Part 17 (of 20)- Jordan Peterson on God
Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life
“God, whoever or whatever he may be, is no simple granter of wishes.”
In this post I would like to review and evaluate what Peterson has to say about God and in the following post I will do the same for what Peterson has to say about Jesus. What makes Peterson’s opinion on these topics particularly important is that Peterson is highly esteemed by a growing number of conservative Christians. Because 12 Rules of Life doesn’t make clear what Peterson believes about God and Jesus, this and the following post will incorporate interviews and talks that Peterson has given on these topics to supplement what he says in 12 Rules.1
The Meaning of “God”
Peterson says he doesn’t like the question, “Do you believe in God?” He says this question makes him feel “boxed in” because it doesn’t lend itself to an easy “yes” or “no” answer. One has to first ask, “What do you mean by ‘God’?,” and then, “What do you mean by ‘believe’?”
Peterson is right. The meaning of “God” isn’t self-evident. At the same time, Peterson’s own conception of God is hardly unambiguous. Often Peterson speaks as though he believed “God” was an existing transcendent reality (e.g. 60, 171). But sometimes Peterson speaks as though “God” was just a concept that humans evolved to make sense of their experience (164-69). Other times, Peterson defines “God” as whatever any individual embraces as their “highest value” (224). Still other times Peterson seems to agree with Nietzsche’s proclamation that the concept of “God” in western culture is “dead” (192-3). And then there are times where Peterson seems to tip what appears to be his agnostic hand by referring to “God” as “whatever or whoever He may be” (356).
As can be seen from this small sampling, it’s not altogether clear whether Peterson conceives of God as an objective existing transcendent reality or merely as a psychological reality.2 The same ambiguity arises when Peterson spelled out his conception of God in his famous debate with Sam Harris.3 Among other things, Peterson says that God is that “transcendent reality that is only observable across the longest of iterated time frames.” So too, God is that which “confronts the chaos of being itself and generates inhabitable order.” These definitions, vague as they are, nevertheless indicate that Peterson seems to believe that God actually exists as an objective transcendent reality.
Many of his other statements in this debate, however, seem to suggest that Peterson conceives of God along the lines of a psychological archetype. God is “how we imaginatively and collectively represent the existence and action of consciousness across time…” God is “the truthful speech that rectifies pathological hierarchies.” God is “that which eternally dies and is reborn in the pursuit of higher being and truth.” And God is “the highest value in the hierarchy of values” and “the voice of conscience” as well as “the future to which we make sacrifices, something akin to the transcendental repository of reputation.”
Finally, since Peterson has no concept of the world being corrupted by Satan and other rebel Powers, as I argued in an earlier post, he sometimes identifies “God” with “reality,” to the point that he considers every terrible thing “reality” throws at you as “an act of God” (e.g. 157, 177, cf. 105). According to Peterson, this is the “God” of the Old Testament (OT), who was sometimes viewed as a somewhat capricious “Force of Nature” (105). Yet, as we saw way back in the second post in this series, Peterson also encourages people to live as though this capricious “Force of Nature” was good and loving, such as we find God depicted in the New Testament (NT) (107).
Living As Though God Existed
Interestingly enough, other than to say that this mindset enables a person to avoid “resentment” and “nihilism” (107), Peterson never explains why we should live as though God/reality is good and loving, despite the fact that God/reality acts like a capricious “Force of Nature,” and despite the fact that Peterson grants that this “more optimistic” and “naively welcoming” God of the NT is “less believable” (105) than the “Force of Nature” deity found in the OT. Moreover, Peterson only goes so far as to say we should live as though God/reality were loving and good because the alternative leads to a hell of resentment and chaos. He stops short of professing faith that a good and loving God actually exists.
