In my travels, I’ve been asked many times what I think about Jordan Peterson. There seem to be two main questions that people ask:
- “Is he a Christian or not?”
- “Do you think people are becoming Christians because of him?”
Since those are both two big questions, I thought I would tackle them one at a time.
- Is Jordan Peterson a Christian?
I would never presume to know the state of a person’s heart so I will resist giving a definite answer to that question. I think we can evaluate what Peterson has said, however, and see to what extent that lines up with a Christian confession of faith.
Peterson has called himself a “pragmatic Christian,” which means he consciously follows Jesus’ moral teachings. Beyond that, he avoids giving definite answers about his ultimate beliefs. When asked if he believes in God he says,
First of all, I don’t respond well to that question. It’s kind of like asking what you do in the bedroom….. It’s manipulative as well… I don’t like the question, and I don’t like to answer questions I can’t feel solid about in my answer.1
One of Peterson’s greatest strengths is that he chooses his words very carefully.2 This means that when he does make a clear and affirmative statement, you can be sure its what he genuinely believes to be true. The crucial point for our question then is “what does Peterson say about Jesus?”
Nailing that answer down is difficult because Peterson’s explanations are deeply rooted in Carl Jung’s psychological theory of archetypes, which isn’t easy to understand. Simply put, archetypes are mental images or symbols which represent to the mind some universal pattern or form.3 The word “symbol” is crucial here because a symbol only ever represents a thing; it is never the thing in and of itself.
Herein lies the problem I find with Peterson’s views on Jesus. For Peterson, Jesus is an archetype. That doesn’t mean Jesus didn’t exist. It’s just that whether he did or not isn’t really the point. The point is what Jesus represents. For example, Peterson describes Jesus as “the archetype of the perfect man.” In this sense then Jesus is the perfect model for us to follow. In another instance, he explained that when Jesus took the sin of the world upon himself, it was an archetype revealing the fact we are all capable not only of great good but also great evil.4 In this sense then Jesus gives us true self-understanding.
Same Words – Different Meanings:
This is where the confusion comes in. What Christian wouldn’t agree with saying that Jesus is the perfect model for us to follow, or that Jesus gives us true self-understanding? On the surface these sound like very Christ affirming statements. The problem is that the “surface” is only true if it rests on a true foundation. Understanding how Peterson views Jesus as an archetype, however, shows that while we may agree in our words we certainly do not in our meaning. Here is an illustration that I think helps.
We could say a whole lot more but I think this one point is the most important in clearing the confusion around Peterson. Whatever affirmations he makes about Jesus or the Bible seem to come solely from psychology which is ultimately focused on self-understanding. For Peterson, the lessons from Jesus or the Bible are meant to give us knowledge about us. The point is to teach us the truth about ourselves, and from that truth make ourselves the best “selves” that we can be.
Self-understanding is certainly essential for the Christian faith. The difference in the gospel
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17)
Is Jordan Peterson a Christian? I have no idea what God is doing inside the man’s heart and mind. All I can do is evaluate the things that he says. As much as I find him fascinating, interesting, thoughtful and intelligent, his message does not begin and end with Jesus Christ which necessarily disqualifies it from being Christian.
- This is an interview between Peterson and a British TV journalist that is a classic example of how Peterson’s cool and careful choice of words not only showed how intelligent he
is,but how foolish his opponent was. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMcjxSThD54&t=915s