Category: Books

Interview: Philip Gulley, Unlearning God

Philip Gulley joins the podcast to discuss his latest book, Unlearning God, with Steve Kimes. The book is described this way:
With his trademark humor and gentle wisdom, Philip Gulley is a spiritual director any wayward pilgrim could warm to. In Unlearning God: HOW UNBELIEVING HELPED ME BELIEVE (Convergent; OSD: 9/25/2018), he invites readers into his own sometimes irreverent, sometimes daunting, but always refreshing journey of soul-deep reconstruction. In addition to lovers of Gulley’s works, this is a book for readers whose faith has been challenged by the world around them. Gulley teaches the reader to let go, or unlearn these burdensome obstacles in their faith so that they can forge a more authentic relationship with God.
Raised in small-town Indiana by a Catholic mother and a Baptist father, and proselytized by Jehovah’s Witness neighbors, young Gulley struggles with the absurdity of all three camps being utterly convinced the other two are doomed. To nearly everyone’s consternation, Phillip grows up to become a Quaker pastor. “Someone else’s faith,” he writes, “is a poor substitute for having our own.” Yet even his own tradition, he discovers, serves best as a way point in the serious, lifelong process of letting go of inherited certainties in order to flourish.
Driven by Gulley’s trademark storytelling and chapters bookmarked by small sections titled “Why this Matters,” Gulley identifies a number of tenants, dogma, and conventions in his religious journey that he has chosen to “unlearn” on his quest for an all-encompassing faith…
Writing in the tradition of Barbara Brown Taylor, Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans, Gulley showcases his well-loved gift as a narrator of the American religious experience and his acute sensibilities as public theologian in conversations that will charm, provoke, encourage and inspire.
Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor and popular author and speaker. He has written 21 books, including the Harmony fiction series, the Porch Talk series of inspirational essays, If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (coauthored with James Mulholland), and The Evolution of Faith: How God Is Creating a Better Christianity. Gulley holds a master of divinity degree from Christian Theological Seminary. He is co-pastor of Fairfield Friends Meeting in Camby, Indiana.
For more information, please visit: Apple Podcasts | Android | Email | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | TuneIn | RSS


Podcast: The Frank Viola Interview on INSURGENCE

Big Greg struggled to realize what Little Greg knew all along. Send Questions To: Dan: @thatdankent Email: Twitter: @reKnewOrg Subscribe: iTunes | Stitcher | Google Play | RSS
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She Thinks My Toyota’s…. Inadequate?

Having devoted two posts in the past week or so to the Jordan Peterson phenomenon and what might account for it, and having expressed qualified affirmation for some of the concerns that seem to animate him, I want to add one final post about 12 Rules for Life, this one addressing what I take to be among the least admirable of Peterson’s ideas. I am aware that some readers might be weary of the topic. I’m sorry. I have to take the book back to the library today, so this is all the Peterson you’ll have to endure around here for a while.
The impetus for this final post came, naturally, from a glance out of my office window into our church parking lot. Adjacent to our church is a large motorsports dealer. We allow their staff to park in our space during the week. What this means for the view out my window is that it is often populated by big, muscular-looking pickup trucks. Sometimes they’re jacked up with massive knobby tires and blacked out rims. Sometimes they have all kinds of defiant looking decals like plastered on the back windows. Often they are hooked up to trailers for pulling skidoos and quads and side-by-sides out to the mountains for weekends full of conquest and beer.
Sometimes the guys (and they’re almost always guys) that emerge from these trucks look pretty much like what you’d expect. Twenty something years old, massive bushy beards, baseball caps yanked down over furrowed brows, tattoos, ripped jeans and big boots. Occasionally they’re finishing off the last of a 750 ml energy drink with names like “Monster” or “Rockstar.” They look like guys who could probably snap me in two without blinking.
Beside all of these impressive looking trucks sits my recently purchased cherry red 2007 Toyota Camry. It has four measly cylinders and sounds like a lawn mower when I start it on a cold morning. Its cup holders look well-suited for a small latte (I doubt they could even handle a Monster energy drink). My Toyota looks… practical, if in an inadequate sort of way. It was recently described to me as looking like “something a grandma would drive.” Which, as it happens, was precisely what I was going for! Er, well…
According to Jordan Peterson, the scene in my church’s parking lot is rather easily interpreted. It’s all about the dominance hierarchy. Men need to be manly in order to get women to respect and, potentially, mate with them. Women respect strength and power and conquest. No self-respecting woman would date a guy who drives a Camry. You can’t probably can’t even roast the tires or do a donut in a parking lot with four pathetic cylinders! Women want risk-takers. Can you even take a risk in a Camry?! Guys who drive Camrys spend Sunday mornings before church picking up the empty Monster energy drink cans that the manly truck-driving men fling aside in disdain. Hypothetically. I’m told.
This is all a little tongue-in-cheek so far. But only a little. Peterson has some very strong opinions about gender and hierarchy. Frankly, some of them seem not only outdated and wrong but potentially dangerous. Consider this passage:

If they’re healthy, women don’t want boys. They want men. They want someone to contend with, someone to grapple with. If they’re tough, they want someone tougher. If they’re smart, they want someone smarter. They desire someone who brings to the table something they can’t already provide.

