In search of meaning
Maps of Meaning draws from several disciplines to propose a framework of constructing meaning and understanding religious and mythological models of reality that align with neuropsychology. Written by Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology and practising clinical psychologist, the book draws significantly from the author’s engagement with religion, philosophy, mythology and neuropsychology.
Peterson states his goal as a desire to establish a “system, acceptable to empirical and religious minds alike, [that] could … aid in the reduction of intrapsychic, interindividual and intergroup conflict.” To this end, Peterson notes that while it is noble to remember the Holocaust, we must also ask,
What is the lesson we are supposed to have learned? We don’t know how the Holocaust came about—don’t know what it is that the people involved did, or failed to do, step by step, that made them behave in such an appalling manner; don’t know what or who made German society take such a terrible turn. How could Hitler fail to believe that he was correct, when everyone around him bowed to his orders?
Peterson’s questions challenge everyone who values the ideals of peaceful co-existence and respect for life to not just say “never again,” but also join him in this journey of digging deep to uncover lasting solutions to this shameful chapter of our collective history.
In addition to the drawing from the Old and New Testaments, Peterson stands on the proverbial shoulder of giants to seek for answers. Notable among these are Solzhenitsyn, Campbell, Shakespeare, Jung and several others. Peterson begins his analysis of input from the forementioned sources by observing in chapter one that however society ends up defining meaning, it must have “implication for behavioral output.” This refers to the need to hold each other accountable for moral or ethical standards. Max Weber would agree with Peterson. Arguably, Weber’s most significant motivation for writing his landmark book, The Protestant Work Ethic, was to identify the role of values in determining social action, or the connection between “religious radicalism and economic progress.” Specifically, Weber sought to investigate how puritanism, methodism, and other forms of ascetic Protestantism might have resulted in the behavior we have described [tendency of protestants, like Jews, for economic rationalism, advancement, and leadership through frugality, diligence, punctuality and honesty]. Peterson and Weber’s comments suggest a strong connection between meaning and morality
In chapter two Peterson proposes a framework from which meaning can be derived: the known, the unknown and the knower. With due respect to Peterson, I would add one important element to this model, an element that holds together not only Peterson’s outstanding framework, but all of creation: God. According to the Old Testament philosopher Moses, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, so that we may follow all the words of this law.” This suggests that what is known, or within the realm of human experience, and what remains unknown are all controlled by God. In conclusion, my thoughts are also drawn to Solzhenitsyn, one of the luminaries that inspired Peterson, who reflecting on the “ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people,” encouraged his audience to remember God.
Proposes a framework/map/paradigm/theory/model of how meaning is constructed based on ideas drawn from religion, philosophy, mythology and neuropsychology
 Peterson, Jordan B. 12
 Weber, Max and Talcott Parsons. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2014), 10.
 Ibid, 15.
 Ibid, 35.
 Peterson, 19
 Deuteronomy 29:29
 Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. Men Have Forgotten God: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1983 Templeton Address. (National Review). https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/12/aleksandr-solzhenitsyn-men-have-forgotten-god-speech/#:~:text=The%20Templeton%20Address,why%20all%20this%20has%20happened.%E2%80%9D
16 responses to “In search of meaning”
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Excellent post Henry! An excellent integration of Weber with Peterson. I would love to engage this connection more. Can you say more about the connections you see between Weber and Peterson?
Much thanks Michael. Well, I think there are areas of connection but also areas of difference between both men. Weber seems very evangelical (which I support) while Peterson seems to draw from Christianity, Socratic philosophy and mythology. I think the portions of Greek philosophy and mythology that align with scripture can be great tools for engaging society but I’m quite uncomfortable with portions, like the sacred-secular divide, that contradict the Bible. But I imagine that if I were to study a bit more, I would see many more specific areas of overlap between the thinking of both men. Do you see areas of connection between Weber and Peterson?
Henry, great job of connecting Peterson to Weber. I also appreciate your regular connections of the reading to the Bible. How can we best encourage people to hold in tension that there are things only known to God versus His revealed truth in the Bible? On the one hand, I fear that we may overestimate our knowledge through pursuits like systematic theology (“we know all there is to know about God”). On the other hand, we can just shrug our shoulders and not pursue knowledge or understanding because “only God knows.”
