Should Dr. Jordan Peterson be a role model for Christian youth workers?

Jordan Peterson. Is he the opium for the masses of yesteryear – fighting a last hurrah for traditional masculinity before it plunges into the abyss? Or is he the the national self-help coach, strapping a pseudo-understanding of a plethora of human interest topics onto his otherwise robust portfolio of clinical psychology (with grey tape and bungee chords), and hoping that no-one noticed? Is he a misunderstood messiah, or troubled and troubling? Who is he, and do we really want to learn from him?

Upfront I want to say that I like Jordan Peterson – mostly. I’m not a lobster t-shirt wearing ‘bucko’, as his more effusive fans are affectionally called. I’ve read ‘The 12 Rules for Life’ and, despite being written in uninspiring prose, it does have a lot of well-tested, sensible ideas to take away. I’ve also listened to many of his interviews and lectures, and have learned much in the process. Some of it I liked straight away, other parts challenged me directly and won me over eventually. I respect that, however unpopular his ideas might be, he engages in calm and collected reasoning, allowing anything to be discussed on the table as long as it is presented respectfully.

I think Dr. Peterson is helpful on the legal issues surrounding gender pronouns, helpful on the need to do stuff and not just yell about stuff, helpful on compassionately responding to suffering, and helpful on taking responsibility. I think he is less helpful on conspiracy theories, less helpful on equality (although that’s a mixed bag), less helpful on social order, and less helpful on developing community.

From a Christian perspective, there are some specific problems to navigate through. These are issues that need to be taken on board very carefully before we surrender our own reasoning abilities to his. Dr. Peterson is becoming a role model for many ministers of the Gospel, but some caution is needed before getting too caught up in his approach.

Tread Carefully

I’ve just finished an MA in the hopes of soon starting a PhD, and – although I did well – one of the most consistent pieces of feedback that I received from professors is that my analysis is good but my conclusions are often overstated. I wonder if the same can be said for Dr. Peterson?

When you listen to Dr. Peterson question, dig, differentiate, clarify, and present clinical studies as evidence – he is on fire! His critical reasoning abilities, especially in the line of hostile debate is incredible. His analysis is often spot on, sourced properly, and undergirded with a startling, well-honed talent for critical thinking.

His conclusions, however, often jump wildly to something that can be completely left field. His credibility was built during the analysis, which – guard now dropped – makes us accept his conclusions all too readily.

The underlying problem is that he is looking for the ‘true’ meta-narrative of the universe without actually knowing God. He is attempting to find this ultimate truth in the orbits of myth, legend, ancient story, classical philosophy, and even the Bible. These, however, all surround an aura of an idea that he hasn’t properly grasped or digested, thus are all held with equal weight.

Dr. Peterson is looking for an ultimate ethic; an absolute foundational set of principles to guide humanity, but without a living relationship with the living God. This means that he is working from the outside in – getting close, but misunderstanding the weight of his evidence, and thus missing the truth.

Without a fundamentally Christian ethic he can only get close, but not actually get on point.

What does this look like?

His idea of the divine results in an Eastern balance of equal and opposite forces – almost karmic. The yin-yang is his meta-type metaphor that he uses to explain the chaos and order which battle in the world. This stems from a serious lack of understanding of the nature of sin (the actual bringing of chaos), and the character of God (ultimate order).

His conclusion is balance (over equality), and with this comes an acceptance of suffering as a part of life, helped only by the masses individually trying to correct unjust situations.

There is a lot of admire in this, but ultimately it is a pure form of humanism, and not compatible with Christianity.

Aspects missing from Dr. Petersons worldview – but clear in Jesus’ – are things like:

  • Ultimate sacrificial love
  • Servant-hearted leadership
  • An honour in humility
  • Seeking to be last in order to be first
  • Dependence upon God
  • Seeking the goodness of others above personal success
  • An end to suffering – ultimately
  • Chaos solved by surrender to, not creation of, order

This is not to say that Dr. Peterson isn’t immensely compassionate, and fiercely ethical. I believe he is. Christian ethics, however, cannot be tamed by conventional wisdom, or dammed by conventional fears. The God-man, Jesus, demonstrates the perfect picture of leadership that runs counter to the ideas of self-actualised success as presented (at least in my understanding) of Dr. Peterson’s work.

