Category: Books

Part 10 (of 15): Who Gets To Interpret The World?

Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life
by Greg Boyd
In my previous two posts (post 8 & post 9) I critically evaluated Peterson’s thinking on hierarchies, race and white privilege. In this post I’ll address three other aspects of Peterson’s thought that was outlined in post 5, post 6, and post 7.
On the Power of Women’s “No”
First, we’ve seen that Peterson claims that “[w]omen’s proclivity to say no [to men] more than any other force, has shaped our evolution into the creative, industrious, upright, large-brained (competitive, aggressive, domineering) creatures that we are” (41). Because females naturally want to mate with males who are as high up on the social scale as possible, finding the bottom half to be undesirable (41), they have been the central means by which advantageous genes got passed along while disadvantageous genes were selected out. Hence, the playing field on which men must compete for mating rites has been getting higher and higher throughout our biological and social evolution.
While I don’t dispute the research demonstrating that women are choosy maters, I’m not convinced women have always, or even usually, had the power to say “no” that Peterson ascribes to them. Indeed, at least since we became agricultural (c.12-10,000 B.C.E.), women have generally not had the power to say “no.” To the contrary, they more often than not have been considered men’s property, as they are in the Old Testament. And far from being picky about who they mated with, young women have most often been sold to the family that offered the largest bridal dowry (or offered other advantages to the woman’s family or clan), as still happens in many traditional cultures today.
The evidence is ambiguous on human mating customs prior to this, though there is a growing consensus among scholars that the old image of the caveman dragging a woman around by her hair is far from accurate. Instead, many are now arguing that humans were generally more egalitarian as hunter-gatherers than when we became farmers. This view is not beyond dispute, but even if we if we accept it, one would think that the competition among males for the most desired women would have played at least as great a role in sexual selection as whatever power women had to say “no.”
This point is significant in that Peterson argues that the power of women to say “no” is one of the reasons the feminine is symbolically associated with chaos. If I’m correct, we have one less reason to consider this association to be rooted in the very nature of things. (More on this below).
Is Slow Change Sometimes Unjust?
Second, we have seen Peterson make the case that cultural traditions should be honored and changed very cautiously and very slowly, if they need to be changed at all. And, as I said earlier, I think there is wisdom in Peterson’s call for a conservative and liberal impulse to be balanced. But I worry that Peterson’s strong resistance to speedy change could be used to justify the continuance of traditional practices in a society that are truly inhumane and that would justify speedy change.
My concern is not without historic precedent. In pre-abolition America, many people, both in the North and South, and as early as the eighteenth century, agreed that slavery should be abolished. They just insisted that it must be done slowly, to prevent the social upheaval that would result from its immediate abolishment. The same argument was used to maintain Jim Crow laws against the civil rights movement. In his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” MLK addressed this argument, made in this case by a group of well-intended, predominately white, pastors. Against their encouragement to slow down so as not prevent social upheaval, King argued that “justice delayed is justice denied” (a quote which arguable goes back to William Penn’s statement, “a delayed justice is injustice”)?
A multitude of other examples could be given (e.g. Apartheid in South Africa), for the truth is that inhumane traditions are retained in the structure of a society only because enough people, or at least enough of the important and powerful people, benefit from them. Because of this, it’s always been in the interest of the benefactors of an inhumane tradition to delay its demise as long as possible (and usually only after attempts to completely silence those calling for its demise have failed).
My concern is that the logic of Peterson’s social conservatism – viz. that social change should always come about slowly and cautiously – would land all who embrace it on the side of the benefactors of injustice, which would have landed them on the wrong side of all of social revolutions that have brought about lasting improvements in society.
I want to be clear that, as a follower of Jesus, I deplore the violence that has all-too-often been involved in these revolutions. I believe that Jesus, as well as social revolutionaries like Ghandi and MLK, have demonstrated that dramatic and swift improvements can be brought about by non-violent means if sufficient numbers of people are committed to nonviolence and if these people are willing to suffer for their cause, rather than to make those who oppose them suffer.
But as nasty as social upheavals can sometimes be, there are times when the injustice being done by a tradition renders delaying its termination even more unjust.
The Past Is Written (Mostly) By Men
Finally, throughout 12 Rules of Life, Peterson appeals to the wisdom of ancient traditions, religion, and especially mythic stories, and I think he derives some interesting, legitimate insights from these sources. At the same time, what I find missing in Peterson’s assessment of ancient sources, at least in 12 Rules of Life, is an acknowledgement that all, or almost all, of these stories were originally passed along and written down by men. These stories thus consistently reflect the perspective and concerns of men, and I would think that acknowledging this point would significantly affect how we evaluate them.
For example, might the fact that ancient stories were passed along and eventually written down by men have something do with the fact that order, the realm of the “known,” is symbolically associated with masculinity, while chaos, the realm of the “unknown,” is symbolically associated with femininity? I largely agree with Peterson that there are genuine biological and psychological differences that tend to (it is a continuum) distinguish men and women, to the point that members of each group often experience members of the other group as deeply mysterious. But might not the fact that ancient stories were written by men go a long way in explaining why women are identified as the mysterious “unknown” in these stories? Had women instead been in charge of passing along and writing down these stories, might we not find men being associated with the mysterious “unknown”?
We need to wonder about the archetypal association of femininity with chaos on other grounds as well. After all, isn’t it fair to say that men, with their extra testosterone induced aggression, pride, and all-too-frequent fragile egos, have always tended to bring far more destructive forms of chaos into the world than women? Conversely, isn’t it true that the traditional roles that women have assumed throughout history have always centered on preserving and protecting order in their families and societies, all-too-often against the chaos that husbands and other males introduce into the family and society?
In this light, we’ve got to wonder why order is consistently symbolically depicted as a masculine quality in ancient stories while chaos is symbolically depicted as a feminine quality. To deny that this has something to do with the fact that these stories were written by men is to endorse the male perspective of these stories as being the true and timeless perspective, which is, to be frank, precisely what I see Peterson doing. And this is one of the reasons I have no trouble understanding why many women find his perspective to be irritating, if not dangerous.
Finally, we have to wonder why Peterson (following Jung) identifies consciousness with masculinity while arguing that “attentive wakefulness, clarity of vision, and tough-minded independence” are “masculine traits” (324)? Related to this, why should we believe ancient and modern stories such as Sleeping Beauty that depict women as needing to be “rescued” by a “Prince” (or by their own “masculine spirit”) whose kiss is needed for her to become conscious (324)?
I would have thought that the traditional roles of women to care for the needs of children and of society, while the men were away hunting or at war, would have required them to be as conscious, and to possess all of the above “masculine” qualities, in at least the same measure as men. So, how did these qualities get symbolically associated with masculinity in the first place?
Peterson simply claims that consciousness has been symbolically associated with masculinity “since the beginning of time.” Since I’m not an expert on ancient mythology, I’ll accept this as correct (though in a later post I’ll give reasons to be suspicious about some of Peterson’s interpretation of ancient stories). But even if true, how much weight should this fact carry when we know that these ancient stories have reflected the perspective of the men who created them “from the beginning of time”? If women had been the primary bearers of oral traditions and the primary authors of ancient texts, does Peterson believe they would have agreed that consciousness, or attentive wakefulness, clarity of vision, and tough-minded independence,” were distinctly “masculine traits”? I, for one, strongly suspect not.
Here is another point where I think deconstructionism makes a valid point, its many shortcomings as an overall philosophy notwithstanding. For it holds that whoever is empowered to interpret the world controls the world. Owing chiefly to their generally superior strength, and lacking the biological burdens that women have had to deal with up until the recent past (e.g. menstruation, childbearing), men have generally held the power to interpret the world (as reflected in ancient stories) and to therefore control the world. This is not to endorse the postmodern claim that men have tyrannized women throughout history. It is simply to say that men have usually controlled the narrative through which the world gets interpreted.
If we instead assume that the perspective reflected in these stories is rooted in the very nature of things, as Peterson does, we are simply ensuring that the male perspective of these stories will continue to control our interpretive narrative. And I, for one, think this would be tragic. In my estimation, we have evolved to the point that it’s time for the patriarchal dimension of our past to be eliminated, in my opinion. Given the technological and digital revolution, it is no longer either necessary or helpful. But eliminating this requires us to first acknowledge that the interpretation of the world in the past – including its association of masculinity with order and femininity with chaos – reflects the perspective of males and is not rooted in the very nature of things.
If I may close with a piece of speculation: Given how challenging it was for humans to simply survive up until the recent past, Peterson may be correct in arguing that it was advantageous to our species that males usually wielded more power than women. Their generally superior strength and higher testosterone levels, combined with the biological burdens that women have always borne, arguably rendered it inevitable, and possibly even necessary, for males to usually assume leadership roles in their tribes and cultures. However, I submit that the technological and digital revolutions have rendered men’s generally superior physical strength and women’s biological burdens largely irrelevant when it comes to playing leadership roles. Indeed, with the frightful advancement of military technology, these revolutions have arguably rendered the higher testosterone levels of men a liability.
In this light, I would argue that what the world needs now is to have more people in charge whose biology and role in traditional cultures has rendered them less skilled at hunting and war, and more skilled at relationship building and preserving order in the family and in society.
In short, I’m thoroughly convinced that our world now needs more women and less men calling the shots.
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Part 9 (of 15): Peterson on White Privilege

Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life
by Greg Boyd
“The degree to which the terrible part of the world manifests itself in your life is proportionate to how insufficient you are….If you got your act together completely, maybe all the suffering would disappear from your life, or at least all the unbearable suffering.”
Jordan Peterson
Since our last post was focused on the issue of race, I thought it appropriate to follow it up with a reflection on Peterson’s well-known opposition to the concept of “white privilege,” despite the fact this topic was not addressed in 12 Rules of Life. I will instead evaluate the case Peterson makes against the concept of white privilege at the end of a much-viewed two-hour lecture on Identity Politics.
I first want to offer two preliminary words. First, I am a white person in America while Peterson is a white person in Canada. While there is significant overlap as it concerns race relationships in the histories of our two countries, there are also significant differences. As a result, there are significant differences in the relationship between whites and non-whites, which I think affects the meaning of “white privilege” in our differing contexts. Nuancing this difference lies outside the scope of this post as well as my expertise. For the purposes of this post, I will focus my attention on “white privilege” in America.
Second, because I am focusing on “white privilege” in America, and in order to avoid going down a number of potential rabbit trails, I am only going to speak about the history of race relations in America, and I’m going to restrict my discussion to the relationship between whites, on the one hand, and blacks and Native Americans, on the other. This is not because I think whites are only privileged over these two groups, but because it was these two groups who were most adversely affect when white Europeans conquered North America and established their white-favoring social hierarchy.
Third, and in the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that this was a difficult post for me to write. The topic of race, and especially of “white privilege,” is one that I have passionate convictions about, and as I shared in the previous post, it is very difficult to remain calm and open minded when discussing deeply held convictions with someone you disagree with. Simply put, the provocative video of Peterson that I’ll be reviewing in this post “triggered” me. I found I had to watch it numerous times to make sure I was hearing Peterson correctly (and I acknowledge that I still could be mistaken). And I will admit that I had to take a number of “timeouts” when writing this post to ensure I was reasoning with my frontal lobe rather than reacting with my Amygdala (and I acknowledge that I still could be influenced by my Amygdala). Readers must judge for themselves how successful or unsuccessful I was at this endeavor.
The Case Against White Privilege
In the video under review, Peterson first professes confusion as to “why the post-modernists have made the canonical distinctions they made: race, ethnicity, sexual proclivity [and] gender identity.” (I am unclear as to how Peterson differentiates between “race” and “ethnicity,” or “sexual proclivity” and “gender identity,” but for the purposes of this post, it doesn’t matter). Peterson grants that these are certainly “four dimensions along which people vary,” but, he notes, there are “an infinite number of dimensions along which people vary.” People vary in terms of intelligence, attractiveness, health, wealth, geography, education, height and weight, to name just a few. So, Peterson wonders, why do postmodernists privilege these four dimensions over all the others?
His answer is: “Because it sustains your bloody Marxist interpretation, that’s why!” It’s thus apparent that Peterson believes that the focus on race, as in the claim that white people are privileged, is arbitrary and ideologically driven. (The same holds true about “sexual proclivity” and “gender identity,” but these are outside the scope of this post).
After a few comical slams on the incoherence of post-modernism (with which I completely agree, by the way), Peterson goes on to review some of the alleged marks of white privilege, such as: “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty sure that I will not be followed or harassed.” He then asks: “Is that white privilege, or… simply majority privilege?” Peterson insists it is the latter and that it is perfectly natural.
Isn’t that just part of living within your culture?….You live in your culture, you’re privileged as a member of that culture. Well obviously, that’s what the culture is for…. Why would you bother building the damn thing if it didn’t accrue benefits to you.
Peterson acknowledges that one of the consequences of majority privilege is that people who aren’t part of the majority “accrue fewer benefits.” But, Peterson argues, “you can’t immediately associate that with race. You can’t just do that and say its white privilege. There’s many things it could be. It certainly could be wealth,” for example.
Peterson then turns the table on those who, in the name of battling racism, contend that white people are privileged by arguing that this allegation is itself racist. “To attribute to the individuals of a community the attributes of that community on the basis of their racial identity is racism. There’s no other way to define it.”
After serving up several more diatribes against post-modernism and on the dangers of the Marxist ideology that Peterson believes is behind it, Peterson draws his lecture to a close by warning us that postmodernists are
…manipulating us with historical ignorance and philosophical sleight-of-hand to render us so God damned guilty about what our ancestors may or may not have done… that we allow our shame and our guilt to be used as tools to manipulate us into accepting a future that we don’t want to have.
There are seven points I’d like to make in response to Peterson’s case against white privilege.
(Deep slow breath).
1. Why Focus on Race?
Peterson is obviously correct that there are an (virtual) infinite number of ways people vary from one another, but I don’t think it’s at all fair to say that people who concern themselves with “race” or “ethnicity,” rather than with any of the other many ways people differ, are doing so because it fits their “bloody Marxist interpretation.”
It wasn’t Marxist-driven ideologues that decided to canonize race as the primary way of distinguishing people in America and (to a lesser degree) Canada. This was decided five hundred years ago when white Europeans enslaved and otherwise brutalized millions of Africans and massacred and betrayed untold numbers of Native Americans. These people didn’t carry out these brutal injustices on the basis of people’s wealth, or attractiveness, or height, or intelligence, or any of the other “infinite….dimensions along which people vary.” It was done on the basis of race. Indeed, the very concept of different races (as opposed to ethnicities) was created by white Europeans in large part to justify enslaving and massacring other ethnicities, which they deemed inferior.
The injustice that was involved in establishing the white hierarchical structure of America (and Canada) reverberates to this day. And in this light, Peterson’s professed confusion about why people (not just postmodernists) are focused on race seems historically naïve.
2. Is It Marxist to Focus on Race?
Related to this, Peterson’s claim that those who concern themselves with race, rather than with any of the many other “dimensions” in which people vary, are driven by “a Marxist ideology” is also off the mark. Yes, there are postmodernists whose concern for race is part of a larger philosophical and social agenda, but it seems to me that Peterson’s opposition to this group has blinded him to the possibility of people focusing on race issues simply because this is where many most of the injustices of western society have taken place in the past, and where many are yet taking place in the present.
For example, does one need to be driven by a Marxist ideology to be troubled by the fact that the so-called “War on Drugs” has been focused on predominantly black inner city neighborhoods and on crack (the “poor man’s cocaine”), despite the fact that numerous studies indicate that whites use illegal drugs at least as much as blacks, though they tend to use cocaine rather than crack?(1) And does one need to be driven by a Marxist ideology to be enraged over the fact that the mandatory sentencing guidelines for crack are literally a hundred times more severe than they are for cocaine, which is just one of the reasons the overwhelming majority of those who are incarcerated during this “War on Drugs” are black?(2)
I care deeply about these things, and yet I have no affinity for Marxist ideology and I believe I’m as opposed to the philosophy of radical postmodernism (deconstructionism) as Peterson is.
3. “White Privilege” is not “Majority Privilege”
I don’t doubt that it’s generally true (though unfortunate) that the people who build a culture and establish the social hierarchies of that culture generally enjoy more benefits than those who are not part of the dominant culture (though, I will argue in a later post that it should not be this way among Kingdom people). But here I think Peterson fails to see the forest through the trees.
It’s one thing for minority groups to “accrue less benefits” than the majority in the culture that the majority established, but quite another thing for a group to establish itself as a majority and establish its preferred culture by invading a land, massacring and stealing from its indigenous population, reducing them to a minority in their own land, and then getting centuries of free labor by importing and enslaving people from Africa! Whites benefited, and continue to benefit, in a multitude of ways from these foundational injustices, and blacks and Native Americans continue to suffer in a multitude of ways from these foundational injustices. For Peterson to treat this as just another example of typical majority privilege is to essentially normalize this racist past and the racist social hierarchy it established.
Peterson claims that “we can’t immediately associate” the privileging of white people “with race” by calling it “white privilege.” “You don’t just get to do that,” he argues, for “[t]here’s many things it could be,” like “wealth,” for example. Now, I agree that we should be open to the possibility that there are a number of factors other than race that might contribute to a comprehensive explanation of the statistically significant economic and social disparities between whites, on the one hand, and blacks and Native Americans, on the other. For example, from the mid-1960’s up to the present, there has been a steady erosion of traditional family values in black communities. The number of children being raised in single parent homes has tripled, and with this, the number of families living in poverty as well as the number of young adults committing crimes and ending up in prison has skyrocketed.
Obviously, this catastrophic shift can’t be explained by appealing to slavery, or to anything else prior to the mid-1960’s. While I would argue that the “War on Drugs” contributed significantly to the sharply increased prison population of blacks, some social scientists have argued that the most obvious explanation is the explosion of the welfare state that began in the mid-1960’s. I am not convinced of this thesis, but it is certainly a consideration to be taken seriously.
At the same time, while I agree that other factors need to be considered, for Peterson to suggest that white/majority privilege might have nothing to do with race strikes me, once again, as historically naïve. You can’t enslave and massacre a race of people for four centuries and then, a century and a half later, claim that the on-going struggles of this people have nothing to do with race! Yes, blacks and whites are finally equal in terms of the law, thanks to the Civil Rights Movement. But the repercussions of slavery in the past as well as the systemic racism that continues to this today are about so much more than laws.
The bottom line is that Peterson and I don’t just benefit because we are part of the majority. We benefit because we are white and we are the indirect beneficiaries of all the injustices our white ancestors perpetrated against others.
I acknowledge this doesn’t mean that white people today should feel personal “shame” and “guilt” for what our ancestors did, as Peterson seems to assume. But it does mean that, as the benefactors of our ancestors’ racial injustices, whites who care about justice should acknowledge their privilege and seek to use it to create opportunities for all who were disadvantaged by the same injustices we benefited from.
Peterson’s view that white privilege is simply an example of normal majority pretends that whiteness is devoid of racial significance. But he doesn’t just get to do that. The racist history that privileges whites over blacks, Native Americans, and others can’t be undone. Nor should it ever be normalized or (what comes to the same thing) swept under the rug by disassociating privilege from whiteness.
4. Misunderstanding White Privilege
I believe Peterson is missing the point when he argues that the concept of “white privilege” is a racist concept. If “white privilege” meant that all individual white people were guilty of racism, then it would indeed be a racist concept. For in this case, the concept would “attribute to the individuals of a community the attributes of that community on the basis of their racial identity.” In reality, however, “white privilege” simply describes the obvious reality that white people tend to enjoy privileges in North America that are not afforded to blacks and some other minority groups. And it acknowledges that this is, to one degree or another, associated with the fact that whites established themselves as the majority in this land and established their white-favoring culture in this land at the expense of African slaves and Native Americans.
In short, “white privilege” is a statement of fact, not a judgment on individuals. And as a statement of fact, I frankly struggle to see how anyone can deny it.
5. A Disturbing Closing Statement
So, we must wonder, why is Peterson so opposed to acknowledging this? The answer, I believe, is found in his closing statement. As we’ve seen, he is convinced that the charge of white privilege is part of an attempt of post-modernists to “render us so God damned guilty about what our ancestors may or may not have done…that we allow our shame and our guilt to be used as tools to manipulate us into accepting a future that we don’t want to have.”
I frankly find this statement to be puzzling, and a bit disturbing, for three reasons.
First, who are these post-modernists who are trying to get us white people to accept a future we don’t want by making us feel guilty for what our ancestors “may or may not have done”? I’ve read and dialogued with numerous thoroughly postmodern people, and I’ve honestly never come across anything resembling the sinister agenda Peterson ascribes to them.
Second, I found it curious that when Peterson railed against white privilege, his language became distinctly parochial. He alleges that the postmodernists are trying to “render us so God damned guilty …that we allow our shame and our guilt…to manipulate us into accepting a future that we don’t want to have.” Who is being referenced by these first-person plural pronouns? White people, obviously.
I will resist the temptation to psychologize why Peterson suddenly talks this way. Instead, I will simply point out the curious fact that Peterson is here identifying himself with, and speaking on behalf of, a social group (white people) that he clearly believes is facing persecution. When representatives of minority groups talk this way, Peterson accuses them of playing identity politics. It’s not clear to me how what Peterson is doing here is any different from that.
Along the same lines, Peterson frequently points out how wrong it is for any member of a group to assume they can speak on behalf of an entire group, as if the group was homogenous. Yet, here Peterson is talking about how postmodernists are trying to make “us” whites feel so “God damned guilty” that we will allow ourselves to be manipulated into “accepting a future we don’t want to have.” I will just note that there are multitudes of white people who would adamantly disagree with this representation of what white people experience and want.
And third, what exactly is the “future” that we [white people] allegedly “don’t want” but that we are supposedly being manipulated into accepting? Whatever else this undesirable future may be, it seems clear that for Peterson, it’s a future in which whites either no longer enjoy special privileges, or a future in which we feel shame and guilt if we do. Which means that the future we white people apparently want, according to Peterson, is a future in which we can feel guiltless as we continue to enjoy our white privilege.
Here again I will just note that there are multitudes of white people who would adamantly disagree with Peterson’s representation of the future that we white people want.
6. Questioning the History of White Racism
I’m also disturbed by Peterson’s reference in his closing statement to “what our [white] ancestors may or may not have done.” What is the point of this qualification? Peterson tips his hand just enough to let us know that he clearly thinks there is some room to doubt some reports of “our [white] ancestors” using, abusing, and killing non-whites, but he leaves the question wide open. His qualification cracks the door just enough that one could easily entertain the possibility that the behavior of our white ancestors toward non-whites was perhaps not nearly as bad as has been reported.
Peterson is perhaps concerned that some postmodernists are exaggerating the horrors that whites inflicted on blacks and Native Americans in the past. I’m personally not aware of any such exaggerations, but let’s assume this is happening. In light of all the horrors that whites inflicted on blacks and Native Americans that are beyond dispute, and in light of the fact that this racist past has usually been minimized in the past and continues to be minimized by right-wing zealots in the present, should Peterson really be all that concerned if someone exaggerated this wrongdoing — so concerned that he would introduce, at the close of a public lecture in which he’s talking about white privilege, an open-ended question about the over-all historical veracity of white racism?
At the very least, this strikes me as unwise and insensitive. Imagine for a moment that you are Jewish and had relatives who endured Nazi concentration camps, with many of them perishing. How would you feel if a highly respected German speaker ended a talk defending the normal “majority privilege” of Germans in Germany by saying he will not be made to feel guilty about things the Third Reich “may or may not have done”? Precisely because the qualification is indeterminate, this speaker just legitimized the perspective of those who deny that the Holocaust, which your ancestors endured, ever happened.
7. Acknowledging the Meaning of Whiteness
I’ll end with an observation. Peterson embraces a radically individualistic perspective in which every individual is “a minority of one.” He resists any group identification that would lessen the uniqueness of each individual, which is one of the reasons he is so opposed to identity politics, why he hates group generalizations, why he is wary of anyone claiming to represent a people group, and why he doesn’t approve of “white privilege.” To this same end, both in 12 Rules of Life and in lectures and interviews, Peterson delights in showing how frequently people are mistaken when they make assumptions about individuals based on the group they belong to.
I think Peterson’s individualist perspective and pushback on group identifications yields many insights. And, I should in fairness add, his strong stance against all forms of “collectivist thinking” distances him from the Alt-Right and especially from White Supremacy groups. But I also suspect Peterson’s strongly individualistic perspective prevents him from seeing, or at least from fully appreciating, the reality and significance of the larger inter-human wholes each individual is a part of.
While every individual is utterly unique, it is also true that they are who they are by virtue of things they have in common with others. To one degree or another, they are who they are because they belong to a particular race, have a particular gender (or not), belong to a particular family, are part of a particular history, and participate in a particular culture. And while the shared features that identify a person as belonging to a particular group should never cause us to minimize their individual uniqueness, I believe we also need to be concerned that we not allow their individual uniqueness to minimize the significance of the features they have in common with others.
Jordan Peterson is radically unique, but he shares the trait of being white with other white people, past and present, including those who conquered North America and established the white-favoring social hierarchy. This is part of who Jordan Peterson is, as it is part of who I am, and whether Peterson acknowledges it or not, it has a great deal of cultural significance. But if there is anything I took away from the video I’ve been discussing, it’s that Peterson doesn’t see this. For example, I can’t see how any white person could see this and yet go on to argue that “white privilege” is simply normal “majority privilege.”
I suspect Peterson fails to see the significance of his whiteness in part because his radically individualistic perspective blinds him to it. But I’m virtually certain Peterson fails to see this because of his own white privilege. For if Peterson was black or brown, pretending that his race didn’t mean anything probably wouldn’t be a viable option. At least for most black and brown people in America, they encounter the meaning of blackness and brownness on a daily basis.
Among other things, it means you don’t get to go shopping alone and not have to worry about being followed or harassed.
White people in America have the luxury of not being reminded on a regular basis what it means to be white. Our whiteness allows most of us to float above the harsh realities that regularly remind blacks, Native Americans, and others what their race means. In fact, most white people don’t even think about themselves as white. And this, I suspect, is why it is easy for Peterson to overlook the cultural significance of his whiteness.
The thing is, none of us get to decide the meaning that our skin color and ethnicity has in our particular social and historical context, let alone whether or not it has any meaning. We inherit this, the same way we inherit the meaning of words in the language we use. And if we are concerned with working for justice and with improving race relations in our land, we have to acknowledge this meaning and grapple with it.
As Peterson frequently says, you have to honestly face reality before you can understand how to improve it (203-30).
___ ___ ___
(1) See M. Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2012). 49-52.
(2) Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 109.
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Part 8 (of 15): Race and Social Hierarchies

Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life
by Greg Boyd
“The degree to which the terrible part of the world manifests itself in your life is proportionate to how insufficient you are….If you got your act together completely, maybe all the suffering would disappear from your life, or at least all the unbearable suffering.”
Jordan Peterson
In this and the following several posts I will be critically evaluating aspects of Peterson’s thoughts on social hierarchies and related issues that we have discussed over the last three posts. In this and the following post, my critical evaluation will be based on reason alone, while my evaluation in the several posts that follow these will be from a distinctly Christian perspective.
The Necessary Balance of Order and Chaos
Before evaluating Peterson’s thoughts on social hierarchies and race, I want to briefly discuss two fundamental areas in which I am in full agreement with Peterson. First, I found a good deal of wisdom in Peterson’s repeated warnings not to disrespect the “known’ (order) and hastily launch into the “unknown” (chaos). He calls for a balanced approach to progress, and while I’m not sure he himself maintains this balance, as I’ll argue below, I agree, in principle, that our inclination to explore “unknown territory” needs to be balanced with the need to “respect the known” and maintain stability.
But this is not easily done. Numerous studies have shown that the brains of about half of the population are hard-wired to lean conservative, looking positively into the past, putting a premium value on stability, and viewing the future pessimistically, while the other half is hard-wired to lean liberal, looking negatively at the past, putting a premium on risk-taking, and viewing the future more optimistically (see: here).
There are, of course, many other factors that impact a person’s outlook (e.g., upbringing, social environment, personal experiences, their own reasoning process). And, of course, there is a continuum here, with only the extremes at both ends reflecting entirely conservative or entirely liberal impulses. But these studies nevertheless demonstrate that our brain’s hard-wiring inclines us toward one or the other of these two camps.
A healthy society needs both perspectives, for all the reasons Peterson has outlined. Without liberal minds decrying the injustices of the past and pulling conservative minds to explore the “unknown” in order to continually improve society, we could easily end up in a stagnant and oppressive social order. But without conservative minds appealing to the wisdom of the past and resisting the liberal pull to experiment with “the unknown,” we could easily end up destabilizing society and falling headlong into chaos.
To maintain this balance, however, both groups need to trust the good will of the other and communicate with each other in productive ways. As our current culture wars are making painfully obvious, this necessary trust can quickly disappear and, as a result, this necessary communication can quickly degenerate into name calling, label slapping, and demonizing the opposing sides. Each group thus decides the other is simply wrong, and so decide they must win.
We need to realize that this “must win” mindset simply ensures that we will all lose. As I read him, while Peterson’s main concern is with the liberals who have adopted the philosophy of deconstructionism and who are currently winning in the western Academy (which, he believes, means they will eventually win in the broader society), he is really trying to call for this balance. If his focus is more on the danger of social chaos swallowing up order than the other way around (and it is), this is because this is the threat western culture is currently facing.
Regardless of what one thinks of deconstructionism, this call for liberals and conservatives to begin to dialogue again is certainly on the mark. Having said this, however, I will register my opinion that I am deeply pessimistic about this ever happening. And my reason has to do with our brain’s circuitry and with Cable News.
MRI tests have demonstrated that when people confront alleged facts that challenged their deeply held beliefs, their amygdala, which is in charge of their “fight-or-flight” reflex, kicks into gear, and their pre-frontal lobe cortex, which is in charge of reasoning, tends to shut down. On the other hand, when people encounter alleged facts that confirm their deeply held beliefs, the pleasure centers of their brain gets activated, and their pre-frontal lobe cortex again tends to shut down (see: here). This is why it is very difficult to think objectively, or talk rationally, about beliefs we are passionate about.
Well, “back in the day” we had three television Networks, and it was in the interest of all of them to report the News with as little bias as possible to attract the widest possible audience. With the advent of Cable News, however, people are able to watch the filtered version of the News that they agree with and that therefore activates the pleasure centers of their brain. And when liberal and conservative minded people no longer have to try to see the world through each other’s eyes, they get hardened in their perspectives. In time, they lose the willingness, and then the ability, to understand the perspectives of those who fundamentally disagree with their deeply held beliefs. Those who oppose them, therefore, can’t possibly be doing so on rational or moral grounds, which means they must either be stupid or immoral. They therefore cannot be reasoned with. They must simply be defeated.
If someone has a practical solution as to how western culture can reverse this dire trend, they are smarter than me and should quickly make their solution known. I don’t mean to sound apocalyptic, but I seriously think western civilization, and especially America, is in serious trouble. Democracy depends on people trusting the good intentions of those they disagree with and on the general public relying on shared sources of information. All indications are that both of these preconditions for Democracy have deteriorated significantly over the last thirty years.
If your hope is anchored in Jesus Christ alone, as it should be, this grim forecast won’t undermine the peace and optimism that is part of your inheritance as a citizen of God’s Kingdom. The rise and fall of empires founded on violence – and they are all founded on violence- is as predictable as the rising and setting of the sun. Despite many desperately insisting otherwise, America will not likely prove to be an exception to this uniform rule, assuming the Lord doesn’t return in the next hundred or so years to fully establish the Kingdom.
If there is a glimmer of hope for this country and for western civilization itself, it resides in young people waking up to the insanity of what is happening. If sufficient numbers begin to realize how thoroughly people’s minds are being manipulated by cable News and social media and to the desperate need for the members of any democracy to be able and willing to rationally and calmly discuss their differences rather than demonizing one another on the basis of these difference, the ever-widening chasms that separate us could possibly begin to be reversed. The question boils down to this: Will westerners prove themselves to be smarter than the seductive lure of propaganda and fear and the idolatrous need to always be right?
Only time will tell.
The Harm of Ideologies
I also find Peterson’s critique of ideologies to be insightful. The appeal of ideologies is that they promise simple solutions to life’s miseries, but they do this by ignoring the complexity of reality and the inevitability of life’s miseries. Peterson notes that ideologies
…adopt a single axiom: government is bad, immigration is bad, capitalism is bad, patriarchy is bad. Then they filter and screen their experiences and insist ever more narrowly that everything can be explained by that axiom. They believe, narcissistically, underneath all that bad theory, that the world could be put right, if only they held the controls (211).
In the name of this axiom, the wisdom of the past is over-turned and a new order is socially engineered, which is why Peterson believes that ideologies always tend in a totalitarian direction. Ideologies create social chaos, and often massive violence, in the process of being adopted by a society, and the unnatural order they enforce creates still more horrors, as Peterson believes the twentieth century demonstrates.
I’ve already registered my reservations about blaming the horrors of the twentieth century on the ideology of nihilism. Indeed, one could argue that this perspective is itself an oversimplification that is rooted in an ideology. Be that as it may, I think Peterson’s critique of ideologies in general, and of the ideology of deconstructionism in particular, is on the mark. The complexity of reality always outruns the power of an idea to grasp it, regardless of how brilliant and comprehensive that idea may be, and it is sheer hubris, and exceedingly dangerous, to think otherwise.
Are Hierarchies Reflections of Competence?
Turning to Peterson’s thinking on hierarchies, we’ve seen that, while Peterson grants that hierarchies can be established for many bad reasons, in which case they are illegitimate, he nevertheless holds that hierarchies as such are entirely natural, both in the animal kingdom and in human society. They reflect the unequal abilities of humans when pursuing a common goal, with the more competent people rising to the top and the less competent sinking toward the bottom, in accordance with their ability.
I grant that it generally works this way in the animal world, and I grant that social hierarchies in society should operate this way. (In a subsequent post, I’ll argue that the Kingdom community is a different matter). But I contend that, in reality, competence is only one of a number of factors that determine one’s place in the hierarchy of a society, and it’s not necessarily the most important one.
To illustrate, it is beyond dispute that in America, white people, and especially white males, are statistically much more likely to enjoy the power and privilege of living higher up on the social scale, and to avoid the desperate disadvantages of living on the bottom, than blacks, Native Americans, and other non-white groups. To explain this disparity, one has to either appeal primarily to historical and social systemic explanations (e.g. it has something to do with white Europeans stealing land and enslaving people to establish this land as “their own”), in which case this privileging is unjust, or one has to appeal primarily to the competency and personal responsibility of each individual, in which case this privileging is perfectly natural. At least in 12 Rules of Life and in the videos I’ve viewed thus far, Peterson consistently appeals to the latter explanation.
Of course, no one would deny that innate abilities along with a person’s willingness to take responsibility for their life contribute to their social standing – unless, of course, they are in a situation as oppressive as slavery in the pre-abolition South, which rendered an individual’s abilities and personal responsibility all but irrelevant. And one can of course point to individual blacks, Native Americans, and/or other non-whites who, because of their exceptional competency, persistent hard work, and plain old good luck, “made it to the top.” But for every one of these exceptions, there are untold numbers who did not. And the question is, what explains this?
Speaking From a Position of White Privilege
And as I said, Peterson consistently appeals to personal responsibility and competence as the most important factor determining one’s place on any social hierarchy. In fact, in lectures and interviews Peterson sometimes gives the impression that he believes taking responsibility for your life and striving to increase your competence is the remedy for most, if not all, suffering in a person’s life. In a lecture on masculine and feminine archetypes, for example, Peterson says,
The degree to which the terrible part of the world manifests itself in your life is proportionate to now insufficient you are….If you got your act together completely, maybe all the suffering would disappear from your life, or at least all the unbearable suffering. (see: here)
This from the man who persistently rails against ideologues who try to fit the complexity of reality into the Procrustean Bed of a single idea! I have to assume Peterson is being somewhat hyperbolic here. In any event, I believe that Peterson’s constant appeal to individual responsibility and competence, along with his constant stress on not blaming society or anything else for one’s problems, leaves him vulnerable to the charge that he is naively reflecting a privileged white male perspective.
To be clear, I fully agree with Peterson that people should assume responsibility for their lives, and I fully appreciate Peterson’s concern about people falling into a victim mindset and blaming their problems on social injustices or on their personal misfortunes. No individual can hope to improve their life if they don’t take responsibility to change all that is in their power to change. Amen!
But it is all-too-easy for a white male like Peterson or myself to advocate this, for we white males usually have the power to take personal responsibility for a good portion of our lives. And this is why white people in general, and white males in particular, tend to assess social problems in individualistic rather than systemic terms. By contrast, blacks, Native Americans, and other people of color generally have much less power to do this, because they really are, to one degree or another, victims of a social system that was established by white people and that has always privileged white people.
This of course doesn’t mean that these people shouldn’t also take responsibility for their lives and work to improve their competency. But it does mean that their comparatively low position on the social hierarchy can’t be adequately explained by appealing to these factors.
A Valid Deconstructionist Critique
While I do not embrace the deconstructionists’ universal claim that all social hierarchies (as well as all social categories and values) are constructed by people in power to advantage some and disadvantage others, I think the deconstructionist’s critique is, to a large degree, valid on matters of race in the United States. America was conquered and structured by white Europeans with the explicit understanding that it was “manifest destiny” – viz. it was obvious to these white people — that whites were superior to all others and should therefore rule over all others. From centuries of forced slavery, to the reconstruction era, to the hiring out of inmates in the early twentieth century, to Jim Crow, up to the so-called “War on Drugs” which has lead to the mass incarceration of blacks today, the history of America has been, to a frightful degree, a tragic history of whites trying to prove the “manifest destiny” doctrine true by keeping blacks from power.(1)
Of course, there are, and have always been, other things going on as well. We have to resist oversimplification on all sides. But I submit that America’s racist history and the racist hierarchy that it created and yet sustains goes much further in explaining why blacks, Native Americans and other non-white groups tend to live toward the bottom of America’s social hierarchy while whites tend to live toward the top than does appealing to personal responsibility or the competency of the individuals who comprise these groups.
Indeed, when a person whose ethnic group has for centuries suffered from the white structured social hierarchy hears a white male like Peterson suggest that “[t]he degree to which the terrible part of the world manifests itself in your life is proportionate to how insufficient you are,” and that all their suffering might “disappear” if they “got [their] act together completely,” it only serves to confirm the reality of the systemic white privilege that the individualistic explanation for ethnic disparities tends to ignore.
The Choice
And now things get even more dicey. If a person minimizes historical and systemic factors to explain ethnic disparities on a social hierarchy and instead appeals primarily to personal responsibility and competency, they are in effect saying, however unwittingly, that the individuals that comprise these ethnic groups just tend to be less competent and responsible than whites or others who are higher up the social hierarchy. Peterson would of course deny that the tendencies of individuals within any given ethnic group are rooted in “race.” He rather insists that they are due to a multitude of complex factors that are left unexplored if we stop with the “race” conclusion, things such as the culture, work ethic, values, or average intelligence of each particular ethnic group.(2)
I don’t deny the significance of these variables (though I’ll admit I’m skeptical of IQ tests), but it seems to me this just kicks the can one step further down the road. For here again we have a choice to make. We can either appeal to historic and systemic aspects of society to help explain why the culture, work ethic, and values of a particular ethnic group are the way they are and why this results in their being lower on the hierarchy of social privilege and power.  If we reject that conclusion, however, we are left only with the option of concluding that these variables are innate to the ethnic group itself, which, it seems to me, is just another way of stopping at the “race” conclusion.
I want to be clear that I am not labeling Peterson a racist, though, for all the reasons I have given, I don’t think it’s incomprehensible why this charge is frequently leveled against him. The logic inherent in this thinking about hierarchies, individual responsibility and competency moves in this direction, especially when considered alongside his constant call for individuals to stop blaming society for their misfortunes.
There is a reason why white supremacist groups are attracted to him.
And it does help that Peterson is adamantly opposed to the concept of white privilege, which is the topic of our next post.
___ ___ ___
(1) See M. Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2012).
(2) While he treads careful around the topic, Peterson believes different “races” have non-trivial differing average IQ’s, and he’s very confident that IQ tests are unbiased and reliable. See: HERE and HERE
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Part 7 (of 15): Hierarchies, Masculinity, and Femininity

Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life
by Greg Boyd
“Do male crustaceans oppress female crustaceans?
Should their hierarchies be upended?”
In the previous two posts we reviewed Peterson’s conception of life as a delicate balancing act between order and chaos (post 5) and we’ve explored how he applies this conception to biological and cultural evolution (post 6). Evolution has always advanced by building on the past, not overturning it. According to Peterson, this is also the way culture has generally evolved and the way culture should evolve. Attempting to force quick change destabilizes culture and brings about chaos, often with catastrophic results. And this is why Peterson is so passionately opposed to the philosophy of deconstructionism that has recently become so fashionable among academics and that is working its way into the mainstream of western culture.
In this post I’ll review Peterson’s reflections on the hierarchical structure of culture, with particular attention to the possible implications this has for his understanding of masculinity and femininity.
The Necessity of Social Hierarchies
Peterson begins discussing the first of his 12 rules for life by talking about lobsters. He notes that lobsters establish a territory on the ocean floor which they consider “home,” and from which they “hunt for prey and scavenge around for stray edible bits and pieces of whatever rains down from the continual chaos of carnage and death far above” (p. 1). The problem, however, is that there are many lobsters, and they all want to locate themselves in “homes” where food is plentiful (p. 2).
This creates competition, and with competition, there are winners and losers. Those lobsters that are the strongest, smartest, and best at intimidating competitors get the best territories. Those that are the weakest, dumbest, and least able to intimidate competitors get the worst territories. And everybody else ends up somewhere in between. The result is that lobsters exist in what Peterson calls a “dominance hierarchy.” And everything about the life of a lobster, including its brain chemistry (I did not know that!) is determined by where they are located on this hierarchy. Those at the top enjoy a multitude of privileges that are denied others, in direct proportion to how low these others are on the dominance hierarchy (4-8). For lobsters, social status means everything.
But not only for lobsters. Peterson notes that this is generally what we find throughout the animal kingdom. And as much as we might wish it was otherwise, this is what we find, and have always found, in human society—a point that is hardly surprising since humans are an evolved extension of the animal kingdom. This is why, for example, “the richest eighty-five people” in the world today “have as much as the bottom three and a half billion” (7). But, Peterson notes, “this principle of unequal distribution” also “applies outside the financial domain.” In fact, it applies “anywhere that creative production is required,” and thus anywhere that the innate inequalities of people’s abilities are brought to the fore. For example, Peterson observes that “[t]he majority of scientific papers are published by a very small group of scientists.” So too, “[a] tiny proportion of musicians produces almost all the recorded commercial music.” And “just a handful of authors sell all the books” (much to the chagrin of all of us lesser authors!) (8).
Peterson is forthright about the fundamental unfairness and brutality of social hierarchies. The unfairness is anchored in the simple fact that “[w]e are not equal in ability or outcome, and never will be.” Indeed, as we’ve just seen, “[a] small number of people produce very much of everything.” And he continues:
The winners don’t take all, but they take most, and the bottom is not a good place to be. People are unhappy at the bottom. They get sick there, and remain unknown and unloved. They waste their lives there (86).
But as unjust and brutal as social hierarchies are, with their privileged winners and unfortunate losers, Peterson argues they are completely unavoidable, for such hierarchies are “incredibly ancient, evolutionarily speaking” (313). But not only is the production of hierarchies the result of our ancient hard-wiring, they are inevitable given that people of unequal abilities strive for the same goals. Peterson goes so far as to put forth a two-step argument as to why social hierarchies are necessary for people to live meaningful lives.
(1) The collective pursuit of any valued goal produces a hierarchy (as some will be better and some worse at the pursuit not [sic] matter what it is) and (2) it is the pursuit of goals that in large part lends life its sustaining meaning. We experience almost all the emotions that make life deep and engaging as a consequence of moving successfully towards something deeply desired and valued. The price we pay for that involvement is the inevitable creation of hierarchies of success, with the inevitable consequence of differences in outcome.
From this it follows that “[a]bsolute equality would…require the sacrifice of value itself—and then there would be nothing worth living for” (303).
At the same time, Peterson acknowledges that, as necessary as hierarchies are for a society, they can also create significant social problems. For example, Peterson argues that “there’s good evidence” that “the tendency for valuable goods to distribute themselves with pronounced inequality constitutes an ever-present threat to the stability of society.” When the top one percent of a society have more wealth than the combined wealth of the bottom fifty percent while a significant percentage of this bottom fifty percent endure persistent hardships, people can begin to grow deeply resentful and think about ways of correcting this injustice. The result could be, and historically has been, social upheaval, as the Marxist revolution in Russia in the early twentieth century illustrates all-too-well.
The failure of Communism and every other attempt to socially engineer financial equality leads Peterson to conclude that there is “no self-evident solution” to this problem. We simply “don’t know how to redistribute wealth without introducing a whole host of other problems” (312).
The Post-Modern Attempt To Deconstruct Hierarchies
Because Peterson believes social hierarchies are both natural, given their ancient evolutionary history, and inevitable, given that people pursue common goals with unequal abilities, he believes that the primary determiner of a person’s social status within any particular hierarchy is: “Competence. Ability. Skill. Not power” (313). This sets him in diametric opposition to Derrida and other deconstructions who argue that “all hierarchical structures emerged only to include (beneficiaries) and exclude (everyone else, who were therefore oppressed),” which is precisely why these deconstructionists seek to dismantle these hierarchies and to distribute power equally (310).
According to Peterson, this is nothing more than a baseless Marxist ideology that is rooted largely in a deep resentment over life’s innate inequalities (though Peterson also acknowledges it can also be driven by compassion for the underdogs). For Peterson, it just lies in the nature of things that competent people inevitably rise to the top and enjoy a lion’s share of the available social privileges while the less competent inevitably find themselves sinking to a lower place on the hierarchy and thus enjoying far less privileges. This is how things have always worked, both in nature and in human society, and, according to Peterson, while some hierarchies are abusive and should be corrected, this is basically how things must continue to work if society is to function well and keep chaos at bay (313).
Many of the less competent resent this hierarchical arrangement, of course, and it is this resentment, or the resentment of those who strongly empathize with them, that fuels the deconstructionists’ claim that inequality is about power, not competence, and that leads them to view “inequality” as “the heart of all evil.” And since Peterson believes that hierarchies are intrinsic to all culture, he argues that these deconstructionists are aiming, wittingly or unwittingly, at nothing less than the demolition of culture itself. And, as we’ve seen, he is convinced that, if these deconstructionists are not stopped, the result will be something similar to the horrors that Marxism brought about in the twentieth century (306-13). Given this perspective, it’s little wonder Peterson has publicly argued that governmental funding should be completely cut off from all Universities that indoctrinate students in the philosophy of deconstructionism (313-14).
The West’s Patriarchal Hierarchy
Peterson’s understanding of the naturalness of hierarchies informs many of his most controversial social stances, including his opposition to “equal pay for equal work” (315). People who are competent at a certain task may produce two or three times what a less competent person produces in the same amount of time. Why, Peterson wonders, should they receive the same pay? In his view, pay should be based on competency alone, regardless of a person’s gender, race, age, or social disadvantages.
But nowhere does Peterson’s defense of social hierarchies get worked out more passionately, or more controversially, than when he confronts the deconstructionists’ “insane and incomprehensible” claim that “all gender differences are socially constructed” and are a cloaked way of keeping women oppressed (314). Indeed, according to the deconstructionists whom Peterson has in the cross hairs, western civilization as a whole was created by men, and for men, with the goal of placing men, and keeping men, at the top and wielding more power, and thus with the goal of keeping women from the top and wielding less power. In a word, deconstructionists claim that western culture is inherently patriarchal and misogynistic.
Peterson will have none of this. In his view, the differences between the sexes is as deeply rooted in nature as anything could be. Indeed, he argues that this differentiation is the “most basic category” through which humans have always seen the world, and this category is “as old, in some sense, as the sexual act itself” (40). Moreover, while Peterson grants that “the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine” (40), he nevertheless argues that “[t]here isn’t a shred of hard evidence” that “Western society is pathologically patriarchal” or that “the prime lesson of history is that man, rather than nature, were the primary source of the oppression of women (rather than, as in most cases, their partners and supporters).” Nor is there a shred of evidence “that all hierarchies,” including presumably the hierarchical advantage of increased power that men generally have over women in most societies, “are based on power and aimed at exclusion.” Hence, he sarcastically asks: “Do male crustaceans oppress female crustaceans? Should their hierarchies be upended“ (313)?
Peterson’s point, if I am understanding him correctly, is that it is natural, and therefore non-oppressive, for male crustaceans to be higher on the lobster dominance hierarchy than female crustaceans. If reality has selected them to be higher, then we must consider it to be “in some sense correct” that they are higher. Similarly, if men are generally higher on the social hierarchy of most societies throughout history and yet today, this can only be because reality as selected them to be higher, and we should therefore consider this to be “in some sense correct.” This is simply how things evolved, and as we’ve seen, Peterson insists that, on both a biological and cultural level, things always evolve a certain way for a reason, and that reason, while not altogether unalterable, must be considered right, natural, and wise. Hence, if men tend to rise to the top of most societies’ social hierarchy, and if men therefore tend to wield more power than women, then, from the perspective of Peterson’s evolutionary framework, this suggests that men are generally more competent than women at acquiring and wielding power.
But Peterson adamantly denies that this implies that culture is the result of men tyrannizing and excluding women, as the deconstructionists claim. While culture “is symbolically, archetypally, mythically male,” Peterson insists that culture “is certainly the creation of humankind, not the creation of men.” Women played an important role in the creation of culture by “raising children and working on the farms” which was instrumental “in raising boys and freeing up men…so that humanity could propagate itself and strive forward” (303).
To understand why nature “selected” men to wield more power, Peterson believes it’s vitally important to remember how brutal life in general was up until very recently (and how brutal life still is in under-developed countries). Peterson observes that
…men and women both struggled terribly for freedom from the overwhelming horrors of privation and necessity. Women were often at a disadvantage during that struggle, as they had all the vulnerabilities of men, with the extra reproductive burden, and less physical strength…. women also had to put up with the serious practical inconvenience of menstruation, the high probability of unwanted pregnancy, the chance of death or serious damage during childbirth, and the burden of too many young children.
From this Peterson makes the following observation:
Perhaps that is sufficient reason for the different legal and practical treatment of men and women that characterized most societies prior to the recent technological revolutions, including the invention of the birth control pill.
In Peterson’s view, considerations such as these should “be taken into account, before the assumption that men tyrannized women is accepted as a truism” (303-04). While Peterson isn’t opposed to critiquing the masculine structure of social hierarchies, he is deeply concerned with those who, in the name of an ideology, caricature our past as one of male tyranny in order to recklessly dismantle. That is the sort of over-simplified story that is typical of ideologies, in Peterson’s view. To avoid destructive social chaos, change should be brought about cautiously and thoughtfully.
Masculine Order and Feminine Chaos
There is one final thing that needs to be said regarding Peterson’s perspective on innate differences between males and females. We’ve seen that Peterson believes that the differentiation of the sexes constitutes the “most basic category” through which humans have always seen the world and is as old as “the sexual act itself” (40). He is making essentially the same claim when he argues that “[c]haos and order are two of the most fundamental elements of lived experience,” or “two of the most basic subdivisions of Being itself” (38), for he argues that order is inherently associated with masculinity while chaos is inherently feminine.
In numerous ancient stories, which Peterson believes reflect profoundly deep truths about ourselves and the nature of reality, masculinity is symbolically associated with “the known”(order). “This,” he adds, “is perhaps because the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals” (40). By contrast, femininity has always been symbolically associated with “the unknown” (chaos).
This “is partly because all the things we have come to know were born, originally, of the unknown, just as all being we encounter were born of mothers” (41). But he adds, “Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection.” And he continues:
Women are choosy maters [sic]….It is Woman as Nature who looks at half of all men and says, “No!” For the men, that’s a direct encounter with chaos, and it occurs with devastating force every time they are turned down for a date (41).
Yet, Peterson argues, “[w]omen’s proclivity to say no, more than any other force, has shaped our evolution into the creative, industrious, upright, large-brained (competitive, aggressive, domineering) creatures that we are” (41). In other words, it’s because women have always sought to mate with men who are higher up on the social hierarchy that natural selection has favored the qualities of the more competent and eliminated the qualities of the less competent. And this has the effect of continually raising the playing field on which people compete for a higher place on the hierarchy. (I will call this line of reasoning into question in my next post).
Now, we’ve already seen that Peterson holds that life is only possible when order and chaos balance each other (post 5). In this sense order and chaos are absolutely equal and mutually dependent. We can’t say one is superior to the other or that one should be privileged over another. But the different roles that order/masculinity and chaos/femininity play, according to Peterson, doesn’t always strike me as perfectly egalitarian. For one thing, the very concepts of order and chaos are not on equal footing in as much as chaos is a pejorative concept while order is positive. That is, order describes a positive state affairs while chaos describes what we want to avoid. Yes, chaos plays a positive role in keeping order from stagnation, but it is not a positive concept in and of itself in the way order is. While Peterson certainly emphasizes the positive and negative aspects of both order and chaos and the need for their cooperation, it doesn’t seem to me that he overcomes the intrinsically negative connotation of chaos in our everyday language.
The fact that Peterson holds that the hierarchical order of society is archetypically masculine and that its natural for men to generally rise higher on the dominance hierarchy of most societies reinforces this suspicion, as does the fact that Peterson, following Jung, argues that consciousness is symbolically associated with masculinity (323). Peterson finds this “truth” illustrated in Sleeping Beauty, in which a young maiden needed “the masculine spirit, her prince,” to “save her” by being “her own consciousness” (324). For the same reason, Peterson judges the Disney film Frozen, to be “deeply propagandistic,” for here “a woman does not need a man to rescue her” (324). (Spoiler alert: Anna is rescued by the kiss of her sister, Elsa).
The reason Peterson assumes this position is because “it is certain that a woman needs consciousness to be rescued and…consciousness is symbolically masculine and has been since the beginning of time.” Peterson grants that a woman’s saving “prince” need not be “a lover,” but could instead be “a woman’s own attentive wakefulness, clarity of vision, and tough-minded independence.” But Peterson grants this only because “[t]hose are masculine traits – in actuality, as well as symbolically” (324).
Perhaps most significantly, Peterson argues that consciousness is “the process that mediates between [order and chaos].” Indeed, Peterson argues that consciousness is a third “primal constituent” of being (35). Hence, both order, which always manages chaos, and consciousness, which mediates between order and chaos, are archetypically masculine, and perhaps its just me, but I frankly can’t help but see this as privileging masculinity over femininity at the most fundamental level of Being, Peterson’s insistence on their equality notwithstanding.
I understand that Peterson makes an emphatic, and important, distinction between the masculine and feminine archetypes, on the one hand, and the biological gender distinction, on the other. But, as I’ll argue more fully in the following post, I can’t help but wonder why consciousness is associated with masculinity in the first place. Indeed, I can’t help but wonder why order is associated with masculinity and chaos with femininity. Peterson of course claims that this is just how humans have always mapped out their experience of the world in drama and stories, and since I’m not an expert in ancient mythology, I’ll take his word on this (at least for the moment). But even if true, I am not convinced this means that this association should be accepted by us in the present.
One doesn’t have to be a full-fledged deconstructionist or buy into the “men-have-always-suppressed-women” thesis to wonder if the association of femininity with “the unknown”/chaos, and masculinity with “the known”/order (as well as with consciousness) may have been influenced, to whatever degree, by the fact that men have been the principle story-tellers throughout history. It’s at least a thought worth pursuing, which I will pick up in the following post.
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Part 6 (of 15): Evolutionary Conservatism

Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life
by Greg Boyd
“If reality is that which selects, then what’s selected by that reality
must in some sense be correct.”
Evolutionary Wisdom
As was true of Heraclitus and Lao Tzu, and as a number of domains of contemporary science have demonstrated over the last century, Peterson believes that reality itself is structured as a delicate dance between order and chaos, and every aspect of this dance is perpetually changing (1). From a biological perspective, evolution is what this dance has looked like for the last five-hundred million years up to the present (11-13). For this reason, Peterson believes that every advance in the evolutionary process reflects a sort of dancing wisdom – not in the sense of being directed by a higher intelligence, but simply in the sense of finding a way to survive. Species survive to pass on their DNA by discovering novel and more efficient ways of preserving order and managing chaos in their dance with their ever-changing environment. Those species that failed to adapt to new circumstances, when adapting was necessary for survival, eventually disappeared.
For Peterson, this means that human nature reflects the accumulated survival strategies of the entire evolutionary process leading up to us. There are aspects of this inherited nature we don’t understand, and many aspects that we may wish were different. For example, at many points in 12 Rules of Life, Peterson notes that western liberals obviously wish aggression wasn’t so deeply entrenched in the nature of males, which is why they insist, against all the available evidence, that aggression is a learned behavior (e.g.126, 317). Pushing back on what he believes is a bias against aggression in boys, Peterson argues that aggression is deeply anchored in their nature and that it simply reflects our evolutionary inheritance (317-19). Like it or not, the dance of evolution has always been a violent, deadly dance (13), and any organism or species that lacked sufficient aggression was eventually selected out of this dance. So, while Peterson grants that aggression in both boys and girls must be tamed, first by parents and then, if the parents haven’t done an adequate job, by culture (143-44, 318), the very fact that humans have an inherited aggressive nature means that humans should have an aggressive nature.
The Wisdom of Culture
In Peterson’s view, the same holds true for the evolution of human culture—once our never-ending dance with chaos led us to begin to form societies and develop culture. We learned that it is in every individual’s best interest to develop and abide by rules that curb our individual freedoms but that also allow us to enjoy the additional security of living in a harmonious group. Moreover, every advance in the evolution of human culture reflects the wisdom of a species that learned a more efficient way of preserving order and fending off the chaos that perpetually threatens us.
Here too, there are aspects of culture that we may not understand (we’ll later see that Peterson believes ancient myths have much to teach us on this matter). And there certainly are aspects of culture we don’t like. For example, Peterson notes that
…culture is an oppressive structure. It’s always been that way. It’s a fundamental, universal existential reality….It crushes, as it hammers us into socially acceptable shape, and it wastes great potential (302).
Still, as oppressive and otherwise unpleasant as it is, Peterson argues that the very fact that cultural traditions, which include the culture’s religious traditions, have persevered over time means they must be considered wise. People who “think about culture only as oppressive,” are “ignorant,” “ungrateful,” and “dangerous” (303). Their perceptions are warped by an ideology, and for Peterson, ideologies always over-simplify reality by reducing it down to one storyline. By contrast, Peterson regularly encourages people to trust the wisdom of our traditions and to allow them to inform our values and goals (e.g. 119, 221). They embody the wisdom of our past, the very wisdom that has allowed us to continue to survive (e.g. 163-64).
This doesn’t mean that Peterson thinks cultural or religious traditions should never be challenged or improved, for humans continue to evolve like everything else.
For example, immediately after noting that people who think about culture only as oppressive are ignorant and dangerous, Peterson goes on to say: “This is not to say (as I am hoping the content of this book has made abundantly clear) that culture should not be subject to criticism” (302-03). But he certainly thinks that these traditions must be deeply respected and changed very slowly and very carefully, if they are to be changed at all. Put in other terms, since social (as well as personal) change always involves taking a step beyond the “known” (order) into the “unknown” (chaos), and since we are always less competent navigating the “unknown” than we are the “known,” it is folly to take this step hastily and without due consideration for what we may learn from the past. And one of the lessons Peterson would have us learn from the past is that order is a fragile thing and can be quickly overwhelmed by chaos if we do respect the cultural order that got us this far.
The Conservative Nature of Evolution
As Peterson sees it, the correctness of a socially conservative posture, such as he advocates, is ultimately grounded in the conservative nature of the entire evolutionary process itself. “When something evolves,” he notes, “it must build upon what nature has already produced.” And, he continues:
New features may be added, and old features may undergo some alteration, but most things remain the same. It is for this reason that the wings of bats, the hands of human beings, and the fins of whales look astonishingly alike in their skeletal form… Evolution laid down the cornerstones for basic physiology long ago (11).
For Peterson, the fact that the evolutionary dance between order and chaos has always proceeded conservatively, both at a biological and (usually) at a cultural level, suggests that this is the wisest way to dance. Put in practical terms, it’s far easily to make things worse than it is to make things better, which simply reiterates the point that social change should be brought about cautiously. Conversely, Peterson argues that all attempts to force a speedy social change to advance some ideology and move towards a utopian dream are unwise and dangerous, for they are contrary to nature. People who attempt this are not respecting the accumulated wisdom of the biological and cultural dance that has gotten us to where we are.
To illustrate, consider Peterson’s response to those liberals who are concerned with the needs of people who do not fit neatly into the categories of “male” and “female” and who assume that “individual problems, no matter how small, must be solved by cultural restructuring, no matter how radical.”
Our society faces the increasing call to deconstruct its stabilizing traditions, he says, to include smaller and smaller numbers of people who do not or will not fit into the categories upon which even our perceptions are based. Peterson claims this is not a good thing. Each person’s private troubles cannot be solved by a social revolution, because revolutions are destabilizing and dangerous. We have learned to live together and to organize our complex societies slowly and incrementally, over vast stretches of time, and we do not understand with sufficient exactitude why what we are doing works. Thus, altering our ways of being social carelessly in the name of some ideological shibboleth (diversity springs to mind) is likely to produce far more trouble than good, given the suffering that even small revolutions generally produce.
And then he sounds an ominous alarm:
Horror and terror lurk behind the walls provided so wisely by our ancestors. We tear them down at our peril. We skate, unconsciously, on thin ice, with deep, cold waters below, where unimaginable monsters lurk (119).
Perhaps Peterson’s most succinct articulation of the biological foundation of his social conservatism is found in his 2016 debate with atheist Susan Blackmore. At one point in this debate Peterson defines “reality” as “that which selects,” and then goes on to argue: “If reality is that which selects, then what’s selected by that reality must in some sense be correct” (emphasis mine) (2). Since human nature and culture are the end result of millions and millions of years of “reality” repeatedly “selecting” one type of order over all alternative types of order, and since human nature and culture, as we currently find them, are the result of this selecting process, it follows, according to Peterson, that we should consider human nature and culture, as we currently find them, to “in some sense be correct.” They are what allowed us to get this far. And they are “correct” in this sense whether we like them or not, and whether we understand them or not.
Because our nature and culture are “correct” only in the sense that they reflect our successful adaptations to changing circumstances, and because humans and everything else continues to evolve, Peterson insists that we must always strive to improve our nature and our culture. But as we indulge the drive to explore the “unknown,” without which our order would become stagnant and oppressive, Peterson warns us to remember that inherently conservative nature of evolution. Every advance retains, and builds upon, all that preceded it. So, again, we must balance our drive to explore the “unknown” with full recognition of our need to stay rooted in the stability of the “known.”
It is from this premise that Peterson draws all of his conservative, and highly controversial, ethical conclusions, as we shall begin to explore and critique in the following post.
__ __ __
1 — On contemporary science’s discovery that reality is structured as a dance between order and chaos, see Giuseppe Del Re, The Cosmic Dance: Science Discovers the Mysterious Harmony of the Universe (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2000). For a light-hearted treatment of the same topic, with an emphasis on its implications for theology, see G. Boyd, The Cosmic Dance: What Science Can Teach Us About The Nature of Time, Life, God & Humpty Dumpty (St. Paul, MN: ReKnew Publications, 2016).
2 — See: Unbelievable.
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Part 5 (of 15): The Delicate Dance

Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life  by Greg Boyd
“We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos.
We eternally occupy known territory, surrounded by the unknown.”
Nowhere in 12 Rules of Life (or anywhere else that I know of) does Peterson bring together the various aspects of his multifaceted philosophy to demonstrate how they form a coherent system. Nor has anyone else done this on Peterson’s behalf, so far as I know. Yet, you cannot fully understand, let alone fully appreciate, why Peterson arrives at the controversial social stances he espouses without first understanding the systematic structure of his thought. And this is why I am dedicating the first part of this series on Peterson to organizing his ideas into a coherent philosophical system, starting with what I consider to be his most foundational convictions.
Thus far we have seen that Peterson is convinced that suffering is inherent in the very concept of Being, for to exist is to exist as a limited, vulnerable, finite thing (see part two). We’ve also seen that the persistent suffering that comes with existence, which often can feel unbearable, can all-too-easily lead a person down a hellish road of resentment and despair, to the point that they conclude that “it would be better if Being itself didn’t exist.” And this despair, in turn, can cause a person to come to the point that they hate existence and contemplate “suicide,” or even “genocide, or worse” (346) (though I admit it’s not clear to me what could be “worse” than genocide). Moreover, what holds true for individuals holds true for all groups of individuals – viz. all societies.
According to Peterson, the only thing that can prevent individuals and societies from descending down this road to hell is for each individual to choose to believe in the essential goodness of reality, or “Being itself,” which Peterson often (though not always) equates with God (other times Peterson claims “God” refers to whatever a person identifies as “his highest good” [e.g., 224]). On the basis of this faith, each person must dedicate themselves to becoming the best person they can become as well as to working for the “improvement of Being itself,” which Peterson also identifies as “the highest Good” (109). (As a theologian, I’ll admit that Peterson’s inconsistent use of “God” was more than a little irritating).
Peterson is convinced that if the belief in the essential goodness of Being and the commitment to improving it get lost, as Peterson believes happened in the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when belief in God and in Judeo-Christian values died, then sooner or later, all hell will break loose. And the clearest proof of this, according to Peterson, was the rise of Communism and Fascism along with the horrors they produced in the twentieth century (see part three).
I believe it is this sincere desire to prevent such catastrophe from happening again that forms the primary motivation behind Peterson’s entire philosophical-sociological-psychological project. And it is his conviction that the contemporary West is not far from sinking into this hell that accounts for the passion and boldness with which he advocates his views. In this light, I don’t think it’s too much of an overstatement to say that Peterson sees himself as something of a messianic figure who is called to save western civilization by exposing and refuting the Marxist-influenced destructive ideology of post-modernism, and more specifically of deconstructionism, that has come to permeate our academic institutions and that is working its way into western society at large. And even if this is deemed a bit of an overstatement of how Peterson views himself, it’s undeniable that his most passionate devotees view him along these lines.
In any event, I have thus far argued that each of Peterson’s foundational convictions and claims are problematic, especially when evaluated from a distinctly Christian position (see part four). In my estimation, if western civilization needs saving, it’s not for the reasons Peterson imagines, and it’s not his intellectual project that will do the job.
Having spelled out Peterson’s foundational convictions and claims, I will now begin to outline and critically assess the most fundamental aspects of the philosophical edifice that Peterson builds on them.
The place to begin is with the categories of “order” and “chaos.” According to Peterson, “[c]haos and order are two of the most fundamental elements of lived experience,” or “two of the most basic subdivisions of Being itself” (38). “We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos,” he writes. And he continues:
We are adapted, in the deepest Darwinian sense, not to the world of objects, but to the meta-realities of order and chaos, yang and yin. Chaos and order make up the eternal, transcendent environment of the living…. (43)
Peterson defines chaos as “the domain of ignorance itself.” It is “unexplored territory.” Moreover,
Chaos is what extends, eternally and without limit, beyond the boundaries of all states, all ideas, and all disciplines…. Chaos is the despair and horror you feel when you have been profoundly betrayed. It’s the place you end up when things fall apart, when your dreams die, your career collapses, or your marriage ends. It’s the underworld of fairytale and myth, where the dragon and the gold it guards eternally co-exist. Chaos is where we are when we don’t know where we are, and what we are doing when we don’t know what we are doing. It is, in short, all those things and situations we neither know or understand (35-6).
Reflecting his penchant for finding his ideas illustrated in ancient stories (about which we’ll have more to say later in this series), Peterson argues that chaos is “the eternal water, tohu va bohu, formless emptiness, and the tehom, the abyss,” in the Bible’s first creation account (Gen 1:2). This is the same chaos that is “forever lurking beneath our thin surfaces of security” (269). Peterson finds it significant that the word “emergency” is “derived from emergence,” for when our “thin surfaces of security” give way, we experience the “reappearance of the eternal dragon, from its eternal cavern, from its now-disrupted slumber.” And this, he contends, “is the underworld, with its monsters rising from the depths” (268). It is, in fact, “the substructure of things” (269).
It is Peterson’s contention that chaos exercises something like a relentless gravitational pull on us. It functions something like the second law of thermodynamics, which states that all systems naturally devolve into disorder unless there is a continual influx of usable energy. Applied to our everyday life, this means that, unless we are intentionally holding chaos at bay, we will find it breaking through the thin veneer of our security to swallow us. To invite chaos into our life, we need do nothing more than to stop attending to order or, what comes to the same thing, to ignore or pretend we don’t notice chaos when it begins to break through (274). “Without attention,” Peterson writes, “culture degenerates and dies, and evil prevails” (228).
The same holds true for individuals. For example, Peterson says that if you “shirk the responsibility of confronting the unexpected, even when it appears in manageable doses” – if you pretend everything is fine when your spouse angers you, for example – you will find yourself heading down a path in which “reality itself” will become “unsustainably disorganized and chaotic.” And he continues:
If the gap between pretense and reality goes unmentioned, it will widen, you will fall into it, and the consequences will not be good. Ignored reality manifests itself in an abyss of confusion and suffering.
Peterson goes on to put the matter in mythic terms. “Ignored reality transforms itself (reverts back) into the great Goddess of Chaos, the great reptilian Monster of the Unknown.” This is “the great predatory beast against which mankind has struggled since the dawn of time” (281). To prevent this, Peterson instructs us to not “hide baby monsters under the carpet,” for there in the dark “they will flourish” and “grow large.” This is the primary reason why Peterson places so much emphasis on the need for people to be ruthlessly honest with themselves and with others. Indeed, his eighth rule of life is, “Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie” (203-30).
While chaos is a negative reality to the degree that it destroys the order of our lives or of society, it’s important to understand that Peterson does not believe chaos is negative in and of itself. To the contrary, since chaos is an essential constituent of Being, and being is essentially good, chaos must be considered essentially good. Indeed, Peterson identifies chaos as “the formless potential from which the God of Genesis 1 called forth order.” This is “the same potential from which we, made in that Image, call forth the novel and ever-changing moments of our lives” (36).
Chaos is thus potentiality, possibility, creativity and freedom (36). Did we not have to contend with chaos, order would smoother us to death. Life would be utterly stagnant and predictable. Nothing would ever change, surprise, grow, or improve. So, chaos is good, but only so long as it is balanced by, and constrained by, order.
As the antithesis of chaos, order is “explored territory,” and thus the domain of the familiar. Order is “the structure of society,” including (note this) “the hundreds-of-millions-of-years-old hierarchy of place, position and authority.” And he continues:
Order is tribe, religion, hearth, home and country. It’s the warm, secure living-room where the fireplace glows and the children play. It’s the flag of a nation. It’s the value of the currency. Order is the floor beneath your feet, and your plan for the day. It’s the greatness of tradition, the row of desks in a school classroom, the trains that leave on time, the calendar, and the clock. Order is the public façade we’re called upon to wear, the politeness of a gathering of civilized strangers, and the thin ice on which we all skate (36).
Humans need order, for by definition, our life, and our society, would fall into the abyss of chaos without it. At the same time, just as chaos needs to be balanced by order, so too order needs to be balanced by chaos. When fear of chaos leads a person to impose too much order on themselves or on their loved ones, and especially on their children, it always has destructive results, according to Peterson. As we’ll discuss later in this series, Peterson is especially concerned with overly-sensitive and overly-protective mothers (curiously, he never addresses similar concerns with fathers) who don’t allow their boys sufficient room to experience chaos, as happens, for example, when they try to suppress all of their boys’ aggression. The importance of this topic for Peterson is reflected in that fact that two of his 12 rules address it (Rule 5: “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them,” 113-44; and Rule 11: “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding,” 285-332).
Peterson appeals to totalitarianism to illustrate the harm that excessive order exacts on a societal level. He argues that totalitarianism happens when “reason falls in love with itself” and idolatrously elevates one or more of its ideas to the position of an absolute (218). This absolute is then imposed on people from the top down, thereby curtailing, if not completely destroying, the radical uniqueness, freedom, and independence of individuals. Peterson goes so far as to identify “the spirit of totalitarianism” with Milton’s “Lucifer,” and he says this spirit “inevitably produces Satan and Hell” (218), as the horrors of the twentieth century demonstrate in his view.
Totalitarianism promises to save society from chaos with its imposed ideology and the strong social order that comes with it, but precisely because this imposed order attempts to insulate people from chaos, it inevitably has the opposite effect. What actually saves society, as well as individuals, according to Peterson, is when people take personal responsibility to engage with chaos in reasonable ways. For only by assuming responsibility for our lives (a theme Peterson never tires of) and by choosing to venture into unexplored territory, can we become our best selves. “What saves,” Peterson writes, “is the willingness to learn from what you don’t know.” This, he adds, “is faith in the possibility of human transformation.” The most destructive aspect of the overly strong imposed order of totalitarianism is that it “denies the necessity for the individual to take ultimate responsibility for Being” (217).
The Need for Balance
As we should by now expect, for Peterson, the key to healthy living, at both an individual and societal level, is to avoid excessive order as well as excessive chaos and to instead strike a delicate balance between the two. We must learn to “straddle that fundamental duality” and learn to live with “one foot firmly planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth and adventure” (43). Moreover, because chaos is forever lurking just beneath the thin surface we skate upon, we must maintain this balancing act on a moment-by-moment basis. This, Peterson argues, is the lesson that “music teaches us when [we’re] listening—even more, perhaps, when [we’re] dancing.” For music’s “harmonious layered patterns of predictability and unpredictability make meaning itself well up from the most profound depths of [our] Being” (44).
Yet, this delicate moment-by-moment dance can only be sustained if we assume ultimate responsibility for our own lives, commit to becoming the best person we can become, and aspire to “set the world right” (109). Only this commitment, which we’ve seen is predicated on faith in the essential goodness of Being, can keep us from falling into the destructive pits of excessive order, on the one side, and excessive chaos, on the other.
As Peterson himself is well aware, the conception of life as a delicate balance between order and chaos is anything but original. It goes back at least to the fourth century B.C. when Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, a Lao-Tzu, a Chinese philosopher, composed their works. Nor has Peterson’s reflections on order and chaos up to this point been particularly controversial – with the exception of his berating of (what he deems to be) overly-sensitive and overly-protective mothers.
In the following post, however, we will explore how Peterson applies the dance between order and chaos to illuminate biological and cultural evolution, for this establishes the foundation for all of his ultra-conservative conclusions, which are, in our current cultural situation, anything but unoriginal and uncontroversial!
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Part 4 (of 15): Evaluating Peterson’s Faith

