The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon

The Canadian psychologist’s considerable erudition is on clear display throughout 12 Rules for Life, but so is his very real experience in the trenches as a practicing psychotherapist.

(Image: YouTube)

Like many others, I have watched the Jordan Peterson phenomenon unfold with a certain fascination. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you don’t spend a lot of time on social media, for Peterson, a mild-mannered psychology professor from the University of Toronto, has emerged as one of the hottest personalities on the internet. He is followed by millions of people, especially young men. His lectures and presentations—cool, understated, brainy, and blunt—are avidly watched and commented upon. And his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is a number one bestseller all over the world. Moreover, Peterson’s spirited and articulate opposition to the imposition of speech codes in his native Canada has made him a controversial political player, a hero of free speech to his supporters and a right-wing ideologue to his detractors. His interview with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News, during which Peterson’s interlocutor revealed herself as a hopelessly biased social justice warrior, has, as of this writing, been viewed 7.5 million times.

In many ways, Peterson is doing for this generation what Joseph Campbell did for the previous one, namely, reintroducing the archetypal psychology of C.G. Jung in an appealing and provocative manner. Jung’s theorizing centered around what he termed the archetypes of the collective unconscious, which is to say, those primordial instincts, insights, and memories that influence much of our behavior and that substantially inform the religions, philosophies, and rituals of the human race. The Jungian template enables Peterson to interpret many of the classical spiritual texts of Western culture in a fresh way—those very texts so often excoriated by mainstream intellectuals as hopelessly patriarchal, biased, and oppressive. It also permits him to speak with a kind of psychological and spiritual authority to which young people are not accustomed but to which they respond eagerly.

His new book, an elaboration of twelve basic psychological rules for life, makes for bracing and satisfying reading. Peterson’s considerable erudition is on clear display throughout, but so is his very real experience in the trenches as a practicing psychotherapist. His advice is smart indeed, but it never seems abstract, detached, or unrealistic. In the course of this brief article, I can only hint at some of his fascinating findings and recommendations. A theme that runs through the entire book is that of the play between order and chaos, symbolized most neatly by the intertwining fish of the Tao image. Human consciousness itself, Peterson argues, sets one foot in the former and the other in the latter, balancing the known and the unknown, the settled and the unexplored. Too much of one, and we fall into complacency, routine, and at the limit, tyranny; too much of the other, and we lose our bearings completely, surrendering to the void.

The great myths of the hero—from Gilgamesh to Luke Skywalker and Bilbo Baggins—typically recount the story of someone who leaves complacent domesticity behind in order to venture into the dangerous unknown, where he manages to find something of enormous value to his family or village or society. One key to psychological/spiritual fulfillment is to embody this archetype of the hero, to live one’s life as an adventurous exploration of the unknown. So Peterson tells his readers—especially young men, who have been cowed into complacency for various reasons—to throw back their shoulders, stand tall, and face the challenges of life head on. This archetype of the hero also allows us to read the story of Adam and Eve with fresh eyes. In Paradise (the word itself denotes “walled garden”), our first parents were secure and innocent, but in the manner of inexperienced children. Leaving Paradise was, in one sense, a positive move, for it permitted them to grow up, to engage the chaos of the unknown creatively and intelligently. This reading of Genesis, which has roots in Tillich, Hegel, and others, permits us to see that the goal of the spiritual life is not a simple return to the Garden of dreaming innocence, but rather an inhabiting of the Garden on the far side of the cross, that place where the tomb of Jesus was situated and in which the risen Christ appeared precisely as “gardener.”

Peterson’s investigation of the psyche of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was, for me, one of the most illuminating sections of the book. Solzhenitsyn, of course, was a victim of both Hitler and Stalin, a terrorized and dehumanized inmate in the Gulag Archipelago, and one of the most tortured of souls in the terrible twentieth century. It would have been surpassingly easy for him simply to curse his fate, to lash out in anger at God, to become a sullen figure scurrying about the margins of life. Instead, he endeavored to change his own life, to turn the light of his moral consciousness on himself, to get his psychological house in order. This initial move enabled him to see the world around him with extraordinary clarity and, eventually, to tell the story of Soviet depravity with such devastating moral authority. The lesson that Peterson draws from this example is this: if you want to change the corrupt world, “start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today.”

