Dear Christian, Let’s Talk About Jordan Peterson
Jordan Peterson is in the news again, first for his scathing criticism of diversity, equity, and inclusion policies in higher education—which caused him to recently resign from the University of Toronto—and shortly thereafter for his hours-long interview on the famous/infamous Joe Rogan podcast. Peterson has been a popular figure for several years now with millions of followers on social media, two best-selling books, and appearances on various well-known news outlets.
Interestingly, Jordan Peterson has gained a lot of popularity among evangelical Christians. I say “interestingly” because he doesn’t exactly fit the bill for your typical evangelical superstar. He is (or was), after all, a secular professor of psychology. Most non-Christian psychology professors don’t have very many positive things to say about Christianity, if any at all. So, what gives?
Peterson is not your average psychologist. One thing that sets him apart, and I believe is a major reason for the support from evangelicals, is that Peterson has a very high respect for the Bible, Judeo-Christian values, and belief in God. He has repeatedly noted that belief in God is necessary for a healthy society to function. He rightly recognizes that many of the blessings of Western society spring from its roots in Christianity. And, as the video below demonstrates, he recognizes that the Bible is true and the foundation for human order.
This is all, naturally, music to the ears of Bible-believing Christians. We hold to these beliefs as well, and it is nice to have them affirmed, rather than mocked, by such a famous public figure.
I would like, however, to add a word of caution to the Christian who is a fan of Peterson’s work. It is important to remember that we are called to be discerning people. Because of Peterson’s high regard for the Bible, it can be easy to assume that all of his ideas come from the pages of Scripture. As someone who has listened to and read a decent sampling of his work, I can assure you this is not the case. Peterson gets a lot of things right about the Bible, the nature of truth, human nature, societal dynamics, and the value of religion. He also gets a lot wrong, at least if you are assessing his ideas against the backdrop of Scripture. When I hear him speak about things related to the Bible or God or Christianity, I regularly say to myself, “That’s right, that’s wrong, that’s right, that’s wrong”. It is clear to me that he has a significant amount of understanding in reference to the Bible, but that understanding is often filtered through the lens of his psychology background.
Case in point. I read his book 12 Rules for Life and thought there was some good material in it. Much of the book I would describe as a non-fluffy self-help book. It was not your ordinary self-help book, but contained a lot more meat to it. I enjoyed that. I also recognized right away that the book is, when considered from a Christian frame of reference, something akin to moral legalism. Certainly many of his suggestions, or “rules”, you can find similar parallels for in the book of Proverbs or other portions of Scripture. But what Peterson misses is that the moral commands of God’s Word are grounded in a change of heart that is wrought by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. I do not think he really grasps the concept of being changed by grace, which is a foundational concept in Christianity. This is someone, after all, who has a high respect for Jesus Christ but has yet to fully submit to him as Saviour, Lord, and God in the flesh. Without that starting point, how can someone really say they understand the Christian faith?
Peterson’s famous line to “clean your room” has a lot of common sense to it. But it also springs from a moralistic framework of life, not the grace-based framework of Christianity. Recall Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where he chastises them for mixing human moral efforts with the changing power of God in the life of the believer.
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:1-3)
The Galatian believers rightly believed that salvation was by grace—a work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. But then they wrongly fell into believing that afterwards their spiritual life was lived by human effort. Paul calls them “foolish” for living this way. God not only begins his work in us by faith, he continues it by faith. He saved us by the Spirit, and he sanctifies us by the Spirit. Trying to improve your life human effort is antithetical to the Christian worldview, yet it is exactly the thing that Jordan Peterson often promotes.
This is why I say we need to be discerning. I think you can learn some helpful things from Peterson or any number of secular thinkers. But we must always filter truth claims through the lens of Scripture. Some things will pass the test. Many will not. We must be careful to reject the ideas of the world that are contrary to God’s Word.
Believer, who has bewitched you? For some people the answer might be “Jordan Peterson”. For one reason or another, you fell into the trap of following an impressive intellect without first relying on God’s Word as the arbiter of truth. I would caution Christians who listen to Jordan Peterson, or anyone else for that matter, to keep their ears tuned and their discernment turned on.
And, of course, remember to pray for Jordan Peterson. God seems to be greatly at work in his life, and he has tip-toed close to the line of conversion it seems, but isn’t quite there yet. Pray for God to open his eyes to the truth so that he might be saved.