Part 15 (of 19?) — Making Sacrifice
Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life
“There is a powerful call to proper Being in the story of the third temptation [of Jesus]. To obtain the greatest possible prize—the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth, the resurrection of Paradise – the individual must conduct his or her life in a manner that requires the rejection of immediate gratification…”
You probably thought this would be the last post in my series on Jordan Peterson since we’ve advertised from the start that this would be a 15-part series. The truth is, when I started this series I just guessed that it would probably end up being “around” 15 posts. It now looks like we’ll come in around 19.
In this and the following post I’ll discuss and critically evaluate Peterson’s concept of sacrifice, which plays a huge role in his philosophy. And in (what are planned to be) the last three posts I’ll discuss Peterson’s use of Christian symbolism, followed by a discussion of what I consider to be Peterson’s worst interview, and I’ll end with an assessment of what makes Peterson’s thought so appealing, and so important, to so many.
The Origin of Sacrifice
According to Peterson, when humans acquired self-consciousness, which he contends is symbolized by Adam and Eve eating from the forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis 3 we became aware of our “vulnerability” and “eventual death,” which “is equivalent to [our] discovery of the future.” With this new awareness came the realization that our demise “might be staved off through work; through the sacrifice of the now to gain benefit later” (164). Indeed, though it goes against our animal instinct to delay gratifying immediate needs and desires, we discovered that, by delaying this gratification, we could create a better future not only for ourselves but for our family and tribe (167-9).
According to Peterson, this led our ancient ancestors to begin to envision the future as a domain occupied by imagined future descendants “who have watched and evaluated and appraised the tiniest detail of your past behavior.” And in time, Peterson contends, this conception of the future as the place where our actions will be judged became personified as God, “sitting above on high, tracking your every move and writing it down for further reference in a big book.” In this way, our ancient ancestors arrived at the conception of “the future” as “a judgmental father”(166).
At the same time, our ancient ancestors began to realize “that reality was structured as if it could be bargained with.” They “personified the force that governs fate as a spirit that can be bargained with, traded with, as if it were another human being” (165).1 And it was at this point that the insight that making sacrifices in the present benefits ourselves and others in the future began to be ritualistically dramatized through the practice of making sacrifices to God. “The act of making a ritual sacrifice to God was an early and sophisticated enactment of the idea of the usefulness of delay” (165).
Peterson holds that in making these sacrifices, our ancient ancestors were acting “as if there is a powerful Figure in the Sky, who sees all, and is judging you.” The truth that delaying gratification benefits us and others in the future was expressed in the mythic conception of sacrifices that make God happy, “and you want to make Him happy, because all Hell breaks loose if you don’t” (169).
Cain and Abel
According to Peterson, this is what is expressed in the biblical story of Adam and Eve and there first two sons, Cain and Abel. It’s no coincidence, according to Peterson, that the first sacrifices to God in the biblical narrative are made immediately after Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree. This captures in mythic form the above-mentioned connection between becoming self-aware, waking up to the importance of sacrificing for the future, and seeing the future as a “judgmental father” who requires sacrifices to stay “happy.”
Cain and Abel thus realize that “[t]hey must make sacrifices, to please God,” but for some unexplained reason, “Abel’s offerings please God, but Cain’s do not” (though Peterson claims that “the text strongly hints that Cain’s heart is just not in it”). But the “vagueness” of the text’s explanation is “realistic,” Peterson’s argues, for “[n]ot all sacrifices are of equal quality,” and “it often appears that sacrifices of apparently high quality are not rewarded with a better future – and it’s not clear why” (166-7). In other words, the vagueness of the text reflects the vagueness and capriciousness of reality, and therefore of the mysterious nature of the “judgmental father” we’re bargaining with.
In any event, Cain ends up murdering Abel, and for this reason he symbolically represents how “[t]he hardness of life, magnified by the consequence of continually rejected sacrifices” can “bend and twist people into the truly monstrous forms who then begin, consciously, to work evil.” From here, Peterson continues,
…a truly vicious circle takes hold: begrudging sacrifice, half-heartedly undertaken; rejection of that sacrifice by God or by reality (take your pick); angry resentment, generated by that rejection; descent into bitterness and the desire for revenge; sacrifice undertaken even more begrudgingly, or refused altogether. And it’s Hell itself that serves as the destination place of that downward spiral (177, cf. 229).
With the murdering of Abel, Peterson says, the story represents how the central problem of life
…is not merely what and how to sacrifice to diminish suffering, but what and how to sacrifice to diminish suffering and evil – the conscious and voluntary and vengeful source of the worst suffering (177).
If Cain represents our impulse to fall into a resentful Hell, Abel represents our heavenly impulse to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to please the “judgmental father.” Abel is thus an archetypal “hero,” but he is an incomplete archetype, according to Peterson. For while “Abel could please God,” which is “a non-trivial and unlikely accomplishment,” he nevertheless “could not overcome human evil,” as evidenced by the fact that he was murdered (177-8). “The problem of evil remained unsolved even by the divinely acceptable sacrifices of Abel,” Peterson notes. And it would take “thousands of additional years for humanity to come up with anything else resembling a solution” to this problem (178).