I have shared just a handful of wise insights from a book that is positively chockablock with them. So do I thoroughly support Jordan Peterson’s approach? Well, no, though a full explication of my objection would take us far beyond the confines of this brief article. In a word, I have the same concern about Peterson that I have about both Campbell and Jung, namely, the Gnosticizing tendency to read Biblical religion purely psychologically and philosophically and not at all historically. No Christian should be surprised that the Scriptures can be profitably read through psychological and philosophical lenses, but at the same time, every Christian has to accept the fact that the God of the Bible is not simply a principle or an abstraction, but rather a living God who acts in history. As I say, to lay this out thoroughly would require at least another article or two or twelve.

On balance, I like this book and warmly recommend it. I think it’s especially valuable for the beleaguered young men in our society, who need a mentor to tell them to stand up straight and act like heroes.

About Bishop Robert Barron 141 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

27 Comments

  1. “In Paradise (the word itself denotes “walled garden”), our first parents were secure and innocent, but in the manner of inexperienced children. Leaving Paradise was, in one sense, a positive move, for it permitted them to grow up, to engage the chaos of the unknown creatively and intelligently. ”

    Why, yes, indeed, they acquired the knowledge of good and evil. How wonderful.

    Have you gone mad? Apart from the concept of “o felix culpa,” how can anyone by any stretch of the imagination think that disobeying God by eating of the fruit of the tree and being banished from Eden is in any way a positive move?

    • Brilliant comment Leslie.

      This is why as much as I appreciated Fr Barron before, the new Fr Barron seems to be playing into pop psychology.

      God mad indeed.

      • No, I didn’t mean to imply that it was nothing, but what’s described in the article doesn’t seem to me to be related to it at all. “[I]t permitted them to grow up, to engage the chaos of the unknown creatively and intelligently” makes it sound as if before the Fall they were uncreative and unintelligent; and surely the “chaos of the unknown” can only refer to that of which God did not provide knowledge; and if He didn’t will them to know it why would it be a good thing that they pursued the knowledge?

        • Jesus and the Virgin Mary were the polar opposites of Adam and Eve. They were obedient and didn’t sin. Christ threw Satan’s temptations back in his face during the temptations in the wilderness. This makes Bishop Barron’s comments even more absurd.

    • It was an absolute tragedy for man to fall into sin.

      It was not a tragedy in God’s plan.

      Man can be a hero through Grace and his own active participation in God’s plan.

      The distinction of how things are is a tragedy for man but not for God. In the sense that man ultimately does better in the Garden on the other side of the Cross than the Garden on creation’s side alone.

      Don’t be quite so hard on Bishop Barron. He is in line with Cardinal Biffi on this.

        • From the perspective of our ultimate good, our deification, it was a happy fault, a way to our ultimate good. God brings a greater good from it.

          A suppose it is a paradox.

          What was said was ‘Leaving Paradise was, in one sense, a positive move’

          In one sense..our deification came into view. But it doesn’t mean it was good that we sinned.

          I was not sure about Hegel, Tillich, etc the idea that ‘we grow up’ has been interpreted in the sense the mature people leave the idea of God behind.

          This is a problem. Hegel is not a good interpreter of scripture in this regard. But Aquinas has it right and with Augustine teaches that ultimately God is not outdone by our failing but brings our ultimate good from it through the Grace of Christ.

          • But he was not talking about the perspective of our ultimate good, about man in general, about us; he was talking about Adam and Eve. And he said that it “permitted them to grow up,” as if remaining in Eden in a state of innocence would have been a bad thing because they would have been only children instead of “grown ups.”

          • It all comes down to image and likeness. God’s nature is one of union. One God in Three Persons. If we are in God’s image and likeness, then union with God was and is the end goal. Any other end would be destructive of that imaging of God’s nature of union.
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            But that union had to be a loving one based in free will. We had to freely consent to that union. I believe this was what Eden was for, to give Adam and Eve the chance and the place to enter, of their own free will, into this loving act of union with God. It sounds like some people believe that the Son needed an original sin permission slip to become the Incarnate Bridegroom of His Mystical Body.

  2. Bishop Barron – I’m glad you’ve engaged Dr. Peterson’s work, but I share Leslie’s concern. Are you endorsing this seriously problematic interpretation of the Fall in terms of the hero’s journey, and a growth out of (alleged) naivete?