I might have shuddered audibly when I read that paragraph. Particularly in light of the news about Brett Kavanaugh that has dominated recent weeks. Whoever turns out to have been in fact lying in this whole sordid spectacle, the one thing that was never in doubt for me was that Christine Blasey Ford’s story was plausible in principle. There are very few things that are more believable to me than that a group of tough, smart young men, amped up on entitlement and alcohol and manliness, would force themselves upon a young woman sexually for sport and amusement. I’ve been to those parties, I’ve heard the frat-boy language of conquest and bravado. It’s as despicable as it is ubiquitous. Whatever else our cultural moment needs, it is surely not statements about “healthy” women needing tougher men.
Jordan Peterson is not, of course, advocating sexual assault. This should go without saying, but probably doesn’t. But in a cultural context where we are and will be for some time reckoning with the ubiquity of (primarily male) sexual assault, it hard to imagine a more tone-deaf statement than, “If they’re tough, they want someone tougher. If they’re smart, they want someone smarter.” Peterson’s trying to argue for a recovery of the idea that there are significant gender differences, and I think most of us would acknowledge this. But this whole “Women need manly men who are smarter and tougher than them” seems to me a truly awful, insulting and potentially dangerous way to go about it.
I say this, of course, as a Christian. If I believed that human beings were just another animal (a lobster, say, to use Peterson’s famous example) thrown up from nature’s purposeless clay, I might have more patience for his dominance hierarchy. Nature could well produce—seems, in fact, to have produced—a great many species where males dominate females (and a few where the reverse is true). As it happens, I am convinced that human beings are more than that. We have, together, male and female, been created in the image of God to reflect this image to the world. We have the capacity to reflect on our experience and how we will arrange things in our relationships and social arrangments, even if this reflection takes place within biological parameters. We, of all creatures, can move beyond primal lust and power and the quest for dominance and actually learn how to love. If we were nothing more than accidental bipeds with an overdeveloped frontal lobe, Peterson’s analysis might make a bit of sense. Thank God we’re more than that.
At any rate, it’st time for my trip to the library. I can almost imagine Jordan Peterson sneering at me in my inadequate Toyota. I’m glad I read his 12 Rules. They were interesting. But I won’t be following all of them, and I hope you won’t either.

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Part 20 (of 20) — Peterson’s Appeal

Assessing Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life Four months ago a young woman approached me after a church service, handed me 12 Rules of Life while saying, “You really needed to know what this guy is saying.” I’m so glad she did! To be frank, given the buzz I’d heard about ...
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On Hanging Out With Losers (And Other Existential Detours)

