THE author of the well-known book 12 Rules for Life (2018), Dr Jordan B. Peterson, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, wrestled publicly last month with his beliefs about Christianity, after pondering them during prolonged illness.
In a podcast interview with Jonathan Pageau, Professor Peterson said: “What you have in the figure of Christ is an actual person who actually lived, plus a myth, and, in some sense, Christ is the union of those two things. The problem is I probably believe that, but I’m amazed at my own belief and I don’t understand it.”
But, he continued, on the verge of tears: “It’s too terrifying a reality to fully believe. I don’t even know what would happen to you if you fully believed it.”
Professor Peterson noted that, when asked in the past whether he believed in God, “I’ve answered in various ways, ‘No, but I’m afraid he probably exists.’”
He continued: “There’s no limit to what would happen if you acted like God existed. . . It may be it’s not reasonable to say to believers, you aren’t sufficiently transformed for me to believe that you believe in God or that you believe the story that you’re telling me. . . the way you live isn’t sufficient testament to the truth.
“And people would certainly say that, let’s say, about the Catholic Church, or at least the way that it’s being portrayed, is that with all the sexual corruption, for example, it’s like ‘Really, really, you believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and yet you act that way, and I’m supposed to buy your belief?’
“It seems to me that the Church is actually quite guilty on that account, because the attempts to clean up the mess have been rather half-hearted, in my estimation. Christians don’t manifest this — and I’m including myself, I suppose, in that description — the transformation of attitude that enables the outside observer to easily conclude that they believe.”
Professor Peterson has recently suffered from physical and mental ill-health. “The fact that I’ve been living in constant pain makes the idea of joy seem cruel, I would say, and so I have no idea how to reconcile myself to that. I mean, I’ve reconciled myself to that by staying alive despite it, you know.”
Professor Peterson’s latest book, Beyond Order: 12 more rules for life, was published this month by Allen Lane. His book 12 Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos (Books, 9 November 2018) has sold approximately five million copies.
Professor Peterson has gained prominence as a public intellectual for his confrontational style and views on gender: he believes that hierarchies are inevitable in human societies, and that patriarchy — which he thinks is based on “male competence” — requires no dismantling.
In 2019, the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge rescinded an offer of a Visiting Fellowship made to Professor Peterson, after it became aware of a photograph of Professor Peterson posing with his arm around a man wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “I’m a proud Islamophobe” (News, 29 March 2019).
In articulating his vision of masculinity and personal responsibility, he has relied heavily on the example of Christian morality, and particularly biblical stories. In a series of lectures on the Bible, in 2017, he said that the Flood demonstrated that, with upstanding behaviour, people could survive chaos: Noah had “put himself together and his familial relationships were good”, which allowed him to triumph over his circumstances. Cain met his downfall because he lacked a “grateful and inquiring posture”, whereas Abel’s contrasting temperament led to his personal and social success.
Despite these interests, and a Christian following, religious narratives have functioned mainly for Professor Peterson as a means of grounding his Jungian psychological ideas in the history of morality and ritual.
While some Christians have embraced Professor Peterson’s writings, others worry about his conflation of Christian and secular ideas. Dr Justine Woh, a senior research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity, said in an interview with ABC News, in 2019, that Professor Peterson had secularised the idea of taking up one’s cross, “which is pick up your own heavy cross, the heaviest load, and carry that, and it will make you strong. He is dealing with a kind of Christian ethic, but he’s channelling it into a self-responsibility, self-actualisation message.”