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Topic: Manhood

What Jordan Peterson Can Teach the Church About Men and Meaning

April 26, 2022
By Shane Morris

I recently wrote something on Facebook to the effect that I would rather my boys (ages seven and five) listen to Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s lectures on The Lion King than many sermons and small group lessons I’ve heard addressed to men in church. Given that I am a Christian and Jordan Peterson is not, this may seem like an odd thing to say. But I don’t think it is. Peterson’s ongoing appeal, especially among young men, is a loud reminder that our spiritual needs are not limited to salvation, and that sometimes a thoughtful unbeliever can have a better grasp of those needs than most Christians do.

Since he rose to fame in 2017, Peterson has been an enigma for religious readers. On the one hand, he gives moral counsel it would be tough for anyone to disagree with: “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” “Do not allow yourself to become resentful, deceitful, or arrogant.” “Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.” Proffering this and similar advice in his bestselling books, Twelve Rules for Life and Beyond Order, he has become what one writer called “a societal father figure.” In a time of growing aimlessness, despair, nihilism—and yes, fatherlessness—his message centers on finding meaning, taking on responsibility, and overcoming adversity. These are all themes that appeal on a visceral level to disaffected men.

Yet Peterson’s ambiguity about religion understandably troubles some Christians. He quotes Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung more readily than Jesus Christ. He says he’s not willing to place himself “in a box” by professing orthodox faith. He certainly doesn’t give altar calls. Even so, people regularly say his work saved their lives or gave them new purpose. For those accustomed to proclaiming the gospel as the solution to human sin and misery, this apparently redemptive effect of Peterson’s message can seem odd or even threatening. After all, we Christians have the answer to the world’s deepest problem! If Peterson is offering something different and apparently quenching people’s spiritual thirst, doesn’t that make him a false teacher—a peddler of a self-help gospel?

The answer really lies in whether Peterson is, in fact, peddling a gospel. He doesn’t seem to think he is. Rather, he is teaching readers and audiences what he has taught patients as a clinical psychologist for decades: how to be a human well, how to create order out of relational chaos, how to aim one’s passions toward a purpose, and how to navigate difficult and confusing lives without falling prey to despair. In doing so he is offering all who pick up his work a life-giving alternative to the anything-goes mentality of our age, and is teaching a truth all too rarely acknowledged in Christian churches: that conversion is not the answer to every problem we face, and that pursuing this-worldly meaning is core to how we are created.

Learning from Nature

Peterson teaches people (especially men) how to be human well because he doesn’t believe our nature is malleable. He believes it can be understood, and that thriving comes from following the “maps of meaning” laid down deep in our subconsciousness and even our bodies. This is why he famously begins Twelve Rules for Life by explaining what the endocrine systems of lobsters can teach us about our own minds. Though it’s easy to crack jokes about this or get lost in his evolutionary jargon, we shouldn’t miss Peterson’s point: human beings have a hardwired nature, and living in accordance with that nature—even through acts as simple as standing up straight with your shoulders back—can reduce misery and improve our characters. You will not learn any of this at an altar call, nor in simplistic admonitions to be “Christlike.” Young men in particular, searching as they are for the blueprints to the good life in a world that tells them to draw their own, need more detail than that.

We see that detail in Peterson’s famous advice to “clean up your room.” At first it seems quirky and trite—even flippant. After all, people face real, existential agony in their lives. They are confronted by illness, divorce, unemployment, estrangement from parents, and numberless daily miseries that make them wonder whether life is even worth living. What can tidying up a bedroom accomplish in the face of such things? Not much, by itself. But Peterson understands a truth too many Christians miss when we look to salvation to solve all our problems: that small changes in behavior, carried out sincerely and with the intent of making the world a little less chaotic, have a domino effect. Repeated often enough, these small changes create new habits, and gradually new affections. Eventually, they result in new people—at least humanly speaking.