I have a dirty, shameful secret to confess. It’s a secret that will likely lay waste to my credentials as a pastor of integrity and compassion, a thinker of anything resembling depth and insight, a citizen with more or less centre-left politics, or even a reasonably decent and upstanding human being. It’s a secret that I do not expose to the light of day lightly. Truth be told, it would be far safer to keep it consigned to the murky shadows. No matter. My sins must be expunged.
My secret? Last week, I read a book by Jordan Peterson.
I’ll give you a moment to either, a) click away in horror and disgust and vow never to read a thing I write again; or, b) snap to attention in gleeful anticipation of my finally being set straight by someone who knows the score. I know that in theory these two options should not exhaust the list of potential responses but, well, it’s Jordan Peterson. And I’m writing on the internet. So, probably not.
(If you don’t know who Jordan Peterson is, I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you to the mercy of Google. People tell me—rightly, no doubt—that I am too wordy on this blog, so I can’t afford to spend too many words on setting the stage.)
The book in question was Peterson’s bestseller 12 Rules for Life. It’s sold over a million copies, apparently. The man and his message are in demand. I think I requested the book at my local library back in spring (it was likely after some Peterson conflagration in the news) and, honestly, I had pretty much forgotten about it. When I picked it up the library, the librarian looked at me with a sideways glance and a raised eyebrow. Well, this one is certainly… in demand. I felt guilty as I took the book from her, like I was a twelve-year-old sneaking a dirty magazine or something. I smiled, thanked her, slid the book into my coat and beat a hasty retreat.
All I can say in my meager defense is that I am a curious person. Peterson is a lightning rod for our cultural moment. He says things that enrage or inspire people (there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground). He has little patience for political correctness or identity politics or victimhood culture. He says what he thinks (and, apparently, what many people want to say but are afraid to say). If nothing else, I figured it’s worth trying to understand why someone like this is popular now? I do not, as it happens, find explanations like, “Because _____-phobes and white supremacists and sexists are taking over the world” or “Because all those squishy liberals are finally getting a dose of the truth” terribly persuasive or compelling, so I thought I would try something radical and actually read him for myself.
And what of the book? Well, I suppose I would characterize my reaction to it as “mixed.” Peterson’s writing is, in my view, mediocre. He meanders a lot and makes sweeping generalizations that are relatively easy to poke holes in. He essentializes too much. He has some ideas about gender roles and the “dominance hierarchy” that supposedly constrain and dictate human behaviour that I don’t buy. He seems a little too fond of himself, at times. I guess that’s an occupational hazard when you’re a YouTube sensation and a bestselling author.
But I was surprised by how much of the book I found reasonably insightful. Or, at the very least, interesting. If I had to sum up its central message, it would be, “Grow up, take responsibility for yourself, live a life of meaning and dignity.” He tells his readers to project confidence into the world, to be careful who they associate with, to measure success in personal terms (am I a better person today than I was yesterday?) rather than those dictated by the media we consume (am I as popular or influential as person x that I see on Facebook?). He is convinced that there is meaning to be wrested out of the chaos of suffering and temporality that defines existence. There’s nothing particularly ground-breaking about any of this—this is practical wisdom, and these are ancient paths. But he says it in ways that clearly resonate with people who have lost the way and can’t see the path any more.
I came to the book with senses heightened, on high alert to find a monster. Instead, I found a man with concerns that often map on to my own. How do we live well? Where is meaning to be found? What is the purpose of a human life? Even if I don’t agree with all of his answers, I cannot but affirm the questions he asks.
As I closed the book, and as I pondered the 12 rules it contained, a number of objections occurred to me. What about those who start the race of life with a deficit? What about those entrenched in systems of injustice and pain? Not everyone can just roll up their sleeves and start making better choices after all! Questions like these piled up, one on top of another. But then another one occurred to me. Would I want my young adult kids to (mostly) follow Peterson’s 12 rules? I ran through a few of them in my head. Stand up straight (be confident that you have something to contribute to the world). Take responsibility for your choices. Hang out with people who want what’s best for you. Measure yourself according to the best version of you, not some ideal life on social media. Tell the truth. Use your speech well. Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient. And then I thought, well, yeah, I probably would.
Having expressed a sort of measured appreciation for some aspects of Peterson’s project, I must also confess that I can’t embrace the whole package. This is largely for Christian reasons. Peterson sees Jesus as a kind of heroic archetypal individual who had the courage to wrest order and meaning out of chaos. This may be partly true, but Jesus embodied a far deeper and more profound ethic than that.
Jesus relentlessly drives those who would follow after him precisely into the places that Peterson would have us escape. In the Beatitudes, Jesus calls “blessed” those that Peterson would call “losers” or “occupants of the bottom of the dominance hierarchy.” Jesus would have me believe that mourning with those in pain, hungering after a righteousness that transcends classical virtue, embracing meekness and poverty of spirit, and seeking the way of peace (as opposed to the ladder up the dominance ladder) is the way to genuine human flourishing. Where Peterson might see me spinning my wheels with unpromising people and situations that are hampering my progress, Jesus might just see something like faithfulness.
Peterson wants me to stand up tall, face the chaotic existential void, and be a heroic individual. Jesus invites me to discover my humanity in impractical love directed outward (and, inconveniently, downward). Peterson has some decent strategies for making our way in a world dominated by hierarchies. Jesus turns those hierarchies upside down and trains us to value things differently.
I can go with Peterson part of the way, but only because I know that Jesus is there to catch and correct, rehabilitate and redirect me when I and those around me fall.
The feature image above is taken from the 2018-19 Christian Seasons Calendar. It was created by Robert Gilroy and is called, “To Serve with Love.” It’s sort of a visual reminder to me that Jesus hung out with a lot of losers and that this sort of hindered his ascent in the dominance hierarchy. 

Syndicated from Rumblings

Part 17 (of 20)- Jordan Peterson on God

Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life “God, whoever or whatever he may be, is no simple granter of wishes.” Jordan Peterson In this post I would like to review and evaluate what Peterson has to say about God and in the following post I will do the same for ...
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Part 16 (of 19): The Archetypal Christ

Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life “Christ’s archetypal death exists as an example of how to accept finitude, betrayal and tyranny heroically – how to walk with God despite the tragedy of self-conscious knowledge – and not as a directive to victimize ourselves in the service to others.” Jordan ...
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Part 15 (of 19?) — Making Sacrifice

Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life “There is a powerful call to proper Being in the story of the third temptation [of Jesus].  To obtain the greatest possible prize—the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth, the resurrection of Paradise – the individual must conduct his or her life ...
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In Your Hurry, Seek Holy Selfishness

One of the reasons I love social media is the opportunity to connect with writer friends like Chris Maxwell, whose writing and personal story have greatly encouraged and blessed me. I came to know him first as an author and survivor of a devastating health crisis, but his main vocation is Director of Spiritual Life … Continue reading In Your Hurry, Seek Holy Selfishness
Syndicated from April Yamasaki

You’re Invited: Ready, Set, Launch!!

