I went to see Jordan Peterson. This is what I thought.

29 July 2020

6.5 MINS

We walk into the bustling auditorium.

Pachelbel’s Canon is playing in the background, providing an atmosphere of elegance and sophistication. ‘How very regal’, my friend says. It’s not what I expected, but I’m not surprised either, considering who will be speaking. Namely Jordan Peterson — the Rock-star Psychologist who’s taken the internet by storm.

There’s still 15 mins before the show by the time we are seated, so the lights are on, and people are chatting. It’s a mixed audience: both men and women, people from various ethnic backgrounds, older couples and young singles (there’s an older Asian couple sitting right in front of us). Not exactly a group of alt-right white supremacists.

Suddenly, the lights die down. An American voice welcomes us to Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life tour. (We’re also told that heckling of any kind will not be tolerated).

And then the man himself appears.

Jordan Peterson, wearing a 3-piece suit, walks onto the stage with a big grin. The audience cheer, and many people rise to their feet in a standing ovation (all before he even says anything). The cheers die down, and Peterson thanks us for the welcome — ‘that’s very kind of you’ he says, in his signature Canadian accent.

Within a few minutes he launches into his topic. And boy, the title of the topic is complicated — unexpectedly so, considering he’s speaking to an audience of varied levels of education. It was dark, so I couldn’t take notes in my notebook, and I can’t remember the exact title of the talk. But it’s to do with how our identity and self-image is affected by our place in a hierarchy. (He is a professor after all!)

But there’s no boredom in this lecture. It’s not academic, despite the title. He holds the audience spellbound as he speaks (without using any notes) for a full 90 minutes or so.

All in all, a fascinating night.

So, what did I think of Peterson’s live lecture at the Brisbane Convention Centre last year?

Well, I’ve already written about the Peterson phenomenon here, and reflected on how Christians should respond to him here. I won’t revisit that territory, but limit my comments to his lecture on the night.

So here are my reflections: both the things I liked, and the questions that remain.

The Good.

1) Peterson Helps People Accept That Life is Complex and Often Difficult

This sets people up for realistic expectations in life.

Peterson is no ‘you can achieve anything you want!’ self-help guru. He’s not a peddler of false hopes. If anything, he downplays people’s expectations about life, arguing that life is challenging and difficult (elsewhere I’ve heard him describe life as a ‘catastrophe’). It’s not an easy message to hear, but people are there to listen.

As a male, I sit there excited by the challenge. Peterson is not sugar-coating the difficulties of life, nor promising that happiness will be ours. He’s on about finding meaning despite the challenges — or perhaps even during the challenges.

As a Christian, I sit there agreeing with his complex assessment of life. The expectations of life resonate with what the Bible says about the pain of living in a fallen world — even as there’s much beauty on this side of eternity.

2) Peterson Sees Religion as an Important and Necessary Force for Good in the World, and in People’s Lives

Even though he doesn’t take the Bible as God’s Word to humanity.

Peterson really gets my attention when he starts talking about religion.

In the Q and A section of the event, Peterson is asked ‘what’s the sole purpose of religion?

‘I don’t know if there’s a sole purpose’ — he begins — ‘but one of the reasons we need religion is because we feel disappointed when we notice we’re wasting our life. And so, we need religious ideas to wake us up, so that we can participate in the spirit that helps shape the world.’

I do a double-take: did a secular, massively popular psychologist like Peterson really say that we need religious ideas?

Unfortunately, he doesn’t unpack what he means — there’s no 3-point sermon explaining what participating in the ‘spirit that helps shape the world’ is all about. But it’s clear that Peterson makes room for religion, in a way many secular elite do not.

But he continues:

The purpose of religious ideas is to know who we are… and a culture that isn’t predicated on the belief of people made in God’s image is doomed to disaster.

Again, as a Christian I couldn’t agree more: the Judeo-Christian view of people being made in God’s image was a game-changing belief that led to the development of human rights as we know them. And the regimes that self-consciously discarded this view of humanity went on to become repressive and tyrannical (Peterson has made this point repeatedly, not least in his forward to the latest edition of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago).

