This article is expanded upon in Bruce Ashford’s chapter in Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson: A Christian Perspective.
An article in The Spectator recently described Jordan Peterson as “one of the most important thinkers to emerge on the world stage for many years”—and they have a point. Peterson went from being virtually unknown in 2012 to perhaps the most famous public intellectual in the world in 2018.
He has more than 2 million followers on YouTube and more than a million followers on Twitter, and his 12 Rules for Life has sold approximately 3 million copies in less than a year. The book tour is reaching stadium crowds of up to 100,000 people.
Many reasons can be given for Peterson’s rapid ascent and expansive influence. But most important, I think, are his social status as a clinical psychologist and his unique ability to respond to a certain set of conditions inherent to our secular age.
Recently, I wrote a chapter for an upcoming book about Peterson (Lexham Press). My assignment was to evaluate the reason for his meteoric rise. In this article, I’ll briefly summarize some of the main lines of argument.
Mapping Our Secular Age
By the middle of the 20th century, the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of a “world come of age,” by which he meant a European civilization that had learned to manage life without reference to God. During ensuing decades, a number of cultural commentators explored and mapped out this same phenomenon. Taken together, these maps help explain Peterson’s intuitive and powerful appeal for many young people in the West today.
The sociologist Philip Rieff (1922–2006)—see my previous article, “The Jewish Intellectual Who Predicted America’s Social Collapse“—provided a cultural map in his Sacred Order/Social Order trilogy, and especially in the first volume, My Life among the Deathworks. In it, Rieff argued that the West is in the midst of a historically unprecedented attempt to sever sacred order from social order. Historically, all civilizations have understood that sacred order (religious and moral norms) shapes social order (society) by shaping cultural institutions. In other words, a society’s religion(s) shapes its cultural institutions and cultural products, which in turn shape its people.
But in the contemporary West, elite power-players have colluded to rip sacred order out from underneath social order, leaving social order to float on its own. Rieff noted the disastrous social, cultural, and political effects of Christianity’s displacement and warned that the worst was yet to come. Most significantly, Western cultural institutions, left unshaped by the Judeo-Christian moral framework, will become “deathworks,” causing social death and decay.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (b. 1931) provides an existential mapping that complements Rieff’s cultural map. In Malaise of Modernity, A Secular Age, and other writings, Taylor explores the existential “feel” of living in the type of world Rieff described. In our era, people both imagine life and also manage life from within the “immanent frame,” with no real reference to the transcendent. Locked within this immanent frame, historic Christian orthodoxy seems implausible, unimaginable, even reprehensible.
Our age is not secular in the sense that most Westerners are avowed atheists or agnostics. Nor in the sense that people hide their religious beliefs in public. Instead, it’s secular in the sense that Christianity has not only been displaced from the default position, but it’s also now contested by myriad religions, ideologies, and “takes” on life—attempts to force the facts of life through one’s restricted notions of what could and could not possibly be true. And yet, even though Christianity seems implausible and even unimaginable to many Westerners, these same Westerners have serious doubts about their own belief systems.
Taken together with other cultural analysts, such as literary critic George Steiner (b. 1929) and Italian political philosopher Auguste Del Noce (1910–1989), Rieff and Taylor repudiate modernity’s move to unseat metaphysics and theology—a move that removes them from the West’s matrix of meaning and morality and thus induces a state of chaos. As a result of this devolution, Westerners feel alone in this world, their lives shorn of God-given meaning or transcendent norms. And with Christianity thus displaced from the default position, secular ideologies and “takes” rush in to fill the void.
Explaining Peterson’s Appeal
It’s against this backdrop that Jordan Peterson enters the stage, taking up the challenge articulated by thinkers such as Reiff and Taylor, helping disaffected people regain a matrix of transcendent meaning and morality within which they can bring order to chaos and find meaning for their lives.
1. Bringing Order to Chaos
Like our four thinkers, Peterson recognizes that many of the West’s power brokers, together with social and political activists, are engaged in an attempt to beat the Christian moral order to its knees, weakening it and undermining its credibility. As Peterson notes, however, multiple ideologies—such as secular progressivism, socialism, and the alt-right—are moving from the periphery toward the center. Moreover, Peterson argues, reactionary and revolutionary ideologies often bring with them unintended and devastating consequences; thus the West should reject the revolutionary impulse and revive the Judeo-Christian worldview as a way of bringing order to chaos.
Indeed, Peterson often draws on Christian language to give individuals a sense of meaning and purpose for their lives. For example, in 12 Rules, he urges his readers to take responsibility for themselves and the world around them by making the world a little bit more like heaven and a little bit less like hell. Doing so, he argues, would help us atone for our sins and replace our shame with pride (63–64). Similarly, he encourages his readers to draw on the Bible’s story of the world as a myth that can help us learn to delay gratification, live virtuously, and build society (163ff.).
