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The Therapeutic Evangelism of Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson’s project is not, at root, about biblical interpretation, metaphysics, theology, or even free speech. It is therapy for people bereft of meaning and purpose. Peterson may not be a prophet, but he is something just as rare: a bloody good clinical psychologist grounded in Christian archetypes and values and focused on treating the existential despair in our society.

Jordan Peterson was one of the reasons I became Catholic. I had been raised agnostic, and remained so for most of my life. But Peterson helped spark a spiritual and intellectual transformation in me that led me to the Church. Remarkably, I’m not the only one. Even though he isn’t a Christian himself, Peterson is arguably the most successful evangelist of his day.

The phenomenon of Peterson is the subject of Christopher Kaczor and Matthew R. Petrusek’s new book, Jordan Peterson, God, and Christianity, where they set out to provide the first critical examination of Peterson’s Bible lecture series and Rules for Life books. They deftly show the richness of Peterson’s approach to the Bible and to God, and how it fits and finds support within Christianity.

Although they use C. S. Lewis’s concept of “mere Christianity” as their departure point, they rely principally on Catholic tradition. Kaczor and Petrusek offer a more formal and, at times, a stronger defense of Peterson’s positions than even he does by buttressing them with Church teachings. For example, Kaczor shows how Peterson’s interpretation of Scripture goes back to Augustine’s moral reading of the Bible; he also points out that Augustine recommended drawing truth from all sources of knowledge—something Peterson does very well. Petrusek similarly examines Peterson’s rules for life in light of Aquinas and Church tradition, drawing helpful comparisons yet concluding that the Church offers something much richer and more coherent than Peterson can.

Despite the excellent analysis throughout the book, the authors miss something fundamental to Peterson’s thought, a primary reason why he has been so transformational in people’s lives. Petrusek describes Peterson as taking “on the mantle not only of psychologist, philosopher, and public intellectual for our times. He is also a theologian, and, if I may, a pretty bloody good one sometimes.” But this list omits the role most foundational to Peterson’s project: therapist. Peterson often refers to his clinical experience as a therapist (close to fifteen times in one lecture on “The Phenomenology of the Divine”), but it is barely discussed in this book. Kaczor describes Peterson as a “Canadian clinical psychologist” only to note how unlikely is his success in biblical interpretation given that background. In fact, it is the very reason for his success.

Peterson’s project is not, at root, about biblical interpretation, metaphysics, theology, or even free speech. It is therapy for people bereft of meaning and purpose. We all started listening to Peterson for different reasons, but inadvertently found ourselves in an existential therapy session. Peterson helps his listeners understand how the dysfunctional and harmful ideologies of the world affect their behavior and present obstacles to living lives of meaning. And, importantly, the treatment Peterson prescribes—for religious and non-religious alike—is to live according to the values and wisdom handed down by Christianity.

The Stories That Give Life Meaning

Because Peterson is pulling from his clinical expertise, he does not present a formal argument, like the one Kaczor and Petrusek make; he doesn’t have a clearly defined theology or metaphysics. But he does have a clear narrative, something he emphasizes as extremely important. We all tell stories to make sense of our lives and to discover meaning, giving our experiences a narrative shape. For Peterson, the story, not the argument, is essential to how people structure and organize their lives. (See, for example, his Self-Authoring project.)

Peterson approaches the Bible this way. His interpretations are, Kaczor notes, “fresh” and “powerful,” but more importantly, they are practical. He connects the Bible to our own lives, so we can understand it as a story not primarily about abstract theology and moral principles, but about us, our journey and our struggles. Much of Scripture is messy and disturbing, because existence is full of tragedy and pain. But Peterson shows that, read as a whole, the Bible provides the path to meaning, which is what we all seek. At a time when many people feel lost, the Bible tells the story that makes sense of it all.

Petrusek describes Peterson as “the prophet of our age,” and this is partially why. In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, she told people to “Come see a man who told me everything I have done” (John 4:29). People feel that way about Peterson. We went to hear about the Bible or free speech and he ended up explaining ourselves to us—why we’ve failed, why we’re bitter, and why our nominally full lives feel devoid of meaning. Peterson may not be a prophet, but he is something just as rare: a bloody good clinical psychologist grounded in Christian archetypes and values and focused on treating the existential despair in our society.

So what is Peterson diagnosing? The book is actually not entirely clear here, but Peterson is. Peterson speaks to those disillusioned and disappointed by the offerings of modern ideologies. The focus on rights and entitlements can’t provide us with meaning. It’s more likely to leave us bitter, like Cain, and resentful that we don’t have all we think we deserve. Unconstrained freedom also can’t provide our lives with meaning, for freedom needs to be properly directed. Happiness can’t provide meaning. We need something to keep us going when we are faced with seemingly unbearable suffering.

Peterson contends that such meaning can only be found through responsibility. Only responsibility—for our lives, our friends and family, our communities—can keep us going in the face of the tragedy of our mortal, fallen existence. Peterson adds that for most of us, responsibility and meaning can best be found in marriage and having children (which has somehow become a scandalous position today!). Taking responsibility for the things and people around us doesn’t mean that we can stop suffering, but that we can prevent suffering from becoming hell.

 

A Call to Heroic Virtue

In all this, Peterson demonstrates a deeply Christian ethic. We must bear our cross, and as Kaczor notes, “every cross is unique.” We have to be willing to leave our homes (the stagnation and comfort of the familiar) to follow the greatest good into the great unknown, as Abraham and all the disciples did, with the knowledge that it may cost all that we hold dear. Kaczor and Petrusek don’t miss this, but they don’t capture how central these points are to Peterson’s worldview and to his appeal.