The Temptation Narrative
The problem was finally solved when Christ, who is “the archetype of Good,” confronted and overcame Satan, who is “the archetype of Evil,” in the wilderness temptation narratives (181) (Matt 4:1-11). Whereas Cain succumbed to the devil’s temptation to fall into a hell of resentment and revenge, Christ stood strong (181). The “clear psychological meaning” of the temptation narrative, according to Peterson, is that “Christ is forever He who determines to take personal responsibility for the full depth of human depravity” and “He who is willing to confront and deeply consider and risk the temptations posed by the most malevolent elements of human nature” (180).
The devil first tempts Christ to “use his near-infinite power” to turn stones into bread (182). But Christ chooses instead to aim “at something higher” by delaying the gratification of his own hunger. He aims “at the description of a mode of Being that would finally and forever solve the problem of hunger.” His action raises the question; What “if we all chose instead of expedience to dine on the Word of God?” And he continues:
That would require each and every person to live, and produce, and sacrifice, and speak, and share in a manner that would permanently render the privation of hunger a thing of the past. And that’s how the problem of hunger in the privations of the desert is most truly and finally addressed (182).
The devil then tempts Jesus by saying, “Throw yourself off a cliff,” for “[i]f God exists, He will surely save you” (182). (Side note: both Matthew (4:6) and Luke (4:9), report the devil tempting Jesus to throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple, not a cliff.) But if Jesus had succumbed to this temptation, and if God had rescued him, it would have made “a mockery of independence, and courage, and destiny, and free will, and responsibility.” Besides, Peterson adds, God’s “not someone to be commanded to perform magic tricks” (183).
Against this temptation, Christ “refuses to dispense with His responsibility for the events of his own life.” Moreover, Christ refuses to “solve the problems of mortal vulnerability in a merely personal manner – by compelling God to save Him – because that would not solve the problem for everyone else and for all time” (183).
Finally, Satan offers Jesus all the splendor and authority of all “the kingdoms of the world.” “That’s the siren call of earthly power: the opportunity to control and order everyone and everything,” Peterson writes. “Christ is offered the pinnacle of the dominance hierarchy, the animalistic desire of every naked ape” (183). Christ again resists this temptation, and according to Peterson, this illustrates that,
[t]o obtain the greatest possible prize—the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth, the resurrection of Paradise, the individual must conduct his or her life in a manner that requires the rejection of immediate gratification, of natural and perverse desires alike, no matter how powerfully and convincingly and realistically those are offered, and dispense, as well [sic] with the temptations of evil (184-85).
Peterson understands Jesus’ death on the cross along similar lines. He writes:
Christ’s archetypal death exists as an example of how to accept finitude, betrayal and tyranny heroically – how to walk with God despite the tragedy of self-conscious knowledge – and not as a directive to victimize ourselves in the service of others (59).
Elsewhere Peterson claims that the story of Jesus’ death
…is the archetypal story of the man who gives his all for the sake of the better—who offers up his life for the advancement of Being—who allows God’s will to become manifest fully within the confines of a single, moral life (172).
According to Peterson, “[t]hat is the model for the honorable man.” But beyond this, when Jesus “sacrifices Himself,” his Father “is simultaneously sacrificing His son.” And for this reason, Peterson argues, “the Christian sacrificial drama of Son and Self is archetypal. It’s a story at the limit, where nothing more extreme –nothing greater – can be imagined” (172).
To top it off, according to this “sacrificial drama,” Jesus was resurrected from the dead. Peterson is open to the possibility that this actually happened in history, but whether it did or did not actually happen, its symbolic significance is clear.2 Christ is the “Word of God that transformed chaos into order at the beginning of time.” And on the cross, this same Logos, according to Peterson, “sacrificed himself voluntarily to the truth, to the good, to God. In consequence, He died and was reborn.” So, Peterson concludes, “[t]he Word that produces order from chaos sacrifices everything, even itself, to God.” And “[t]hat single sentence, wise beyond comprehension, sums up Christianity” (222). It illustrates that, for anything new to grow, the old must be sacrificed and be reborn.
The lesson in all of this, according to Peterson, is that
…the person who wishes to alleviate suffering – who wishes to rectify the flaws in Being; who wants to bring about the best of all possible futures; who wants to create Heaven on Earth – will make the greatest of sacrifices, of self and child, of everything that is loved, to live a life aimed at the Good. He will forego expediency. He will pursue the path of ultimate meaning. And he will in that manner ring salvation to the ever-desperate world (175).
In a world that has always been characterized by misery, what “saves” us, Peterson says, is “faith in the possibility of human transformation” and, therefore, “faith in the sacrifice of a current self for the self that could be” (217).
In the following post, I will argue that, from a biblical perspective, what “saves” us is decidedly not “faith in the possibility of human transformation” and “faith in the sacrifice of a current self for the self that could be.” What ultimately saves us is trusting in the gracious God who is fully revealed in the crucified and resurrection Jesus. But this, we shall see, is a truth Peterson’s save-yourself philosophy could never accept.
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2 See video. On this note, it should be noted that, except for those rare occasions when Peterson addresses the question of the historical Jesus, everything Peterson says about “Jesus” concerns him as an archetypal character in the Gospel narratives without any concern about the degree to which this depiction is or is not grounded in actual history.