Part 18 (of 20) — Jordan Peterson on Jesus
Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life
“What does [Jesus’ teaching to love your enemies] mean? Learn, from the success of your enemies; listen…to their critique, so that you can glean from their opposition whatever fragments of wisdom you might incorporate, to your betterment.”
In the previous post we saw that Peterson has a rather amorphic and sometimes bewildering conception of God that falls far short of the revelation of God that we are given in Christ. In this post we’ll see that Peterson’s inadequate conception of God is anchored in his inadequate conception of Jesus.
Is Christ Divine?
Peterson doesn’t like the question, “Do you believe in the divinity of Jesus?” for the same reasons he doesn’t like the question, “Do you believe in God?” It all depends on what you mean by “believe” and “divinity.”1
The closest Peterson gets to affirming something like the divinity of Jesus is when he acknowledges that Christ, as depicted in the Gospels, embodied the “Logos,” while granting that the Logos is “divine,” which for Peterson means that the Logos is “of ultimate transcendent value.”2 So far as I can tell, Peterson thinks of the Logos as the proper relationship between order and chaos, which includes the proper relationship between life, death and rebirth. Hence, he says, “[t]he Logos is what tells us that something needs to die to be reborn.” And in his view, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is an archetypal expression of this Logos.
In this sense, Peterson could perhaps say that Jesus — or at least the character of “Jesus” that is depicted in the Gospels — is “divine.”
The Historical Resurrection
As for the question of whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead, Peterson says he’s “agnostic,” though he is open to the possibility that he did. “The world is a very strange place,” he says, and we don’t know what could happen if a person “brought their whole being into alignment with the Logos.” “Death and rebirth must be balanced to survive,” he elsewhere says. So “what would happen if you got the balance between death and life exactly right?” Perhaps death itself could be conquered. We simply “don’t know what the upper limits are to human possibility.”
Nevertheless, for Peterson, the archetypal meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection – viz. its expression of the death and rebirth dimension of the Logos — is unaffected by the historical question of Jesus’ resurrection or of any other aspect of his life. And, as I noted in the previous footnote, it’s the archetypal meaning that Peterson is almost exclusively concerned with.
There are three things I’d like to say in response to Peterson’s perspective on Jesus. The first two concern his understanding of Jesus’ resurrection while the third concerns Peterson’s interpretation of Jesus’ teachings.
The Importance of Jesus’ Bodily Resurrection
First, I applaud Peterson’s open mindedness toward the possibility that Jesus actually rose from the dead, and I would encourage him to take a long hard look at the historical evidence that suggests this actually happened.3 For, without denying the archetypal significance of the resurrection accounts, the historicity of Jesus’ physical resurrection is all-important from a historic orthodox Christian perspective.
The Christian faith is anchored in the conviction that God actually entered human history in the person of Jesus Christ and actually conquered Satan, sin, and the grave when, in the form of this human, he died and rose again. If the mythological and archetypal stories of death and rebirth have any significance – and they do – it is because they point to this historical reality.
Moreover, it is faith in the bodily resurrection of Jesus that grounds the all-important Christian confidence that our physical bodies will be resurrected at the end of the age and that the entire physical creation will be redeemed and restored. The physical resurrection of Jesus is thus the ultimate affirmation of the inherent goodness of the physical creation and of the truth that God will never abandon it.
Becoming “Divine” By Effort
Second, it’s interesting that Peterson remains open to the possibility of Jesus’ resurrection on the grounds that we “don’t know what the upper limits are to human possibility.” If Jesus actually rose from the dead, in his view, it was because Jesus “got the balance between death and life exactly right.” So, if Jesus is in any sense “divine,” it is the result of his own persistent efforts. Indeed, it is because Jesus managed to live and die like a Petersonian hero, as I noted in a previous post.
I submit that this is miles removed from the Gospels’ actual depiction of Jesus. For starters, the Logos that was “with God” and that “was God” from the beginning, is not merely the proper balance between order and chaos throughout the cosmos. The Logos, for John, is also the divine Son of God who became a human to reveal God’s character and will to us and free us from our deception and bondage (John 1: 1-2, 14-8). In other words, the Gospel story is not about a human somehow managing to become divine: it’s about God graciously stooping to become human. Hence, Jesus is called “Emmanuel…God with us” (Matt 1:23).