  3. Bishop Barron has taken leave of his senses on his presentation of Adam and Eve. In the Fall of Man in Genesis, what the serpent was promising Adam and Eve was autonomy from God. The Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist in harmonious intimate union. They are not competitors. The serpent was setting things up that the relationship between God and Adam and Eve was a competitive zero-sum power struggle; that they had to act ungodly, be disobedient, and breach the union of their relationship with God to gain autonomous godhood. Being made in God’s image and likeness, anything that would alienate Adam and Eve from God would also alienate them from each other, and would include self alienation. Satan views his relationship with God to be a power struggle. Adam and Eve valued the gift more than the gift Giver.
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    You can probably call a monastic cloister a “walled garden.” It is in these “walled gardens” where contemplative orders seek a deeper spiritual relationship with God.
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    In Gen 1:28 it says:
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    And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
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    It seems to me that to subdue the earth and have dominion over the animal kingdom would require humans to have knowledge about how the natural world functions. This looks like a clear mandate for doing scientific research.
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    In the second creation story God creates the animals and Adam names them in a cooperative activity. This looks like plain and simple taxonomy.
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    No, what took place in Eden was that Adam and Eve took their spiritual direction from the serpent and not from God.

  4. Thank you Bishop Barron. Perhaps the organization you founded might be able to join Dr. Peterson into a (video-recorded) face-to-face conversation with, oh, say, the likes of Catholic novelist (and Solzhenitsyn aficionado) Michael O’Brien and professor Dr. Anthony Esolen (expert on manly heroes such as Stan Musial), with you moderating the discussion. Oh, and while you’re hopefully at it, might you add Father Rutler to that little confab?

  5. I don’t trust his judgement in Scripture matters…but his type are pandemic ( I had the Jesuits for 8 years as teachers…after which I read the whole Bible as an antidote). Bishop Barron said in one youtube video…” it is rational to hope for an empty hell.” I don’t think he was committing to that thought of Rahner or Von Balthasar, but he was saying that it’s permissable. It’s not rational or Christ was deceptive twice….in His consistently dire words on Judas…and in His words in Luke 3:24….” strive to enter by the narrow gate for many shall seek to enter and they will not be able to”. We know from the last book of the Bible that the number saved will be very very large (Rev.7:9)….which refutes several saint doctors actually in their too human moments….but hell as empty is not a rational position. Neither is using the fall of mankind story in a way that skips its essential meaning as being the worst moment in history. Barron is not alone with being embarassed about some aspects of scripture….see section 40 of Evangelium Vitae and section 42 of Verbum Domini. Get used to it and bob and weave around such like Mayweather or Roy Jones Jr. Oh…and Pope Francis on Judas…stay far away. He prefers a statue to the words of Christ…a statue that has Christ carrying Judas with a half smile on his lips. Bob and weave…the jabs keep coming.

  6. Romans 6:1. It is a common “excuse” for sin that people say in their minds, “The sinning was good in that it allowed me to better understand the goodness of God and return to Him”. No! The sin was never necessary or good in any way! Adam and Eve had it all in the garden; they walked with the precarnate Son of God! There is nothing more glorious than that. It is not a glorious journey through sin back to God, it is a great MERCY that God in His love allows us to do it!”

    Bishop Barron, in your love for concepts and philosophies, need always to guide people back to the simple truth, lest they become flotsam and jetsam in the wind of ideas, never standing firm on the Rock.

    • I’ briefly met Bishop Barron once, and he is Orthodox in his teachings. However, because he is a trained philosopher, he has a tendency to stay in Philosophy and sometimes forget to tie discussions back to Theology and Scripture because he has a tendency to think all members of his audience understand what he means.

      In order words, sometimes he talks to average Catholics like he’s talking to seminarians and/or atheists.

      We have to remember, when reading him, his a Catholic Philosopher first and foremost. He’s not an apologist and he’s not a Scripture Scholar.

      We also can’t take everything he’s says 100% literally. I’m sure he didn’t mean to imply that sinning against God by eating of the Tree of Good & Evil was a good thing. But we also have to remember, God knew they would do that and He had a plan to deal with it.

      So from a purely philosophical argument (void of any theology) Adam and Eve learned from their mistakes. We humans make mistakes all the time (sometimes those mistakes are sinful). We learn from our mistakes and God often creates good out of evil.

      Point is: we don’t condone sin, but it is good to recognize to good God makes out of our sin WITHOUT implying the ends justify the means. Perfect example children out of wedlock.