Four Gifts: Seeking Self-Care for Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength officially launches into the world this week, and you’re invited to help me celebrate at House of James, 2743 Emerson Street, Abbotsford, B.C., on Saturday, September 8 at 7:00pm. Come for special music, a sample reading from the book, author Q & A, book signing, and enter … Continue reading You’re Invited: Ready, Set, Launch!!
Syndicated from April Yamasaki

Part 14 (of 15) —Taking Responsibility (Part B)

Accessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life
“If things are not going well for you – well, that might be because,
as the most cynical of aphorisms has it, life sucks, and then you die.
Before your crisis impels you to that hideous conclusion, however,
you might consider the following:
life doesn’t have the problem – you do.”
Jordan Peterson
In the previous post I outlined Peterson’s thoughts on taking responsibility for our own lives, a concept that lies at the heart of Peterson’s whole philosophical and psychological outlook on life. In this post I will offer five observations about this material, the last four of which are critical of Peterson.
Be the Change You Want to See in the World
The first thing I’ll say is that, if Peterson’s advice in the previous post sounded a lot like ancient Stoicism, that is because it basically is. And that isn’t meant as a criticism, for on ethical matters, I think ancient Stoics were very insightful. (Their deterministic metaphysics, however, is another matter!). I particularly appreciate Peterson’s (and ancient Stoicism’s) emphasis on fixing yourself before you try to fix the world, for when broken people try to fix the world, they most often end up further breaking it. As Gandhi famously put it, the best thing anyone can do for the world is to simply “be the change [they] want to see in the world.”
This is advice I wish more American Christians would take seriously, both at an individual and ecclesial level. Instead of trying to “take America back for God” by positioning ourselves as Caesar’s wise advisers who assume we know better and care more than others about issues that divide the polis, we ought to make it our highest aspiration to simply be who God has called and empowered us to be; namely, individuals and communities that imitate God by living “in love as Christ loved us and gave his life for us” (Eph 5:1-2). I’m personally convinced that if Christians stopped trying to fix the world by grabbing hold of political power and simply focused on demonstrating God’s love in practical ways to all people, and especially to people in need, the transforming effect we would have on society would dwarf in significance whatever positive changes political regimes can occasionally manage to bring about.
Identity Politics and the Legitimate Rebellion Against Tyranny
Second, while I will qualify this in a moment, I think there is wisdom in Peterson’s advice to avoid blaming one’s misery on others and becoming resentful as a result. Generally speaking, I think it wise to heed Peterson’s advice to first question what we may have done to contribute to our own misery and how we might alleviate our suffering by adopting a different attitude, differing values and different behaviors. And I think there is great wisdom in Peterson’s counsel to avoid falling into resentment at all costs. I have personally seen resentment and the victimization mindset that accompanies it destroy people. It is cancer to the soul.
Having said that, however, I’m not sure Peterson is entirely consistent on this point. For example, he claims:
…resentment always means one of two things. Either the resentful person is immature, in which case he or she should shut up, quit whining, and get on with it, or there is tyranny afoot—in which case the person subjugated has a moral obligation to speak up (91).
So, when “there is tyranny afoot,” one has “a moral obligation” to speak out against it. Got it. But isn’t this exactly what marginalized and oppressed people-groups are doing when they decry the racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory aspects of society that subjugate their rights and freedoms and suppress their individuality? Yet, when these oppressed and marginalized folks speak out against the “tyranny” they believe they are suffering under, Peterson claims they are playing “identity politics.”
Based on various videos I’ve viewed, I suspect Peterson would respond by arguing that he doesn’t oppose individuals speaking out against their own oppression, he merely opposes people forming political action groups based on a perceived shared oppression. For while individuals can be reasoned with and can reexamine their lives to see how they can change things to alleviate their suffering, once people acquire a political group identity, they are no longer focused on setting their own house in order and are instead focused on reorganizing society in way that solves their problem. Indeed, when one identifies with a political action group, all of an individual’s needs that lie outside their group identity get set aside as irrelevant to the collectivist thinking of the group. They are in effect reduced to the agenda set by the group and are strapped with a victim mindset that blames society for their problems.
While I find Peterson to be insightful on the power-dynamics of collectivist thinking, I find his thinking on “identity politics” to be a bit muddled. Suppose you are a gay man who feels your gayness disadvantages and oppresses you in western society. Peterson grants that you have the right – indeed, the “moral obligation” — to speak out against this tyrannical aspect of the culture. But what would Peterson have you do when you find out there are many others who also are speaking out about the oppression of gay people? The fact of the matter is that you already are part of a group that politically identifies themselves as victims of homophobic aspects of western culture.. And you already are part of a chorus of voices that are trying to rid western culture of this form of tyranny. The official “political identity” this group gives itself simply acknowledges this fact.
