In Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson offers a complex theory of why people believe what they believe. His premise is to show how people construct meaning and why meaning is essential to people’s existence, not just things,. He also unpacks the vital psychological functions that beliefs perform. A modern world turned to science and the scientific method which led to the conclusion that the world consists of things that are objectively true. While the world contains things, Peterson argues for those aspects that are at the same time pragmatically true, proven by experience. “I discovered that beliefs make the world, in a very real way – that beliefs are the world, in a more than metaphysical sense.” The author draws on several fields of study to bolster his case. Mythology and religion help frame the world as a place of action, not merely things. “’Things’ (objects, processes) emerge – into subjective experience, at least – as a consequence of behaviors.” Belief gives real meaning to life. According to Peterson, people create meaning by combining the physical world and the invisible world of beliefs. “Behavior is imitated, then abstracted into play, formalized into drama and story, crystallized into myth and codified into religion – and only then criticized in philosophy, and provided, post-hoc, with rational underpinnings.” Peterson leans heavily upon Jungian psychology and archetypes of the collective unconscious to support his argument.
Peterson begins his book in a helpful way for this psychological and philosophical study. He shares his faith crisis journey from nominal Christian belief to economics, to socialism, to political science, and ultimately, to psychology and the study of beliefs and traditions. I found his journey interesting and beneficial for understanding the context of his dense work. In his journey, the author’s topic of particular attention is the presence of evil and understanding its source. This book comes from deep personal motivations, not merely scholarly interest. Through the study of myths and ideas linked repeatedly to Jung, Peterson offers three consistent aspects of the human experience, the Great Mother, the Great Father, and the Divine Son. People live between the anxiety of the unknown and the difficulties of the known. In order to overcome the fear of the unknown, people cling tightly to values and tradition. The Divine Son represents one who has overcome fear, even conquered it, and offers a revised opportunity for a new existence. Peterson’s hero represents the aware person who overcomes fear to initiate a new kind of life. His study of mythology sounded much like Joseph Campbell’s work. Peterson believes his methodology stands against criticism of a priori work because he takes in the exceptions, not just the findings that substantiate his premise.
Of the many potential topics to address, I will focus on his analysis of resistance to change, as I feel this applies directly to ministry life. People often fear and resist change, and this is especially true in the church. “Every society provides protection from the unknown. The unknown itself is a dangerous thing, full of unpredictability and threat.” Tod Bolsinger offered a way for the leader to guide and endure leading adaptive change. Peterson gets behind the motivations for fear and resistance. People resist change out of fear of facing the unknown, akin to death and chaos. Peterson demonstrates how fear is a natural neurological reaction that inspires uncertainty or opposition. He also argues that fear of impending chaos due to change grows anxiety. The reason for people’s resistance to change is not one simple, reductionist answer. It is a complex result of brain chemistry and deeply held beliefs.
I remember a time of leading significant change in the local church and being asked by a long-time parishioner, “Is there anything that’s not going change?” As I reflect on that question now, I believe it expresses that fear of future chaos due to uncertainty about any boundaries for change. “When the world remains known and familiar – that is, when our beliefs maintain their validity – our emotions remain under control. When the world suddenly transforms itself into something new, however, our emotions are dysregulated, in keeping with the relative novelty of that transformation, and we are forced to retreat or explore once again.” One takeaway from this deep book leads me to conclude that the wise leader who initiates adaptive changes in any organization should do so with at least two essential items on the agenda. First, as Simon Sinek encouraged in the most-viewed TED talk to date, “start with why.” Change happens best in connection to a mission and vision. I believe Jordan Peterson adds another helpful ingredient to communicating change: communicate what will not change. Experience leads me to not naively assume that filling in the unknown will alleviate all fear, but it may help some respond with less fear tied to beliefs and values one assumes will be replaced by chaos.
The adaptive leader can become what Peterson calls The Revolutionary Hero, who can bring about needed restructuring when necessary. Any leader should cast aside any illusions for unanimous approval in the change-leader role. “This capacity – which should make him a welcome figure in every community – is exceedingly threatening to those completely encapsulated by the status quo.” Leading change is hard. Reducing the fear of change is possible but complex.
 Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (New York: Routledge, 1999), xx.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid., 78.
 “2016 Lecture 01 Maps of Meaning: Introduction and Overview” Jordan B. Peterson, University of Toronto 2016, accessed November 15, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjnvtRgpg6g.
 Peterson, Maps of Meaning, 249.
 Ibid., 32.
 Simon Sinek, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” TED: Ideas worth spreading, March 4, 2014, accessed November 15, 2022, https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action?language=en.
 Peterson, 271.