Is Jordan Peterson The Answer To The Renewal Of Men In Evangelical Christianity?

Jul 7th, 2018 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The confusion among men within American society is at a point of crisis.  The rise of feminism and the abusive behavior of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and countless other men have fostered the #MeToo Movement.  The LGBTQIA movement has raised questions about what it means to be a male.  This identity crisis extends to how men view God and Christianity:   American men are twice as likely to call themselves atheists.  Columnist Ross Douthat observes that “men who are looking for post-Christian enlightenment seem to gravitate toward secular-religious cults like the New Atheism, or more recently toward toxic forms of alt-right politics.  In this sense the post-Christian religious landscape is potentially taking Christianity’s gender gap and widening it, playing its own metaphysical role in the growing divergence and polarization of the sexes.”  All of this confusion begs a series of questions:   Is there such a thing as maleness?  What exactly does it mean to be a man?  What should be the relationship between a man and his wife?  What character traits define maleness?  In my lifetime I do not believe I have seen such confusion within Western civilization in how to answer these questions as I do today.

This is the context for the rise of a University of Toronto clinical psychologist and professor named Jordan Peterson.  New York Times columnist David Brooks calls Peterson probably “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now.”  His book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos has sold over 700,000 copies.  A friend of mine recently gave me a copy of Peterson’s book.  In reading it, I now understand why so many men are reading the book.  It is also understandable why his appeal to Christian men is pervasive right now.  How should we think about Jordan Peterson?  Is he the answer to re-defining maleness?  Is he the answer to helping end the confusion reigning supreme in Western civilization when it comes to the differences between a man and a woman?

  • First of all, a few comments about Peterson. In an article in Christianity Today, James A. Beverley comments on Peterson’s religious beliefs:  asked by Toronto journalist Christie Blatchford whether he believed in God, Peterson responded:  “I think the proper response to that is no, but I’m afraid he might exist.”  His love for Jesus’ teaching, so evident in his book, does not extend to a belief in His resurrection, “though he is open to its possibility.”  Furthermore, some of his comments about the nature of being a female and the matter of gender roles are demeaning and often offensive.  Scott Alexander characterizes Peterson as “a believer in the New Religion, the one where God is the force for good inside each of us, and all religious are paths to wisdom, and the Bible stories are just guides on how to live our lives.”
  • Second, why is Jordan Peterson so appealing, especially to Christian men? His book, 12 Rules for Life, has catchy and memorable chapter titles (called “Rules”):  “Stand up straight with your shoulders back, Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping, Make friends with people who want the best for you, Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today, Do not let your children do anything than make you dislike them, Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world, Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient), Tell the truth—or, at least don’t lie) . . . .”  Peterson takes evil seriously: “You’re bad enough, as other people know you.  But only you know the full range of your secret transgressions, insufficiencies and inadequacies.”  He also speaks affirmingly of the role of the church and of the family.  He quotes or alludes to biblical narratives profusely throughout his book.  He speaks positively of Jesus, His ethics and His commands.  Alastair Roberts maintains that “Peterson’s ethic of integrity, self-mastery, and responsibility” resonates with Christian men, who admire Peterson for his strength in facing intense opposition.

 

  • Third, Peterson more broadly appeals to political conservatives because of his emphasis on order, not chaos. The basic thesis of his 12 Rules book is “The dominance hierarchy, however, social or cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years.  Its permanent.”  Yoram Hazony, summarizing Peterson, comments that “young men and women (but especially men) tend to be healthy and productive only when they have found their place working their way up a hierarchy they respect.  When they fail to do so, they become rudderless and sick, worthless to those around them, sometimes aimlessly violent.”  For Peterson, order, not just freedom, is a fundamental human need, one foolishly neglected.  “He is compelling in arguing that the order today’s deconstructed society so desperately lacks can be reintroduced, even now, through a renewed engagement with the Bible and inherited religious tradition.”  For Peterson, the Bible “is, for better or worse, the foundational document of Western civilization.”  It is the ultimate source of our “understanding of good and evil.  Its appearance uprooted the ancient view that the powerful had the right simply to take ownership of the weak, a change that was nothing short of a miracle.  The Bible challenged and eventually defeated a world in which the murder of human beings for entertainment, infanticide, slavery and prostitution were simply the way things had to be.”  Throughout the book, Peterson criticizes the radical individualism that has produced the pursuit of personal autonomy and freedom.  Such a pursuit has produced “the misery of individuals now drifting through this infinite nothing.”  Finally, Peterson offers a helpful critique and alternative to the bankruptcy of Marxism, so deeply committed to overthrowing all of culture’s hierarchies and order, and of political liberalism with its embrace of the state as the solution to all of society’s problems.  In doing so, liberalism rejects “the basic structures of the political order, what purposes they serve, and how they must be maintained.”

 

  • Finally, how then should we evaluate Jordan Peterson? Several conclusions:

 

  1. His advocacy of order over chaos is biblical and much needed in today’s cultural discourse. The elevation of radical individualism and the pursuit of personal autonomy have resulted in disastrous and destructive chaos in our society.  As he argues for personal integrity, personal responsibility and self-mastery throughout his book, I kept agreeing with his observations about the degradation of Western civilization.
  2. His recognition of the depths of evil and the consequences of the 20th century’s embrace of communism and Nazism are compelling and correct.
  3. He generously quotes from the Bible and affirms its importance as a source of ethics. He is wonderfully positive about Jesus, His teachings and His role in Western civilization.
  4. However, as he weaves his argument about the need for “rules” and hierarchy in society with comments about men, he misses the primary biblical point about mature men. As I read Scripture, mature masculinity expresses itself not in the demand to be served, but in the strength to serve and to sacrifice.  Mature masculinity does not presume superiority, but mobilizes the strengths of others and serves them for the greater good.  John Piper writes that “Mature manhood is sensitive to cultural expressions of masculinity and adapts to them (where no sin is involved) in order to communicate to a woman that a man would like to relate not in any aggressive way or perverted way, but with maturity and dignity as a man.”  The Bible makes clear that the call to leadership is a call to humility as a servant leader.

There is much to affirm in Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life.  It is refreshing to read someone who advocates for order and hierarchy in society.  God is a God of order and structure, and that doctrinal point is affirmed in Peterson’s work.  But one must read him critically and thoughtfully.  When it comes to how one applies Peterson to the current crisis facing men today, one must emphasize humility, servanthood and “other-centeredness,” virtues often missing in Peterson’s argument:  Approach Peterson with caution, care and discernment.

See James A. Beverley in Christianity Today (June 2018), p. 33; Ross Douthat in the New York Times (1 April 2018); John Piper, What’s the Difference?  Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible, pp.16-23; and Yoram Hazony in the Wall Street Journal (16-17 June 2018).

Leave a Comment