Jordan Peterson, a Canadian clinical psychologist and former professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, is an enigma to most Christians. Peterson, author of Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief rose to stardom after some of his interviews on YouTube went viral.1 The seemingly simple things he suggests for people to adopt to straighten out their lives are met with disdain among an entitled generation. Things like “tidying up your room” in a metaphoric sense means to develop a discipline of responsibility. It is Peterson’s championing conservative values that endear him to the faithful which simultaneously estranges him from the social progressives. His talks and books borrow copiously from a variety of religious traditions, much of it containing Biblical references. But when asked if he believed in God, much less the God of the Bible, he would take offense that anyone would ask such a private question. He is not an atheist nor a moral relativist but would go on tirades when asked that question, often resorting to Wittgensteinian2 language games.
Maps of Meaning is a dense read. Typically I would be cautious about recommending a book such as this one. However, Peterson is a must read, especially helpful to our present generation hungry for meaning. He has this idea of contrasting polarities in what he calls the three “constituent elements of experience”3: (1) the Great Mother, creative and also destructive, the unknown; (2) the Great Father, protective and also tyrannical, the known and finally the (3) Divine Son, the hero, mediator between unknown and known, the knower. These concepts make up our experience. Peterson helps us understand that life appears contradictory at times. This is very similar to Mark Noll’s idea of doubleness that one encounters in daily experience. Applied to Christianity, Noll defines doubleness as pointing to a paradox or an apparent antinomy in the most basic understanding of the Christian faith.4
Barna Reserch conducted a poll in 2018 demonstrating that 82% of those born between 1999 and 2015 (Gen Z) consider “very important” the development of a faith that lasts into their adulthood.5 This is curious given the fact that this generation happens to be the most biblically illiterate in U.S. history6. What can be inferred here? It is that traditional ways of conducting church no longer works. It is failing to reach Gen Z while at the same time the need to find meaning and significance in life remain unmet. The courageous hero (to borrow from Peterson) in all of us must help the seeker realize that life is complex and full of antinomies. This is to be expected and we must not run away from it. We must do our part to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown.
The oldest members of Generation Z have begun to move on from college into new careers. Soon they will be parents and experience the full range of adulthood. Their search for meaning remains elusive, tucked behind church doors that appear locked from the inside. These locks may come in the form of dogmatism, legalism and hypocrisy. Whatever metaphorical form it takes, young people are not having it.
It is no wonder then that Peterson has such a struggle with the question “Do you believe in God?” while in a hopeful way holds an optimistic skepticism about Christianity. In one of his talks7 he clearly is conflicted with the idea of Christianity because if it is true, he would expect a very stark difference between good and bad people, or that there would be good people. He has a very high expectation of Christianity. Would that necessarily be a fault? Word and world are so intrinsically interconnected in Peterson’s mind that he expects Christians, if they exists at all, would behave like little Christs8. It is hard to follow Jesus and yet regrettably the church’s constant witness of “easy believism” only results in needless disappointment for many today.
The great hope of the Gospel is that there is a Great Knower who can bridge the chasm of chaos and shalom. It is only through his power in us that we can be like Christ. It is in Christ that we have a slayer of dragons. He is not just a myth of Peterson. Rather he is, in C.S. Lewis’ words, “myth which is also fact.” This is the hope of glory.
1 Some of the more popular acerbic ones are his interviews with Tom Ballard and Cathy Newman.
2 Ludwig Wittgenstein was an Austrian-British philosopher who worked primarily in the field of philosophy of language. Early Wittgenstein believed in a strong logical connection between words and what it signified in the world. Late Wittgenstein rejected that, arguing that words are best understood within the context of a language-game.
3 Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), xxi.
4 Mark Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), Kindle, Loc. 551.
5 Barna Group. Gen Z: The Culture, Beliefs and Motivations Shaping the next Generation.
(Ventura, CA: Barna Group, 2018), 83.
6 Ibid., 13.
7 Jordan Peterson on the Belief in God. Last modified July 14, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TUD3pE3ZsQI.
8 C.S. Lewis said “The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men to Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time.”