Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Why Is Cambridge Afraid Of Jordan Peterson?

University shuns the most famous and effective public intellectual on the planet
Screen Shot 2019-03-25 at 1.45.33 PM


That photo is why the largest bookstore chain in New Zealand pulled Peterson’s books from its shelves. We have no idea whether or not Peterson even knew what was on the guy’s t-shirt when he stood for the photo. I’ve been to these kinds of things before. You are so busy with people swarming around you seeking selfies that you usually don’t have time to notice what they’re wearing. Yet they’re punishing Peterson for a photo, the content of which he likely had no idea.

So, now we know what progressive activists can do to hurt the career of writers they hate. They can put on an alt-right friendly t-shirt and be photographed next to that writer. Let me lay down this marker now, here in this public place: if you see a photo in the future of me standing next to someone who is wearing a racist t-shirt, or some other garment with an alt-right-ish message, you should know that I had no idea what the person in the photo with me was wearing. I would not voluntarily choose to be in a photo with someone advertising a message like that, but I do enough public events to know that if you choose to meet the public, you have no control over who sidles up next to you. I’m saying this right here, right now — March 25, 2019 — because I expect that it will happen at some point in the future.

As a result of this photo, the divinity faculty at Cambridge University decided to rescind its invitation to Jordan Peterson to have a two-month academic fellowship there.  Peterson finally weighed in on Cambridge University’s withdrawing its invitation to him. Excerpts:

In any case: In November, when I was in Cambridge, I began discussions with one of the faculty members (whom I had met briefly before, in London) about the possibility of entering into a collaboration with the Cambridge Divinity Faculty. I enjoyed the conversations I had at Cambridge immensely. I learned a lot about Biblical matters that had remained unknown to me in a very short time. This was of particular relevance to me, but also perhaps of more broad and public import, because of a series of lectures on the Biblical stories of Genesis I prepared, delivered live (at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto) and then posted on YouTube (playlist here) and in podcast form.

Since their posting, beginning in May of 2017, these lectures have received about 10 million hits (as well as an equal or greater number of downloads). The first lecture alone, on the first sentence of Genesis, has, alone, garnered 3.7 million of those, which makes it the most well-received of all the talks I have ever posted online. I have received correspondence in great volume from religious people all over the world, Jews, Christians, Buddhists and Muslims alike—and an equally large number from atheists—all telling me that my psychological take on the Genesis material resonated very strongly with their faith, or that it helped them understand for the first time the value of these stories. You can see this for yourself by reading the comments on the YouTube channel, which are remarkably civilized and positive, by modern social media standards. I don’t think there is another modern religious/psychological phenomenon or happening that is genuinely comparable. It’s also the case that my books, 12 Rules for Life and Maps of Meaning both rely heavily on Judeo-Christian thinking, and are predicated on the idea that the stories that make up such thought constitute the bedrock of our civil, peaceful and productive society. The former has now sold 3 million copies (one million in tongues other than English), and will be translated into 50 languages; the latter, a much older book, was recently a New York Times bestseller in audio format. This volume of interest is clear indication of the widespread cross-cultural appeal of the work that I am doing.

In the fall, I am planning to produce a series of lectures on the Exodus stories. I presume they will have equal drawing power. I thought that I could extend my knowledge of the relevant stories by spending time in Cambridge, and that doing so would be useful for me, for faculty members who might be interested in speaking with me, and to the students. I also regarded it as a privilege and an opportunity. I believed (and still believe) that collaborating with the Faculty of Divinity on such a project would constitute an opportunity of clear mutual benefit. Finally, I thought that making myself more knowledgeable about relevant Biblical matters by working with the experts there would be of substantive benefit to the public audience who would eventually receive the resultant lectures.

Now the Divinity school has decided that signaling their solidarity with the diversity-inclusivity-equity mob trumps that opportunity–or so I presume. You see, I don’t yet know, because (and this is particularly appalling) I was not formally notified of this decision by any representative of the Divinity school. I heard about the rescinded offer through the grapevine, via a colleague and friend, and gathered what I could about the reasons from social media and press coverage (assuming that CUSU has at least something to do with it).


I think the Faculty of Divinity made a serious error of judgement in rescinding their offer to me (and I’m speaking about those unnamed persons who made that specific decision). I think they handled publicizing the rescindment in a manner that could hardly have been more narcissistic, self-congratulatory and devious.

I believe that the parties in question don’t give a damn about the perilous decline of Christianity, and I presume in any case that they regard that faith, in their propaganda-addled souls, as the ultimate manifestation of the oppressive Western patriarchy, despite their hypothetical allegiance to their own discipline.

I think that it is no bloody wonder that the faith is declining (and with it, the values of the West, as it fragments) with cowards and mountebanks of the sort who manifested themselves today at the helm.

I wish them the continued decline in relevance over the next few decades that they deeply and profoundly and diligently work toward and deserve.

Read it all.

Those are some very harsh words about the Cambridge divinity faculty. I have no idea whether or not they are fair, overall. It is undoubtedly the case, though, that by turning Jordan Peterson away, they are refusing to engage with the most important public intellectual on the planet in terms of reaching mass audiences with big ideas. They had an opportunity here to educate him further, and in so doing reach countless people who never, ever will engage with Cambridge divinity scholars.