Roy, as always a very gracious comment and thoughtful question. Building on the culture of curiosity, critical thinking and humility we see in west, I think one way to foster acknowledgement of the fact that “there are things only known to God” is to promote continued conversations on intelligent design. I also think one way to continue a healthy pursuit of knowing God is by promoting Biblical theology, especially the inductive method of Bible study, among the laity. I don’t like the clergy/laity divide, but use it here for reference purposes. Unfortunately, I know almost nothing about systematic theology to comment, so please pardon me. But I agree that we must resist the attitude that because there are some things that “only God knows” then we must not pursue knowledge. That can be fatalistic
Henry: Chapter two in Peterson also caught my attention when he proposes a framework from which meaning can be derived: the known, the unknown and the knower. You added God to the equation and so would I. For all his searching and his intensity that he likes to display, he still does not fully grasp Christ or the redemption that is found therein. He is still a searcher, desperately trying to find peace with God.
Troy, like you, I have the deepest respect for Peterson’s knowledge and believe I would benefit more from it given more time to study. Yet there’s that nudge, call it Tacit knowledge :), that if he would just include God a bit more, it would make such a huge difference in his writing/life. Again, I don’t know enough of him to comment, and I didn’t analyze the book enough. Anyway, great author
Thank you, Henry. I always enjoy reading your posts. In your cultural context and working with the communities you engage with, do you find there is more comfort/steadiness in the unknown or the known?
Kayli, what a thoughtful question. Hmmm!! In my context, I think there was more comfort with the unknown/unseen realm in the past than now. Back then there was more belief in the supernatural and culture. Today, with relatively less awareness of/interest in our history and the massive consumption of media programming, we tend to be more secular/rational, and thus more comfortable with the known/tangible realm. But at the same time many still believe in the unknown. I think its a great opportunity for followers of Jesus to reintroduce the unknown, spiritual world the Bible so excellently presents. What is the situation like in your context?
Well done. It seems that you really connected with the book. I am curious, is this a book that you will: a) revisit, and b) encourage others to read?
Eric, thanks for your very kind comment. Actually, I spent more time studying a summary of the book than the book itself :). ‘Busy finalizing my NPO project so time is tight. But based on Jason’s high regard for it and the little I read, I will definitely like to revisit the book, perhaps over the Christmas break. I think it might help me with tools for religious conversations with seekers. I really like his comments on the word “meaning.” After I’ve had a closer read, I think I will gladly recommend it to others. Did you enjoy reading it?
I learned more about the book and some of its connections to our previous reading due to your post.
Not necessarily the density of the content, but what was the most challenging ideas to you about the Petersen book?
Andy, I’m glad you found my post helpful. One of the challenging elements for me was what seemed like the Bible being put on an equal footing with mythology and Greek philosophy. I understand Peterson may not be a follower of Jesus, or wrote the book before becoming one, or believes in the Lord a bit differently from me. Whatever the case may be, I was uncomfortable with that aspect of the book. That said, I do think I can benefit from this perspective we share the world with many who don’t believe in Jesus and yet believe in Socratic thought. I’ve always wnted to explore the intersection between Greek thinking and scripture. I hope to read the book again over Christmas to see what ways I can learn more from it. Did you find the book challenging?
like to you about the Petersen book?
Henry, wow what a thoughtful post!
How do you think Peterson would unpack the question, Is knowing God enough? How does knowing God and Peterson’s stark determinism for individuality run counter to the Gospel?
Nicole, thanks for your kind comment. Very thoughtful questions. Frankly, I don’t think I know enough of Peterson’s material to respond to how he might “unpack the question, Is knowing God enough?” But he seems to have 1) a deep respect for God and 2) the wisdom to journey with his readers from not knowing God and meaning, to a place of knowing God. I respect his rational and scientific approach, which in some ways reminds me of Paul’s address to the Athenians in Acts 17 about their “unknown God.” So again, I’m not sure whether Peterson would say knowing God is enough but he’s certainly sparked my interest on the subject. How would you define knowing God? Do you think knowing God is enough? Is there anything more to know outside of God?
Henry, thank you for your unique perspective of Peterson’s book. I’m particularly drawn to your statement, “Peterson’s questions challenge everyone who values the ideals of peaceful co-existence and respect for life.” Can you expound on this a bit more from your perspective in South Africa?
Denise, thank you for your comment and question. Peterson’s questions are around the Holocaust and especially about lessons we’re supposed to learn from it. From the South African perspective, especially after this year’s Advance in Cape Town, the questions I’m sitting with are:
1. Beyond racism, commodification and consumerism, what other factors, if any, may have motivated apartheid? The response to this might speak to issues of theology and the need for national and world evangelization.
2. How can we as South African citizens, residents or well-wishers best leverage lessons learnt from Apartheid for the common good?