Since the release of his recent bestselling book, 12 Rules for Life, and the immense online popularity of an interview with him on British TV, the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson has exploded into mainstream evangelical consciousness. While Peterson has been quietly building up an extensive following for a few years now, over the last month many people who had not previously heard of Peterson have been surprised and often confused by the strength and the character of his appeal.
Perhaps one of the most striking features of Peterson’s appeal is how male-weighted it is. While Peterson never set out to speak particularly to men and many women have been highly appreciative of his work, his teaching has peculiarly resonated with young men, inviting comment from both his critics and those who are more welcoming of his message. Peterson’s appeal to young evangelical men has been especially pronounced, a fact that provokes challenging questions about what it might be that evangelical men are finding in Peterson that they are not finding in their churches.
While it may be tempting to regard Peterson’s male-weighted appeal as proof that his message is somehow unbalanced, the assumption that all truth must be equally appealing to all persons is not a warranted one. There are some dimensions of the truth that will peculiarly resonate with certain persons, especially in contexts where they are not being spoken to by existing voices. Throughout the West, men are significantly outnumbered by women in churches and complaints about the supposed ‘feminization’ of the church have been exciting conversation and controversy for a few decades now. Perhaps there is something to which we should be paying attention here.
Listening closely to what both Peterson and his appreciative male followers have to say, a few things especially stand out to me. Foremost among these is the fact that Peterson displays a genuine compassion and concern for young men, and for young men as particular persons, not just as an abstract class. Peterson, as someone who is fiercely critical of ideology in general, observes and challenges much of the ideological flak to which young men are exposed by the culturally regnant orthodoxies of feminism. However, unlike many others, Peterson isn’t driven by some countervailing ideology so much as by a palpable compassion for the victims of established ideologies, young men who have been stigmatized, told that they are toxic and patriarchal, stifled, and who are increasingly marginalized or discarded by society and its institutions. I have seen countless figures on the right who want to score petty ideological points against feminists raise the issues of young men: it is Peterson’s compassion for young men as particular persons that sets him apart.
We all, conservative Christians as much, if not more, than others, are in danger of theologies and ideologies that eclipse persons, reducing them to (actual or potential) avatars of—or obstacles to the outworking of—our abstract ideological systems. People recognize this and close themselves off to us. Foregrounding persons in their concrete particularity and unfeignedly desiring and seeking their good is hugely important, not because it matters for ideological persuasion, but because people matter. Men respond to Peterson because he does this for them, but this is a posture that desperately needs to become characteristic of our relationship to every person.
Men are not unaccustomed to being told about their responsibility. In the society at large, they are castigated as a class for their responsibility for the oppressive structures and operations of ‘patriarchal’ society. In the church, they are often harangued to take responsibility and berated for their many failures. Responsibility is all too often handled as a legalistic rod to beat men down with or a condemnation upon them, rather than as an evangelical declaration of their God-given vocation and an accompanying gracious encouragement and building up of them so that they can live this out well.
Peterson describes how remarkable the male reaction to his message of responsibility has been, observing that men are starving for such a message. Peterson presents men’s responsibility as grace, not law. Responsibility, for Peterson, is a declaration of the possibility of meaningful and purposeful existence; we have been given the capacity to impact the world for the better and the world needs us to make that difference. Strong and responsible men are not burdened with the blame for the world’s problems or beaten down by a perfectionist standard to which they can never attain, but encouraged and assisted to do what they can to change things. Responsibility is held out as an invitation to rise up to honour, not as a source of crushing shame. This is a message that builds men up, rather than tearing them down: it isn’t until many men encounter someone like Jordan Peterson that they really how hungry they have been for such a message.
A further striking feature of Peterson’s teaching is the close connection that he draws between the existential imperatives facing the individual person and the broader cultural crises facing contemporary Western society. By his own confession, Peterson has been obsessed with the history of the Cold War and has also given close attention to the rise of Hitler. It will be difficult to understand how impassioned Peterson is in his opposition to the progressive left, for instance, without some appreciation of how the horrors of the twentieth century have both fired and shaped his ethical vision.
Peterson’s psychological vision has been more powerfully formed by people like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Václav Havel, and Victor Frankl—people who withstood the great tyrannies of the last century and survived their unspeakable cruelty—than it has been by abstract theorists. Unlike many other psychologists, Peterson’s concern doesn’t chiefly seem to be the therapeutic goal of creating functional, happy, and self-expressive members of contemporary consumerist and hedonist society. Rather, Peterson wants to form people with the sort of unyielding integrity, firmness of purpose, and sense of meaning that will enable them to withstand the creeping grip of tyranny or the chilling breath of nihilism upon the soul of humanity. Peterson wants to develop in people the sort of character that could resist the rise of a Hitler or survive the brutal inhumanity of a Gulag camp without the forfeiting of spirit. Such people will not leave our world unmarked by their presence.
Peterson consistently highlights the fact that the path to the hell of totalitarianism or nihilism is one that is travelled gradually, with progression upon it occurring in small and often indiscernible increments. The rise of tyranny in a society is inseparable from the slow poisoning of the character of its people. From the steady toleration of lies that leaves people’s hearts impervious to the truth. From the many petty compromises that train them in the cowardice that leave them impotent to stand when it most matters. From their fostering of the habits of resentment and rejection of personal responsibility that lead them to become the bitter prisoners of fate and society. From their appetite for ease and pleasure reducing them to slavery to their lusts and other powers.
Perhaps more than any other contemporary thinker I have encountered, Peterson preaches the truth of both Proverbs 16:32—“He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city”—and the flipside of Proverbs 25:28—“He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls.” He expounds the meaning of this biblical teaching further: a people who have abandoned the rule of their spirits are wide open to the threat of tyranny. There is a battle for the future of the human race to be fought, Peterson argues, and it must begin in your soul and in your own household. Master yourself and put your house in order. The stakes couldn’t be higher. If we don’t develop such character now, we will find ourselves unable to stand in the coming evil day.
In contrast to a culturally ascendant vision of morality that is chiefly focused upon being nice, compliant, and agreeable, Peterson’s ethic of integrity, self-mastery, and responsibility is one that resonates powerfully with men. It summons them to live up to their God-given strength, to hone and discipline their agency for the protection of their own souls and upholding the integrity the society at large.
Peterson’s ethical vision is one that allows for true manly virtue, celebrating a self-mastered virility, in a society where virtue has typically been presented as feminizing and in which the idealized man is all too often a domesticated one. When men complain about the ‘feminization’ of the Church, this is often one of the things that most frustrates them. When the model of a good Christian man that is held out to men is a rather unmanly ‘nice guy’ in a low-stakes world, men can experience a tension between their masculinity and their faith. Peterson, by contrast, alerts men to the reality that, in making you good, true virtue will probably also make you much less ‘safe’. Despite society and the Church’s unease with and frequent distaste for it, the world needs our virility.
While there are real reasons to be cautious and critical of key dimensions of Peterson’s broader message, churches have much to learn from reflection upon the reasons why he resonates with so many young men. Christ loves the young men in our churches and wants them to follow him. He wants to raise them up to honor and glory, not drive them down into shame and despair. He wants them to nurture true manly character in the mastery of their own souls, a character that, as it works its way out into the world, will give strength to all around them. He wants them to acquit themselves like men in his service. He doesn’t want from them the superficial and legalistic ‘manliness’ of appearances that we so often obsess about as conservative evangelicals, but the quiet, humble, yet powerful substance of a well-ruled spirit.
And he wants us to tell them this.
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