Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Belief Systems, Known Territory, and the Impact of Chaos

Written by: on November 18, 2022

Reading “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief”[1] by Jordan B. Peterson was an exercise in applying Michael Polanyi’s insights from “The Tacit Dimension.”[2] Polanyi’s core hypothesis is, “we can know more than we can tell [sic].”[3] In listening to an introductory lecture by Peterson to “Maps of Meaning,”[4] I lost track of the number of times he said something along the lines of “…we don’t always know how we know, but we know.” Peterson’s book is classified under the Psychology umbrella. He is exploring, through archetypes arising out of humanity’s ancient stories, the way in which we develop value systems and come to understand our place in the world and how we are to act in the world. He is especially interested in how encounters with destabilizing life events impact and potentially change our value systems and how we then function in the world on the other side of these destabilizing events. In addition to mythology, Peterson also draws on philosophy, neuroscience, fiction, and religion to explain his hypothesis of how we make meaning, how we form values, in seasons of both stability and instability.

Peterson, a Canadian clinical psychologist, professor, and popular lecturer, took fifteen years to write “Maps of Meaning.” Like Polanyi, he invites the reader to enter his learning journey—how he came to be interested in the development of meaning and values systems and the implications this has for how a person navigates life. Key to his development was the deep angst he experienced as a teen-ager and early young adult. Disillusionment led him to discard both his Christian worldview and not long after his socialist ideology. Around that same time, he also became obsessively anxious over the global threat of nuclear war due to the tensions between the USA and the Soviet Union. His driving question was, “How could things have come to such a point?”[5] The drive to answer this question, along with his disturbing awareness that the capacity for evil action also lay within him, led him to study psychology and the discovery of Carl Jung’s concept of the persona.[6] He concludes, “I learned why people wage war—why the desire to maintain, protect and expand the domain of belief motivates even the most incomprehensible acts of group-fostered oppression and cruelty—and what might be done to ameliorate this tendency, despite its universality.”[7] It is this knowledge that he hopes to impart through his book so that the reader might be better equipped to navigate the world.

Like Joseph Campbell,[8] Peterson develops a hero’s journey based on mythological archetypes. He writes, “The world can be validly construed as a forum for action, as well as place of things.”[9] The methods of science rule over the world as a place of things, according to Peterson. But in the world as a forum for action, it is narrative—through myth, literature, and drama—that helps us understand “…what is and what should be, from the perspective of emotion and action.”[10] This is the world of value. According to Peterson, this world of value is made up of three metaphorical dimensions—unexplored territory (identified as the Great Mother), explored territory (identified as the Great Father), and the process that mediates between the two (the Divine Son). But there is also a fourth dimension—the dragon of chaos—which is the most fundamental reality and is made up of what we do not understand at all and only come into contact with in bits and pieces. These metaphors are more fully developed in Chapter 2.[11]

From Peterson’s lecture, there are two points about his thesis that most caught my attention. First is the idea that we inhabit a communal story. The way in which we make sense of the world and our place in it is through a narrative that tells us who we are in relation to others around us and how we are to act to get what we want or need. The second was his discussion on values and systems of belief. He emphasized that we perceive safety or stability when there is a match between our belief system and the actions of others in that same belief system.[12] Dissonance and the feeling of threat arise when the territory we have known, i.e., the presuppositions of life (system of belief/values) we thought we held in common with our fellow citizens, gets disrupted. It surely seems we live in such a time as this today. Our reading from last week by Carl R. Trueman[13] brought that front and center in our cohort, as did some of our Advance experiences. I am curious to test Peterson’s concept of humanity’s basic narrative construction as I continue to navigate the confluence of modernity and postmodernity’s systems of beliefs and values. The resulting rapids from this confluence may leave me and us drenched and smashed upon the rocks. Or perhaps, we will ride the rapids and find ourselves in new territory with deeper insights into how we can live at peace with one another across our differences.


[1] Peterson, Jordan B. 1999. Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. New York: Routledge. 

[2] Polanyi, Michael (1966), and Amartya Sen. 2009. The Tacit Dimension. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] Peterson, Dr. Jordan. n.d. “Jordan Peterson | Maps of Meaning.” Jordan Peterson. Accessed November 16, 2022. https://www.jordanbpeterson.com/maps-of-meaning/.

[5] Peterson, Maps of Meaning, xv.

[6] Ibid., xvi-xviii.

[7] Ibid., xx.

[8] Campbell, Joseph. 2008. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. Bollingen Series XVII. Novato, Calif: New World Library.

[9] Peterson, Maps of Meaning, xxi.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 89ff.

[12] Ibid., 101ff.

[13] Trueman, Carl R. 2020. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway.


About the Author

Elmarie Parker

12 responses to “Belief Systems, Known Territory, and the Impact of Chaos”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Elmarie, I really enjoyed reading your post, especially how you fleshed out the connections to other readings. You mention the four metaphorical dimensions – (this may be a strange question) which dimension do you think describes Lebanon’s current state and why? Also, it sounds like your role there is much like that mediating role described by the Divine Son. Am I picturing that correctly?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Roy. Thank you for engaging with my post and for your questions. You ask, which dimension do I think describes Lebanon’s current state and why? I think, in a parallel way to what is happening in the USA, Lebanon is toggling between known and unknown territories. There are parts of the society challenging the constructs/assumptions of society that have been in place and other parts of the society that are more comfortable/feel more safe with those same constructs/assumptions remaining in place. A new future, not yet experienced, with no agreed upon path to get there, feels like chaos to those living in Lebanon (and it seems to me, also in the USA). So the vast majority of the population just keeps adapting to the chaos to try and live their lives the best that they can. A trusted leader (in Peterson’s language…a divine son) who would represent the process for how to navigate between the two realities and potentially guide the society into a new future has not yet emerged.

