DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Maps often need redrawing

Written by: on February 14, 2020

Jordan Peterson: Canadian clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and author of many books – but who cares, what matters is YouTube and controversy. He’s also extremely unwell.

Publicly critiquing Jordan Peterson feels like naively leaping into a mixed martial arts fighting ring with Floyd Mayweather or Connor McGregor – it’s going to end badly. Peterson is both a celebrated academic and popular writer, but his true notoriety is by-far-and-away his stunning ability to articulate an argument in public debate. And I think that needs to be carefully considered when attending to his writing. It is easy to agree, disagree, dislike, hate or love Peterson for reasons quite apart from his critical thinking – he has become the perceived academic prize-fighter of an anti-postmodern movement, which all too easily makes him a public enemy to some and champion to others. Unfortunately, a good deal of people on both sides of the divide has never read or listened to him at length.

Because Peterson takes his teachings on the road and makes all his lecture material and debates public, the only critiques I can take seriously are those critics prepared to go head to head with him – not keyboard warriors or nor academics from the safety of their study’s. He is a force to be reckoned with – I am not one of them. It’s much safer to critique from a distance.

I haven’t read much of Jordan Peterson because my initial contact was last year when someone recommended that I watch one of his YouTube videos.[1] Subsequently, I read his 12 Rules for life. I think it is accurate to say, that in print form Peterson is just another well-qualified psychologist who has been strongly influenced by Carl Jung (though not uncritically),[2] and attempts to reapply Jungian psychology in a more recent context, and he does an impressive job. There is no doubt that as a psychologist and teacher, Peterson has enabled and cared for vast numbers of people. That being the case, it is worth remembering that most of his recent publications are written to a general but literate audience, and not the psychological academy.

Maps of Meaning[3] is more complex than his recent works because it’s branches meander from psychology, to anthropology to sociology, politics, history and philosophy. That being the case every chapter is a heady leap from one specific arena of knowledge to another, which is not uncommon in modern social theory. Hence there is a range of responses to the book, from, ‘it’s a worryingly dangerous’, to the ‘salvation of our times. So, what is the ordinary reader to make of it? I guess we take it at face value – a genuine theory about how humans form meaning at any time in history, and their ongoing responsibility to do so as we address order and chaos.

Maps of Meaning asserts that Myth (narrative) is the centrepiece of human reality. Myth creates social actions, from which language evolves and meaning is derived.[4] It is relational. Science, on the other hand, examines more precisely the nature of things and the efficient use of tools in a physical context. Science does not alter human interactions, story and myth do. Thus, myth forms culture. What Peterson maintains, is that myth predates the materialist view of the world, and unfortunately reductionist and empiricist paradigms tend to completely misunderstand mythical language and its power to transform human actions.** Culture’s job is to teach people how to integrate into society, and it is cultural stories that perform that task, not their logical laws.

So what?

Peterson is mostly concerned with the myth of the hero, and one might assume that he is collecting myths from around the world to cover all the essential and universal human behaviours. However, I think that is more the function of 12 Rules for life.[5] In that book, Peterson links each rule with associated stories thus portraying the picture of a ‘whole’ human being. Yet, in Maps of Meaning, Peterson is pointing the universal psychological need for myth and, more importantly, the primary myth that attends to our psychological need for meaning.

As the book unfolds, Peterson examines 20th-century atrocities to understand how they were possible (and preventable) to his claimed discovery of the core powerful myth, which goes as follows:

Humanity begins in a state of undifferentiated unity or unconsciousness; everything is the same because difference doesn’t yet exist. Then come a separation between the known predictable (order) and the unknown and unpredictable (chaos). Order is the place of security; Chaos is dangerous though promising. Over time the forces of order are not sufficient to resist the forces of chaos. Thus, an exploratory process (the hero) contends with chaos, overthrowing it by transforming it into order.[6]

Where it gets controversial is his recognition that ‘order’ is masculine and ‘chaos’ feminine by examining Taoist[7] and Mesopotamian literature.[8] And though his observations of the ancient mythical literature are reasonable, some commentators see this his justification of gendered hierarchies elsewhere. However, doing so does tend to miss his point, which is simple: myth provides meaning. Moreover, he in no way suggests that these past stories are in fact our stories. Rather, generations must retell, and rewrite narratives again. They must re-tell the ongoing story of order and chaos, good and evil, or simply allow themselves to dissolve into another nation or cultures narrative – one myth is not one size for all time.[9] Yet at the same time, there are universalities that span history – the narrative may be different, but the heroes and outcomes may well be the same.

This is a complex book. Peterson tells his own story in the opening chapter and then explores human neuropsychology, Myth, ancient history, philosophy, and more particularly the recent atrocities we are familiar with. The book is a mixture of Judaism, Christianity, Buddhist Taoism’s and ancient Akkadian narratives. It’s about nationalist identity and personal identity. It calls us to our own stories and the regeneration of those stories. It’s about meaning from the past and making meaning for the future. It’s about us and I. The book will thrill and annoy. It’s not a manifesto, but rather the articulation of deeply thoughtful and flawed individual. Love it or hate it, there something in it for us all – if you can be bothered reading it.

As a church leader, it is essential. The religious live day to day in the framework of myth without ever really considering its importance and conflict within the growing narratives that surround it. Likewise, modern conservative reliance on ancient myth without critique and revision faces its own death – a point the Peterson rightly makes in his concluding chapters. But that revision requires personal mythic reformation alongside the political. What story will we tell, and how will we tell it?

 

Notes

[1] See YouTube J

[2] Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (New York: Psychology Press, 1999). 82,83

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. 38-59

** Ibid. 44ff

[5] Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: Antidote to Chaos (Canada: Random House, 2018).

[6] Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. 244ff

[7] Ibid. 3,87

[8] Ibid. 104

[9] Ibid. 290f

 

Bibliography

Peterson, Jordan B. Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. New York: Psychology Press, 1999.

———. 12 Rules for Life: Antidote to Chaos. Canada: Random House, 2018.

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

7 responses to “Maps often need redrawing”

  1. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Digby,
    Thanks for taking the measure of Peterson’s work and placing it more accurately than the stage of his public persona (although prior to this assignment I never heard of his work). I most appreciate your summation statement which motivates me both to critique and contextually adapt how we tell our story of faith. Many blessings!

  2. mm Mary Mims says:

    Thank you Digby for helping to bring clarity to Peterson’s writings. I appreciate your perspectives and understanding.

  3. Mario Hood says:

    Great job on this write up. This book is very heavy and your summary was well done. I need to listen/watch that video as it has been recommended before. Praying for him and his family as well.

  4. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    Thanks for your insight Digby. It does feel that our jobs as pastors become elevated by Peterson’s emphasis on how myth and belief shape our collective actions. How valuable are our voices in shaping national identity? How much of a priority should we make it?

  5. mm Karen Rouggly says:

    Really good! I wanted to watch some of his youtubes but they were also quite lengthy!

  6. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Your “review” of this book really helped me. I struggled this week with time and attention – wanting to really grasp his larger point, knowing there is value for Christian leaders. I appreciate your last paragraph and also the reminder that he is, like all of us, human and flawed and doing his best with what he has been given.

  7. Thank you Digby, Your review of Peterson’s work is very helpful and helps me to better understand Maps of meaning.

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