Peterson’s theological resonances

Review of 'Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson: A Christian Perspective', edited by Ron Dart.

During the 2018-2019 academic year, I was startled by the large number of students discussing Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Everywhere I turned, Muslims, Christians and atheists were discussing and debating the socio-political perspectives and the mytho-poetic analyses that Peterson offered via YouTube, his book 12 Rules for Life, and his worldwide speaking tour. All of a sudden, it had become trendy to discuss the opening chapters of Genesis in mixed company – just as it had become dangerous to weigh in on pronoun usage. It was a weird turn of events.

Myth and Meaning in Jordan Peterson is a collection of ten short essays which explore the philosophical, theological and political aspects of Jordan Peterson’s system of thought from his books and lectures. The editor, Ron Dart, is a professor at the University of the Fraser Valley and roughly half of the contributors are also Canadians, including former students from UFV.

The various authors adopt a range of postures toward Peterson, from deeply appreciative to somewhat critical. None are as dismissive or as caustic as one encounters in online forums. As the subtitle suggests, there is a general Christian perspective that is evident to varying degrees. Some readers may wish that the Christian framework utilized in these pages provided a more critical lens for engaging Peterson’s thought. But, unlike some simplistic evaluations of Peterson which either praise him for repackaging the Bible’s message for a contemporary audience or condemn him for being nothing more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing, none here write from such limited perspectives. For a general reader looking for somewhere to begin in reflecting upon Peterson in a constructive mode that doesn’t automatically bracket out Christianity, this is one of the few resources available to date.

A thread that runs through all the essays is mentioned by Dart in the Introduction: “This book is an attempt to understand from a Christian perspective what has caused so many people to resonate with Peterson.” There are a range of explanations offered, from Peterson being perceived “as a person of integrity” to Peterson’s claim that we can be “hopeful that [suffering] does not preclude an individual from living in such a way as to experience the goodness of Being.”

This all being said, I still wish for a deeper and more penetrating analysis at both the philosophical and theological levels. For example, one author claims that “the threat of cultural relativism and nihilism spreading from the postmodern spirit of critical deconstruction plucks at the [golden] thread [of the canvas of Western civilization] with the intent of tearing the tapestry apart altogether.” It should suffice here to say that the philosophical (much less, existential) situation is far more complex than this allows for. At the theological level, another author makes the cavalier comment that Peterson, via Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, believes that “Evil is permanently part of the human condition.” Again, for both Peterson and Solzhenitsyn, the nature and endurability of good and evil is analyzed with far more nuance than is perceived here by this author.

To summarize, I think I expected more from this collection than it was able to deliver. The social dynamics of our day, including the political, philosophical, and theological underpinnings of our present context, are so massively complex, it can be hard to know where to start any explanation or analysis. But since there is so little critical engagement with these ideas as they come to expression in Jordan Peterson beyond social media, I hope this book contributes to further reflection on the state of society in North America and the contributions that Peterson, and others who transcend the outdated left/right dichotomy, are making.

  • Mike is the Christian Reformed campus minister at Western University in London, Ont., where he is also a professor of theology and culture. He is the author of Engaging the World with Abraham Kuyper (2019). Mike adapted this reflection, published by Kuyper December 13, 1899, for our cultural context.

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