I’ve not paid a lot of attention to Peterson’s work until rather recently. I know people have very strong opinions about him, though I have yet to run across something he’s said that makes me understand why people hate him so much. He’s incredibly prolific, so I’m sure eventually I’ll get to something that makes me wince. Me, I read pretty widely, and find it easy to deal with claims and statements that bother me, and even offend me.

Over the weekend, I’ve been listening to Peterson’s popular lectures on the Hebrew Bible, and really enjoying them. I don’t take them as the final authoritative word on what the Bible means. I’ve simply enjoyed hearing his discussion of the Bible from the point of view of psychology and myth. If I want to listen to a proper theological take on the Bible, I know where to find it. It’s easy, though, to see why Peterson is so popular. He has a way of presenting this material as if it’s fresh and relevant. I was constantly surprised by how effectively he brought it to life. Here’s a link to his two-and-a-half-hour lecture on Genesis, and on bringing form out of chaos.  As I listened to it, I kept thinking things like, “I’ve never considered it that way before.” It’s going to drive me to read other books by people who are real experts in this field.

That one lecture alone has been viewed 1.4 million times. Can you imagine? Here’s an academic psychologist talking about the Book of Genesis, and he has managed to reach a mass audience with his insights. Would 1.4 million people sit to watch any lecture by a member of Cambridge University’s divinity faculty? Come on.

I don’t know if Peterson is any kind of Christian; if he is, he seems to be a highly unorthodox one. But I am a Christian, and have been struggling for a long time with a particular problem in my faith life that I can’t quite figure out, and that has long vexed me. I’ve read and thought deeply about this, and have been defeated at every turn. But do you know, listening to Peterson these past few days has given me new ways to think about this problem, within a Christian framework — this, even though he does not speak theologically. The Evangelical writer Joe Carter said once that

In a similar way [to Francis Schaeffer’s], Peterson’s core message isn’t especially original (it’s mostly repackaged Jungianism, as we’ll consider below). His appeal is his genuine concern for individuals and their flourishing—an unusual trait for a public intellectual, and one that has made him a different kind of missionary.

So many evangelicals are fascinated and concerned about Peterson because he  exemplifies the kind of popular thought leader our movement has not produced since Schaeffer.

Personality alone, though, cannot fully explain the popularity of Peterson. His appeal is due largely to his ability to deliver an inspiring, albeit pseudo-Christian, counter-cultural message for an anxious age.

That’s something that I’ve observed clearly in the limited amount of Peterson’s lectures that I’ve watched: this strong concern for helping people to live flourishing lives. Driving my car on Friday, listening to Peterson’s lecture on Genesis, I found myself reconsidering my own life — religious and otherwise — in terms of chaos and order, and trying to find a way to untie the knot that has vexed me for so long. Though Peterson is not a religious believer, it seems, he is unquestionably a religious thinker, in that his thought entails the kinds of questions religious thinkers confront. But Peterson, unlike most academics, has a gift for being able to reach ordinary people.

The Orthodox Christian artist Jonathan Pageau, reflecting on his own unlikely friendship with Peterson, writes:

One of the reasons I had come into contact with Dr. Peterson was because his views on symbolism, on logos, and on the manner in which we exist in the world, were so close to mine that it was almost shocking. In fact his views, though coming from a clinical psychologist and grounded in science, were often surprisingly akin to an Orthodox ontology and epistemology.

That’s really true, which is one reason why I find Peterson so helpful.

Anyway, these bitter words of Peterson’s re: the Cambridge divinity faculty really stand out:

I believe that the parties in question don’t give a damn about the perilous decline of Christianity, and I presume in any case that they regard that faith, in their propaganda-addled souls, as the ultimate manifestation of the oppressive Western patriarchy, despite their hypothetical allegiance to their own discipline.

I think that it is no bloody wonder that the faith is declining (and with it, the values of the West, as it fragments) with cowards and mountebanks of the sort who manifested themselves today at the helm.

Again, Peterson can’t possibly know what each member of the Cambridge divinity faculty believes, or how much they care or don’t care about Christianity. But given that a majority of them voted to rescind his invitation, I won’t hold that against him. He’s mad, and he has a right to be mad. It is worth thinking about, though, whether or not divinity school professors (at Cambridge or anywhere else) care about the survival of the faith. In a similar way, do humanities professors care about the survival of the humanities? I’ve cued this discussion between Sir Roger Scruton and Peterson up to a moment when they are talking about how the old way of teaching the humanities was a matter of a master who loved his subject, passing on that love to his students:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvbtKAYdcZY?start=4360]

Peterson spoke earlier in the conversation about how he was once interviewed by a reporter from the NYT who said she had never considered that there was any way to read literature and the humanities except the postmodernist, deconstructivist way. This is the way of death — the death of a culture, and the dissolution of the human person.

If I keep watching Peterson, I’m sure I’ll eventually get to something objectionable, but I gotta tell you, it’s so inspiring to watch a teacher who really does seem to care about his students, and how knowledge can rescue them from chaos. Shoot, I’m 52 years old, and have been a committed, intellectually informed Christian for half my life now, and Peterson’s lectures are helping me think my way through a difficult problem. The idea that a university like Cambridge would shun him because he was photographed with a troll at a public event, without giving him (Peterson) an opportunity to explain himself — well, it shows that Cambridge is afraid of Jordan Peterson. It’s interesting to think about why.



Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now