In my previous post I outlined Peterson’s approach to understanding the Bible psychologically and expressed my concern that he still hadn’t properly understood the kind of experiences that prompt religious reflection. His approach to the Bible seemed to assume naturalism (that nothing other than nature exists) while simultaneously maintaining that there is something more than naturalism posits. In fact, at one point in his first lecture he says that people have genuine spiritual experiences is an ‘incontrovertible fact’. There is a tension in Peterson’s thinking here that is left unresolved because he refuses to unpack what these spiritual experiences consist in and how to best explain them. This unresolved tension leads him to understand the biblical literature more in terms of moral and philosophical allegory than anything else, and yet, anyone who’s read the Bible in any depth will know that while allegory (or at least typology) might be a feature of certain types of biblical literature, we cannot flatten scripture as a whole in that way without doing injustice to it.
Peterson’s slightly muddled naturalistic method is highlighted more clearly in the second hour of his lecture. He outlines his approach in a number of different ways. Firstly, he says that he pursues his investigation in an evolutionary way; by which he means to understand the biblical literature within an evolutionary process of human reflection and sense making. But the fact that he wants to understand scripture within this particular framework implies that he has already decided that the experiences of the world that give rise to religious thought are either purely natural (i.e. explicable within a framework of natural causes and evolutionary development) or that the biblical text is the result of a purely human process of reflection. Again, Peterson is rather unclear as to how he understands human experience of the world and he explicitly dodges the metaphysical questions about such experience. Ideally these metaphysical questions need to be resolved before interpreting the biblical text. Different understandings of the world and our experience of it will lead to fundamentally different interpretations of the Bible. C. S. Lewis points this out in his book Miracles,
“For this reason, the question whether miracles occur can never be answered simply by experience. Every event which might claim to be a miracle is, in the last resort, something presented to our senses, something seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted. And our senses are not infallible. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience. It is therefore useless to appeal to experience before we have settled, as well as we can, the philosophical question.”
The problem for Peterson is that he doesn’t seem to have resolved the philosophical questions adequately before explaining the psychological significance of the Bible. And that, I think, is why he has the tendency to treat God as a kind of psychological construct rather than an ontological reality.
Peterson does hint at answers to the ontological questions but ultimately continues to avoid them. This is fair enough, he is a psychologist after all and not a theologian or philosopher. I just wish that he’d been clearer on the role that such philosophical questions play in interpretation. For example, when he outlines his approach as being literary, as well as evolutionary and psychological, he touches on postmodern literary theory. Peterson says that the postmodernists went wrong by undermining the objectivity and meaning of texts. The logical result of the postmodern view of the world is an unlivable existential situation where everything proves to be meaningless. And yet, Peterson still fails to provide a well rounded metaphysical view to replace postmodern literary theory. He says that we judge the validity of an interpretation on whether it coheres well with our experience (so he commits himself to a coherentist epistemology) but an ontological explanation for the experiences that we have is still lacking. We need answers to questions like: is our experience of the world as something that seems to be designed best explained by design or by chance? What kind of reality produces the experiences that we have? These preliminary (and fundamental) philosophical questions remain unanswered by Peterson which lead to his particularly idiosyncratic and slightly muddled reading of scripture in the latter half of the lecture. He ends up trying to interpret a book about God without answering the question as to whether God exists.
Peterson continues to outline his approach by trying to figure out how the Bible makes sense morally, how it can speak to us practically and on whether it makes sense rationally. Peterson wants “it all laid out causally.” The danger, again, is that Peterson tries to interpret the Bible in a way that bypasses what its authors were intending when writing it. By ‘causally’ he seems to mean ‘deductively’, as in “if a then b” . But philosophers have pointed out for millennia that argumentation need not be purely deductive, it can also be inductive and talk in terms of probabilities without necessitating irrationality. In other words, a leap of faith isn’t essentially irrational. We might have very good reasons for believing in something on the basis of probability. It is perfectly rational to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow given the fact that the sun has always risen before. I can’t say for certain that the sun will rise, but I can say it with confidence on the basis of the background information and experience that I have contributing to its high probability. Despite seeking to avoid being overly reductionist then, Peterson seems to have walked into reductionism by trying to purge his treatment of the Bible of induction which is, put simply, impossible. Induction is an essential part of the interpretive process. Again, this isn’t surprising since Peterson isn’t primarily a philosopher or theologian. But these theological and philosophical questions are precisely those questions that need to be answered adequately if we are to interpret the Bible properly.
Moving swiftly on, Peterson outlines what the Bible is. Written by different people over a vast time period Peterson finds it astonishing that by its finale it forms one unified narrative. The question he then asks being “what is that narrative about?” He describes it as a narrative that tries to elucidate human experience. It is a document composed of reflections on the deepest questions raised by human beings. I can see why he might say this, but again, anyone who’s read the Bible will know that this isn’t entirely what its authors claim to be doing. The Bible isn’t a collection of ‘armchair and pipe’ theologians reflecting on human existence. Rather, the Biblical authors claims to be speaking about genuine divine revelation that has taken place within concrete historical situations. The Bible isn’t a reflection on what it means to be human, but on understanding who God is in the light of the things he’s done in human history through his people and in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. That’s why covenant plays such a central role in the Bible. Covenant is about a relationship between two parties. The Bible is covenantal in that it isn’t a human monologue, but the result of divine and human interaction in history (just look at the book of Deuteronomy which reflects all of the features of ancient covenantal documents). The Bible can’t be isolated from these historical experiences, and the experiences can’t be isolated from divine revelation because the text makes it clear that God’s interactions with people in history prompted its writing.