An Evaluation of Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life” by Greg Boyd
“It was in the aftermath of God’s death that the great collective horrors of Communism and Fascism sprang forth…”
In the previous post I outlined the reasoning behind Peterson’s faith in the essential goodness of being. I would now like to critically engage with this foundational aspect of his thought by offering two sets of objections. The first concerns Peterson’s pragmatic defense for taking this leap of faith, and the second concerns Peterson’s concept of “the highest Good” that he continually calls on people to pursue.
1. Peter’s Pragmatic Defense of Faith
In response to the material covered in our previous post, we have to ask: Is Peterson correct in claiming that the loss of faith in absolute values and the essential goodness of being – and, more specifically, the loss of faith in God and in Judeo-Christian values – damaging to individuals and to society? More specifically, were the horrors of the twentieth century the direct result of westerners (allegedly) losing faith in God and in Judeo-Christian values? Which is to ask: Is Peterson’s pragmatic argument for believing in the essential goodness of Being compelling?
As a committed Christian, I’d like to think so. It would definitely be apologetically advantageous if it was. But alas, there are a number of considerations that have pretty much convinced me his argument is, in fact, misguided.
For starters, I know of no evidence – and Peterson supplies none – that secular people who have no faith in God, or in the inherent goodness of Being, or in absolute values, are statistically more likely than religious people to drift toward a hell of resentment and despair, as should be the case if Peterson’s pragmatic argument is correct. Nor do I know of any evidence– and Peterson supplies none — that secular people are less inclined to live morally decent lives than religious people, as one would expect if Peterson’s argument is sound.
Moreover, it seems to me that the very fact that Christians throughout history have often engaged in the most atrocious behavior imaginable—and usually in the name of God — suffices to demonstrate that religious belief is not inherently better than secularism when it comes to inclining people toward moral decency. To the contrary, there is an accruing body of research demonstrating the exact opposite, at least when the “God” people believe in is depicted as acting violently in literature that these believers consider authoritative (such as we find in the Quran and the Old Testament).
Along the same lines, there is no evidence that I know of – and Peterson supplies none — that the most secular societies today are less healthy in the terms of the physical and psychological well-being of their citizens than religious societies, as I would think we should expect if Peterson’s argument is valid. To the contrary, some of the most secular countries on the planet (e.g. Norway, Finland, Iceland, Switzerland) are consistently ranked among the highest in terms of the overall well-being of their citizens. We find a related phenomenon in the United States. People living in less religious states tend to be happier, healthier, wealthier, better educated, less prejudicial, and to have more well-adjusted children than people living in more religious states. They also tend to have a stronger sense of purpose, stronger relationships, are less likely to abuse alcohol or drugs, or to be unemployed, divorced, incarcerated, or murdered than people in more religious states. The reverse should be true if Peterson’s pragmatic argument is sound.
On a related note, Peterson’s claim (made by many other conservative thinkers) that the horrors of the twentieth century were caused by the loss of faith in God and in Judeo-Christian values is debatable. Among other things, western people didn’t begin to reject Judeo-Christian teachings and values en masse until after the First World War. And while Communism and Fascism were atheistic and certainly carried out unthinkable atrocities, we also have to remember that Hitler was not an atheist. Indeed, his messianic complex was fueled by his (definitely twisted) belief that God was on his side, and this belief was widely shared throughout Nazi Germany. Some Nazi soldiers even had “Gott mit uns” (“God with us”) engraved on their belt buckles. And the sad and tragic truth is that most of those who supported Hitler, both inside and outside of Germany, were professing Christians. In this light, I think it’s as misguided to blame the “horrors of the twentieth century” on atheism alone as it is for Richard Dawkins and others to blame them on theism alone.
Moreover, while some noteworthy western intellectuals in the twentieth century embraced nihilism (Becket, Camus, Sartre, etc.), the masses did not, and still have not. Indeed, a majority of western people continue to believe in God, however “God” is defined. And, finally, if Peterson’s pragmatic argument was correct, should we not expect to find secular western countries today falling further and further into social mayhem? Instead, on almost every criteria of well-being you could measure a country by, including moral decency, things are steadily improving in these countries, as they are (though generally to a lesser extent) for most countries around the globe.
In The Brother’s Karamazov: Dostoyevsky’s famously declared: “If God is dead, all things are permissible.” On a strictly logical level, I think this is true. Yet, very few secular people show any interest in exploring the depths of this permissibility. It seems our deepest intuitions, including our moral convictions, are governed by forces that are deeper than logic and our cognitive beliefs.
Peterson is not without a response to this line of criticism. He holds to a pragmatic conception of “belief” which stipulates that you know what a person truly believes not by listening to what they profess, but by watching how they act. For him, therefore, the fact that secular people continue to live morally decent lives suggest that they still believe in God and in Judeo-Christian values, their professed unbelief notwithstanding. There simply are no true atheists, he claims, much to the chagrin of atheists (103).
Along similar lines, Peterson has elsewhere argued that the resilience of social structures is such that it takes time for individuals and societies to begin to live out the implications of recently embraced ideas (such as nihilism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, according to Peterson). And he is deeply concerned about what will become of western culture if and when people do begin to live out the implications of nihilism, which means, when people begin to actually embrace nihilism.
Peterson’s response faces two serious problems, so far as I can see. First, his argument (the moral behavior of secular people indicates that they still, unknowingly, believe in God) only works if you presuppose that people need to believe in God to act morally. But this is the very thing being debated, which means Peterson’s argument is circular.
Second, it seems Peterson is trying to have his cake and eat it too. Peterson claims the horrors of the twentieth century were due to the loss of faith in God and in Judeo-Christian values. This implies that people believe what they think they believe, and then act accordingly. But Peterson also then explains the moral decency of contemporary secular people by arguing that people don’t, really, believe what they think they believe. Do people believe what they think they believe or not? Peterson can explain the moral decency of contemporary secular people by arguing that don’t. But then he can’t also claim that the horrors of the twentieth century were due to the fact that people do believe what they think they believe and act accordingly. I see no way for him to coherently make both claims at the same time.
Considerations such as these force me to conclude that Peterson’s pragmatic argument for believing in the essential goodness of Being is fundamentally misguided. I think there are compelling reasons for believing in God, in Christ, in Judeo-Christian values, and in the essential goodness of Being. But Peterson’s argument that terrible things inevitably result when people don’t believe in these (or similar) things isn’t one of them.
Unfortunately for Peterson, his socially conservative ethics and persistent fight against postmodern deconstructionism and nihilism is in large part fueled by his conviction that this philosophy inevitably leads to the degeneration of individuals and society, and ultimately to the horrors of Communism and Fascism. The claim simply doesn’t stand up to the available evidence.
2. What Grounds Faith in the Goodness of Being?
Most westerners who seriously think about the matter believe either that morals are strictly the product of biological and cultural evolution, or that our core moral intuitions reflect, or at least ought to reflect, the perfectly good character of a transcendent, personal, moral Creator. The first group tends to be comprised of relativists and pragmatists. Morals are either “good” only in the sense that they work, or, according to deconstructionists, the claim that morals are “good” simply expresses the preferences of those in power. The second group, by contrast, tends to be comprised of absolutists who hold that humanity’s core moral intuitions are grounded in reality and transcend all cultures.
The curious thing about Peterson is that he talks like he belongs to the first group while espousing the views of the second group. He consistently appeals to biological and cultural evolution to account for our core moral convictions, and nowhere in 12 Rules of Life does he suggest that a transcendent personal Creator exercised an influence over either process. And yet, as we have seen, Peterson adamantly affirms not only that humanity’s core moral intuitions transcend “time and place,” but also that Being itself is essentially good. Hence, he argues, striving for the improvement of Being is “the highest Good” (109).
My question, therefore, is this: what grounds the essential goodness of Being, and, therefore, “the highest good” that Peterson encourages all of us to strive for? It’s a very important question, for the essential goodness of Being and the call to pursue the highest Good lies at the foundation of Peterson’s entire ethic.
Goodness, as Peterson talks about it, is a moral (viz. not merely pragmatic) quality, and moral qualities, I contend, are found only in personal agents who are capable of moral decision-making. Indeed, Peterson himself associates goodness, as well as evil, with the evolution of self-conscious agents (which, he believes, is what the story of Adam and Eve’s fall is all about) (53-5). This forces this question: Did the evolution of self-consciousness create, or merely wake us up to, goodness?
If humans created goodness, then we must wonder how Peterson can claim that Being itself is essentially good? If, on the other hand, we merely woke up to goodness, then we obviously must believe that the goodness we woke up to preceded us. And if moral goodness can be found only in a personal, self-conscious, moral agent, then it would seem we must accept that a self-conscious moral agent preceded us.
I submit that, if we accept the existence of a transcendent, all-good God, the question of how Being itself can be essentially good, as well as the question of how the evolutionary process managed to produce agents who possess the capacity to wake up to this essential goodness, is resolved. Yet, if Peterson believes this, you would never know it from reading 12 Rules of Life. Indeed, the very fact that Peterson appeals to evolution alone to account for humanity’s core moral convictions strongly suggests he does not. The manner in which he sometimes (but not always) equates “reality” or “Being” with “God” suggests the same, for as we’ve seen, reality is often capricious and cruel and is always in need of improvement.
Which brings us back to the question of what grounds the essential goodness of Being within Peterson’s naturalistic-sounding evolutionary framework? Which is to ask, what renders intelligible the fact that Peterson reasons like a member of the first group while defending the transcendent nature of moral claims like a member of the second group? I can find no answer to this question in 12 Rules of Life, nor, for that matter, in anything else that I’ve heard Peterson say.
This leads to a second and closely related question. According to Peterson, faith in the essential goodness of Being is necessary to work for the essential improvement of Being, which we’ve seen is “the highest Good.” Yet, something can be assessed as needing improvement only by measuring it against a higher standard, against which it falls short. We must therefore wonder how the “highest Good” can be the improvement of Being, when the very concept of improving Being presupposes a standard that transcends Being and that deems it as coming up short and in need of improvement? And if I am correct in holding that goodness is a moral quality that can be found only in a self-conscious moral agent, it follows that our striving for “the highest Good” is only intelligible if we accept that there is a transcendent self-conscious agent who’s very being is the ultimate Good and therefore the ultimate standard against which all other claims to goodness are measured. This ultimate agent, who is the ultimate Good, is what the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition has identified as God.
Permit me to come at this from one final direction. We’ve seen that Peterson encourages people to live as if reality/”God” is simultaneously a “Force of Nature” that is neither unambiguous just or fair (for reality/”God” is capable of capricious cruelty), while also acting as if this reality/”God” was absolutely good, loving, and forgiving. It is the disconnect between these two different conceptions of reality/”God” that, on Peterson’s own reckoning, renders the leap of faith he calls upon people to make “absurd.” Yet, while we of course need to exercise faith regardless of what we end up believing, we have to wonder if faith in the goodness of God, and thus in the essential goodness of Being, must be “absurd?” If the only thing going for this absurd leap of faith is Peterson’s pragmatic argument that the alternative is even more absurd and makes our existence much more painful, then it seems rational, by definition, to keep looking for a more reasonable, or even simply less absurd, alternative.
Allow me to propose one. What if we decided to believe in the existence of a personal, moral, transcendent God who created the world and who exists distinct from the world? And what if we decided to believe that this Creator God is unambiguously good, loving and forgiving? Moreover, rather than associating the capriciously cruel reality we find ourselves in with God, as Peterson assumes, what if we instead believed that God transcends, and is distinct from, this reality? And precisely because we believe in the unambiguous goodness of this creator God, what it we accepted that all the suffering that (created) Being brings our way was always the direct or indirect result of choices that created agents made, not God? What if we believed that the horrors that afflict us were not things that God conspires to bring about, such as we sometimes find in the Old Testament, but were actually things the all-good God hates and works to eliminate?
Would not that render our decision to believe in the essential goodness of (created) Being, as well as the call to strive to improve Being, a rational, rather than an absurd, choice?
Of course, embracing this perspective would mean that we’d have to accept that something has gone wrong – terribly wrong – with the world God created. As we saw in our second post (link), however, this is something Peterson could never accept, given his metaphysical assumption that suffering is intrinsic to the very concept of existence. Moreover, since much of the suffering that humans and animals experience is a consequence of nature being the way it is, not the result of any human decision-making, it seems we would also have to accept the existence of one or more created cosmic agents that are capable of free decision making, and thus capable of becoming evil, just as humans are. And we would have to accept that these agents were capable of exercising a corrupting influence on nature, including on natural evolution.
While Peterson talks about “Satan” as a mythic symbol for evil (e.g.,199, 218), I’m quite certain that he, like most contemporary western thinkers, doesn’t take seriously the possibility that he actually exists as an independent conscious agent. Seriously. If he did, he would have no need to anchor his explanation for suffering in the limitations that are inherent in Being. But as unfashionable as this belief is among contemporary academics, I, for one, think Peterson’s unwillingness to take Satan’s existence seriously is most unfortunate.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, belief in a cosmic-level evil agent is deeply anchored in the Bible and has been an important aspect of the Church’s theology throughout history. Moreover, the intuition that the world is oppressed by one or more malevolent cosmic agents can be found, in one fashion or another, in almost all primordial cultures throughout history. And there are a number of other arguments that can be marshaled in support of this belief. Most importantly, as virtually every early church theologian understood, if we deny the existence of Satan as an independently existing agent with his own free will, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain faith in the absolute goodness of the Creator when the world he created contains so much horrific “natural evil” – that is, evil that cannot be blamed on the free decisions of humans.
Not only would believing in both the existence of an all-good transcendent Creator and the existence of Satan render rational (rather than absurd) Peterson’s call to strive for the good and to fight evil, but it would also infuse this call with a cosmic, even eternal, significance. Moreover, once we believe that God is transcendent and the Creator of all that is, including the agent that at some point in prehistory freely chose to rebel and transform himself into Satan, we are now able accept that God will eventually overcome all evil and bring about a creation that will finally reflect his all-good character and will.
Peterson’s claim that suffering is a necessary feature of Being itself completely rules out such a hope. By his own pragmatic criterion that whatever helps prevent evil is good and ought to be embraced (however absurd it might otherwise seem), I would think Peterson ought to at least give the perspective I’ve just outlined serious consideration.
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Part 3 (of 15): The Leap of Faith