3) Peterson Critiques the Collectivist ‘Equality of Outcome’ Ideologies that are Increasingly Popular Today

And he gives good reasons why we should avoid them.

Peterson is measured throughout his lecture. But his passion takes off in the Q and A, when he’s asked about gender quotas. Namely, the Queensland police force’s 50% female quota system (asked by a male who was applying to join).

This is where I find Peterson the most compelling, when he critiques the modern ideology of what he calls ‘equality of outcomes’. He’s all for trying to give people ‘equality of opportunity’ — not least by writing books and giving lectures that help all people give life a red hot go — but he’s scathing toward any ideology that tries to impose the same outcomes on different people (such as government’s forcing gender quotas onto police forces and other occupations).

His big concern is the level of government intervention and control such equality of outcome requires — (not to mention forcing people into certain roles for which they might not be suited, and the drop in overall quality such quotas require).

He pointed out how such enforced quota systems almost always fail, even in the Scandinavian countries where this ‘equality of outcome’ is pushed quite heavily.

It was good food for thought for us Aussies who gravitate toward a more egalitarian view of life.

4) Peterson Affirms that Men and Women Are Different, with Different Wants and Needs

In general, men are more interested in things, and women are more interested in people.

Alongside his critique of ‘equality of outcome’ was his critique of any view which ignores or discards differences between the sexes.

Men and women are different, he argued, not least because men are more interested in things, and women are more interested in people. ‘This is why men and women are drawn to different jobs. It’s not because of systemic oppression.’ But in places like Scandinavia, where differences in job choice is seen as a symptom of systemic oppression (e.g. fewer women in engineering and science than men), the government steps in and gives teachers the power to ‘re-socialise’ kids, trying to change them from their natural ways of relating as boys and girls.

Such government power, says Peterson, is ‘totalitarian’.

As a Christian, I can’t help but cheer when a prominent academic stands up for gender difference, even as they uphold the equality of the sexes.

My Remaining Questions.

1) If You’re Struggling with Meaning in Life, Having a Purpose In The Here and Now Does Help, But It Only Goes So Far

Peterson didn’t provide any answer to the inevitability and problem of death.

Good psychology is helpful for people’s well-being, and Peterson is to be commended for bringing these insights into his lectures and books.

But as helpful as his lecture was, I couldn’t ignore the feeling that it didn’t go far enough. He didn’t engage the big existential questions that most of us grapple with:

  • Where does meaning come from?
  • Do we make up our own meaning, or is meaning something we uncover?
  • And what about death — doesn’t that laugh at any attempt to give to meaning to life?

And his view of hope seemed tied to your ability to make your life better. You can hope for a better future because you can change it.

But is that the extent of our hope? A better future for our fleeting existence on this rock called earth? Considering we’re all going to die, it’s hard to see how this is a long-term hope.

Peterson did skirt the answer to these questions when he mentioned religion and it’s importance, but he didn’t really address it directly.

And so, I walked out thinking: there’s some wisdom here: goal-setting, expectations, responsibility. It’s good stuff. But when it comes to real meaning and real hope, give me a robust sermon about the Gospel!

2) Peterson’s View on Religion is Hard to Pin Down

He sees it as positive good, but reduces it to psychology.

And so, I’m left with the big question form Peterson’s lecture. What is his view of religion in general, and Christianity in particular? I walked out of there encouraged, confused, and unsure — all at the same time.

It seems he wants the (psychological and sociological) benefits that religion brings to people, without dealing with the Bible on it’s own terms. According to Peterson, the Bible is not the Word of God given to humanity. Yes, the Bible does contain much psychological insight and power — not least because it gives real meaning and hope to people. But by reducing it to psychological insight, Peterson robs the Word of God of its real power — the power of resurrection life and hope to a broken and dying world.

Overall, Peterson was interesting. He was thought-provoking. And I’m thankful for his thinking and speaking in this cultural moment. But his message of responsibility and personal change — as positive as it is — stopped short of addressing our deepest needs. Only the Gospel can do that.


Originally published at AkosBalogh.com


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