Being Apologetic About Jordan Peterson

What in the world are we to do with the likes of Jordan Peterson?

For the uninitiated, Peterson is a Canadian secular depth psychologist who has been making waves over the last few months for his controversial yet articulate stands on social issues, witty advice, and ability to command any room into which he walks (David Robertson provides a good introduction). Peterson appeals mainly to the growing masses of disaffected young men who tend to struggle with lack of direction and self-worth–men we see all too often in the church today.

 

If you have been previously unaware of Jordan Peterson’s existence and the discussion surrounding him, worry no more–the evangelical blogosphere has been working overtime to enlighten you. In fact it could be considered a major feat to have missed this debate in its entirety. I tried to resist myself, but the tide of emails, texts, YouTube videos, and blogs overcame the usual defenses.

For the uninitiated, Peterson is a Canadian secular depth psychologist who has been making waves over the last few months for his controversial yet articulate stands on social issues, witty advice, and ability to command any room into which he walks (David Robertson provides a good introduction). Peterson appeals mainly to the growing masses of disaffected young men who tend to struggle with lack of direction and self-worth–men we see all too often in the church today.

Yet some Christians see far more in him than just this. At the celebratory end of the spectrum, a few argue that Peterson represents the archetype of an emotionally intelligent pastor, one who has been strong where our accepted pastoral wisdom has been weak.   At the critical end, some wonder whether Peterson’s work is just a thinly veiled application of Nietzsche’s transvaluation of values or a justification of pride-as-virtue. That is quite the difference. Which begs the question: what in the world are we to do with the likes of Jordan Peterson?

That evangelicals often reach diametrically opposed evaluations of secular resources is nothing new. Think about Harry Potter or “secular music” or the debates over what media Christians can use. That we keep ending up in widely divergent places on such crucial issues however should at least raise our eyebrows. Perhaps something bigger is going on here. Perhaps such surface level differences signal deeper theological and structural issues in our communities–issues that revolve around how we understand common grace and common ground.

Much ink has been spilled trying to explain why Peterson is so popular with evangelicals. I think I can offer one more reason: Peterson is a respected secular scholar who is affirming important biblical truths in non-biblical ways. This second part also explains why Peterson is so unpopular with some. For example, in his 12 Rules for Life, he comes out in favor of things like corporal punishment in parenting (Prov. 13.24), but argues for this from a common-sense and ultimately authoritarian point of view. As a Christian counselor myself, I find that these kinds of arguments breed inner conflict by affirming the truth in seemingly secular ways. On the one hand, finding a secular voice who affirms Christian values is extremely rare and exciting; on the other, Peterson’s methods appear suspect.

And this is where evangelicals usually end up on issues like this: one side voices support for the common grace truth that can be found in a “thing” and the other side protests that the “thing” in view is fueled by basic presuppositions and methodology that necessarily disqualify whatever good can be found in it. It is exceedingly difficult to move beyond these poles once they have been reached. Not only is it hard to do this conceptually (for each position leaves no real room for compromise) but it is also difficult to do this personally. Try convincing a convinced homeschooler that public school options are sometimes acceptable, and vice versa!

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