An Evaluation of Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life” by Greg Boyd
I’ll begin by saying I’ve received several video clips of Jordan saying some rather outrageous and offensive things. I was, frankly, quite surprised, since I found 12 Rules of Life to be, on the whole, a seemingly thoughtful and fairly objective book. Yes, he gets passionate at times (especially toward the end), but never says anything like what these videos indicate. I’m going to continue to focus mostly on his book, but since some have asked me to comment on these videos, I plan on doing so at the close of this series.
On a related note, I’m aware that some readers are mainly interested in what I have to say about Peterson’s controversial conservative stances on various social issues (e.g. the “proper” roles of men and women, the legitimacy of social hierarchies, his refusal to use neuter pronouns for transgender people). I promise I will get to these several posts from now. But I believe it would be unfair to weigh in on Peterson’s conservative social stances without first appreciating the foundational aspects of his thought that ground these stances. Lacking this, it would be all too easy to dismiss his views as nothing more than uninformed prejudicial opinions, which seems to be happening more often than not. It would be like evaluating Peterson’s 12 Rules without engaging with the essays that ground them. Anyone who has read 12 Rules for Life knows that each rule scarcely represents the tip of the iceberg of ideas and insights contained in each supporting essay.
For this reason, I am attempting to organize Peterson’s philosophy, as it is expressed in 12 Rules of Life, beginning with what I believe are the most foundational aspects of his thought. In the previous post I considered Peterson’s foundational conviction that suffering is inherent in the very concept of Being. We saw that the most fundamental question that 12 Rules of Life addresses is this: How can we find meaning that can make our life worth living in the face of life’s inevitable hardships—especially when our suffering or the suffering of a loved one becomes “existentially intolerable” (347)? Which is to ask: How can we justify our existence, and thus justify Being itself?
Today I will discuss the faith that Peterson contends we should all embrace as we struggle with our own hardships and the suffering that afflicts people [and, I would add, animals] around the globe.
When Peterson was a young man, he contemplated the possibility that “all value structures” were actually “merely the clothing of power” (197). In other words, he was to some degree tempted to embrace the post-modern, deconstructionist perspective of Derrida and others (the very philosophy that is now his main nemesis). Curiously enough, the thing that began to free Peterson from this temptation was his reflections on the Holocaust and the Nuremberg trials that followed, in which Herman Göring, Rudolf Hess, and twenty-two other high-ranking officials in the Third Reich were convicted of crimes against humanity.
Peterson came to see that the moral judgments pronounced against these twenty-four horrible men could not be understood merely as expressions of the preferences of those in positions of authority – as “clothing for power” – as though it would be legitimate for some other conceivable culture that had different people in charge to deem the atrocities carried out in the Holocaust to be “good.” Rather, Peterson came to see that the moral judgments that were pronounced at the Nuremberg trials presuppose that “value structures” are part of the structure of reality itself.
This led Peterson to the following all-important conclusion:
There are some actions that are so intrinsically terrible that they run counter to the proper nature of human Being. This is true essentially, cross-culturally – across time and place. These are evil actions. No excuses are available for engaging in them (197).
This insight led Peterson to the realization that, ”if there is something that is not good, then there is something that is good.” And whatever else may comprise “the good,” it most certainly includes “whatever stops such things [as the Holocaust] from happening” (198). This insight inspired Peterson to adopt the moral imperative that has directed his life ever since, and that is the ethical foundation for Peterson’s entire outlook on life. “[T]o the best of my ability,” he resolved, “I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering” (198).
Yet, good and evil are objective realities. Thus, Peterson’s resolve to aim for the good and to minimize suffering can’t be understood merely as his own personal life mission, as though other people could just as legitimately adopt a life mission that was entirely self-focused, that had nothing to do with improving their own moral character, and/or had nothing to do with alleviating the suffering of other people or of animals. Peterson is rather convinced that every human being has an inherent moral obligation to first strive to become the best person they can become and to thereby strive to “make the world better” (200). Every person is called upon to commit themselves to “the Improvement of Being, with a capital ‘I’ and a capital ‘B’” (107). Peterson expresses this universal imperative when he says:
Align yourself, in your soul, with Truth and the Highest Good. There is habitable order to establish and beauty to bring into existence. There is evil to overcome, suffering to ameliorate, and yourself to better…. (109)
This commitment alone, Peterson says, gives meaning to our life and justifies our existence—despite the inevitable suffering we encounter and despite the limitations and imperfections of our own lives which, to one degree or another, inevitably contribute to the world’s suffering:
[O]nce you have placed “Make the world better” at the top of your value hierarchy, you experience ever-deepening meaning. It’s not bliss. It’s not happiness. It is something more like atonement for the criminal fact of your fractured and damaged Being. It’s payment of the debt you owe for the insane and horrible miracle of your existence (200).
Similarly, Peterson writes that if you are willing to “devote your life” to “help direct the world, on its careening trajectory, a bit more toward Heaven and a bit more away from Hell,” it will “give you a Meaning, with a capital M,” which in turn “would justify your miserable existence” and “atone for your sinful nature” (63-64).
Peterson is aware that the decision to live out this moral imperative requires a leap of faith, for “the tragic irrationalities of life must be counterbalanced by an equally irrational commitment to the essential goodness of Being” (107). To strive for the goodness of Being, in other words, requires faith that Being is essentially good, despite the horrific suffering that inevitably comes with it. This is not something that Peterson believes can be proven. It rather requires “the ‘act of faith’ whose necessity was insisted upon by the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard” (206).
Actually, Kierkegaard is best known for talking about “the leap of faith,” and because Peterson acknowledges that this faith is as “irrational” as the tragedy of life, I believe “leap of faith” expresses the decision that Peterson calls on people to make much better than the much less radical “act of faith.”
Peterson addresses the topic of faith in several places in 12 Rules of Life, but the discussion I found to be the most interesting takes place in a context in which he’s comparing the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New Testament. While he thinks the difference between these two portraits of God has often been exaggerated (in part because he assumes the Book of Revelation depicts a remarkably violent Jesus, which I and many other scholars argue is fundamentally mistaken), Peterson nevertheless grants that the New Testament depiction of God is, on the whole, “all-loving and all-forgiving,” while in the Old Testament God is often anything but. When the ancient Israelites “wandered carelessly down the wrong path,” Peterson says, “they ended up enslaved and miserable – sometimes for centuries – when they were not obliterated completely.” And then he asks, “Was that reasonable? Was that just?. Was that fair?” And he continues:
The authors of the Old Testament asked such questions with extreme caution and under very limited conditions. They assumed…[God] was a Force of Nature. Is a hungry lion reasonable, fair or just? What kind of a nonsensical question is that? The Old Testament Israelites and their forbears [sic] knew that God was not to be trifled with, and that whatever Hell the angry Deity might allow to be engendered if he was crossed was real.
And then Peterson concludes; “Having recently passed through a century defined by the bottomless horrors of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, we might realize the same thing” (105). (Note how Peterson assumes that these horrors reflect the “Hell” that an “angry Deity” allowed, if not intentionally brought about, because he was “crossed.” I’ll say more about this in the next post).
It is in light of the two contrasting views of God found in the two Testaments that Peterson articulates what it means to have faith in the essential goodness of Being. Peterson encourages people to
…decide that you will start treating Old Testament God [Peterson, for whatever reason, never uses a definite article when talking about the New and Old Testament God], with all His terrible and oft-arbitrary-seeming power, as if He could also be New Testament God (even though you understand the many ways in which that is absurd). In other words, you decide to act as if existence might be justified by its goodness—if only you behaved properly. And it is that decision, that declaration of existential faith, that allows you to overcome nihilism, and resentment, and arrogance. It is that declaration of faith that keeps hatred of Being, with all its attendant evils, at bay (107, italics added).
In other words, Peterson is encouraging us to continue to affirm the goodness of Being – represented by the New Testament God – even though Being can be as unjust and as cruel and as capricious as “a hungry lion” or any other “Force of Nature” – represented by the Old Testament God. In the face of the arbitrary horrors that reality/God (he frequently equates the two) inflicts on humanity, Peterson encourages us to act as if reality/God was essentially good and to therefore commit to “the Improvement of Being”(107). And we are to do this fully aware of “the many ways in which that is absurd” (107).
The ancient Jews had already embraced something like this absurd faith, according to Peterson. Reflecting a willingness to take personal responsibility for their own hardships, which we will later see is a central tenet of Peterson’s ethic, he writes:
The ancient Jews blamed themselves when things fall apart. They acted as if God’s goodness – the goodness of reality – was axiomatic, and took responsibility for their own failure…
The alternative, Peterson once again adds, “is to judge reality as insufficient, to criticize Being itself, and to sink into resentment and the desire for revenge” (157).
It is this absurd decision to act “as if” Being was essentially good, despite the seemingly arbitrary horrors it inflicts on us, that constitutes Peterson’s faith, which is precisely why I think Kierkegaard’s description of faith as “a leap” is apropos. While this leap is in many ways “absurd,” Peterson argues that it is warranted, if not necessitated, by the fact that the alternative to this is much worse. For if we conclude that Being is not good – not “justified” – Peterson argues that we’ll find ourselves descending down into a bottomless pit of resentment, arrogance, nihilism, and the “hatred of Being” that Peterson repeatedly identifies as “Hell” and “evil” (e.g. 217; 220, 227; 367).
Hating life, despising life – even for the genuine pain that life inflicts – merely serves to make life itself worse, unbearably worse. There is no genuine protest in that. There is no goodness in that, only the desire to produce suffering, for the sake of suffering. That is the very essence of evil (346-47)
Elsewhere Peterson notes that people who conclude from the pain of their existence that Being is not good are “flirting with suicide.” And if the burden of their miserable existence leads them to take a step further and conclude that “it would be better if Being itself didn’t exist,” they are now “toying with genocide- and worse.”
“What is truly horrifying,” Peterson adds, “is that such conclusions are understandable, maybe even inevitable – although not inevitably acted upon” (346). Only by taking the leap of faith in the essential goodness of Being can we keep ourselves, and our culture, from going down this road to Hell.
At many points in his book, Peterson sounds like a straight-out pragmatist, arguing that people should live as if Being was essentially good simply on the grounds that the alternative is so painful, and potentially so catastrophic. People can “survive through much pain and loss” and “persevere,” he says, if they “see the good in Being.” But “[i]f they lose that, they are truly lost” (351). Hence, people should aim “at the betterment of Being,” if only “[b]ecause we know the alternative. The alternative was the twentieth century” (189), the horrors of which Peterson repeatedly insists were the direct result of people losing faith in God, the goodness of being, the reality of values, and, therefore, the ultimate meaningfulness of life. It was the “death of God” that Nietzsche announced so boldly – and, according to Peterson, so profoundly — and the death of Judeo-Christian values that accompanied it, that led directly to the “great collective horrors of Communism and Fascism…” (193). For Peterson, any belief and commitment that can prevent that from happening is good and worth embracing, if only for that reason.
While I think Peterson reflects some interesting psychological and philosophical insights in the material we’ve covered in this essay, I am also convinced that his pragmatic defense of the leap of faith, as well as his conception of the “Highest Good” that he calls us to pursue, are fundamentally misguided. And these misconceptions, I will argue, skew crucial aspects to his entire philosophy as well as his social theory. To keep this post to a reasonable length, however, I must reserve these objections for the following post.
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Part 2 (of 15): Can ‘Being’ Be Justified?

