Jordan Peterson: Heretic or Helpful Pagan?

Rachel Fulton Brown writes:

…I don’t think that Jordan has a Messiah complex. But I do think that he thinks that he is capable on the strength of his own will of saving the world. It is why he spends so much time speaking. Because he believes that through his speech he can save himself—and that by speaking in the way that he does, he can save everyone. Sure, Jordan uses Christian vocabulary, but he does not think like a Christian, nor does he claim to.* Rather, Jordan thinks like Nietzsche, as he shows clearly in his book.

She claims that Peterson is a Pelagian. That is, essentially, the Christian heresy that claims that we’re left to work to save ourselves and the world without the assistance of God’s grace. Further definition and explanation gets tricky and technical. But the point being, Peterson may well be exactly that. But I submit that he may not be a heretic at all, but perhaps a pagan or even a gnostic who finds Christian ideas to have remarkable psychological depth and therefore metaphorical truth value. I say this because he remains publicly agnostic as to the resurrection of Jesus.

I had taken Peterson’s claims to be a Christian in the past at face value, but when it comes to him, everything is pretty complicated. And that’s fine. Btw, my definition of Christian is not the same as the Bible’s definition of how somebody comes to be saved. People are saved by God’s mercy, full stop (Rom 9:18). A Christian is somebody who is a member of a church and believes Christian dogmas (Trinity, Incarnation, Salvation by Grace, etc). These are overlapping, but not coterminous groups. 

I tend to think of Peterson as somebody who articulates excellent natural(istic) rationales as well as how-to explanations of important Biblical ideas and instructions. He manages this even when he gets the metaphysics and theology incorrect. For instance, is there a sense in which we save ourselves and those who hear us by our speech? Yes:

Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
(1 Timothy 4:16)

For Paul, of course, that speech is sharing the message of Christ carefully and appropriately. But Peterson articulates an explanation as to how this is true in natural circumstances that provides an analogy as to how it is true in spiritual ones. Speaking the truth does accomplish something that ultimately brings goodness into the world. But what Peterson misses, or at least doesn’t say, is that this not only justifies existence for those who practice it, but it does so precisely because the Father of Jesus Christ really is the cause of the world. 

Peterson is right that if everybody took full responsibility for their social self, then things would be better. Jesus says that Christians should be the ones who seek to reconcile to those they wrong as soon as they remember they did it. Jesus says Christians should rebuke those who sin. Jesus says that Christians should forgive those who repent as soon as they repent: See below:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 

(Matthew 5:23-24)

 

Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
(Luke 17:3-4)

The question, of course, is salvation from what? For instance, the Stoics claim that philosophy can save you from internal disturbance. If that’s their definition of salvation, then yeah, Stoicism can do that. But Stoicism cannot offer the salvation Christ offers, but it does not claim to do so. So if Peterson’s claim is that true, precise speech can save us from sin, Satan, and death, then he’s wrong. But if he’s claiming that we need salvation from nihilism, social decay, and the potential dissolution of Western civilization, then maybe the hard road of rugged personal responsibility is the salve for our wounds. It doesn’t heal original sin, but it isn’t meant to. Of course, Satan, sin, and death are connected to the problems Peterson wants to solve. But I think that by articulating the truth, even improperly, one acts as though they have faith in Christ as the Logos/Word (John 1:1-18). And sense the Logos who orders the Cosmos is revealed to be none other than Jesus of Nazareth, one could say that Peterson’s efforts to get people to act in line with the Logos are things Jesus could use, just as Christ, through his church, used Aristotle, Plato, and the Stoics to clarify the gospel in the first 1200 years of the church. 

And so there is a sense in which Peterson’s claim that salvation from nihilism and social destruction can occur if everybody takes ownership of their lives at every layer is right and perhaps even articulated in the Bible. As such, it is important stuff to say and many who try to teach the Bible understate or perhaps poorly state it.

But there is also a sense in which Peterson’s message is absolutely inadequate as an expression of the Bible’s full message. For instance, Peterson, in claiming to offer a sort of salvation (a good sort even) that is available in the Bible, leaves out the central narrative of salvation contained within the Bible (God sent his Son, they called him Jesus, he came to love, heal, and forgive. He lived and died, to buy my pardon…). In this sense he is, as a preacher of the gospel, utterly incompetent. But as a teacher of wisdom, even wisdom contained in, and perhaps necessary to fully appreciate the gospel, he does a pretty good job. The question is, what is he trying to do? If he isn’t trying to replace the teaching ministry of the church, then he probably isn’t a heretic, he’s like Marcus Aurelius or Musonius Rufus who explains his philosophy in terms of Christian symbols. If you know what he says, it’s foolish not to consider it and practice the best of it. It might even lead you to Christ. But in itself, it cannot save you in the full Christian sense.