So, I’m left wondering what Peterson would have you do, especially since the only way to end any systemic “tyranny that is afoot” is for masses of people to speak out against it as a unified group? I am empathetic with Peterson’s concerns about “identity politics,” but if his call to end “identity politics” is to be plausible, I think he needs to offer an alternative to those individuals who heed his advice to speak out against tyranny.
I am also left wondering about what Peterson would think about the many Russians who joined Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in speaking out against the tyranny of Russia’s Communistic policies. I doubt very much that he would criticize them for playing “identity politics.” To the contrary, Peterson celebrates the impact that Solzhenitsyn’s book, The Gulag Archipelago, had on dismantling the Communist regime. But this book only had this impact because it inspired others to join his anti-Communist revolt.
The question is: How is what these Russians were doing different, in principle, from (say) what the LGBT+ crowd is doing in western culture? If Peterson sees a difference in principle in what these two groups are doing, I would think it would be important for him to clearly spell this out. So far as I’ve been able to discern, he has never done this.
Lacking this distinction, one is tempted to wonder if Peterson legitimizes the group revolt against the tyranny of Communism but not the “identity politics” of groups revolting against western culture’s oppression of (say) LGBT+ people simply because Peterson firmly believes that Communism oppresses people but doesn’t believe that western culture oppresses LGBT+ people. If this is true, I would simply point out that the only way a straight white male like Peterson or myself could learn if western culture actually oppresses LGBT+ people would be by developing trusting relationships with people who identity as LGBT+ and empathetically listening to their stories. But I’m not sure how many trusting relationships Peterson could hope to enter into with LGBT+ people so long as he continues to accuse them of playing “identity politics.”
Blaming the Victim
Third, I think Peterson is by and large correct when he states that “the world is revealed…through the template of your values” (170) and, therefore, that the world reveals “whatever goodness it contains in precise proportion to your desire for the best” (101). To a large degree, you find in life what you’re looking for, for better or for worse. Hence, people who embrace a victim mindset will likely see what they believe to be misery-creating oppression at every turn. This, in fact, is one of the unfortunate consequences of people playing “identity politics,” according to Peterson.
What concerns me, however, is that Peterson often speaks as though there was nothing else that could factor into one’s misery. As we saw in the previous post, the first step in taking responsibility for our life is to consider the possibility that “life doesn’t have the problem. You do” (99). And, as we saw back in post 8, Peterson goes so far as to claim that “[t]he degree to which the terrible part of the world manifests itself in your life is proportionate to how insufficient you are.” He thus suggests that “[i]f you got your act together completely, maybe all the suffering would disappear from your life, or at least all the unbearable suffering.”1
It almost sounds like Peterson is saying that we should assume that all of a person’s misery, or at least all of their “unbearable” misery, is their own fault. However, one could argue that Peterson is speaking hyperbolically in these contexts and that he is actually simply restating, in very emphatic terms, the need for individuals to start their attempts to alleviate their suffering by examining themselves and putting their own house in order instead of trying to solve their problems with a social revolution.2 Even if so, however, I am concerned about how such hyperbolic advice might be heard by (say) a young person who recently woke up from a coma only to discover their skiing accident has left them paralyzed from the neck down, or a mother who just lost her daughter to cancer, or a parent of three children who is stuck in the perpetual limbo of a dehumanizing Refugee camp.
Sometimes one’s misery is so obviously about life and not about them that it would be absurd and callous to even suggest to them the possibility that “life doesn’t have the problem. You do.”
Having Compassion
Fourth, and closely related to this, I’m concerned what this strongly emphasized teaching of Peterson might do to people’s willingness to have compassion on others. Because Peterson wants us to suspect that our unbearable suffering is our own fault, he doesn’t put a premium on exercising compassion toward sufferers. Indeed, when Peterson speaks about compassion in 12 Rules of Life, it is almost always to call its authenticity and helpfulness into question. He frequently questions the motives of both the one being helped and the one doing the helping.
For example, Peterson says that a person who repeatedly tries and fails to improve their life or circumstances is “too often the person who wants everyone to believe in the authenticity of all that trying” (76). And “[w]hen it’s not just naivete,” Peterson writes, “the attempt to rescue someone is often fueled by vanity and narcissism” (76). Similarly, Peterson writes:
Maybe you are saving someone because you’re a strong, generous, well-put-together person who wants to do the right thing. But it’s also possible – and, perhaps, more likely – that you just want to draw attention to your inexhaustible reserves of compassion and good-will. Or maybe you’re saving someone because you want to convince yourself that the strength of your character is more than just a side effect of your luck and birthplace. Or maybe it’s because it’s easier to look virtuous when standing alongside someone utterly irresponsible (79).