      God Bless

      • Phil:
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        If Adam and Eve learned from their mistakes, then where in Genesis did they repent, and confess their sin to God? I see no trace of repentance in their response to God’s questions in the Garden.
        *
        God engaged in accompaniment and discernment with Cain, but Cain went off and killed Abel. When God asks Cain where Abel is Cain lies and asks a nominalist question “am I my brother’s keeper?” (RSVCE)
        *
        God gives him a fairly light punishment for killing Abel. Cain’s response shows no trace of sorrow for killing Abel.
        *
        Gen 4:13:
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        Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear.
        Gen 4:14 Behold, thou hast driven me this day away from the ground; and from thy face I shall be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will slay me.” (RSVCE)
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        Cain’s life is all about Cain.

  7. “psychological/spiritual” – isn’t that redundant? Psyche is Greek for soul or spirit, which makes psychology religion, not science. Why haven’t the separation-of-church-and-state fanatics demanded that head-shrinking priests like Jordan Peterson be kicked out of classrooms? Maybe they, like Bishop Barron, are confused by nonmaterial concepts.

  8. ” I have the same concern about Peterson that I have about both Campbell and Jung, namely, the Gnosticizing tendency to read Biblical religion purely psychologically and philosophically and not at all historically. No Christian should be surprised that the Scriptures can be profitably read through psychological and philosophical lenses, but at the same time, every Christian has to accept the fact that the God of the Bible is not simply a principle or an abstraction, but rather a living God who acts in history.”
    There seems to be a browser problem for some commentators here since they obviously didn’t read Bishop Barron’s next to the last paragraph.

  9. “I have about both Campbell and Jung, namely, the Gnosticizing tendency to read Biblical religion purely psychologically and philosophically and not at all historically” (Bishop Barron). Barron along with Anne Marie make an astute observation on Gnosticism, a trend today many recognize as Neo-Gnosticism that I called out in my book a few years past regarding popularity of Princeton Prof Elaine Pagels’ books Beyond Belief The Gospel of Thomas and others. That tendency is the same today as previous in an intellectual distancing of the flesh and blood Christ from his message rendering the message susceptible to psychological reinterpretation and evisceration of its force.

    • Dear Fr. Peter Morello, You’re right up in the front line of the battle. The CDF just issued a document about neo-Gnosticism and neo-Pelagianism.

  10. Bishop Barron:
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    St. John of the Cross wrote a book about divine union titled “The Ascent of Mount Carmel.” The Fall of Man was the fall from off of Mount Carmel. You need to re-read the Fall of Man section and pay attention to all the references that are made to the eye and Adam and Eve’s eyes. The eye is talked about in Matthew 6:22-23:
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    “The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light; but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be”. (NABRE)
    *
    When Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened they were no longer illuminated by the light of God’s graces. Through original sin Adam and Eve had stripped themselves of the robes of righteousness, leaving them truly naked. Denuded of grace, spiritually dead. Their now bad eyes leading to a darkened will and intellect. There is a positive form of spiritual nakedness where one seeks to be stripped of the bad eye and all the encrustations of sin and worldly attachments that can separate us from God and the reception of His pure light of grace through divine union.

  11. Much of the discussion involving Adam and Eve can be transferred to a wider discussion of the bible as.a whole, or the religious tradition of Christianity and of secular history All “history”–whether “mythic” (fictional, but significant, as in Hamlet or Dante), in a textbook or personal experience–receives and is conveyed as an interpretation. That interpretation becomes the significance for us. Adam and Eve may or may not be “history” in the scientific sense–few think it is–but it is an excellent significant story–of innocence, denial and consequences. I no longer think of it as “original sin” transmitted in sexual union, as Augustine thought (interpreting it through the lens of his own sinful youth), but as the process
    Adam (=man) and Eve (“the source of living”) which we pass through. Yes it is sin. Yes, it is bad. Yes, it has happy consequences (“felix culpa”)–as we struggle to be “born again” in “water and the spirit” to a New Life in Christ. In other words, I think the story is a permanent truth–a description of that Man and that Eve and you and me. and it is, in Peterson’s jargon a series of choices that creates a New child of God–but not one as he seems to suggest–an Ayn Randian figure, but a suffering servant–one whose choice is to lead by serving, to choose to be the least, and who humility makes one the greatest.

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