But, it’s important to consider this side of it all: 

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward. (Mark 9:38-41)

Music Video: An Unstoppable Man

 

If you like synth wave and/or Mad Max, this music video might improve your workouts or make you feel pumped.

Warning: Don’t try any of these stunts without a seatbelt.

 

Book Review: Poor Richard’s Retirement

Aaron Clarey, Poor Richard’s Retirement: Retirement for Everyday Americans

Aaron Clarey is a consultant and independent economist who writes books that are meant to help young men and women make wiser financial choices. His approach is no nonsense, gruff, and often cynical. But despite seeming like a complete jerk, his advice which is free on his blog or youtube channel clearly comes from a big heart (for sensitive users or those who may listen w/children around, he does curse a lot). This is evident when he, for instance, criticizes parents who don’t spend a great deal of time with their children (this is a common thread in his books and podcasts and I only listen to them a couple of times a year).

I disagree with a great deal of his material, but it’s because he’s not religious and I’m a Christian. But his grasp of markets, how they work, and what personal steps are necessary for success are second to none.

That being said, if you’re a millennial, especially one who graduated college between 2007-2010, you’ve probably wondered how in the heck you could ever retire. If so, Clarey’s book has everything you need. It contains a helpful explanation of steps one can take in order to get ready for retirement, but does something a great many similar books don’t do. He reframes what it means to live a life of meaning with a personal sense of significance. The book amounts to a sort of secular explanation of Jesus’ saying that we should “…take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

I think the argument he makes, though it veers toward cynicism is worth reading in full because of its rhetorical effect. So I won’t explain it.

The practical tips he gives are excellent. His solution to the problem of retirement is ultimately satisfying (more on that below). And he does run some of the numbers comparing costs in previous generations of those of ye olde current year in a way that is helpful and potentially guilt inducing.

Worthwhile quotes:

  1. Understand this and understand this clearly. Most two-income families are: Outsourcing the upbringing of their own children To complete strangers Passing up on seeing their children grow up So BOTH parents can work jobs they don’t like While suffering commutes that keep them from their families AND stressing themselves out in the process. (47)
  2. We engage in the rat race, pursuing pointless educations, for taxing careers, life-wasting commutes, just to buy stuff, pointless material things, while abandoning anything and anybody that really matters in life.  It’s the cause of the majority of divorces in the country, the majority of unvisited parents in nursing homes, and is ultimately responsible for all the country’s financial problems.  And to throw the burden of saving for retirement on top of Americans’ inability to just keep it together, only makes an already-miserable situation impossible to bear. (48-49)
  3. It is a full – time job to go and seek out new and interesting people who are going to make your life worth living. (134)

Conclusion

Ultimately, Clarey’s essay on retirement is an admirable little book in that it accomplishes three things:

  1. Instructs you not to retire.
  2. Tells you how to retire.
  3. Subverts the present day value system.

With respect to number three, I’ll wax philosophical. One of the reasons that a capitalist style economy can work is if Adam Smith’s moral sentiments are assumed. Capitalism helps provide a wide degree of freedom to people who pursue a sort of Aristotelian/Christian/Stoic vision of the good life wherein virtue is paramount, social trust is assumed, and while the particulars of an individual’s pursuit of wealth and greatness may vary, they typically revolve around family, invention, adventure, and philanthropy. Such a system of values simply is not broadly assumed in Western Civilization, and so capital itself is perceived as the highest and total good for man.

Clarey, an irreligious capitalist, sees this problem as a source of poverty and unhappiness and attempts to solve it by reorienting the value system of his audience. For this the book is worth ten times the price. Buy it for graduating seniors, read it if you’re in college, use it to get out of debt. It’s a good book.

Thoughts on Theodicy

One of the most famous reasons to reject the existence of God is the existence of evil. Either evil or God can exist, not both. The dilemma relies on the supposition that these three propositions cannot all be true at once

  1. God is all good.
  2. God is all powerful.
  3. Evil exists.

In modern atheist rhetoric, the whole thing is stated as though not a single Christian, Jewish, Muslim, otherwise religious person has ever noticed the potential logical hang up with believing these three things. Thus a non-Christian or atheist of some sort will point out that a good God would stop evil, a powerful God can, but evil happens therefore either proposition 1 or 2 isn’t true…therefore in a non-sequitur of immense proportions, “if God is not all powerful or all good by my definition, then God does not exist.”