2. Rejecting Totalizing Solutions
Throughout his writings, Peterson warns of the dangers inherent in social revolutions. In “Rule 8: Tell the Truth—Or, at Least, Don’t Lie,” Peterson urges his readers to live in the truth rather than succumbing to the temptation to embrace the type of “life lies” inevitably told by social revolutionaries (215ff.). He draws on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose Gulag Archipelago detailed how Soviet leadership had taught citizens to embrace small lies (e.g., pretending that the U.S.S.R. was an economic success) so that they eventually were willing to embrace big ones (e.g., the necessity of concentration camps and the killing of dissidents).
Peterson sees a similar danger in the 21st-century West, arguing that modern political ideologies can claim for themselves a kind of “final truth” that compels them to deny any facts that might refute that finality (218). We see this totalitarian impulse most vividly, he argues, in humanities departments that have been commandeered by Marxist humanism.
3. Adopting as Much Responsibility as Possible
As ideologies and revolutionaries seek to manipulate us, Peterson urges individuals resist them and to adopt as much responsibility as we’re able (xxxiii). In fact, the admonition toward personal responsibility is one of the primary threads woven into 12 Rules for Life. Rule 1 is “Stand up Straight with Your Shoulders Back.” He means this both literally and figuratively. To illustrate, he describes how lobsters inhabit a dominance hierarchy in which posture cues (e.g., slouching, strutting) signal to other lobsters their perceived status in the hierarchy. Peterson argues that humans do the same thing: Hierarchy is inherent to our societies, and human-posture cues signal our status to others. So if you want to get ahead, he exhorts, stand up straight and throw those shoulders back already.
What is true physically is also true socially and spiritually. Our status as human beings demands that we “stand up,” accept the burdens and the suffering of life, and live in a way that pleases God (27). It’s up to us to re-establish order in the midst of chaos, to stop blameshifting, making excuses, or becoming cynical, and instead to clean up our own lives, stop doing what is wrong, and begin doing what is right (157–59).
4. Revisioning Religion and Regaining Social Order
While Peterson draws on the Bible quite often in his writings and speeches, he reinterprets it in Jungian and Darwinian categories:
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 itself is the 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 matter. (104)
While he recognizes the Bible’s teaching as vital to the West’s growth and health, he refuses to affirm its truth. His approach affirms the literal or metaphorical truth of some of Christianity’s ethical themes, but it omits or denies central orthodox themes—such as God’s Trinitarian nature, the necessity of Christ’s atoning death, and the bodily nature of his resurrection.
Is Jordan Peterson the High Priest We Need?
In our secular age, Peterson’s status as a social scientist gives him the effectual status of a high priest. As religious authority has been diminished and decentered, social science has moved to the center. Economists, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists—each uses “hard data” to draw their conclusions about human beings, personal identity, and social order. As a clinical psychologist, therefore, Peterson’s life-coaching combines the cultural authority of the social sciences with the spiritual appeal of vague religious intimations.
Peterson’s disposition adds to this mystique. He is a deep reader who is able to penetrate to the essence of ideologies such as Marxist intersectional identity politics or alt-right ethno-nationalism. But he is also a deep listener; his interviews and Q&A sessions reveal him as one who listens, sympathizes, and communicates in a way that often fosters genuine respect and dialogue. Indeed, commentators often note Peterson’s resemblance to a religious prophet, priest, or pastor.
Thus, it’s unsurprising to learn of Peterson’s popularity among 20-something males and other disaffected castaways of secular modernity. These are the people who hunger for the security of meaning and significance. And they seem to sense that Peterson has found it.
The irony in all this, however, is that unless Peterson buys wholesale into the Christian faith, his solution is insubstantial; metaphysically, it is little more than a banquet of crushed ice and vapor. Indeed, even though Peterson wisely taps into the power of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the West, he guts it of any real power when he treats it as functionally helpful rather than transcendentally true.
Unless Peterson buys wholesale into the Christian faith, his solution is insubstantial; metaphysically, it is little more than a banquet of crushed ice and vapor.
Peterson wants us to live as if there is a God because he understands well the disastrous consequences of living as if there is not a God. But what good is the recovery of transcendence if it is only an evolutionarily useful figment of imagination? As a high priest of traditional Western values, Peterson’s temple is no less empty than the secularists against whom he prophesies.
Ultimately, Peterson is right about many things, but not always for the right reasons. To Peterson, we respond that we can’t live meaningfully without meaning having been bestowed from above. The reason that belief in God is a personal and societal good is not that belief itself is worth anything, but because there actually is a God who created the world and endows it with significance and meaning.
For Christians, therefore, the encouragement we should gain from Peterson’s meteoric rise is that it proves the real “felt need” for order, meaning, and morality in a secular age. Peterson’s success is evidence that our neighbors are recognizing the malaise of our secular age and are, it seems, are willing to try living “as if” God exists and the biblical narrative is mythically true.
But, as Scripture insists, if Christ hasn’t really risen, then our “as if” is futile (1 Cor. 15:17). Which provides for Christians a golden opportunity to stand up straight with our shoulders back, extending to our neighbors the good news “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3–4). He is risen. And he is the high priest we so desperately need (Heb. 4:14–16). Let us hope and pray that Peterson is on the road toward recognizing this truth.