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

There is More Behind Our Beliefs Than “The Bible Says So…”

Written by: on November 16, 2022

The concept of reading many of the Biblical passages with a literal interpretation is quite a novel concept. Take, for example, Genesis 1-11 being a literal retelling of how the earth was formed, the first humans, the great flood, and the Tower of Babble would have been anathema to the Hebrew writers, let alone most Christian Biblical interpreters throughout most of church history.

But if these stories were not intended to be literal stories, what were the intentions of the ancient writers? Symbolism and symbolic language is the literary style of the Prologue of Genesis. The writers were taking stories passed on from generation to generation, attempting to make meaning of the world and what they believed to be true about God. Could God have created the world in the construct of seven days? Sure. But could the Creation narrative be a symbolic interpretation of how God intimately created, period? Yes. 

Reframing particular parts of the Bible as symbolic does not cause the entire tower of Biblical authority to crumble. Instead, it gives us better insight into how the ancients saw significance in their lives, the world, and the Divine. The alternative to the order created by ancient beliefs and stories is chaos. “The known, our current story, protects us from the unknown, from chaos–which is to say, provides our experience with determinate and predictable structure. Chaos has a nature all of its own,” argued Jordan Peterson in his philosophy and cognitive psychology work, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. [1]

Peterson’s book attempts to survey why the ancients formulated their stories, beliefs, and religion to bring order into chaos. He believes that by studying the ancient’s myths, modern society can better understand how belief systems are established and how their brains process what they were experiencing in the developing world. In many regards, the framing of this book follows the author’s journey through the deconstruction of his Christian beliefs, what he was learning through his studies, and what he was experiencing in the chaos of the world.

But belief systems are not individual experiences for the most part. Peterson dives deep into the psychology of tribalism, arguing that together we can defeat the unfamiliar and unknown. “A society ‘works’ to the degree that it provides its members with the capacity to predict and control the events in their experiential field to the degree that it provides a barrier, protection from the unknown or unexpected,” argued Peterson. [2] Religions provide the cultural map for beliefs, behavior, the human desire for belonging, and the examples of those who have lived the “heroes journey.” Of course, this stretches back to our time in Joseph Campbell’s The Heroes’ Journey.

But what happens if our collective beliefs are wrong or off-center? What happens if the views passed along to us came from a white, Euro-American, patriarchal, privileged worldview? What might we be getting wrong that we believe we are right about?

What makes Peterson’s reading fascinating is his ability to bring cognitive science into why we formulate beliefs and what happens when we are confronted with alternative beliefs and realities. “The brain is actually composed, in large part, of two subsystems, adapted for action in that place. The right hemisphere, broadly speaking, responds to novelty with caution, and rapid, global hypothesis formation. The left hemisphere, by contrast, tends to remain in charge when things that is, explicitly categorized things-are unfolding according to plan.”[3]

This book connects deeply with my doctoral project, focusing on how social and cognitive science can be seen through a theological lens to improve the relational dynamics within a congregation. In short, I have an entire chapter of my doctoral book dedicated to our cognitive and emotional response to the unknown and unfamiliar. Peterson’s research directly connects to the ideas presented in Schultz’s On Being Wrong, Kahneman’s “Systems 1” and “Systems 2” thinking, and Chivers and Chivers’s invitation to rethink how we read and interpret facts.

Peterson’s philosophical and cognitive research challenges how we examine why we believe what we believe, how those beliefs were formed, and how they implicitly and explicitly affect how we understand life, the Divine, society, and our neighbor. Recognizing that we all bring a unique bias lens to our religious beliefs can shed light on why we are averse to alternative interpretations, beliefs, and views, along with what is happening inside our psychological and emotional centers as we deal with the very real human impulse to respond to the unknown with flight, fight, or freeze.

[1] Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, (New York: Routledge, 1999), 18.

[2] Ibid, 226.  

[3] Ibid, 32. 

About the Author


Andy Hale

Associate Executive Coordinator of CBF North Carolina, CBF Podcast Creator and Host, & Professional Coach

7 responses to “There is More Behind Our Beliefs Than “The Bible Says So…””

  1. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Andy: Yes, the truth found in metaphor and similar, myth and poetry, aren’t less true than scientific truth, it just functions different. It’s frustrating that so many people can’t see that. Glad to see this book speaks right into your project portfolio; you can add it to you bibliography. It was a tough book to read, but has lots of golden ideas in it.

  2. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Andy, great interactions with this difficult book. I look forward to seeing what you produce in your project. At the beginning you talk about the use of symbolic language in the Bible. What hermeneutic do you apply to distinguish symbolism from literal accounts?

    • mm Andy Hale says:

      That’s a great question. I would say I am a traditional Protestant in that I try to balance scripture itself, tradition, experience, and the Holy Spirit.

      Tradition reminds me of where we have come from and the full breadth of interpretation of those that have come before me, not just in my direct denominational practice. Experience led by the Holy Spirit reminds me that God is always doing something new and unveiling a fuller and broader perspective of how God works in our lives and the world.

      In the last couple of years, however, I have learned to listen to the voices on the margins that Christendom has tended to mute, such as black, brown, and female.

  3. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Andy: If you were to have Peterson as a guest on your podcast, what would be the top 2-3 questions that you’d want to engage with him on?

    • mm Eric Basye says:

      This is a great question. I would love to hear your response as well. this way of thinking is so different than the way I conceptualize and understand things, such as scripture, or even a worldview. I always appreciate these concepts that you shed light on.

    • mm Andy Hale says:

      What a curious question. Believe it or not, I almost had him on the podcast four or five years ago before he really took off.

      I would most likely ask him questions about his ability to remove the lens of his whiteness and privilege to understand how the dominant meaning has given sheep to our culture and belief system.

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