Jordan Peterson's Christian Problem
As St. Paul said, “You then who teach others, will you not teach yourself?”
A couple weeks ago, Jordan Peterson released a video on YouTube called “Message to the Christian Churches”. As you probably know, Dr. Peterson has been teasing a conversion for years now. His legions of Christian fans have been pulling their hair out, waiting for him to join the camp of the saints.
It seems he’s not quite there yet. But, as always, he has a few words of advice:
The Christian Church is there to remind people—young men included, and perhaps even first and foremost—that they have a woman to find, a garden to walk in, a family to nurture, an ark to build, a land to conquer, a ladder to heaven to build, and the utter, terrible catastrophe of life to face stalwartly in truth, devoted to love and without fear.
In other words, Jordan Peterson thinks Christians should be more like Jordan Peterson.
And you know what? That is perfectly natural. The reasoning goes like this: “I have the right opinions about things. If Jesus is right, He must have the same opinions as me. Therefore, churches should teach my opinions.” Really, how could it be otherwise? Of course Peterson thinks his opinions are correct. If not, they wouldn’t be his opinions. When you think about it, he’s paying Jesus a compliment.
Honestly, we’ve all been there. Except for drunks and prostitutes, most Christians go through a phase like this at some point. We don’t come to Jesus because we need Him; we come because He needs us. We’ve already got things figured out. Then, one day, we realize this Jesus guy figured it out first. We deign to join His church—only to spend the rest of our lives discovering that we don’t know anything at all.
Part of the trouble is that Dr. Peterson isn’t even a convert—at least, not yet. To his credit, Peterson seems to know that. He starts his video by saying, “It is of course completely presumptuous of me to dare to write and broadcast a video entitled ‘Message to the Christian Churches’.” But does he really mean it? Because I wouldn’t have said it first, but…yeah, it is presumptuous.
I really admire Dr. Peterson’s work, and I hate to contradict him. But I do think Christians should push back a little—ideally, ones who are broadly sympathetic to his cause. Because Peterson isn’t only misleading his listeners. He’s misleading himself, too. He doesn’t mean to, but he is.
The only thing he says that is flat-out wrong is that the church exists first and foremost for young men. That’s Peterson’s priority, not Jesus’s. And it really sets the mood for the rest of his broadcast. It is obvious that, in his own work, he’s concerned mostly with helping young men to flourish in this life. And that’s really the point of this video. He’s not trying to think of how the Church can best fulfill Christ’s mission. He’s thinking about how she can fulfill Jordan Peterson’s.
For starters, getting to Heaven is tacked on at the end there, almost as an afterthought. (Judging from the rest of the video, it was an afterthought.) Again, that may reflect his priorities. But what does Christ have to say? “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
You can have the most beautiful wife, raise the most beautiful children, plant the most beautiful garden, build the most spectacular ark, and conquer every nation on the face of the earth. But someday you’re going to die. Unless you die in God’s mercy, your ark won’t help you in the lake of fire.
There’s a bit in Peterson’s video about finding a wife. Now, if you’re going to get hitched, your local parish is the best place to look for a spouse. But that’s not what the church is for. On the contrary. Speaking of “the unmarried and widows,” St. Paul says that “it is good for them if they abide even as I [i.e., in celibacy]. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” Celibacy is the Christian ideal.
Of course, Dr. Peterson isn’t talking to the church in Corinth. He’s talking to a generation of porn addicts and incels. And when he’s speaking as a life coach, his advice is sound. Get off the computer, comb your hair, and go find a nice girl. Amen! Still, for Jesus, that’s not a first priority. His Church isn’t some giant matchmaking service. No: Christ wants you to focus on your soul. “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.”
Then there’s this business about finding “a land to conquer.” Of course, you can see what he’s getting at. It’s a good, solid, Old-Testament image. The trouble is, it is mixed up there with the stuff about finding a wife and having a family. He’s telling men to be more ambitious. And in a secular context, that would be okay, too. Young men today are listless. We lack purpose. We should all be more driven. In a religious context, though, it’s bad advice. Worldly ambition is not a help but a hindrance to salvation. Again, take it from St. Paul: “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem the other better than themselves.”
