Part 16 (of 19): The Archetypal Christ
Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life
“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 to others.”
In the previous post I reviewed Peterson’s thoughts on how the concept of sacrificing to God, and on how the foundational role sacrifice plays in people taking responsibility for their lives. originated. In this post I will critically evaluate five aspects of the material covered in that post. (Warning: this post presupposes that readers have read the previous post).
How Did Sacrifices Originate?
I should at the start say that I found the emphasis that Peterson places on the indispensable need for people to make hard sacrifices if they are to grow and to live a meaningful life to be on the mark and extremely important. Not only does our animal nature make us want to immediately gratify our desires, but in our increasingly technological world, we are systematically conditioned to expect desires to be immediately gratified. Peterson is absolutely correct in maintaining that, if we do not resist this pull to immediate gratification and become willing to suffer in the short term for long range goals, we will likely find ourselves in the position of Cain, increasingly pulled in the direction of a resentful hell.
Having said that, the first critical point I’d like to raise is that Peterson’s account of how sacrifices originated, and how this evolved into the concept of a “judgmental father” who demands sacrifices, is pure speculation. I grant that it’s a clever theory, but I find nothing in the biblical stories that Peterson sites that supports it, and Peterson sites no other empirical evidence in support of it.
A simpler explanation, it seems to me, is that Cain and Abel offered sacrifices to God because they felt estranged from and threatened by him, just as their parents had. By sacrificing to God something that was valuable to them, they were trying to repair this breach, placate God’s anger, and perhaps even court God’s favor. In a word, they wanted to somehow “atone” for their sin, and sacrificing things of value to God seemed to do the trick. This is the quid pro quo arrangement that lies at the foundation of religion throughout history, and to understand it, we only need to appeal to the sense of estrangement, fear, and guilt that resides in the human heart.
This doesn’t necessarily entail that Peterson’s speculative account is wrong, since human behavior is often motivated by a plurality of factors. But I do believe that his account is, at the very least, incomplete.
Christ’s Temptations and Crucifixion
Second, it strikes me as a bit odd that Peterson considers the temptation narrative to be the place where the problem of defeating evil through sacrifice was finally solved, for while the devil was resisted in the temptation narrative, he was only defeated with the death and resurrection of Christ, according to the New Testament (NT) (e.g. Col 2:14-15; Heb 2:14).
Having said that, I appreciate the content of the lessons on taking responsibility and delaying gratification that Peterson draws out of the temptation narrative. They are insightful. And since the NT holds up Jesus as the example that we are to follow, we should draw lessons about how we should resist temptation from the account of Jesus’ temptations.
The shortcoming I find in Peterson’s approach, however, is that he draws out these lessons without first letting the narrative speak on its own terms. The temptation narrative is not first and foremost about Jesus modeling a solution to world hunger, or about Jesus illustrating how people should embrace “independence, and courage, and destiny, and free will, and responsibility,” or illustrating how each person should reject the “immediate gratification” of “natural and perverse desires alike” for the “betterment of Being.” They are rather first and foremost about Jesus proving himself to be God’s faithful human partner and functioning as the new representative for humanity by withstanding the devil’s temptation, in contrast to Adam, our first representative, and in contrast to Israel in the wilderness, God’s first “chosen people,” both of whom succumbed to these temptations.
Moreover, in the process of doing this, the temptation narrative answers the question: What kind of messiah will Jesus be? Will he be one who uses his unique divine authority to gain comfort, fame and power, or will he be the unexpected, humble, other-oriented, self-sacrificial Messiah that God called him to be?
While there certainly are ethical lessons to be drawn from this narrative, it is first and foremost intended to encourage faith in Jesus as the one and only divine Messiah who has come to save us. Indeed, the entire NT places much more emphasis on the uniqueness of Jesus as God’s one and only Son than it does on Jesus modeling how we are to live.
Unfortunately, this is an emphasis that simply cannot be accommodated to Peterson’s archetypal approach. That is, if you read the Gospel’s only to draw out Jesus’ archetypal significance, you will only find a Jesus who represents how we all should live. You’ll totally miss the far more important ways in which Jesus is radically different from the rest of us as well as the ways Jesus (precisely as the one who is radically different from the rest of us) does for us what we could not do ourselves. In a word, you’ll miss the all-important fact Jesus is Lord, God-Incarnate, and Savior of the world.
Sacrifice for Us or Model of Sacrifice
Third, and closely related to this, while Peterson occasionally talks about Jesus “bearing the sins of the world,” (179-80), what he means by this is quite different from what Christians have always meant by these words. In keeping with his archetypal focus on Jesus, Peterson believes Jesus modeled the way everyone should bear the sins of the world. Hence, Peterson writes,
Christ is forever He who determines to take personal responsibility for the full depth of human depravity….Christ is eternally He who is willing to confront and deeply consider the risk the temptations posed by the most malevolent elements of human nature….Christ is always he who is willing to confront evil – consciously, fully and voluntarily – in the form that dwelt simultaneously within Him and in the world (180).
This is not Christ “bearing our sins” as our Savior. This is Christ modeling how we should all assume responsibility for the sins of humanity, with a commitment to “atone” for these sins by making sacrifices to correct them, as much as possible.
In fact, Peterson’s thoughts on Jesus’ sacrificial death rule out the biblical teaching that Jesus bore our sins in a way that saves us. Following in the footsteps of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, Peterson explicitly argues against the Reformers doctrine that we’re saved by placing our faith in the work of the cross. He argues that this teaching a) devalues “the significance of earthly life, as only the hereafter matter”; b) leads to the “passive acceptance of the status quo, because salvation could not be earned in any case through effort in this life,” and; c) gives believers “the right…to reject any real moral burden…because the Son of God had already done all the important work” (189).
