Reflecting on the Rules

In 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Peterson serves up both timeless wisdom and observations gleaned from his practice as a therapist. The twelve rules are:

1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for.
3. Make friends with people who want the best for you.
4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient). 
8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie. 
9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
10. Be precise in your speech. 
11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

Peterson grew up in rural Alberta and is a Canadian clinical psychologist, cultural critic and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He has a particular interest in the psychology of religious and ideological belief, and the assessment and improvement of personality and performance. Over the past two years he has gained an international following for resisting the leftist politically-correct ideology prevalent in his university’s administration and Canadian culture in general. His notoriety rose in 2017 after taking a stand against being forced to use gender-neutral pronouns.

In his online lectures and now in his book, Peterson champions freedom of speech, moral absolutes and personal responsibility. For instance, in Rule 3 he balances deep compassion for victims of injustice with a heart to see them grow beyond it: “If you buy the story that everything terrible just happened on its own, with no personal responsibility on the part of the victim, you deny that person all agency in the past (and, by implication, in the present and future, as well). In this manner, you strip him or her of all power.” 

What We Can Appreciate
Peterson is a gifted intellectual and debater in both the classroom (rated by students as one of U of T’s most popular professors) and in television interviews (i.e. with journalist Cathy Newman). His writing embodies both the acumen of an academic and the everyday wisdom of his humble roots, work as a therapist, and decades as a parent. His fifth rule alone on parenting is worth the cost of the book. 

Elsewhere he posits soul-searching questions like, “What do you do to avoid conflict, necessary though it may be?” and “What are you inclined to lie about?” (Rule 4) He also masterfully connects questions of worldview to such pedestrian matters as your stack of unfinished paperwork. Throughout the book, and especially in the last chapter (Rule 12) he wrestles with the problem of suffering and evil. He authentically shares stories illustrating how he is no stranger to both, asking with all of us, “How could a good God allow such a world as this to exist?” 

Interestingly, in nearly every chapter Peterson weaves in a portion of Scripture, treating it authoritatively, even if not always interpreting it through a Reformed hermeneutic. His anthropology is certainly Reformed, as he says in his second rule, “We have seen the enemy, and he is us. The snake [of Genesis 3] inhabits each of our souls.” Peterson names the idols of our day that few are wise or bold enough to challenge, such as the assumption that people are intrinsically good, and that much of what the heart desires should be unquestioned. Christians have long called out the propensity of people to do as they see fit (Judges 21:25), and Peterson does so when he says such things as, “Maybe your misery is your attempt to prove the world’s injustice, instead of the evidence of your own sin, your own missing of the mark.” (Rule 3) For this and more in 12 Rules, Christians can appreciate Peterson’s biblically-rooted common grace. 

Missing the Gospel of Grace
12 Rules is well-written and widely sourced (from Dostoevsky to Homer Simpson), but some portions do ramble or leave loose ends hanging. Perhaps that’s par for a psychology professor trying to wrap his arms around the world, but it does make for a thick read at times. 

A deeper problem is that while Peterson excels in calling a spade a spade, his answer to sin lacks the atoning grace of Christ. Peterson hasn’t publicly professed in interviews or his book to be a Christian. He certainly comes close to genuine Christianity, calling Jesus “the archetypal perfect man” (Rule 3). He even writes in the introduction about a vivid nightmare where he dangled precariously from a chandelier high above the center of a cathedral. From it he concluded that, “The center (of life) is marked by the cross. Existence at that center is suffering and transformation – and that fact, above all, needs to be voluntarily accepted.” 

Yet for him the suffering that transforms us is not Christ’s on the cross for our salvation but every individual’s cross: “How could the world be freed from the terrible dilemma of conflict on the one hand, and psychological and social dissolution on the other? The answer: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of Being, and to take the heroic path. We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world. . . .People need ordering principles, or else chaos beckons.” Peterson promotes “idolatry of the self,” as another reviewer wrote, “substituting left wing idols for right wing ones.” 

Jesus said, “I am the vine, and you are the branches. Apart from me you can do nothing.” In fact, the New Testament’s harshest letter, Galatians, was written to self-righteous people. Life is fullest when it is a Spirit-led expression of profound thanks for God’s gracious gift of sins forgiven and life eternal! 

Yet with all his biblical references is Peterson perhaps an “undercover missionary”? His book very positively introduces the Bible to the post-Christian West, and he concludes by enjoining us to “Aim continually at Heaven while you work diligently on Earth.” Is he coy in order to open doors and keep conversations rolling with people who would otherwise write God off? While wanting him to “preach Christ” even more fully, I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.   

  • Daryl is one of the pastors at Ebenezer Christian Reformed Church in Jarvis, Ont.

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