As the early Church understood when it determined that any form of adoption-Christology lies outside the parameters of orthodoxy, there is a world of difference between a story about God becoming human and a story about a human becoming God (or in any sense “divine”). While the second is primarily a story about us, the first is primarily a story about God. And this is precisely why Christians, who believe the first story, can discern what God is like by looking at Jesus.
This in no way undermines the important stress that Peterson places on seeing Jesus as an example that we’re to follow, for this emphasis is also found in the NT. To this degree, one could say that the Gospel story is about us.
In the NT, however, the narrative of Jesus is about us only because it is first and foremost a narrative about what God has done for us. Because of what God has done for us in the person of Jesus Christ, we are freed and empowered to live like him. Peterson understands the call to imitate Jesus, at least to a certain extent, but he does so without accepting the narrative of what God has done for us that grounds this call. Hence, for Peterson, the call to imitate Jesus is anchored in our own efforts rather than in God’s transforming grace.
Missing the Point
Third, one of the things I found most intriguing about 12 Rules of Life was the manner in which Peterson managed to make Jesus a spokesperson for his own philosophy. I am not saying that Peterson intentionally distorts the teachings of Jesus. I just think he’s so convinced of the truth of his perspective that he finds it everywhere, even in teachings that have little to nothing to do with his perspective. I could give several dozen examples of this, but for the sake of brevity I’ll limit myself to three.
First, according to Peterson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount “outlines the true nature of man, and the proper aim of mankind.”4 He then spells out what this is when he instructs us to
…concentrate on the day, so that you can live in the present, and attend completely and properly to what is right in front of you – but do that only after you have decided to let what is within shine forth, so that it can justify Being and illuminate the world (109-110).
This is fine advice, but I submit it is not the advice Jesus gives in his sermon. I frankly don’t know how anyone could accurately summarize Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount without mentioning anything about the need to have a singular allegiance to Christ and to the Kingdom of God, the need to trust and depend completely on God, the call to reflect God’s indiscriminately loving character toward enemies, or the manner in which the Kingdom reverses the value system of the world (e.g. the Beatitudes).
One might defend Peterson by arguing that he is a psychologist, not a theologian, so his only goal is to highlight the psychological significance of Jesus’ teaching, not explore all the particulars of what the meaning of these teachings in the original context. The trouble with this line of defense, however, is that if the psychological significance we find in Jesus’ teachings is not grounded in what Jesus actually meant, then we are likely not so much “finding” the psychological significance of Jesus’ teachings as we are reading into Jesus’ teaching the psychological significance we want to find in them.
Second, we can see Peterson doing this when he considers various particular teachings of Jesus within this sermon. For example, Jesus told his followers: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matt 7:7). Peterson notes that “at first glance, this seems like nothing but a testament to the magic of prayer, in the sense of entreating God to grant favors.” Against this, Peterson insists that “God, whatever or whoever He may be, is no simple granter of wishes” (356). And then he adds:
Perhaps it’s not reasonable to ask God to break the rules of physics every time we fall by the wayside or make a serious error. Perhaps, in such times, you can’t put the cart before the horse and simply wish for your problem to be solved in some magical manner. Perhaps you could ask, instead, what you might have to do right now to increase your resolve, buttress your character, and find the strength to go on. Perhaps you could instead ask to see the truth (356).
Again, this is not bad advice, but it has little to do with Jesus’ actual teaching. As is true of the entire Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ instructions and promises in this passage are given as part of his description of life under the reign of God. Under the reign of God, Jesus is saying, God’s children can trust that their Father will reward those who persistently ask, seek and knock by giving them “the good things” they are seeking (Matt 7:10).
Now, the fact that Jesus instructs us to ask, search, and knock entails that our efforts play a crucial role in eventually getting the “good things” we are seeking. To this degree we could affirm Peterson’s point to “increase your resolve, buttress your character, and find the strength to go on.” But the central point of Jesus’ teaching is that we are to put forth this effort as an expression of our trust in the heavenly Father, not because acting this way is simply the best way to ensure that we’ll get what we want. By retaining Jesus’ behavioral instructions while omitting the trusting relationship with God that grounds them, Peterson transforms Jesus’ teaching into self-help advice.
