An evangelical perspective on Jordan Peterson – Part 4

Worldview considerations


The biggest disconnect between Peterson and Christianity is in his underlying worldview, which is shaped by three main factors: his understanding of Jungian archetypes, naturalism, and pragmatism. First, Peterson’s admiration for psychologist Carl Jung is no secret; he refers to Jung constantly, particularly his theory of archetypes. According to Jung, there are a number of primitive, universal archetypes that underlie all of human experience. Archetypes like the wise king, the tyrant, the mother, and the hero shape Peterson’s understanding of everything from Disney movies to politics to religion. Second, although I’ve never heard him us the term explicitly, Peterson also appears to be a naturalist and certainly assumes naturalism in his interviews. For instance, he routinely appeals to evolutionary psychology to explain various features of human cognition, infamously relating the existence of human hierarchies to the neurochemical pathways we share with lobsters. Finally, the most quixotic aspect of Peterson’s worldview is his pragmatism. In a long and extremely painful interview with Sam Harris, Peterson insisted that he did not accept the traditional correspondence theory of truth. He believes that a claim is true not if it corresponds to reality, but if it is ultimately successful in the propagation of the human species.

These three factors are crucial in understanding Peterson’s view of Christianity. First, Peterson accepts the idea that Jesus is the ultimate Hero, but he understands this statement in terms of archetypes. It is the story of Jesus that is important, regardless of whether it is connected to real, historical events that occurred between 27 and 31 A.D. in Palestine, or whether it is the result of a long process of fabrication and invention by early Christian theologians that spanned centuries.

Second, when Peterson talks about Jesus as the ultimate Hero archetype, he is thinking about a category that had its origin in evolutionary dynamics. It is scarcity and mass starvation, competition over resources, sexual selection, and environmental pressures that produced the categories of Chaos and Order, the Masculine Known and the Feminine Unknown, and the Hero who conquers the Dragon. These archetypes are not the unfolding of a divine narrative of creation, fall, and redemption. Instead, they are the contingent, accidental products of our evolutionary history. Perhaps if ants rather than humans had attained sentience, we might have had a very different mental architecture.

To put it another way, Peterson’s claim about Jesus is the mirror image of C.S. Lewis’. Lewis believed that in Jesus, myth became fact. Lewis saw the hero myths of countless religions as a dim foreshadowing of the true Hero that God had promised. The Corn King broke his body and descended into death to bring life to his people, not in a symbolic, metaphorical sense, but on a crude, bloody Roman cross just outside of Jerusalem during the reign of Herod. Conversely, for Peterson, Jesus is fact become myth. The fact of our species’ brutal, chaotic evolutionary history and struggle to balance stability with discovery produced myth after myth until we stumbled upon the best myth of all.

Finally, both of these observations are intimately connected to Peterson’s pragmatism. Because what is true depends on what ultimately ‘works’ for humanity’s survival, the propositional content of a claim matters far less than the behavior it produces. Christianity is true in the pragmatic sense not because it is propositionally true but because it has produced very successful and cooperative behavior in civilizations that have adopted it.

Back: Part 3 – Negatives

Next: Part 5 – Conclusions

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