Peterson is focused on hierarchies. He explains how right praise and worship are important because they show what matters in our lives, who our gods are. If we pick the wrong gods, hell will surely follow. Here, at the center of Peterson’s argument, is a call for heroic responsibility and self-sacrifice. Even Peterson was amazed that his listeners were so desperate for his message; often, they both needed and wanted to be told their lives were a mess and they were fundamentally to blame for it. Peterson’s success should remind us that our own evangelism needs to emphasize these hard truths. In the call to follow Christ, we have to be prepared to fully face what that means. We follow the risen Christ, but we still must “preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23-30). That is often forgotten or simply downplayed because it is so disturbing and so scandalous.

Peterson saw that for all his listeners’ brokenness, they were still called to and capable of heroic virtue. This defense of virtue was new to many people, who were feeling the call to an attainable greatness for the first time. With his clinical experience, Peterson finds heroism in actions most consider to be mundane and insignificant. According to Peterson, the daily, habitual tasks are often the most important. Care for family and friends, building healthy habits, reconciling with loved ones: these are struggles between archetypes, battles between heaven and hell.

In all this, Peterson doesn’t present his case as an academic would, but with the urgency of someone trying to help people in need, and with the wonder and awe of a fellow traveler. He didn’t know how prayer works, just that it does. He doesn’t understand how the Bible stories could be, as he often described them, “without bottom,” just that they are. And he conveys a sense of awe before the Bible that is almost more powerful than any argument. It is like when the playwright Paul Claudel converted to Catholicism simply because of the beauty of Notre Dame’s rose window.

When you listen to Peterson, there is a sense that he is with you on this grand adventure, and when you find the source of the truth, you are humbled by it, grateful for it, and still uncomprehending of how it came to be.

 

Where Are We To Go?

As I began discerning whether to join the Church, I listened to a podcast by Bishop Robert Barron about the Eucharist. Bishop Barron focused on verses in John 6, when Jesus invites his disciples to abandon him over his radical and scandalous teachings on the Eucharist. Peter responds, “Where are we to go?”

That question gnawed at me. Where are we to go? Where am I to go? I had lived with the emptiness of agnosticism and atheism, the failures of secularism, and the empty hypocrisy and incoherence of the modern human rights movement. Peterson was right that the best and only chance of meaning rested in the truths of religious or wisdom traditions. But I came to realize that Peterson’s synthesis of the rules for life and his own explanations for meaning were also insufficient. His argument pointed toward a truth larger than he was even willing to accept. Where was I to go? Not to Peterson, but to something much greater.

It is here that Kaczor and Petrusek’s book truly excels. They show how Peterson’s insights tap into the truth that the Church has held and preserved for generations, which Peterson remains unable to fully appreciate. Kaczor closely examines how Peterson’s interpretive method fits within Church tradition, and demonstrates that Peterson follows in the rich tradition of psychological interpretation pioneered by the Church Fathers. But Kaczor notes that the Church’s reading has even more depth, because stories are true not only as myth but as history and as metaphysics. Kaczor turns here to C. S. Lewis as a contrast to Peterson. Lewis also understood the depth and power of the Christian myth but came to accept that the Christian myth was unique because it was also “objectively, historically, and literally true.”

Petrusek examines Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life to fill out the details of Peterson’s theology and metaphysics, and he points to their limitations. Petrusek notes that at some point, you actually have to make a metaphysical claim. You must decide: “Is the final goodness of Being a real Christ (Jesus) or a symbolic Christ?”

Because Peterson cannot fully accept God as a metaphysical reality, or Jesus’s resurrection as a historical fact rather than a powerful but metaphorical archetype, he must, as Petrusek puts it, point people in “the wrong direction: back only to themselves.” Yes, with an important message of heroic sacrifice, self-reflection, and personal responsibility, but still back to the individual person. After all, where else can Peterson turn? And as noble as many of Peterson’s teachings are, they actually don’t succeed in providing meaning, though they do point us in the right direction. Petrusek shows how Peterson’s rules pale in comparison to the fullness that the Church has to offer, and how they depend on the claims of truth that the Church makes. Peterson may not be primarily interested in Christian metaphysics, but he needs it for his framework to work.

These internal tensions remain in Peterson’s own life, as Kaczor and Petrusek argue throughout the book. Peterson says he tries to acts as if he believes in God, most recently in how he tried to bear his family’s devastating medical issues, but the comfort and strength of actual belief in God remain elusive. He is unable, as the authors put it, to “believe in God and act accordingly.” In one of his lectures, he explains that he doesn’t think he has a “moral right” to claim belief in God: real faith is radically transformative, and he hasn’t been transformed. But here Peterson is unwilling to accept for himself something essential to the Christian story: mercy. Without mercy there is no transformation and no salvation.

When I was discerning whether to join the Church, a priest important to my family came over to talk to me. He commented that part of my problem was that I wanted a “perfect faith” before I could believe in God. Yet that gets it perfectly backwards. We have to believe first. It is why we pray “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). As that priest said at my first daughter’s baptism, in order to be lovable, we must first be loved. God takes the first step in love toward us, and His mercy and grace transform us. It is up to us to accept this undeserved and gratuitous gift—or not. I, for one, am grateful to Peterson for helping me find the courage to accept the gift of God’s love and the gift of imperfect faith, and I hope, I pray, that someday he can do the same.

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