      For me, the question I grapple with is what threads of the past/present will be woven into the fabric of what has yet to emerge? And what new threads will be woven into that fabric? It is both a fascinating process, and one that is costly in profound and mundane ways.

      I think it is interesting (and a bit disturbing) that Peterson identifies chaos with the feminine (Great Mother) and stability with the masculine (Great Father) and yet the mediating role between the two is also identified with the masculine (Divine Son). There is a lot in that to unpack, more than can be done here.

      You also asked about my role here in Lebanon in light of Peterson’s categories. Great question! I would have to read Peterson in greater depth to really be able to answer that. My sense of my own place is that I stand with a foot in Lebanon and a foot in the USA, so my vantage point is unique. I am experiencing the chaos in both contexts, but from a type of distance that may allow me to contribute something helpful to the journey into a new space of understanding. I’ve also experienced what has produced stability in Lebanon, but again, as an outsider. And in an USA context, as someone who is on the front end of GenX, I am a child of what has produced stability in my country of citizenship, and yet also a child of those those currents that are pressing for change. It is a strange place to stand–in both contexts. I’m still listening/discerning what all that might mean for my particular role.

  2. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Elmarie: His discussion on values and systems of belief also caught my attention. How people find comfort and safety with others who have the same values. We can see the polarizing effects of this tribalism when people feel threatened by others who DON’T share their values. You can see it in our country today. But this has happened all down through history.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Troy. Thank you for your engagement with my post. Indeed, the polarizing effects you describe have been a part of every epoch of history. What do you believe is the role of a follower of Jesus who is in a leadership position during such a time as this?

  3. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Elmarie: Since I wasn’t able to be at the advance, would you mind expanding upon some of the experiences there that you reference in your post? I’d love to hear more about what you experienced and how this relates to the reading.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Kayli. Thank you for your question about what I was referencing from the Advance and its connection to our reading from Peterson. I was thinking specifically of the conversation we experienced while at the Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation. While there, we had the opportunity to hear from Reverend Edwin Arrison: “Intro to the life of the Archbishop”,
      Reverend René August: “Theology and spirituality of Archbishop Tutu”, and
      Dr. Allan Boesak: “Desmond Tutu as a freedom fighter”. One of the connections they each made was how Desmond Tutu saw the connection between fighting for human dignity as it relates to the painful racial divisions in South Africa AND fighting for human dignity as it relates to the gender and sexuality debates happening not only in South Africa but in other contexts as well. He saw oppression as a key dynamic in both situations and saw the need for protecting human rights in both situations. It was evident that some of the participants in our Advance found resonance with this perspective and others were deeply challenged by this perspective. Hence the connection with Peterson’s reading. There wasn’t really any significant debriefing of the tensions raised by what we heard from these speakers (no ‘divine son’ process for navigating the dissonance). I found this to be a lost opportunity for our development as leaders as we seek to walk with our respective communities through both the issue of structural racism and the issue of how we engage questions of sexuality and gender in our world today.

  4. mm Eric Basye says:

    I love this line – “we inhabit a communal story.” What are your thoughts about this from a gospel perspective ? It seems spot on to me. I wonder, would our places of greatest tension experience a different reality if we embrace less of an individual or tribal mindset and more of a communal/kingdom perspective?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Eric. Thank you for your thoughts on my post and your question. Yes, from a gospel perspective, I deeply believe that we are all caught up in story of God’s continuing love affair with humanity and God’s deep yearnings for humanity to know true life, abundant life, kin/gdom life.

      But wow, the devil sure is in the details of how we understand that, isn’t it. There seems to be an inherent tension between the individual and the communal, even in scripture. The ways human societies/cultures have developed over the eons seem to gravitate to one or the other and we seem to really struggle to hold them in creative and necessary tension. Maybe that is part of what can emerge in this human epoch if we are willing to listen to one another, recognize God’s fingerprints in one another (both as individuals and communities/societies), and commit to some new/renewed practices. But sadly, fear is a powerful weapon, and both political and religious leaders use it for their own agendas.

      I think it will take wise, humble, discerning leadership…the kind we are learning about and are seeking to embody…to keep our various communities leaning into a better way…a kin/gdom way. May God grant us grace to truly embody the full life of the Gospel.

  5. mm Andy Hale says:

    You’ve made some bold connections between our reading and experience as a doctoral cohort. I could not agree more.

    In fact, I believe that the tendency to fight or flee was exhibited in our experience in Cape Town when the discussion turned to matters that were uncomfortable for theologically conservative persons. And would go as far as saying that to be true for some of our conversations this semester. Human nature is to entrench ourselves or combat ideas that are alternative to what we consider right and true.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Andy…thank you for your engagement with my post and sharing your own observations. Yes, indeed, our natural tendency is to flight or flee when faced with a sense of threat to what has always provided safety/security for us. What have you found helpful in your leadership journey to help communities find a third way forward? I’ve had the opportunity to observe some of the ways that my denomination’s partners in the Middle East work to develop a third way forward and that offers me some hope for what could happen in a US context. I’d value hearing your learnings on this as well.

  6. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Elmarie, thank you for your thoughtful post. It’s funny to me that you lifted up Peterson’s focus on communal story. This is one of the reason I thought of The Borg…resistance is futile!
    What are some of the dissonances between communal story and the dynamics of the unknown? Also the dissonance between communal and Peterson’s passion for individuality? How do we see these in your context?

  7. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Elmaire, this was a very thoughtful and insightful post. I am interested in hearing a bit more about your thoughts from your answer to Roy about the (Great Mother), (Great Father), and the (Divine Son). Especially, concerning their roles and chaos. I was disturbed as well, in that if we are talking about the Triune God that I know, there is no chaos, rather the source of peace. I am confused.

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