Now, many solutions to the problem of evil have been proposed and of them some are logically sound solutions. This is very important because the rhetoric works like that:

  1. If I can make you feel confused about the problem of evil, then you are irrationally believing in God.
  2. I stated the problem of evil, therefore you are confused,(or even if you’re not), therefore God does not exist. (I know it does not follow, just thinking of discussions at dinner parties.)

The more sophisticated version is here:

  1. Believing in God does not comport with reality if the problem of evil creates a contradiction.
  2. The problem of evil does entail a contradiction.
  3. The law of non-contradiction states that contradictory statements cannot both be true.
  4. Therefore one of your beliefs (God is powerful, God is good, and evil exist) is false.

Here’s the thing. As long as there is, as far as I know, one logical solution to the problem of evil (even if you do not think that solution is true), then it loses its force as an argument.

The argument against God’s existence from the existence of evil does not require the discovery of a 100% true solution to be rendered null. It simply requires a demonstration that the propositions are not necessarily contradictory. This is why we still use Newtonian physics despite the existence of other models that apparently create a contradiction. There is not, that I am aware of, a definitively true, solution to the relationship between classical physics, quantum mechanics, and physics approaching the speed of light. But a plausible account is what allows the propositions of those systems to be held until a truer solution is produced.

With respect to the theistic problem of evil, Vox Day, a video game programmer and fiction author, has written a brief but poignant response to the classical problem of evil:

As for the idea that an all-powerful and all-loving God should wish to stop and be able to stop evil, to say nothing of the idea that the existence of evil therefore disproves the existence of such a god, well, that doesn’t even rise to the level of midwittery [this word, which I know I heard growing up, is a Voxism on the internet].

 

One has to have a truly average mind and remain ignorant of basic Biblical knowledge to find either of those concepts even remotely convincing.

 

Imagine the Sisyphean hell that is the existence of a video game character, literally created to die over and over and over again. Does the misery of his existence prove that the video game developer does not exist? Of course not. Does it prove that the developer has any limits upon him that the video game character can observe? Of course not. Does it prove that the developer has any particular enmity for the character? Not at all.

 

Now, it does prove that the developer is not all-loving. But then, the Christian God is not all-loving. He plays favorites. He loves some and He is very specific about others for whom He harbors not only antipathy, but outright hatred. It is fine to attack the idea of an all-loving god, but it is a mistake to assume any such attack is even remotely relevant to the Christian religion.

Vox’s points evade the objection to God’s existence on the grounds of analogy. If a video game programmer makes a game whose characters have awful experiences, the programmer still exists. On that score, our objections to God’s existence on the grounds of our experiences in life don’t square with the logical arguments nor the testimonial evidence that God/gods exist(s).

He also notes that God, in Scripture, plays favorites. There is a sense in which that is true. I would say that Scripture does tend toward the notion that God is love and thus all-loving. But God being all loving does not mean, as is mistakenly supposed, that God is equally nice to all. His point still stands, even if one of his premises needs fine tuning. It’s more accurate, I suppose, to say that God is love in the same way that God is good. God is the height of goodness in a sense that is infinitely superior and also infinitely other than our own.

Aside from Vox’s objection, it is also the case that many people who suffer the most god-forsaken experiences and torments, like Jesus on the cross and still end up believing in God and God’s love. So the argument against God’s existence from the existence of evil fails on evidence of the experience of many religious persons. Of course, one could respond that they’re experiencing severe cognitive dissonance.

As mentioned above, there are several other solutions to the problem. Many of them are falsifiable, many are compatible with one another, and some contradict others, but they take any logical bite out of the objection to God’s existence because of evil):

  1. God created evil on purpose (Calvin, Augustine, Edwards, Jung, etc).
  2. Evil is an aberration within creation. (Open theism, classical theism, Anabaptist thought)
  3. A creation with the possibility of evil is a necessary precursor to a creation without evil (Irenaeus, Dallas Willard, Plantinga, and Swinburne)
  4. Evil is non-existent, it is simply a good thing going against its nature by means of deformity or free will. It is a designation for such things as deviate from God. It is not an actual subsisting thing (if no wills existed besides God’s, none of creation could be evil no matter how desolate, because existence is good).  (Aquinas, Eastern Orthodox thought)
  5. Creation entails difference from God, thus the possibility of evil, precisely because creation is not God.
  6. God is not all good.
  7. God is not all powerful.
  8. God is all powerful and all good, but those do not mean what you think they mean.
  9. God finds the problem of evil abhorrent too, hence the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection, and the promised new creation. God is solving it in creation and space-time history.