It is of course good to examine our motives for engaging in acts of compassion, and there are certainly contexts in which it is useful to question the motives of the person you’re considering helping. We certainly don’t want to be enablers who have ulterior motives for engaging into compassionate-looking behavior. On the other hand, since we often have trouble ascertaining our true motives, let alone the motives of others, making the suspicion of ulterior motives our default setting could easily keep us in a state of perpetual paralysis when it comes to acting compassionately. How can you really know your motives or the motives of the person you are considering helping are pure?
I submit that this suspicion should not be the default setting for followers of Jesus.
It surely is significant that the Gospels tell us that Jesus routinely had compassion toward the crowds who gathered around him, and there is no indication that Jesus investigated people’s motives before having compassion on people (Matt 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34). Indeed, Jesus spent his entire three-year ministry showing compassion to suffering people and working to alleviate their misery. Yet, with only one possible exception (Jn 5:14), Jesus never suggested that a person’s suffering was their own fault.3 And even in the one instance in which Jesus suggested a person’s sin might have something to do with their affliction, he nevertheless demonstrated compassion toward the man by healing him.
So too, Jesus taught that when we provide food, clothing, or shelter to people in need, we are providing these things to him, and he teaches this without any consideration of why these people are in need in the first place. Indeed, Jesus said the same thing about befriending a person in prison — a person who presumably is responsible for bringing their suffering (their imprisonment) on themselves (Matt 25:33-45).
Of course, Jesus wisely discerned that there are times when confrontation rather than compassion is what love calls for. For example, he spoke harshly with the Jewish authorities because he knew that only this sort of shocking rhetoric held out any hope of cracking their hardened, self-righteous hearts (Matt 23). The same holds true when Jesus turned over tables and caused an animal stampede in the Temple (John 2:13-17). As was true of Jesus, there are situations in which Jesus-followers are called to exercise “tough love.”
Still, whenever people asked Jesus for help, Jesus gave it. And in this light, I submit that, even in cases in which it is clear that a suffering person is responsible for their own suffering, this should not condition our compassion toward them or our desire to do whatever we can do to alleviate their suffering. Obviously, this compassion doesn’t mean that we always give people whatever they want from us, for it could very well be that what they want is something that’s contributing to their misery (e.g. drugs). But the motive Jesus-followers should have for showing compassion to others, whatever form it takes, has nothing to do with the merits or authenticity of the people we aim at helping. Our motivation should rather be based solely on that fact that we are children of the Father who are called and empowered to love like the Father loves — indiscriminately and unconditionally, like the rain falls and the sun shines. Hence, we are even called to love and show compassion to life-threatening enemies (Matt 5:44-45; Luke 6:27-36).
Save Yourself
Finally, and most importantly, the most fundamental axiom in Peterson’s outlook, so far as I can discern, is that every individual ultimately has to save themselves. You must simply resolve to improve yourself and then “tie a rope to a boulder, [p]ick up the great stone, heave it in front of you, and pull yourself towards it” (224). Just do it! 12 Rules of Life as well as many videos are saturated with self-help instructions such as this.
I consider this to be the most anti-Christian aspect of Peterson’s thought. While the New Testament (NT) presupposes that it is up to each individual to freely chose to place their trust in Christ and to walk in the way of Christ, and while the NT also emphasizes the need for Jesus-followers to “work out [their] salvation with fear and trembling,” it also emphasizes, over and over, that we can only do this because “it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purposes” (Phil 2:12-13). Indeed, we are taught that, apart from Christ, we are “dead in sin” (Eph 2:1, 5). We could not even have faith in Christ were it not given to us as a gift, out of God’s sheer grace, and were it not for the rejuvenating work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts (Eph 2:8, cf. 1 Cor 12:3).
Along similar lines, while Peterson frequently speaks of our need to make sacrifices to “atone” for our sin (e.g. 200), the NT teaches that we needed the sacrifice of the Savior to atone for our sin. (In the following post I will demonstrate the way in which Peterson transforms Jesus into an archetype of the kind of heroic self-sacrifice we all need to make).
I don’t fault Peterson for contradicting the Christian faith so profoundly at this point, for as we’ll see in a subsequent post, Peterson is not a Christian, or even a theist, in any historic-orthodox sense of the word. Moreover, while Peterson draws heavily from the Bible, he writes and speaks to a diverse audience and thus does not presuppose any particular faith perspective. For this reason, the only thing Peterson has to leverage to get people to begin to improve their lives is their own self-determination. Nevertheless, while Jesus-followers certainly need to be encouraged to strive to improve themselves (which means, to become more Christlike), we must always remember that we could not begin to take a step in this direction were it not for the unmerited grace of God and the empowerment of his indwelling Spirit.
It is the awareness of our dependency on God more than anything else that sets the Christian faith apart from all save-yourself philosophies, including Peterson’s.
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1 see video
2 Thanks to Cory Wright who proposed this interpretation to me and has provided very helpful feedback on all my posts.
3 Some think that John 9:1-3 also constitutes an exception to Jesus’ usual pattern, but I argue that it does not. See .
The post Part 14 (of 15) —Taking Responsibility (Part B) appeared first on Greg Boyd - ReKnew.

