Listening to Jordan Peterson’s 15-part lecture series on the Book of Genesis has given me deeper insight into the meaning of and necessity for the Benedict Option. I want to share a little bit of that with you. I’m not even halfway through the lectures yet (follow the link above to watch them on YouTube, or get them in a free podcast), but already Peterson has given me a lot to think about.
Peterson does not speak as a theologian, but as a psychologist who believes that myths carry truth — not literal truth, but truth all the same. His lectures explore the psychological truths in the stories of Genesis, and how these truths manifest themselves in our lives.
For Peterson, Genesis is a mythological account of how God brings order out of primordial chaos. (I’m greatly simplifying this for the sake of brevity.) The ordering principle is the logos. Peterson believes that Western civilization is currently enduring a fundamental crisis of logos. What does Peterson mean by Logos? From an interview:
JP: Well, I think there are profound causes, and they do have to do with a crisis in our belief system—the sort of crisis that Nietzsche and Dostoevsky both predicted. That is a crisis in the faith in logos, and logos is the spirit that, you could say, imbues matter with life. That’s one way of thinking about it.
JL: For viewers who haven’t seen some of your previous material, let’s instantiate that for a moment. The concept of logos… How would the everyday person experience that in their day-to-day life? and how is that a focus of the crisis?
JP: You could think about it as the power of speech to transform reality. But even more importantly, more fundamentally, it’s the power of truthful speech to transform reality in a positive direction. We have this magical ability to change the future, and we do that through action, obviously. But action is oriented by thought, and thought is mediated by dialog. And so it’s speech, in particular, that’s of critical importance to this logos process. The logos is symbolically represented in the figure of Christ, who’s the word that was there at the beginning of time. So that’s a very complicated topic, but what it essentially means is that the West has formulated a symbolic representation of the ideal human being, and that ideal human being is the person who speaks the truth to change the world.
JL: I’m really curious about this. In your opinion, is this an especially Western concept? or is it just simply a matter of you having studied mainly Western mythology?
JP: No, I think it’s—I mean, there is emphasis in other belief systems. I think it’s more explicit in Christianity. I would say Christianity has done two things: it’s developed the most explicit doctrine of good versus evil, and it’s developed the most explicit and articulated doctrine of the logos. And so I would say, in many traditions, it’s implicit. It’s implicit in hero mythology, for example. I think what happens is that, if you aggregate enough hero myths and extract out the central theme, you end up with the logos. It’s the thing that’s common to all heroes. That’s a good way of thinking about it.
C.S. Lewis once wrote of the logos being the same thing as the tao in Eastern religions — the Way, the natural order of all things. In Christianity, the Logos is made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. The opening of the Gospel of John reads:
In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word (Logos) was with God, and the Word (Logos) was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
To sin is to be in disharmony with the Logos. This is basic Christian doctrine. Again, Peterson is not teaching Christian doctrine, but interprets the first book of the Hebrew Bible in these mythological and psychological terms. Much of what he says is compatible with Christian orthodoxy. To “walk with God,” as Adam did before he sinned, is to live in harmony with the Logos. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they lost that harmonious relationship. This is the common ancestral curse of humanity. All human history is the story of struggling to live in harmony with God (the Logos), and to create a visible order that harmonizes with the Logos, and then of falling away into dissolution, and being reborn into harmony.
(You really should listen to Peterson’s lectures on this. I’m just giving you a summary.)
So. Readers of The Benedict Option will recall that I open the book by comparing our own time to the Great Flood of the Bible. I encourage the book’s readers to consider the civilizational crisis we’re going through now, with the dissolution of everything by what I call (borrowing the term from Zygmunt Bauman) “liquid modernity.” What I call “the Benedict Option” is the choice I believe those who want to survive this crisis with their faith intact, and to pass on that faith to their children, must make. I liken it to Noah’s building the ark. The book’s title comes from St. Benedict of Nursia, the founder of Western monasticism, whose “arks” were early medieval monasteries arising as strongholds of light and order amid the chaos and darkness left after the Roman Empire’s collapse.
Here’s Jordan Peterson, from his first lecture on the Noah story (No. VI in the series), titled, “The Psychology Of The Flood”:
You can imagine the flood, and then you can set yourself straight, and then you can prepare for it. That means that maybe you can stave it off. It also means that, maybe, even if you don’t stave it off, you can ride it out. That’s actually the story of Noah. What happens with Noah is that he can see that things are not good, and that there’s a flood coming. God is letting him know. It says in the story that Noah walked with God. Remember—that’s what Adam did before he got all self-conscious about the whole thing. He walked with God. We’ll talk about that more next time. But what that would mean, maybe, is that because Noah was straight, and he put himself together, and his familial relationships were good, he could see a little farther into the future than someone whose vision was completely obscured by fog and chaos. He could tell that things were not going to go well, and so he prepared for it. And because he prepared for it, well, things actually went pretty well for Noah, even though the flood came.
