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.