An Evaluation of Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life” by Greg Boyd
~“Pain and suffering define the world. Of that, there can be no doubt.” ~
Jordan Peterson
One of the things that makes Peterson’s approach to understanding life so intriguing and appealing to so many people is that it is remarkably multifaceted. 12 Rules of Life simply cannot be filed into any of the usual categories. Is it a work of psychology, philosophy, evolutionary biology, metaphysics, the history of religious ideas, social commentary, political theory, cultural history, the history of literature, practical wisdom, or even theology? The only answer that can be given is –“yes!”.
Yet, if I was forced to describe what Peterson is seeking to accomplish in 12 Rules of Life in a single phrase, I would say he is offering a sort of existential theodicy. Peterson is not concerned with the question of how we can affirm the goodness of God in light of the massive suffering and evil we experience in our world. As we’ll discuss later on in this series, Peterson is ambivalent, at best, about the goodness, or possibly even the ontological existence, of God—at least as God has traditionally been understood. Rather, Peterson’s driving concern is with the question: how can we experience meaning, value, and goodness in the face of the relentlessly painful, and apparently meaningless, reality we are part of? Or, as Peterson phrases it in various ways throughout his book: How can we give our life a “meaning” that “would justify [our] miserable existence?” (64-5).
The starting point of Peterson’s intellectual endeavor, and the single most dominant theme running throughout 12 Rules for Life, is that existence is inherently painful. To exist is to suffer. Here is a small sampling of representative quotes.
~ “LIFE IS SUFFERING. THAT’S CLEAR. There is no more basic, irrefutable truth” (161).
~ “Pain and suffering define the world. Of that, there can be no doubt” (172).
~ “Pain matters, more than matter matters. It is for this reason, I believe, that so many of the world’s traditions regard the suffering attendant upon existence as the irreducible truth of Being” (35).
~ “The idea that life is suffering is a tenet, in one form or another, of every major religious doctrine…Buddhists state it directly. Christians illustrate it with the cross” (338; cf. 227).
~ “Life is in truth very hard. Everyone is destined for pain and slated for destruction” (149).
Similar to what we find in ancient Neoplatonism (including Christian Neoplatonism, e.g. Gregory of Nyssa), Peterson goes so far as to virtually equate existence with the Christian concept of “the fall,” as when he refers to “the terrible sin of Being, which everything must bear gracefully, just so it can exist” (230). By referring to the “sin of Being,” or elsewhere to our “sinful nature” (63), “the tragedy of Being” (216) or “the criminal fact of your fractured and damaged Being” (200) — Peterson is surely speaking metaphorically, for while such language would seem imply that things should have gone differently, Peterson adamantly denies this.
The cause of suffering, according to Peterson, is not that humans sinned by rebelling against God, as the New Testament teaches and as the Christian tradition has always believed. Rather, “the tragedy of Being is the consequence of our limitations and the vulnerability defining human experience.” Suffering is “the price we pay for Being itself—since existence must be limited, to be at all” (216). To exist, therefore, is to be limited as a definite thing, over-and-against everything else. It is to be spatially and temporally surrounded, and threatened by non-being, and for sentient creatures like human beings, this finitude, with its ever-present threat of non-being, inevitably entails anxiety, vulnerability, and pain.
Peterson illustrates the point by quoting (as he frequently does) Lao-Tse in the Tao Te Ching:
Though thirty spokes may form the wheel,
it is the hole within the hub
which gives the wheel utility.
It is not the clay the potter throws,
which gives the pot its usefulness,
but the space within the shape,
from which the pot is made.
Without a door, the room cannot be entered,
and without its windows it is dark.
Such is the utility of non-existence.
Peterson makes the same point by describing human existence as a story. For any story to work, Peterson observes, the characters of that story must have limitations and vulnerabilities. Stories work, in other words, only because they make use of “the utility of non-existence.”
If you are already everything, everywhere, always, there is nowhere to go and nothing to be. Everything that could be already is, and everything that could happen already has. And it is for this reason, so the story goes, that God created man. No limitations, no story. No story, no being (343).
Peterson illustrates his point by observing what happened to Superman leading up to the 1980’s. From 1938 up through the 1960’s, DC Comics kept removing limitations and ascribing more and more superpowers to Superman. As a result, “Superman became invulnerable” (344), his aversion to kryptonite notwithstanding. But then, Peterson notes, “a strange thing happened. He got boring. The more amazing his abilities became, the harder it was to think up interesting things for him to do” (344), which is why the franchise nearly folded in the 1980s. It was only when Artist-writer John Byrne took over and deprived Superman of many of the powers he had acquired over the years that the character was salvaged. Superman had to be given “some reasonable limitations,” Peterson notes, for
…[a] superhero who can do anything turns out to be no hero at all. He’s nothing specific, so he’s nothing. He has nothing to strive against, so he can’t be admirable.
And then he concludes,
Being of any reasonable sort appears to require limitation. Perhaps this is because Being requires becoming, as well as mere static existence—and to become is to become something more, or at least something different. That is only possible for something limited (345).
So, according to Peterson, the near-demise of the nearly limitless Superman illustrates that limitations, vulnerability, suffering and becoming are intrinsic to Being. And this leads to the central question driving Peterson’s entire project. Given the inevitability of suffering, which often is truly nightmarish, how should we, and how can we, become? More specifically, can we proceed forward in a way that gives meaning to our “miserable existence?” (65). And to ask this question is to ask: “Can Being itself, with its malarial mosquitoes, child soldiers and degenerative neurological diseases, truly be justified?” (347).
So far as I can see, Peterson’s central goal is to help people live out a positive response to this question. For Peterson is convinced that Being can be “justified.” On the flip side, and just as importantly, Peterson wants to help people, and society as a whole, to avoid the terrible personal and social consequences that ensue when the question of the justification of Being is answered negatively. As we’ll explore in subsequent posts, Peterson is convinced that if we conclude that Being cannot be justified, then our personal lives, and society as a whole, begins to become undone. Without a meaning to justify our existence, “the centre cannot hold” (367), to quote Elliot’s famous poem, “The Second Coming.”
To put the matter more specifically, Peterson wants to help us avoid the terrible consequences that ensue when nihilism is embraced, consequences that characterized the unthinkable atrocities of the twentieth century, which Peterson believes were the direct result of western culture abandoning its Judeo-Christian value system and embracing nihilism. And as we shall see, Peterson draws on a wealth of knowledge from evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology, and religious, literary and cultural history to help us find a meaning sufficient to stave of nihilism and to “justify Being.”
Evaluation: I will close with four brief critical observations, raised from the perspective of the historic orthodox Christian faith that I affirm, and from which I will be critically evaluating Peterson’s work throughout this series.
First, if we accept Peterson’s view that existence necessarily entails limitations, suffering, and becoming, it would seem that we are going to have to abandon the traditional Christian conviction that God can exist, and has in fact existed prior to creation, without any limitations, suffering or becoming (at least in the sense of improving in any respect). On the metaphysical conditions that Peterson has stipulated, if God exists as more than an archetype – viz. ontologically – God would have to be inherently involved in, if not identified with, the limitations, suffering. and becoming that is intrinsic to all reality. The conception of God that best fits Peterson’s metaphysical scheme, so far as I can discern, is the God advocated by Process thought. But, as I’ve elsewhere argued, Process thought lies far outside the parameters of Christian orthodoxy, in large part because of the reasons just given.
Second, if we accept that suffering is inherent to Being, then we clearly must abandon the biblical and traditional Christian teaching that creation suffers because something has gone wrong. To be sure, we may still find profound truth in this teaching by considering it a myth, as we shall later see Peterson do effectively. But while some ancient and contemporary orthodox Christians have certainly been willing to grant that Genesis 3 is a mythic expression of the fall, hardly any major theology has denied that there was an actual fall in our primordial past. (The earlier mentioned Christian Neoplatonists being the only exception). In the orthodox Christian view, human history could have, and should have, unfolded differently. The “sin” and “tragedy of Being” that Peterson refers to is sinful and tragic precisely because it didn’t have to be this way. We will later see that the absence of any concept of a fall as an actual event in Peterson’s thought is among the most fundamental considerations that sets his over-all perspective in radical opposition to that of historic orthodox Christianity.
Third, if we accept that suffering is inherent in Being, then we clearly must abandon the biblical and traditional Christian teaching that God will in the future triumph over all evil and eliminate all suffering from creation. As with the fall, we could still find some truth in this teaching by considering it a myth. And we of course could continue to work to eliminate as much suffering as possible, which is precisely why Peterson wrote his book. But if Peterson is correct, suffering can never be fully eliminated from the world. There can be no final victory. While Christians have always been willing to grant that the biblical expressions of this future victory are expressed in mythic terms, both the Bible and the Christian tradition hold that there will be an actual, glorious, final victory, after which time God’s perfect love will permeate every square inch of the cosmos.
And forth, if we accept that suffering is intrinsic to Being, I believe we are going to have to radically rethink the traditional Christian convictions that God is perfectly good and all powerful and that he created a good world from nothing (ex nihilo). For if nothing has gone wrong, we must accept that either the Creator intentionally brought forth a creation that was “subject to futility” and “groaning in labor pains” (Rom 8:22-23), which arguably calls into question God’s perfect goodness, or this misery-filled creation is the best God could do, which arguably calls into question God’s omnipotence. And either way, we will need to rethink the biblical and traditional understanding that creation was originally “good.” Again, the only view of God that Peterson’s metaphysical tenets can accommodate is something approximating the God of Process Theology.
Personally speaking, I find my reasons for embracing the biblical and traditional Christian perspectives on these four matters to be more compelling than Peterson’s case that limitation and suffering are inherent in Being as such. I grant that all created being is limited and thus vulnerable to suffering. But I am not persuaded that created being inevitably entails suffering. And while I grant that God had to accept certain limitations as well as the possibility of suffering when God created the world, I am not at all persuaded that God must have limitations and experience suffering, let alone becoming (in the sense of improving).
However, as much as I disagree with Peterson’s implicitly unorthodox starting point, this does not mean I deny that he has some truly insightful things to teach us, both about the nature of reality and about how we can best live, given the nature of reality. As I will argue in subsequent posts, many of Peterson’s teachings are as helpful as others are controversial – and on occasion, I will argue, they are both.
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Part 1 (of 15): Introduction — What’s Up With Jordan Peterson?

An Evaluation of Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life” by Greg Boyd
Over the last two years I have, with increasing frequency, been asked what I thought of the views of this maverick Canadian thinker named Jordan Peterson. Sometimes the question was asked by admirers, if not devotees, of his writings and (more commonly) of his online lectures. To these people Peterson is a courageous and brilliant prophet of truth who dares to take on those post-modernist ideologues that are deconstructing the Judeo-Christian values of western culture and transforming our Universities into training camps for left-wing political activism. More often, however, the question has been asked by people who view Peterson as a dangerous academic defender of the patriarchal, bigoted, anti-LGBTQ right, which they of course despise.
The polarization surrounding Peterson has only intensified over the last year since he publicly challenged a recently passed Canadian law requiring Canadians to refer to transgender people with neutral pronounces (e.g. “they,” “ze,” “zir”) on the grounds that refusing to do so constitutes sexual discrimination (link). His bold action, which could have (and still may) cost him his teaching position at the University of Toronto (he is a Professor of Psychology), has landed him smack dab in the middle of the ever-intensifying culture wars that are currently raging throughout western society (especially in America, where this war is most intense).
It was a concerned wife in the church I pastor who finally got me to read Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life. As a progressive Christian, she was very concerned that her husband had joined a men’s group that was studying this book. She informed me that her husband, together with the other men in this group, were being captivated by Peterson’s ideas, and she feared this might adversely affect her husband and his peers. “This guy is huge, and he’s dangerous,” she said, “and as a pastor you should really know what he is about!” So, I took this concerned woman’s advice and read the book (it didn’t hurt that she had already bought me a copy).
Having finished the book, I now understand why Peterson is such a polarizing figure. He fearlessly weighs in on all the “hot” topics, and almost always ends up defending the conservative position. As I had heard rumored, Peterson is indeed rabidly opposed to the influence that post-modernism, and especially deconstructionism*, is having in academic circles. Indeed, he believes that Marxism and post-modernism are strongly aligned with one another, and he goes so far as to argue that State funding should be cut off from any academic institution that allows professors to advocate these ideas. Peterson also continually insists on the importance of holding fast to tradition and to religion and thus argues against those who clamor for rapid social change, if not for social revolution. In keeping with this, Peterson affirms the legitimacy of social hierarchies, rails against the imposition of “equal work, equal pay,” argues strongly against identity politics, and continually calls on people to stop blaming society for their problems and to instead take responsibility for their own lives. And, to give one more example, Peterson argues strongly against the common claims that gender differences are largely social constructs and that the world would be a better place if boys were raised more like girls, with all aggression being frowned upon.
Having said that, I must also say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading 12 Rules For Life! In fact, while I strongly disagree with some fundamental aspects of Peterson’s perspective – I will later argue that his worldview is fundamentally anti-Christian — I must confess that 12 Rules For Life is one of the most unique, well-argued, thought-provoking, and over-all engaging books I have read in the last several years. To my surprise, I discovered that Peterson’s conservative stances are just the tip of the iceberg of his remarkably comprehensive and eclectically informed worldview. And I found that Peterson’s reasoning process as well as the particular conclusions he arrives at are were much more nuanced than they are usually presented by his detractors, and often, by his defenders. I have no difficulty understanding why some argue that he is the single most influential contemporary alive today.
Peterson is the kind of clear and rational thinker I enjoy, and benefit from, engaging with. And given his current fame and polarizing influence, I decided I wanted to do more than to merely add yet another general overview of his work in a single blog. Instead, I decided I wanted to do a blog series, of indefinite length, exploring and critically evaluating from a distinctly Christian perspective all the major aspects of his thought, at least as it is expressed in 12 Rules For Life. My goal is to help my readers, and especially those who are inclined toward the left, to appreciate the depth of Peterson’s insight, while also demonstrating the various ways Peterson’s outlook is fundamentally antithetical to the historic-orthodox Christian faith.
So, over each of the next several weeks I will post two or three essays on themes that run throughout Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life. I hope that readers of this blog series will find his thought as engaging, and at points as disturbing, as I do.
Stay tuned!
The post Part 1 (of 15): Introduction — What’s Up With Jordan Peterson? appeared first on Greg Boyd - ReKnew.

Syndicated from Greg Boyd – ReKnew

Interview: Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here

Austin Channing joins the podcast to be interviewed by Katelin Hansen about her new book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. Some of the topics covered include:

Background for the book (1:38)
Stories from Austin’s experiences in primarily white Christian spaces (4:25)
The intersection of Christianity and white supremacy (20:00)
The readership of the book being broader than anticipated and the pervasiveness of racism across different evolving systems over time (36:35)

(This interview was much more of a back and forth conversation naturally flowing from one idea to the next than most, so separating them into distinct topics was not nearly as easy) Apple Podcasts | Android | Email | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | TuneIn | RSS


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