At the same time, because Jesus is describing life in the Kingdom of God, he is not depicting God as a “simple granter of wishes.” A foundational aspect of life in the kingdom is that we are to persistently “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33), and this is the framework in which prayer is to be understood. We aren’t given the gift of prayer so we can satisfy our wish list or have all our problems magically disappear. The gift of prayer is rather a central means by which we partner with God to see his will get accomplished “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10).
Moreover, as indicated by Jesus’ own ministry, part of God’s will is to bless people and advance his Kingdom by performing supernatural “signs and wonders” (Acts 2:43; 4:30, 5:12; 6:8). Hence, while “it is not reasonable to ask God to break the rules of physics every time we fall by the wayside or make a serious error,” as Peterson says, it is reasonable to ask God to do this when it will benefit others and advance the Kingdom. But Peterson’s framework has no place for this supernatural dimension of Jesus’ conception of the kingdom.
Finally, I’d like us to consider Peterson’s interpretation of Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 5:43-45:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
“What does this mean?,” Peterson asks. He answers his own question by saying:
Learn, from the success of your enemies; listen…to their critique, so that you can glean from their opposition whatever fragments of wisdom you might incorporate, to your betterment; adopt as your ambition the creation of a world in which those who work against you see the light and wake up and succeed, so that the better at which you are aiming can encompass them (364-65).5
This again is solid advice. I would even be willing to grant that this is one possible application of Jesus’ teaching. But it doesn’t come close to the radical nature of Jesus’ actual teaching.
Instead of obeying the OT laws that require “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Matt 5:38), Jesus taught that Kingdom people are never to retaliate against anyone who threatens them (v.39). Instead, they are to choose to love, bless and serve their enemies. And note, when first century Palestinian Jewish peasants heard the word “enemy,” the first people most would have thought of were the Roman soldiers who occupied their sacred land and exercised a terrorizing rule over them. Jesus was instructing his disciples to love and bless and never retaliate against the terrorists who oppressed them!
I submit that this goes a good bit beyond Peterson’s instruction to “learn from the success of your enemies” and to “listen…to their critique.” Peterson’s instruction to strive to help “those who work against you see the light and wake up and succeed, so that the better at which you are aiming can encompass them” is closer, but still falls short of Jesus’ actual teaching.
Indeed, so far as I can see, Jesus’ actual teaching is fundamentally incompatible with Peterson’s philosophy. While Peterson thinks it crucially important to always be willing to stand up for yourself and considers pacifism to be misguided (23), Jesus teaches disciples not to stand up for themselves when threatened, but to instead be willing to die rather than kill in self-defense, just as Jesus did on the way to being crucified. Hence Jesus rebukes Peter’s attempt to violently defend him, reminding him that he could call legions of angels to defend him if he wanted to (Matt 27:51-3).
But the most significant difference between Jesus’ actual teaching and Peterson’s version of this teaching concerns the fact that Jesus bases his instruction on the character of the Father. The reason disciples are to swear off violence and to instead love and bless our enemies is because only this way of responding to enemies reflects the character of our Father, who loves indiscriminately, the way the sun shines and the rain falls. Hence, Jesus commands disciples to follow these instructions “that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:45).
The character of God is the foundation not only for this particular teaching of Jesus, but for all of his behavioral injunctions to disciples. Yet, Peterson makes no mention of it in his version of this teaching. Nevertheless, while I can’t approve of Peterson turning Jesus into a spokesperson for his philosophy, I also can hardly fault him for not basing his ethics on the character of God.
After all, how could anyone possibly base their response to threatening enemies on “whatever or whoever [God] may be”?
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1 Unless marked otherwise, all quotes are from the videos referenced in footnote 1 in the previous post.
2 See video. I specify that Peterson is talking about Christ as depicted in the Gospels because, as we’ll in a moment, Peterson is almost exclusively focused on the archetypal significance of Christ as a literally figure, not on the historical Jesus who is behind this literary figure.
3 I’d encourage him to start with P. R. Eddy and G. A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007).
4 For more on Peterson’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, see video.
5 For more on Peterson’s interpretation of Matthew 5:44-45, see video.