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)

3 thoughts on “Jordan Peterson: Heretic or Helpful Pagan?

  1. Hey, a very nice article. You help me a lot to understand the relationship between Jordan Peterson and Christianity. Thank you! By the way, do you have any further comments about him?

  2. Hi, thank you for your article! It help me a lot to understand the relationship between Christianity and Jordan Peterson. Do you have any new comments about him?

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