Some of this comes down to him being a traditional scientist, measuring all evidence with equal weight as is responsible to the method. Thus the Bible is put alongside other sources rather than above it. Some of this, however, also comes down to a poor understanding of the Bible. When he does quote from Scripture, he seems to cite odd scholarship and rather mess up fundamental exegetical methods. Finally, I think some of this comes from a dark worldview that is strongly reactionary (and rightly so) against the Communist atrocities of the last century – particularly in Russia and China. He sometimes just seems a little without hope.

We do, therefore, need to tread carefully when mirroring Dr. Peterson’s worldview. This doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t learn from him.

What can we learn from Dr. Peterson

Going back to his analysis, I think that the most important takeaways from Dr. Peterson is both his critical thinking ability and his calm response to conflict.

Critical Thinking

I believe that critical thinking is one of the most undervalued aspects of early education. Throughout high-school (in the UK at least), the emphasis is placed on the memorisation of facts, rather than on the discovery of them.

This in turn has deeply effected our evangelism. I guess that almost half the questions that I’m asked by young people would never have been asked in the first place if they were taught how to think. Misplaced stereotypes and new-atheist propaganda has been swallowed hook, line, and sinker, as if it was candy rather than a barb.

When we are asked a question, our natural response is to answer it – either as stated or as categorised as something we’ve heard before. Neither of these, however, might actually answer what the asker was interested in.

Instead, when asked a question, Dr. Peterson, clarifies the question. He asks a question back (or twelve), not to avoid, but to focus. In doing this he better understands the question, shows more respect for the person asking the question, and he starts to find holes in the assumptions given within the quesiton.

Take this question for instance:

‘If God exists why is there suffering and evil?’

There’s a question we’ve all heard many times, and we probably have a stock answer ready to roll. However, using critical thinking and being a little Socratic about it, we can have a much more effective answer. How about responding to that with one of these:

  • Why do you think suffering and evil means God can’t exist?
  • What kind of God are you talking about?
  • What kind(s) of suffering and evil are you talking about?
  • How would you do it?
  • Can you think of any way suffering happens for a good reason?
  • Are you struggling with something right now? Do you want to talk about that?

A little bit of critical thinking reveals that this question doesn’t challenge God’s existence at all. Instead it brings up whether or not someone likes the idea of God, which is a much weaker – but more honest – position.

This effects our Bible studies and talks too. If we only ask closed-ended questions, or speak at young people, then we won’t be training them to discover truth for themselves. What about printing off Bible verses, and letting young people try their hand at some exegetical tools for themselves? What about getting them to first write a Bible study and then deliver it?

Critical thinking is gold, because we love and serve a reasonable God. He wants us to think, and He wants us to discover Him.

Calm under Conflict

If you watch Dr. Peterson when he comes under fire in an interview or debate, you’ll notice a few things.

First, his posture doesn’t change. He stays leaned back, with his hands folded.

Second, he doesn’t loose eye-contact. He stays connected at a personal level.

Third, his tone, although firm and direct doesn’t gain an overly aggressive edge. He remains respectful.

Fourth, he listens critically, doesn’t interrupt, and takes a minute to understand and clarify. He processes his answer carefully.

If you watch me, however, especially at my worst, then you’ll see me do all the opposite of these things! I lean in, I fidget, I interrupt, I look anywhere but at the person’s face, I speak erratically and defensively, I say off-the-cuff things or placating things, and I speak too quickly without digesting properly. Bad!

This is one of the main reasons he wins his debates, but is also one of the main reasons he is respected. He shows respect and remains calm and thoughtful when under conflict.

He can be slightly less reasonable when the person attacking him is rude and unnecessarily aggressive – which is fair enough really. However, as we work with teenagers and in churches, we may need to dial up our tolerance for this kind of behaviour.

So what?

Dr. Jordon Peterson, I believe, is a helpful figure in public discourse. He’s thoughtful, compassionate, helpful, and articulate. He thinks before he speaks and he listens carefully. He doesn’t dismiss the supernatural out-of-hand, and he believes in the power of story.

He does not, however, represent a Christian worldview, or present a complete picture of Christian leadership values as displayed in Jesus. Thus we need to tread carefully around his conclusions.

Dr. Peterson does provide us a wonderful role-model for critical thinking, and remaining calm under conflict. Both of these traits will, I believe, serve us very well in our ministries with young people. For that we should be thankful for him, and pray for him to come into a living relationship with Jesus.

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