That’s a pretty interesting thing. That’s an indeterminate issue in human existence. How big a hurricane would it take to wipe out New Orleans if everyone was prepared? Well, you’re not going to wipe out the Dutch. That’s going to be a tough one, man. You’re going to have to conjure up a pretty damn big storm to take out their dikes. How thoroughly defended could New Orleans be if nobody in the municipal and state government was corrupt? Well, it would be the end of the hurricane problem, because that’s something that we could clearly deal with. We know how to do it. The same applies in your own life. There are floods coming. You can bloody well be sure of that. That’s absolutely, 100 percent certain. Some of them are going to be personal; some of them are going to be familial; some of them are going to be social, political, and economic. Are they going to be catastrophes for you, or are you going to ride them out? Are you going to prepare?
If you haven’t listened to the lectures yet, you should know that they are mostly about personal psychology, and what these Biblical stories have to tell us about human archetypes, and how to live in an orderly way amid chaos. There’s a reason Peterson delivered these talks before a packed theater in Toronto — and it’s not because people were strictly interested in listening to an academic deliver dry lectures about myth, religion, and psychology. In these talks, Peterson attempts to convey urgently to his listeners what these Biblical stories have to do with their own lives. In the passage above, he compares New Orleans unfavorably to the Netherlands. The Dutch, he says, behaved providentially in preparing themselves to withstand epic flooding. The Corps of Engineers, and the New Orleans city leaders, did not. Peterson’s point is that the Dutch were like Noah — they were aware of the potential for catastrophe, and prepared for it — while we Americans were like the people in Noah’s day who refused responsibility.
In his second lecture on Noah (“Walking With God: Noah And The Flood”), Peterson compares the Biblical flood narrative to the ways of human society:
Well, how does the flood tie into this? We live in a corrupt structure, and we’re corrupt as individuals. Part of that corruption is just happenstance. It’s the way things fall apart. But the other part of it is that, not only are we not aiming up, but we’re actually aiming down. The flood story’s a warning, and it’s a very clear warning. The warning is that, if you aim down enough, and then if enough of you aim down at the same time, everything will degenerate into something that’s indistinguishable from the chaos from which things emerge at the beginning of time. It’s something like that.
The cosmos that’s presented in mythological representations is chaos versus order. The order is on top, you might say, and the chaos is always underneath. The chaos can break through, or the order can crumble, and you can fall into the chaos. That chaos is intermingled potential. The way that you destroy the order and let the chaos rise back up—which is exactly how it’s portrayed in the flood story—is by inhabiting the corpse of your father and feeding on the remains with no gratitude and no attempt to replenish what it is that you’re taking from it. That’s one mythological motif.
The warning in the flood story is, don’t do that for very long, because things will happen that are so awful that you cannot possibly imagine it. That’ll happen to you personally; it’ll happen to your family; it’ll happen to your community, and it’s happened to people over and over throughout history. It’s quite interesting. It’s very soon after the story of Cain and Abel when you see evil enter the world. In the story of Adam and Eve, along with self-consciousness, the evil, there, is the knowledge of good and evil; that’s the ability to self-consciously hurt other people. Of course, instantly, Cain takes that to the absolute extreme. He uses that capacity to destroy, really, what he loves best. He gets as close as a human being can to destroying the divine ideal. Of course, his brother is Abel, and Abel is favoured by God. Cain destroys him. Cain tells God at the end of that episode that his punishment is more than he can bear. I think the reason for that is, where are you when you destroy your own ideal? What’s left for you? There’s nowhere to go. There’s no up, and when there’s no up, there’s a lot of down.
There’s an idea that was put forth very nicely in Milton’s Paradise Lost when he was describing, from a psychological perspective, essentially what hell is: you’re in hell to the degree that you’re distant from the good. That might be a good way of thinking about it. If you destroy your own ideal—which you do with jealousy, resentment, and the desire to pull down people that you would like to be—then you end up in a situation that’s indistinguishable from hell. The way the Biblical story unfolds is, well, it’s Cain, and then it’s the flood. Cain adopts this mode of being that’s antithetical to being itself—at least to positive being itself. He does it knowing full well what he’s doing. The net consequence of that, as it ripples through the entire social structure, is that God stands back and says, this whole thing has got so bad that the only thing we can do is wipe it to the ground. That is no joke. That’s exactly how things work.