Mark Rippetoe on High School and College Strength Training Programs

Mark Rippetoe has a way with words, he’s particularly good at expressing well known, but unstated truths in the most devastating way possible:

In fact, since there exist so few examples of correctly-instructed cleans and snatches in any high school, college, university, or professional strength program, and since it seems to be impossible to convince you that 1.) doing them wrong is a bad idea and that 2.) you’re doing them wrong, I really think you guys should just stop using them in your programs altogether and just focus your attention on getting everybody’s squat below parallel, and getting everybody’s deadlift up over 500 with a flat back. Maybe stop them from bouncing their bench presses off their chests like trampolines, too, and give their spotters a different way to work their traps. Given several months, perhaps this can actually be accomplished.

He’s just exactly right. I would add chin-ups, but that’s just me.

On the Importance of Philosophical Reasoning for Biblical Exegesis: Edward Feser and Romans 1:18-23

Introduction
In my mind, the ability to engage in philosophical reasoning in order to tease out the implications of particular interpretations of the Bible and other truths is indispensable for reading the Bible and teaching it to others.

Example

Edward Feser, in a post titled, “Repressed Knowledge of God?” comments that the common interpretation of Romans 1:18-23 is mistaken. Here is the passage in question from the ESV, I would translate it differently, but it reflects the most common interpretation:

Romans 1:18-23 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (19) For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. (20) For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (21) For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (22) Claiming to be wise, they became fools, (23) and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

The common interpretation is that the atheist is the person to whom these verses refer. This can be seen in the writings of many schools of Christian apologetics. The idea is that atheism is always a matter of intellectual dishonesty because the Bible teaches that knowledge of the God of the Bible is so obvious that it can only be suppressed by sheer force of will. Personaly, I think that some people are atheists because they accept bad arguments just like some people believe in God for silly reasons.

Without thinking about Christian theology, the psychology of all atheists, and broader philosophical conclusions, the text of Romans 1:18-23 itself militates against seeing atheists in this passage. The passage is not about people who believe in no gods, but rather those who have good reason to worship the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, but choose to worship idols.(See the footnote of this post about the passage in question for an alternative interpretation). The passage gives good insight into the results of idolatry, which is related to atheism, but it is not directly about atheism at all.

Feser, without attempting to exegete the Bible passage in question, refutes the view that God’s existence is so obvious as to only be denied on purpose rather handily. Here is the relevant portion of his argument:

Do we have a natural tendency to believe in God? Yes, but in something like the way in which someone might have a natural aptitude for music or for art. You might be inclined to play some instrument or to draw pictures, but you’re not going to do either very well without education and sustained practice.  And without cultivating your interest in music or art, your output might remain at a very crude level, and your ability might even atrophy altogether.

Or consider moral virtue.  It is natural to us, but only in the sense that we have a natural capacity for it.  Actually to acquire the virtues still requires considerable effort.  As Aquinas writes: “[V]irtue is natural to man inchoatively…both intellectual and moral virtues are in us by way of a natural aptitude, inchoatively, but not perfectly…(Summa Theologiae I-II.63.1, emphasis added), and “man has a natural aptitude for virtue; but the perfection of virtue must be acquired by man by means of some kind of training” (Summa Theologiae I-II.95.1).

Now, knowledge of God is like this. We are indeed naturally inclined to infer from the natural order of things to the existence of some cause beyond it.  But the tendency is not a psychologically overwhelming one like our inclination to eat or to breathe is. It can be dulled.  Furthermore, the inclination is not by itself sufficient to generate a very clear conception of God.  As Aquinas writes:

To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude… This, however, is not to know absolutely that God exists; just as to know that someone is approaching is not the same as to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter who is approaching… (Summa Theologiae I.2.1, emphasis added)

In other words, from a philosophical point of view, to claim that God’s existence is only and ever obvious, is simply untrue. Now, that does not automatically mean that Paul doesn’t teach the falsified point of view. But for those with a conservative evangelical definition of the Bible, it means alternative interpretations should be sought. 

Treat Yourself Like Someone You’re Responsible for Helping

The title of this post is a chapter title from Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. It’s a good book. My wife and I read together after our daughter goes to bed.

The argument of the second chapter is long and, if you’re unfamiliar either with contemporary evolutionary theory or the book of Genesis, might be difficult to follow on a first read. And that’s okay. I recommend the book. But this post isn’t about the book. It’s about the rule. It’s a good rule.

How many of us know the person who always has the solutions for everybody else’s problems but can’t deal with their wife, their boss, the body, or their finances?

How many of us are that person?