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Part 13 (of 15)- Taking Responsibility (Part A)

Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life
by Greg Boyd
“If you’re not the leading man in your own drama,
you’re a bit player in someone else’s.”
Jordan Peterson
If I had to sum up the essence of Peterson’s philosophy in a single sentence, it would be: “Take responsibility for your own life.” In this post I will review Peterson’s thinking on this all-important topic and in the following post I will evaluate it. I should acknowledge at the start that, as paradoxical as it may sound, I find this foundational aspect of Peterson’s thought to simultaneously be one of the most insightful, but also the most anti-Christian, aspects of his thought.
Beware of Resentment
As we have noted several times in this series, Peterson is keenly aware of the suffering that all people endure. “Life is in truth very hard,” he writes. “Everyone is destined for pain and slated for destruction” (149). Not only this, but everybody suffers some form of injustice, some form of oppression, a certain amount of misfortune, and various forms of physical and psychological pain. The all-important question is: How are we going to respond to this world of pain?
One option is to pin the blame for your misery on someone or something else. You’re miserable because your parents didn’t love you, or you were born ugly and underprivileged, or a reckless driver put you in a wheel chair, or simply because God is cruel, to name just a few possible culprits.
Given the current reign of deconstructionism in the western Academy, Peterson is particularly concerned with those who blame society for their misery. In response to the deconstructionists’ claim that “all human corruption” can be “uncritically laid at society’s feet,” Peterson argues that this “conclusion merely displaces the problem back in time. It explains nothing, and solves no problems.” Even worse, this perspective leads to the mistaken conclusion that “all individual problems, no matter how rare, must be solved by cultural restructuring, no matter how radical.” Against this, Peterson argues that “[e]ach person’s private trouble cannot be solved by a social revolution, because revolutions are destabilizing and dangerous” (118).
The very worst aspect of the blame-others option, however, is that it inevitably leads to resentment, and resentment only serves to deepen people’s misery. Indeed, Peterson argues that this option leads straight to hell. Peterson writes:
The idea that hell exists in some metaphysical manner is not only ancient, and pervasive: it’s true. Hell is eternal…It’s the most barren, hopeless and malevolent subdivision of the underworld of chaos, where disappointed and resentful people forever dwell (220).
Look At Yourself
The other possible response to life’s misery, according to Peterson, is to take responsibility for your life to alleviate as much of your misery as possible, and the first step in this process is to inquire how you may have brought it on yourself? To prevent resentment for our misfortunes, Peterson would have us consider the possibility that “life doesn’t have a problem. You do” (81). If you examine yourself, Peterson says you may find that “your misery is the weapon you brandish in your hatred of those who rose upward while you waited and sank.” Or perhaps you’ll discover that “your misery is your attempt to prove the world’s injustice, instead of the evidence of your own sin…your conscious refusal to strive and to live” (81).
Peterson considers “the ancient Jews” to be classic champions of the need to start by assessing one’s own guilt. When ancient Jews endured hardship, Peterson notes, they didn’t “judge reality as insufficient” or “criticize Being itself,” and this allowed them to avoid “sinking into resentment.” Instead, they “blamed themselves when things fell apart.” More specifically, “they acted as if God’s goodness – the goodness of reality – was axiomatic, and took responsibility for their own failure” (157). And, as I noted in post 3, they did this despite the fact that the God of the Old Testament often appears as cruel and as capricious as “a hungry lion” or any other “Force of Nature” (107).
Peterson illustrates the practical value of beginning with an honest inquiry into how we ourselves might be at fault for our misery by talking opening about his own marriage struggles. He admits that over thirty years of marriage, he and his wife have had some deep disagreements. They often “became trapped…in emotional, angry and anxious argument.” They found that the only way out of these traps was to briefly separate into different rooms to ask themselves the same question:
What had we each done to contribute to the situation we were arguing about? However small, however distant…we had each made some error. Then we would reunite, and share the results of our questioning: Here’s how I was wrong…” (356)
Peterson adds that this strategy only works if you “truly want the answer, when asking this question.” And, he adds, the one thing you can be sure of ahead of time is that “you won’t like the answer” (356-57). Yet, if you want to alleviate the misery of the trap you’re in, you have to begin by facing the truth of your own culpability.
A Classic Petersonian Hero
The most powerful illustration of the practical value of searching out your own heart, however, is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. After serving on the Russian front lines in the face of a Nazi invasion, Stalin’s paranoid regime had him arrested, beaten, and thrown into “the muddy hell of a Soviet gulag” where he spent years in forced labor under the most deplorable circumstances imaginable (155). On top of this, Solzhenitsyn was at one point struck with cancer, and then, at a later date, he was afflicted with “an extremely serious disease” (154).
Solzhenitsyn “could have become resentful and bitter,” Peterson notes. And he continues:
His life had been rendered miserable by both Stalin and Hitler, two of the worst tyrants in history. He lived in brutal conditions. Vast stretches of his precious time were stolen from him and squandered. He witnessed the pointless and degrading suffering and death of his friends and acquaintances…. Solzhenitsyn had cause to curse God. Job himself barely had it as hard (154).