It’s very important to understand what Peterson is saying here — and what he’s not saying. He’s not telling you to believe that there is a divine being pronouncing judgment and destruction on humanity. He’s telling you that the myth of the Flood symbolizes what inevitably happens when humanity departs too greatly from the Tao, from the Logos, from the Way. This is not, by the way, a mythical message unique to Judeo-Christianity.
Later in the lecture series, Peterson takes up the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Lecture XI). He embraces the modern revisionist view of the story’s meaning, namely that it’s not about homosexuality, but about hospitality. I don’t think it’s an either-or. I mean, I hold both the orthodox Christian view — that it’s about homosexuality — and the view that Peterson advances, which is that it’s about hospitality. That is to say, I believe that the story is about a society that had diverged far from the Logos, and that its sexual disorder was part of the larger story. Christians who are under the impression that the Sodom and Gomorrah story is only about homosexuality should rethink that in light of Peterson’s explanation.
Anyway, here’s Peterson, commenting on the verse in which the mob surrounded Lot’s house in Sodom and demanded that he hand over his guests (angels in disguise) so that they could “know them” — that is, rape them:
That’s the part of the story that’s been used as a diatribe, let’s say, against homosexuality, because ‘to know’ is to engage in sexual intercourse. The inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah were willing to tear the strangers out of Lot’s house and use them and abuse them as they saw fit. So what are they doing? Well, they’re violating the principles that govern appropriate conduct with the stranger. And maybe the stranger is something you shouldn’t mess with, because you don’t know who you’re messing with. So that’s warning number one. They’re violating the essential principles of hospitality. The sexual thing is something more like the absolute danger of immediate gratification, sexual included, outside the constraints of any civilized structure. That’s as uncivilized behaviour as you could possibly hope for: strangers come into your city; they’re in the house of someone who’s part of your city; they’re being shown hospitality; a mob shows up and says, ‘fork ‘em over, man. We’re going to do whatever the hell we want to them, and it’s not gonna be good. And if you get in the way, things are going to go even worse for you.’ So that’s what it seems to be. It’s completely unregulated behaviour. It’s behaviour that’s outside the confines of any civilized structure. It’s an indication that the social structure of the entire society has collapsed, so that there’s nothing left for the inhabitants to do except to engage in the most brutal of immediate gratification and destruction.
It is certainly not a new idea to say that our period in the West is one of disintegration. Peterson points out over and over that both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky prophesied the death of God (which you might think of as the destruction of the Logos); Yeats famously wrote about how “the falcon cannot hear the falconer.” In The Benedict Option, I lay out a rationale for traditional Christians to establish ways of living, both individually and communally, that are an antidote to chaos, and that make it possible for orthodox believers to follow the Way in a dark and chaotic time, much like the centuries immediately following the fall of Rome, when the Benedictine order emerged.
Today I was driving through town listening to Peterson say these words:
[Quoting Genesis:] “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord. These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, And Noah walked with God.”
That’s an interesting line. If you remember back in the story of Adam and Eve, what happened to Adam—once he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, woke up, the scales fell from his eyes, he became self-conscious, and he developed the knowledge of good and evil—is that he won’t walk with God when God calls him in the garden. And so Noah is Adam without the fall, essentially. There’s something that Noah’s doing right, that motivates God to spare him—or maybe to show him a pathway through the emerging chaos. Something like that. That’s worth thinking about, a lot.
There will be situations in your life where what you face is the emergent chaos. Maybe that will be some terrible catastrophe inside your family, or maybe it will be something that’s occurring on a much broader social level, but chaos is coming. Unless you want to be a denizen of the chaos, or even a contributor to it—and perhaps that is what you want; many people under those circumstances choose that—what you’re going to want to know is how to build an ark and get through it. If you’re interested in life, and if you’re interested in proper being, and if you’re disinclined to produce any more suffering than necessary, then you want to know how to conduct yourself when the catastrophe comes, so that you have a reasonable possibility of moving through it and starting anew.
When this old story says, well, God’s not happy, and he’s going to wipe everything out, it’s like, you might want to take that seriously. And then when it says, but there was one person who had a mode of being that protected him from that, that’s also something that you might want to take seriously. You might want to know what that being is—you might need to use it. These sorts of things are practical in the deepest possible sense. They’re real in the deepest possible sense, and practical in the deepest practical sense. So Noah walked with God.
For Christians, the Benedict Option concept is practical in the deepest possible sense. It’s about how to walk with God through a time of destruction and dissolution, and coming catastrophe. I knew this when I was writing it, but listening to Peterson’s discussions of mythology, psychology, and the Bible caused me to think about the Ben Op idea in a deeper way. This weekend, I’ll be headed up north to give a (private) Ben Op talk at an ark built and maintained by some faithful Catholic parents in Massachusetts. Not everybody understands what’s happening in our world. They do. And they’re doing something about it.