Now, I don’t disagree with any of these criticisms of the Reformer’s teachings (or at least of the way the Reformer’s teachings were commonly construed). But these criticisms are directed at a distortion of the Bible’s teaching on Jesus’ death and salvation, not at the biblical teaching itself.
The Reformers tended to think about the significance of Jesus’ death in legal terms, which is how the saving work of Christ on the cross got separated from the actual life of the person being saved. Salvation came to be viewed as something like a “Get-Out-of-Jail-For-Free” card that had no intrinsic connection with our character transformation. By contrast, the NT never separates the work that Christ does for us from the work that the Spirit does in us. In other words, God’s saving work in the crucified Christ includes the work of God in transforming us. And against this model of salvation, Peterson’s three objections have no force.
Pointing this out wouldn’t likely alter anything in Peterson’s view of Jesus or his conception of “salvation,” however, for the concept of trusting someone else (Jesus) to save and transform you is antithetical to Peterson’s save-yourself philosophy. The only role Jesus’ life and death can have, within Peterson’s system of thought, is to serve as an illustration of this.
The Meaning of Christ’s Resurrection
As with the stories of Jesus’ temptation and crucifixion, Peterson interprets the story of Jesus’ resurrection in archetypal categories. For Peterson, the resurrection illustrates how each of us must align ourselves with “the Word,” which Peterson understands not as the second Person of the Trinity, but rather as the ideal balance of order and chaos, so far as I can discern. And united with “the Word,” we must all be willing to courageously embrace our finitude and independence and be willing to sacrifice all “for the betterment of Being.” Only in this way will we be “reborn,” as our old self dies and we are transformed into something new. Hence, Peterson says that in every act of learning and every step toward growth that a person takes, they experience a kind of death and rebirth (223).
Not surprisingly, Peterson holds that what “saves” us is not faith in Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Lord, but “a willingness to learn from what we don’t know,” “faith in the possibility of human transformation” and, therefore, “faith in the sacrifice of a current self for the self that could be” (217). This is the ultimate meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, according to Peterson.
Now, it’s true that the selfless love that Jesus demonstrated in offering up his life on the cross is held up in the NT as an example that all disciples of Jesus are called to follow, as Peterson rightly notes (189). And it’s true that the resurrection is understood in the NT to be God’s declaration that the cruciform way of life, illustrated by Jesus, will be victorious in the end, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.
Acknowledging this much, however, doesn’t come close to capturing the profound meaning of Jesus’ resurrection in the NT. For in the NT, the primary meaning of Jesus’ resurrection concerns not what it says about how we should live, but what it says about Jesus and about the God he perfectly reveals. The resurrection demonstrates that Jesus is God’s “one and only Son” (John 1:14; cf. Rom 1:4) who reveals the power and wisdom of God in conquering the kingdom of darkness, who frees us and the whole creation from the oppressive reign of the fallen powers, and who opens the gates of heaven so we can receive God’s forgiveness and God’s empowering Spirit.
Hence, Paul declares that, while the cross is “foolishness” and “weakness” to nonbelievers, for all “who are being saved,” the cross is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Cor 1:24, cf. v.18). Consequently, what saves us is not “faith in the possibility of human transformation,” but faith in the gracious character of the God who is revealed in Jesus’ foolish and weak-appearing self-sacrificial death, which is confirmed by his resurrection.
Finally, while Peterson is open to the possibility that there is life after death, this plays no role in his understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection. By contrast, the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection in the NT is inseparably linked to the hope of our future resurrection. In rising from the dead Jesus became “the first fruits” of a coming harvest (I Cor 15:20; Col 1:18). His resurrection, in other words, is the guarantee that all who trust in him will also rise from the dead at the end of the age and enter the eternal Kingdom. Because he is agnostic about Jesus’ bodily resurrection and about the after life, Peterson ignores this all-important dimension of Jesus’ resurrection.
The Particularity of Jesus
Finally, the biblical stories of Jesus’ temptations, crucifixion and resurrection – and I could include here virtually every biblical story about Jesus – are ultimately meant to draw attention not to universal truths that all humans must contend with, as Peterson construes it, but to instead draw attention to, and win allegiance to, Jesus Christ. While they often have ethical implications for our own lives, these Gospel stories are first and foremost intended to highlight what God did for us in Jesus at a particular time and place. And the meaning of these stories, with their scandalous unwavering focus on Christ as Lord and Savior, is inseparable from this particularity. Unfortunately, as I noted earlier, Peterson’s archetypal approach can’t accommodate this particularity.
Even the behavior injunctions that we find in the Gospel’s as well as in the Epistles are not put forth as universal ethical principles. While they represent the best way for everyone to live, the NT gives these behavior injunctions specifically to people who have sworn their allegiance to Christ and who are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live them out. For this reason, the behavioral injunctions of Jesus and authors of the NT are best understood not as “ethical” teachings at all, but as descriptions of life in the Kingdom, lived under the reign of Christ.
The bottom line is that everything in the NT is written to draw people into greater levels of trust in, and dependency on, Jesus Christ as the one revealer and mediator of the one true God. Everything is written to wake us up to our desperate need for a Savior and our desperate need for the Spirit to do a work in us that we cannot do ourselves.
Unfortunately, for all the psychological insight Peterson offers on various matters relating to sacrifice, his intense focus on the need for people to take responsibility for their lives, to atone for their own sin, and to work to improve themselves and Being as a whole, leaves little room for confessing helplessness and encouraging faith in a Savior.
Endorsements: “Recent years have witnessed several attempts to ‘explain away’ Jesus as …a wandering Cynic sage…..For all who are trying to come to terms with this reconstruction, especially as represented in the well-publicized books by John Dominic Crossan and Burton Mack, this volume is invaluable.” –D. A. Carson, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School “John Dominic Crossan…
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