverer and savior. Theologians often sum up the Bible story using the phrase, ‘narrative of salvation’. Ultimately, the Bible isn’t a moral guide, or a history book (though both of those things are important, see 1 Corinthians 15), it is primarily a story of salvation. It describes and recounts the works of a God who doesn’t stand at a distance, set the machine going, and leave it at that, but a God who seeks relationship with people, gets involved in people’s lives, and seeks to save his people from harm.

Psalm 18 is a brilliant example,

“The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”

All of this culminates in the arrival of Jesus. In fact, Jesus’ name means ‘God saves’ and Jesus speaks of himself as the ultimate fulfillment of God’s rescue mission (John 5:39). The apostle John (3:17) sums it up when he writes,

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

You might have experienced talk like this if you’ve ever been to a Church service. You may have heard Christians say, “Jesus saved me” or you might have seen cars sporting battered bumper stickers with the words ‘Jesus saves!’ printed in comic sans. My dissertation was all about what it means for someone to be ‘saved’. What are we saved from? Why are we saved and for what purpose? And how is it that God saves us?

SoteriologyThese kinds of questions are questions concerning what theologians call ‘soteriology’ taken from the Greek word for salvation. They’re basically questions of ‘salvation-ology’ and the answers to each have been rather controversial at decisive points in Christian history. Different answers to the question of how God saves us were influential at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. More recently, the original answers given to these questions by Protestants have been questioned by some Protestant theologians. I sought to defend the traditional answers against some of these recent objections. In order to explain my dissertation I’ll attempt to unpack these questions in order over the next few posts (for those who are still reading) with the hope that it will encourage us to worship God more deeply and seek him more wholeheartedly.