Yes, you’re supposed to be ambitious. But you’re supposed to be ambitious for Christ, not yourself. And, yes, you’re supposed to go far afield. But to serve—not to dominate.
So, the 12 Rules for Life don’t perfectly overlap with the New Testament. That is probably not news to anyone, least of all Dr. Peterson. Yet it’s easy to forget when our idol starts dressing up his usual schtick in the language of Scripture. It’s easy to let celebrity Christians, and even non-Christians, tell us how best to live our faith.
Part of what makes this pernicious is that these pop gospels are way easier to follow than the real, hundred-proof teachings of Jesus. Because here’s the thing: Jordan Peterson’s twelve rules won’t save your soul. Not even close. If you tick all of his boxes and then think to yourself, “Well, there’s my ladder to Heaven!”—you’re doomed.
Sure, quitting porn and finding a girlfriend is hard. But it’s not even half the battle, because Christ goes about ten steps further: “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
Building an ark isn’t easy. It took Noah about seventy-five years to make his. Still, Jesus asks even more of us: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me.”
If some guy mouths off to you at a bar, you can go out in the parking lot and kick his ass. That’s what an alpha male would do. And maybe that’s the land you’re supposed to conquer. Who knows? Either way, it takes guts. But do you know what takes even more guts? Loving your enemy. Turning the other cheek. Praying for those who persecute you.
Honestly, I don’t think Dr. Peterson is trying to upstage Jesus. I think he’s an intelligent, compassionate man who genuinely wants to help youngsters put their lives on track. But I also think his followers expect too much of him.
He’s the dad of the internet. His disciples want him to validate Christianity for them. If he can believe, so can they. And so, ever since he started talking about converting, they’ve cast him as a kind of prophet-in-waiting. He’ll be the next St. Augustine! His conversion will change the church! He’ll make Christianity great again!
I think Dr. Peterson is trying to live up to those expectations, and it’s not good for anyone—least of all Peterson. Again, too many of us come to the church thinking we’ve already got things figured out. But most of us don’t have hordes of Christian admirers affirming us in that delusion. At some point, we all have to be laid low. We have to figure out that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
We’re not making that any easier for our brother Jordan. That really is too bad. I was struck by his line about “the utter, terrible catastrophe of life.” I played the video back just to make sure he didn’t say catastrophes, plural. Nope. Apparently, Peterson thinks life itself is a catastrophe.
That’s not how Christians are supposed to think. Of course, the Scriptures make it abundantly clear that all people face hardships, and Christians will face more than their share. Christ Himself warns us that, “because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” That’s the deal.
But the Scriptures also say, “The hope of the righteous shall be gladness.” And, “Happy is that people whose God is the Lord.” And, “Delight thyself also in the Lord, and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.” And, “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, Rejoice.” And, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.”
To me, that was the real “tell” in Dr. Peterson’s speech. It gives the whole game away. Peterson is good at imitating the language of the Bible, but I don’t think he quite gets the Christian thing.
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And that’s the biggest tragedy of all. Dr. Peterson has led an unbelievably difficult life. For all his wealth and fame, I can believe that he sees life as “utter, terrible catastrophe.” I’m sure his fame has made things worse. The bitter irony is that, if he stopped trying to give the church advice and started asking her for answers, it would change his life.
Of course, that’s what a Christian would say. But I think, at some level, Dr. Peterson knows it, too. I think that’s why he’s so drawn to Christianity. Maybe he doesn’t have all the answers. Maybe he needs to stop handing out “rules” and start asking for help.
As St. Paul said, “You then who teach others, will you not teach yourself?” Let’s pray that someday he will. Then, at last, he’ll have all the answers. Then, at last, his joy will be full.