(The author here, a professor who wishes to remain anonymous for professional reasons, strikes a note of caution concerning the popular Dr. Jordan Peterson, guru and sage to so many young people. For another perspective, see Scott Ventureyra’s recent article, as well as today’s Nota in Brevis)
Catholics whom I admire, like Bishop Barron, have endorsed Professor Jordan B. Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and cultural critic. The Catholic Register, an excellent publication, calls him the ‘Church’s ally,’ stating that ‘The fire he is lighting… presents the Church in a bold and attractive light…’
I disagree. I was a Jordan Peterson fan – not anymore. Having read Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life and Maps of Meaning, and having watched his YouTube lectures, it is clear to me that he is, in fact, a danger to Christians. His weak grasp of the Western canon and church history, his philosophical relativism, and his obsession with Carl Jung, point to an ignorant and fearful worldview. Catholics and other Christians should flee this false prophet.
First, allow me to compliment the man. As a public intellectual, Peterson exposes the Left-wing madness plaguing today’s powerful institutions, primarily the university. Such ideological capture of research and teaching has imprisoned intellectual advancement. Thanks to Peterson and others, students are slowly realizing that their humanities and social sciences instructors are often dilettantes, who mindlessly recite the liturgies of Postmodernist religion, while shaming its apostates and heretics.
Yet perhaps Peterson shares more in common with these academic Pharisees than he admits. A gander through his online reading list, at jordanbpeterson.com, is illustrative. There are a few delightful masters of the pen on display, like Hemingway, Huxley, and Bronte, but there is no structure to this list, and no regard for ancient wisdom. There is no mention of the Christian Bible and Greek mythology – the core of Western civilization. Without knowledge of Aristotle and Kant, the nihilistic Nietzsche reads like a raving lunatic, but Peterson affords the German philosopher, who is postmodernism’s progenitor, a place of solitary prominence. These clues point to Peterson’s poor grounding in the Western literary and philosophical tradition that he supposedly extols.
Indeed, due to his neglect of the Western canon and historical method, Peterson makes elementary errors in his writings. Consider his 1999 work, Maps of Meaning, a psychological treatise on religion and ideology. In the last chapter, he claims that ‘The central ideas of Christianity are rooted in Gnostic philosophy.’ This is ludicrous. Early Church Fathers, like Irenaeus, declared Gnosticism a heresy, since Gnosticism’s core tenets, such as denial of sin’s existence, contradict Christian teaching. Furthermore, Christianity’s main ideas took root prior to Gnosticism. Peterson, then, clearly refuses to engage with ecclesiastical history.
This is not surprising, since Peterson is an agnostic. In Maps of Meaning, he claims that he fell into agnosticism, after church pastors failed to convince him of the Bible’s authenticity. In a 2017 interview with The Spectator’s Timothy Lott, Peterson is asked whether he believes that Jesus rose from the dead. Peterson replies with a simple, ‘I would say, at the moment, I’m agnostic about that issue.’±
There can be value in agnostic thinkers, but for a man who expends so much energy thinking about religion, it is careless for Peterson to disregard history and theology. Such shallowness is echoed in his banal, yet oft-repeated claim that science and religion are at odds: for instance, in his YouTube lectures, he affirms that Catholicism is opposed to rationalism.† How ignorant. Were St. Thomas Aquinas, Roger Bacon, and Father Georges Lemaître, opposed to reason? Is Peterson unaware of René Descartes, a devout Catholic whose writings influenced the Scientific Revolution? These are but few of many examples which reveal Peterson’s cluelessness on religious and philosophical issues.
His lack of philosophical underpinning translates into loquacious displays of sophistry. For instance, consider Peterson’s definition of truth, which he expounds upon during his lecture at the Canadian Society for Academic Freedom’s 2017 AGM:
Like language, truth is more like a process. And I would say it’s a process you actually embody rather than conceptualize abstractly…
This is what I like about the existentialists. There’s a kind of emphasis on pragmatic truth… because they claim that your truth is something you should act out, not merely hold, because to act out is to believe in.”