Similarly, when asked whether he believes in God or not, the closest Peterson comes to giving a definitive answer is when he says that he lives as though God exists. In fact, as we saw in an earlier post, Peterson argues that every morally decent person lives as though God existed, regardless of what they say they believe or don’t believe. I think Peterson is wrong about this, as I argued in a previous post, but I mention it because it makes it clear that for Peterson, to live as though God actually existed is to live in a moral and meaningful way. And this suggests that, whatever else Peterson might believe about God, it’s safe to say that he conceives of God primarily as the transcendent reality that grounds morality, value and purpose. As he puts it in the aforementioned debate with Sam Harris, “God is the source of judgment and mercy and guilt.”
Peterson’s God and the God Revealed in Christ
Since I am evaluating Peterson from a distinctly Christian perspective, I think it should be pointed out that his conception of God, to the extent that it constitutes a distinct conception, falls miles short of the conception of God we are given in Jesus Christ. The God revealed in Christ, and especially in Christ’s crucifixion, is not merely moral: he is breathtakingly beautiful, outrageously generous, and unfathomably loving. He’s a shepherd who goes out desperately searching for a single lost sheep and then throws a party when he finally finds it (Luke 15:3-7). He’s a father who celebrates the return of a rebellious son who had earlier insulted him and squandered his entire inheritance, with no questions asked (Lk 15:11-32).
Not only this, but in the person of Jesus Christ, God defied cultural norms and offended high society by befriending prostitutes, tax collectors, and others who were most judged by society. In Christ, God demonstrated his unconditional compassion upon the poor, the marginalized, the sick, and the oppressed. And in Christ, God reveals himself to be a God who hopes and prays for the forgiveness of all people, including those who were in the process of torturing and executing him (Luke 23:34).
Most importantly, the God revealed in the crucified Christ is a God who was willing to go to the furthest extreme possible– viz. becoming our sin and our curse – to redeem a race of rebels who wanted nothing to do with him. And the unsurpassable extremity to which God was willing to go on our behalf reveals the unsurpassable perfection of the love that God eternally is, and the love that God has for us. Hence, John summarizes Jesus’ revelation of God by declaring that “God is love” (I John 4:8), while defining love by pointing us to the cross (I John 3;16). This means that God’s very essence is other-oriented, self-sacrificial love. God is, to the core of his being, a God who selflessly pours himself out for the welfare of others.
To live as though this God existed goes far beyond acting morally. It rather involves acknowledging your inability to be rightly related to God on the basis of your own efforts and receiving God’s forgiveness and empowering grace. It involves continually dying the fallen impulse to rule your own life and instead submitting it entirely to God, seeking to discern and carry out God’s will on a moment-by-moment basis. It involves cultivating a loving relationship with God in special times of prayer as well as throughout each day of your life. It involves continually opening your heart to God to allow him to fill it with his love so that you begin to love people the way God does. And it involves the commitment to reflect God’s self-giving love by sacrificing your time, energy and resources for the welfare of others, including your enemies.
Peterson’s amorphous conception of God as the transcendent ground of morality, values, and purpose is not incompatible with Jesus’ revelation of God. But in light of the full revelation of the scandalously loving God in the crucified Christ, this fact feels almost trivial.
While Peterson obviously doesn’t base his conception of God on Jesus, he nevertheless has a good deal to say about Jesus. In the following post, therefore, I will review and critically evaluate this material.
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1 I’ve relied primarily on video 1; video 2; video 3 , and video 4 . My thanks to Cory Wright for turning my attention to these (and many other) clips. In fact, this is as good a moment as express my appreciation to Cory Wright, whose knowledge of Jordan Peterson is encyclopedic, not only for providing me with on-line material by Peterson but also for offering immensely helpful critical feedback throughout this series.
2 Given his affinities for Jungian theory, it is not surprising that Peterson tends to reflect a non-realist conception of God (i.e., “God” is an archetypal reality that emerges from, and is contained within, the inter-psychic human realm). On the religious anti-realism inherent to Jung’s thought, see John Dourley, “The Religious Implications of Jung’s Psychology,” Journal of Analytic Psychology 40 (1995), 177-203.
3 See video.