In a series of lessons I gave on Christian mindset for a men’s bible study I used to teach, I wrote that the men should become their own pastors. And what I meant by this was not that they should override or ignore pastoral authority. But rather, that they should aim their reflex to be a hellishly bossy person on themselves. The Bible recommends this practice throughout.

Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy sons’ sons… (Deuteronomy 4:9)

Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life. (Proverbs 4:23)

Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee. (1 Timothy 4:16)

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:5)

In other words, watch yourself with the same sort of scrutiny that innately makes you want to improve other’s lives.

Money Mindset

The Bible seems to say two things about money. That it’s all good or it’s all bad. Of course, what it really says is that money, like all good things, can be worshiped as an idol. Samson worships a woman as an idol (he tells her how to released him from his vow to God), Israel worships the Torah as an idol (see the New Testament), and Adam and Eve treat food as an idol, trusting it for wisdom rather than God. Yet none of these is bad. I suspect that Christians are more suspicious of money because theologians, who are notoriously bad at being creative, industrious, and good with people (all skills that help one make money), then to teach that money (which they cannot make easily) is almost entirely bad, rather than hitting the balance appropriately.

Here’s my attempt at a brief mindset shift to help Christians deal with money in a fashion that is neither idolatrous or irresponsible. Here’s the mindset shift:

Money is a metric.

What do I mean:

  1. Money is a measure of positive spiritual health
    1. If you have a positive bank balance and observe that you feel joy because it is a result of virtues you would choose to obtain even without money (industriousness, creativity, charisma, frugality, and generosity) is a sign of spiritual health. In other words, you know how to make money and be rich or to lose it all and be poor without anxiety because Christ gives you strength (Phil 4:11-13).
    2. If you have nice things that you can use to care for your family, this may be a sign of wisdom (Proverbs 21:20).
  2. Money is a measure of negative spiritual health
    1. Having a negative bank balance, severe anxiety, an obsession with financial status, or a resentment of those more successful than you is a sign that you may need to repent of your laziness, pay off your debts, learn some new skills, and manage your own life rather than hating everybody else.
    2. Having a large bank balance because you never give alms, help the church, show hospitality, take breaks for family, or choose health over work is a sign that you worship money.

Learning to view money as a metric, one tool among many for assessing my spiritual health has been very useful. I hope that it is helpful to you as well.

Hildebrand on The Power of an Orderly Life

In, Transformation in Christ, Dietrich von Hildebrand explains the power of an orderly life to help us transform ourselves:

 

To ordain our daily lives according to some definite rule constitutes a further method in the service of our inner transformation. Apart from the specific importance which the single provisions of that rule may possess for our progress in virtue, a certain wholesome effect proceeds from order as such. It pervades life with a certain rhythm of composure and continuity, which makes it easier for us to collect ourselves; it protects us from being absorbed by the succession of varying events and impressions, so apt to interfere with our concentration upon essentials.
An orderly regulation of our lives relieves us from the temptation to let our attention to prayer, contemplation, and work, our avoidance of peripheral concerns, depend on chance and circumstance; it enables us to provide systematically for the meaningfulness and depth of our existence. It makes it possible for us to acquire constancy without which all good endeavors are condemned to sterility.
Finally, an established outward order also raises us above our dependence on our own arbitrary whims and momentary dispositions; it commits us from the outset, and enduringly, to our direction towards God. The last-named advantage is more perfectly attained, of course, in the case of a rule followed—as in monastic life—from holy obedience, as contrasted to merely self-devised and self-imposed regulations.
In any event, however, we must keep aware of the fact that all technical regulation of life is but a means, not an end in itself; its observance must not be allowed to become a matter of rigid mechanical routine. We should not erect the rule into an absolute, nor abandon ourselves to its automatism as to a supreme law. Otherwise it may easily blunt, rather than sharpen, our perception of the call of God, and harden our hearts rather than open them to Christ.

Levels of Christian Discipleship

There are multiple ways to conceptualize Christian discipleship. Many are complementary and if explained properly, even synonymous. Here are three:

  1. Christian discipleship is to live in accordance with and in obedience to the teachings of Jesus. In this sense Jesus is king and ruler.
  2. Christian discipleship is to live in line with nature, discerned rationally. In this sense, the logos the source of order in the world and reason in the mind, is perpetually speaking to humanity through nature. This can be seen in Psalm 19, Romans 1:18-23, and John 1:1-18. In this sense, Jesus is a teacher, philosopher, and provocateur.
  3. Christian discipleship is living in submission to your personal concept of what is better for me. Now this is fraught with difficulty, but it carries with it several assumptions that help me make sense that I do not intend to go into here. In this sense, Jesus is the ultimate expression of the highest possibility of the individual self.

Any thoughts?