Piecing together these bizarre thoughts, Peterson appears to be claiming that truth is subjective, and can only be known through individual action. This is close to what his postmodernist foes believe, and is, moreover, anathema to traditional notions of truth. As faithful Catholics, we know that truth springs from the mind of God, and is therefore purely objective. In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, St. John Paul II writes that, (bold my own)
Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values… This is the direction taken by doctrines which have lost the sense of the transcendent or which are explicitly atheist…
As is immediately evident, the crisis of truth is not unconnected with this development. .. [T]here is a tendency to grant to the individual conscience the prerogative of independently determining the criteria of good and evil and then acting accordingly. Such an outlook is quite congenial to an individualist ethic, wherein each individual is faced with his own truth, different from the truth of others. Taken to its extreme consequences, this individualism leads to a denial of the very idea of human nature.
Peterson’s relativist concept of truth, therefore, is at odds with the Church’s moral teaching and natural law.
In turn, this leads to a messy, convoluted sense of self. Peterson’s injunction to young people, in 12 Rules for Life, to ‘Clean Your Room,’ and take responsibility for oneself, is, on the surface, good. Personal responsibility and hard work are good, and can lead to worldly success. Yet that begs the question: why? What is all this striving for? The Christian view is that wealth, power, and status are only valuable if they serve Christ and His Church. Individualism is selfish and narrow-minded, as Christ himself says, in Mark 8:36: “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
Peterson’s worldview is predicated upon fear, not love. His Maps of Meaning makes this most apparent. In the tract, Peterson recounts a number of his demonic dreams: cannibalizing his beautiful cousin and, more troubling, a vision of Jesus as a demon, with a cobra tied around His waist. Peterson’s impetus to write Maps of Meaning was to dispel his nightmares, and ameliorate his apocalyptic visions. He found the answer in Jungian psychology. Carl Jung, the German psychiatrist for whom this approach is named, was no saint worthy of veneration; for example, he cheated on his wife, and worshipped a demonic being named Philemon.‡ Peterson, too, admits to being troubled by demons of bloodlust.
A final point: like a TED Talk, Peterson’s lectures convey the false sense that one has learned something of value, when in fact there is a lot of gibberish. Peterson rambles, without making clear points. He offers conjectures as though they were facts. I doubt my perception is due to lack of understanding; intelligent writers, like Bishop Barron, William Lane Craig, and Camille Paglia are erudite, deep, and yet accessible. Peterson sometimes sounds like he has indulged in too many marijuana brownies.
One might defend Peterson, arguing that as long as one is aware of his flaws, we Catholics can glean hints of light. However, in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 8, St. Paul warns us against partaking in activities that would lead new Christians, and non-Christians, away from God, even if these things are not otherwise harmful.
We Catholics know that the answer to Peterson’s troubled dreams is, quite simply, Jesus Christ. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross defeats evil. Peterson, on the other hand, leads the faithful away from Christianity, and in this regard, he is particularly dangerous. The Church does not preach individualism, relativism, or that the Resurrection was a Jungian metaphor. We Catholics do not need such non-Christian allies. An appropriate response, then, is to pray for Jordan Peterson, that he may turn towards the Fountain of all Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
The author is an Assistant Professor of Economics at a Canadian university
±He goes on, in this interview, to say that “the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ symbolizes the necessity of the psyche to undergo a sequence of deaths and rebirths in its attainment of the ideal… it’s a Phoenix story.”
† A common piece of evidence is the Church’s persecution of Galileo. While this is a sad event in Church history, it does not describe a pattern of behaviour: the Church has generally been in favour of science and reason.
‡ Jung’s psychology claims that religious texts contain archetypes, or metaphors, which reveal universal patterns about the unconscious mind. To Peterson, then, the Bible is mainly a collection of archetypes – not historical and spiritual truths.