But Solzhenitsyn instead decided to fend off resentment. “He asked himself the most difficult of questions,” says Peterson, which is: “had he personally contributed to the catastrophe of his life” (155)? He considered his “unquestioning support of the Communist Party,” especially as a young man. He reflected on “[h]ow many times” he had “acted against his own conscience, engaging in actions that he knew to be wrong.” He thought about how “many times” he had “betrayed himself” and “lied.” And then he began to wonder if there was “any way that the sins of his past could be rectified” and “atoned for.” While wasting away in a Soviet labor camp, Solzhenitsyn “took himself apart, piece by piece, let what was unnecessary and harmful die, and resurrected himself” (155).
One monumental by-product of Solzhenitsyn’s self-transformation was his book, The Gulag Archipelago, which is “a history of the Soviet prison camp system.” According to Peterson, this single work “demolished the intellectual credibility of communism.” Hence, he concludes: “One man’s decision to change his life, instead of cursing fate, shook the whole pathological system of communist tyranny to its core” (155).
Solzhenitsyn is a classic Petersonian hero, modeling for all of us what it looks like to fend off justified resentment by first examining one’s own faults and then embarking on a meaningful life that was committed to ending tyranny and alleviating suffering
Fix Yourself First
So, Peterson concludes, if you’re suffering feels unbearable, you should first ask: “Have you cleaned up your life?” And if the answer is “no,” then Peterson says, “here’s something to try: “Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today” (157). In the midst of your suffering, he says, “[d]on’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies.” And to deconstructionists, Peterson writes:
Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city (158).1
Similarly, Peterson elsewhere writes: “It is my firm belief that the best [367] way to fix the world—a handyman’s dream, if ever there was one – is to fix yourself. Anything else,” he adds, “is presumptuous” and “risks harm, stemming from your ignorance and lack of skill” (366-67). If you focus on getting your own house in order, Peterson says,
Maybe your anxiety, and hopelessness, and resentment, and anger will recede. Perhaps your uncorrupted soul will then see its existence as a genuine good, as something to celebrate, even in the face of your own vulnerability (159).
Aiming High
Taking an honest look at how you may be responsible for your own misery is only the first step in bringing about change in your life, however. The next step is to “determine where you are going in your life, because you cannot get there unless you move in that direction” (282). You must boldly “confront the chaos of Being, [t]ake aim against a sea of troubles,” [s]pecify your destination, and chart your course” (283). To do this, you must “treat yourself as if you were someone you are responsible for helping” and “consider what would be truly good for you.” This “good” is not necessarily about something you “want” or something you think would make you “happy” (62). It’s rather about what “would make your life meaningful” (63).
And our life becomes meaningful, Peterson contends, when our aim goes beyond fixing ourselves and seeking personal fulfillment to include the welfare of others. To find meaning, or, what comes to the same thing, to justify our miserable existence, Peterson says we must adopt this axiom: “to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering” (198). This is to aim “at the betterment of Being” (189) and “to work to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth,” which is both “a state, and a state of mind, at the same time” (198). We should, in a word, do what Geppeto does in Pinocchio when he “wishes upon a star,” which is to say, we should “[a]im for Paradise” (359).
Taking Baby Steps
Still, you can’t run a marathon except by taking one step at a time. So too, while Peterson encourages us to aim high, he is also a realist who encourages us to start small. Peterson says we should start by asking three questions:
“What is it that is bothering me?” “Is that something I could fix?” and “Would I actually be willing to fix it?” If you find that the answer is “no” to any or all of the questions, then look elsewhere. Aim lower. Search until you find something…that you could fix, that you would fix, and then fix it” (108, italics added).
The more we notice and act on what we could and would fix, the more our capacity to notice and act on what we could and would fix grows. And the greater this capacity grows, Peterson claims, the more of the goodness of Being we will experience, for “the world is revealed…through the template of your values.” Hence, Peterson writes, “[i]f the world you are seeing is not the world you want…it’s time to examine your values” (170). And when we change our aim, and therefore our values, “our minds will start presenting us with new information, derived from the previously hidden world, to aid us in that pursuit” (101).
For this reason, Peterson contends that the world reveals “whatever goodness it contains in precise proportion to your desire for the best” (101). But the converse is also true. If a person is filled with envy and resentment, “the world you inhabit reveals itself as a place of bitterness, disappointment and spite” (106). So, if you want to see a good world rather than a thoroughly miserable world, fight resentment, at all costs, and instead aim for paradise.
I find Peterson’s thoughts on taking responsibility for our own lives and fixing ourselves before we try to fix the world to be very insightful and filled with practical wisdom. Nevertheless, as the following post will make clear, I also have several areas of concern, not least of which is that the very center of Peterson’s outlook is fundamentally contrary to the center of the Christian faith.
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1 For an insightful talk on the need to start with yourself and to stay within “your range of competence” when addressing social issues, see video.
The post Part 13 (of 15)- Taking Responsibility (Part A) appeared first on Greg Boyd - ReKnew.

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