The Law According to Jordan Peterson
Years ago, at the first Christ Hold Fast conference in Florida, I began my lecture by explaining that when my children were smaller (OK, I still do it), I would tell them to “get their shit in a pile,” as a way of urging them to get up and do something with their lives. As the years have gone by, this has become somewhat of a family motto employed any time one of us is being lazy or simply in need of some encouragement, Keith style.
This year I have been trying to understand the cultural phenomenon that is Jordan B. Peterson. Peterson, the Canadian psychologist turned pop-self-help-guru, has been making some waves since 2016. He certainly says some amazingly positive things (as well as some not-so-positive), and has profoundly impacted young men all over the world by telling them to “clean your room.”
Initially, I thought that what Peterson had to say to men would be right up my alley. After all, I’ve spent the last three years—as I lecture on my book, Being Dad—trying to tell men, husbands, and fathers that the world, their families, and the church need them. I’ve said that their absence from public and family life has been devastating to our collective spiritual and cultural well-being. So, hearing that someone was out there saying similar things to young men, and was exploding in popularity, was both surprising and inspiring.
What exactly does Peterson say? Well, because he’s such a prolific blogger, podcaster, and YouTuber, it’s not easy to pick out the kernels—so much data is available! His first book, 1999’s Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, is a Hegelian-style tome, so that doesn’t really help. His most recent (and wildly successful) work, 2018’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is also a tome, but written at a somewhat more popular level.
If people have read any Peterson in depth, I suspect it is generally from 12 Rules. Originally, Peterson listed 40 rules (on the question-and-answer site, Quora) as his response to the query, “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” The book grew out of that post, and the dozen rules he focused on are listed here:
Rule 1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back
Rule 2 Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping
Rule 3 Make friends with people who want the best for you
Rule 4 Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with
who someone else is today
Rule 5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
Rule 6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
Rule 7 Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
Rule 8 Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
Rule 9 Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
Rule 10 Be precise in your speech
Rule 11 Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding
Rule 12 Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
At first reading, in a context like this, some of these sound great, and some sound odd (“Pet a cat” obviously requires some explanation). But it’s easy to connect many of the rules to teachings in the Scriptures. For instance, Rule 8, “Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie,” looks a lot like the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Eighth rule, eighth commandment … coincidence? Probably not.
So, is there a problem here? It seems clear Peterson is attempting to teach young men, and others, to find a deeper meaning within themselves by getting off of their collective tail end and doing something. Sitting in your mom’s basement trying to find “happiness” by playing video games and watching porn will never work. Agreed. So, he says, the world is bad, probably worse than you think, but you have the potential in you to make it a better place if you just start by cleaning your room. (This is oversimplified, but hey, it’s a blog.)
There’s a lot of truth here, but our impact is limited, and he knows it. Sure, we can “make the world a better place” by fulfilling our vocations and serving our neighbors (family, friends, co-workers, etc.). But will we really find hope within ourselves by means of a law-only message like “clean your room?” I doubt it, and history, I think, confirms it.
Even secular blogs like Vox have picked up on a distinct lack of empathy, love, and hope in an internal-only, self-help message like Peterson’s. Vox concludes one blog by worrying, “The empathy that he displays for men and boys in his BBC interview and 12 Rules for Life is touching. The problem is that he can’t seem to extend it to anyone else.”
It is interesting that as I’ve looked at this, it seems many Christians have adopted Peterson as some kind of Christian hero and on his message as a form of Christian hope. But does his teaching really offer a Christian view of things? No! And Peterson doesn’t really claim that it does. Although he thinks religion is important for its ethics, he takes an agnostic stance on the belief question. Nevertheless, he is good at using Christian language, but in many instances, I don’t think the words he uses mean what he thinks they mean (Princess Bride reference intended).
My biggest criticism of Peterson’s mantra is that it seems to be exclusively a message of Law in a world in desperate need of grace. More specifically, people in our world are hurting, and their only hope for life is Christ and Him crucified. Law—though it validates the life of suffering Peterson is so good at describing—is only half the tale. Where do you find hope and love? What about faith, and the supreme object of faith? What about a meaning only found outside of ourselves? This Peterson cannot address, and his attempt to do so (via myth that has no foundation in the truth of Christ’s resurrection) falls short.
So, at the end of the day, what do I think? I say go ahead and read Peterson, but don’t expect to find a message of Christian hope. You won’t. You will only receive Law—as sound and wise as it is—but not any Gospel. The trouble is, all people know the Law of God (Rom. 2:15), but only Christians have the Good News that Christ has died and risen again, for you. Only believers know that He is the ultimate truth, hope, meaning, and life (John 14:6).
Like all things, when reading or listening to Peterson, be discerning. Take the good. Leave the bad or indifferent. And go ahead, “clean your room,” and “get your shit in a pile.” But don’t rely on either of those things to really provide hope or ultimate meaning.
Hope and meaning come from the love and forgiveness. Yes, the world is bad, probably worse than you think. Worse yet, you contribute daily to its badness because you are a sinner. But Christ saves only sinners like you. If you are a sinner who has contributed (and still contributes to) the badness in this world, Christ has died and risen for you! He loves you and forgives you even when you don’t get your shit in a pile, stand up straight, or clean your room. Find your only hope and meaning in that. Then we can talk about the freedom you have in Christ to serve and love your neighbor. Maybe fodder for another article.