For Christian readers, none of this should be taken as a substitute for Jesus’ atoning work, or for the role of the Holy Spirit in giving us new hearts. Instead, we should appreciate Peterson’s sharp eye for universal truths about human nature, and recognize that in many respects, his message looks not so much like a gospel as like the book of Proverbs. Importantly, that book is addressed by a father to his son. And this is exactly the posture Peterson takes with his readers, many of whom are lost young men.

“Each sex has its own particular cross to bear,” Peterson says. “But I think that there’s an active attempt to criticize active masculinity from a very early age, and it’s unbelievably damaging.”

He isn’t just talking here about feminist screeds against “toxic masculinity.” The West’s withdrawal from tradition, religion, and nation have robbed maturing men of firm anchors for identity.  Nearly a quarter of them now grow up without fathers. They’re suffering record levels of depression and suicide. Factor in the spiritual anesthesia of porn and video games and the general attitude in popular media that males are what’s wrong with the world, and it’s not hard to see why many choose indolence and extended adolescence over thankless responsibility. If life is meaningless and there’s no reward for following the rules, why play?

Peterson’s response is to radically reassert meaning, not as a coping mechanism for those lost in a purposeless cosmos, but as something that really lies at the beating heart of reality:

Meaning is when everything there is comes together in an ecstatic dance of single purpose—the glorification of a reality so that no matter how good it has suddenly become, it can get better and better and better more and more deeply forever into the future. Meaning happens when that dance has become so intense that all the horrors of the past, all the terrible struggle engaged in by all of life and all of humanity to that moment becomes a necessary and worthwhile part of the increasingly successful attempt to build something truly Mighty and Good…Meaning is the Way, the path of life more abundant, the place you live when you are guided by Love and speaking Truth and when nothing you want or could possibly want takes any precedence over precisely that. (Twelve Rules 201)

How to Be Human

This message is the real source of his success, the goal behind all his talk of cleaning rooms, correcting posture, and petting cats. It’s the reason so many young men receive his rules as the counsel of a benevolent father-figure, instead of like the barked condemnations of an overzealous pastor. And it’s the reason I would rather my boys listen to an hour of Peterson’s lectures on themes in a classic Disney movie than many over-spiritualized messages they might hear in church. Men are made to pursue meaning, to assume responsibility, and to play the part of the hero in their life story. Peterson celebrates this potential, even in lost boys, and treats these confused and culturally homeless creatures as a big part of what’s right with the world. And instead of browbeating them for their failures, he offers them actionable steps to escape nihilism and reinfuse life with meaning—even when it’s bloody hard:

“It’s not like it’s fair,” he told one ABC News host. “I know perfectly well that people have brutal lives. I’ve been a psychotherapist for twenty years. I’ve seen things you can’t imagine—horror shows you can’t fathom, and people who have been hurt in so many ways and dimensions…Should they be bitter? Should they be resentful? Should they become violent? These things don’t help. They have to struggle uphill despite their excess burden.”

This kind of advice has the power to transform lives—a power we often mistakenly attribute only to conversion. We need not make that mistake. One of the cornerstones of Protestant theology is that creation and redemption are not opposed, nor do we believe grace is present only among the redeemed. Pagans can and do give good advice. Sometimes they give better advice than Christians! And when that advice taps into the deepest realities of human nature, it can result in moral reformation. When it summons people out of listless despair to a hero’s journey, it may even produce an experience resembling conversion. Nothing about this should threaten or surprise Christians.

Peterson is not telling people how to be saved. He’s telling us (especially men) how to be human. And in this paternal role he has discovered something churches forget when we treat assent to a supernatural creed (or worse, emotional intimacy with Jesus) as the sole solution to all of life’s problems. Yes, Christ came to restore all things. Yes, believing in Him is the only way to eternal life. And no, Peterson’s message is not sufficient to rescue anyone–including him–from God’s righteous judgment. But it has proven a strikingly effective antidote to the spiritual chaos men face in today’s world. The church should take notes, even as we pray Peterson follows the meaning he preaches to its true source.

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