University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan B. Peterson has achieved either international fame, or international infamy, depending on your point of view. For example, feminist philosopher Camille Paglia recently dubbed him “the most important Canadian thinker since Marshall McLuhan.” Yet Pankaj Mishra refers to Peterson’s thought as “fascist mysticism,” and even a symptom of a profound and dangerous cultural crisis. In any case, Peterson’s ideas are indeed popular. His YouTube channel has over one million subscribers, and many of his lectures have over two million views – and an astonishingly large number are long videos entitled “Introduction to the Idea of God,” or “Genesis 1: Chaos & Order.”
At present, most of the controversy surrounding Peterson’s work is related to his political positions. As these YouTube titles suggest, however, most of Peterson’s actual thinking consists of an extended interpretation of Christianity. For example, in the conclusion of his magnum opus, Maps of Meaning, Peterson basically argues that the best way to respond to our fallen condition is to strive to become like Jesus. For Peterson, this means becoming heroes who are able to straddle the boundary between the known and the unknown, the ordered and the chaotic, the finite and the infinite. More precisely, it means separating ourselves from order, engaging proactively with chaos, and finally allowing ourselves to be reborn into our old social milieu as bearers of a new and truer understanding of our world. In essence, Peterson offers an interpretation of Christianity that makes sense within a Darwinian view of reality. The hero (Jesus) is the mutating edge of culture, which allows our group to adapt to anomalies and therefore to survive a cold and indifferent world. Religious stories are roadmaps that give us the psychic resources to interact successfully with the unknown without being overcome. It is quite likely that much of Peterson’s popularity stems from the way he helps bridge the gulf between “religion” and “science,” especially for those who live on the latter side. That being said, it may be that the real danger of his position is one of religion.
The Solitude of the Desert
In Heaven Begins Within You, German Benedictine monk Anselm Gruen introduces the spirituality of the 4th century desert fathers into modern culture. In order to do so, he makes a distinction between two modes of spiritual practice: the “spirituality from above” and the “spirituality from below.” Spirituality from above is the attempt to live up to our own culture’s high moral ideals in our everyday social lives. According to Gruen, this kind of spirituality is useful and necessary, but it can also give rise to a spiritual problem. If we are not careful, we tend to start repressing aspects of ourselves that do not align with these moral ideals. This gives rise to an inner division, a cut between the “good” persona that we perhaps even identify as our true self, and those parts of ourselves that we have defined as “evil” and therefore strive to repress or ignore. In order to resolve this inner division, Gruen argues that the moralizing spirituality from above needs to be complemented by the pursuit of “spirituality from below.” In this latter practice, we undertake techniques that soften the walls of our hardened moral persona, which ideally allows this repressed energy to come to the fore. This transition to the path downwards is almost always emotionally grueling. It involves our encounter with dark emotions: rage, lust, hate, despair – that is, the solitude of the desert.
You Should Be a Monster
When Peterson speaks about stepping boldly beyond the edges of our traditional culture, he is essentially recommending something akin to the spirituality from below. It is clear that Peterson knows that this journey involves engaging with the demonic forces of the unconscious. However, it is also clear that Peterson does not believe in grace – that is, the possibility that such repressed energy can be transmuted back into the love of God. On the contrary, Peterson thinks that the energy of the repressed shadow is grounded in our evolutionary past, our irredeemable animal nature. He sees the path downward not in terms of a struggle to cleanse the soul of its demons, but rather in terms of a project to channel the power of the shadow into the battle for social success.
This becomes clear in his tremendously odd interpretation of Jesus’ statement, “the meek shall inherit the earth.” According to Peterson, this phrase does not mean what ordinary Christians usually think it means. Instead, it originally meant that “those who have swords and know how to use them but keep them sheathed will inherit the world.” Shortly thereafter, Peterson explicates what he means in more depth: “everyone says you should be harmless, virtuous, you shouldn’t do anyone any harm. . . . No. Wrong. You should be a monster, an absolute monster, and then you should learn how to control it.”
It might seem odd to draw the line between “religion” and “science” here. But the situation is quite dire. If, like Peterson, we think that the dark emotional energy of the shadow is what is deepest and truest, then the spirituality from below will manifest as our attempt to control our inner monster for our own purposes. It seems to me, however, that this is more or less the exact opposite of what Christianity is actually trying to teach. In Gruen’s system, for example, the shadow is contingent, the result of sin, even original sin. Yet it is possible for grace to heal it, to transmute corrupted emotional energy back into the love of God. The real danger of Peterson’s teaching lies here: he is encouraging people to engage in a mode of spiritual practice that would ultimately only increase the power of the psychic shadow that is sundering us from the reality of the divine. Let us be meek, not monsters.
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