27 Aug 2018

My Thoughts on Jordan Peterson’s Take on the Bible

Religious 12 Comments

Rory writes (and gives permission for me to quote):

I did want to ask though, what your opinion on Jordan Peterson is in regards to Biblical literalism. From your writings and your appearance on Steve Patterson’s podcast it would seem you believe in Biblical literalism. You have also seemingly spoken approvingly about not only Jordan Peterson, but his biblical interpretations, yet as I understand him he appears to be at the very least agnostic as to the literal truth of the Bible. The message I get from him is not only is the Bible what might be called thematically, morally, and/or metaphorically true (the stories it contains reflect greater metaphysical truths about our reality without the stories themselves being historically accurate), but that the Bible being literally true is completely unimportant compared to it being metaphorically true. I may very well be mistaken in one or more of the statements above. 
What I don’t mean to say in all this is that you are being inconsistent. This does though seem like a foundational issue in faith, and I’m simply interested – if and when your schedule permits – in how you view JP on this issue. 

This is a great question. I’m still working through JP’s 12 Rules and so my understanding of his position may be incomplete. However, I’ve listened to all of his (posted at his podcast) audio lectures on the Bible, so I think I have a pretty good idea of where JP is coming from.

My personal position is that I think the Bible is the Word of God. That is, I think God inspired certain people to write down what was eventually compiled into the thing we call the Bible. So if you ask me, “Is the Bible true?” then I would say yes, it contains the most important truths ever penned.

In particular, I think there really was a historical man “Jesus” who walked around giving amazing sermons and healing people miraculously of their sickness. I think this man was executed on a cross, and that he was medically dead, and then came back to life. I don’t think these are metaphors or exaggerations; I think these events literally happened. As I explained when quoting Paul to rebut the claim of a skeptic, my faith rests upon the historical fact of the Resurrection. If Jesus were just some nice man who taught people wise precepts and spun memorable tales, then Christianity collapses.

Notwithstanding all of the above, I am open to apologists who reconcile apparent contradictions in the gospel accounts by saying they were sincere eyewitness testimonies, and sometimes even in modern times sincere eyewitness testimonies contradict each other in minor details. Also, if the book of Jonah says the reluctant prophet was swallowed by a “huge fish,” while Jesus says it was a whale (in the King James translation, at least), I am fine in saying that the ancient writer might not have been versed in our modern biological taxonomy.

Now when it comes to the opening lines of Genesis, I am much more flexible. It’s because whoever wrote the book (let’s say it was Moses, seeing a vision from the Holy Spirit) obviously wasn’t there to witness it directly. (Even Adam wasn’t created until after everything else.) So my faith in the accuracy of the Bible doesn’t rest on the material universe being created in six 24-hour days. If some secular scientists at Adler Planetarium made a video to showcase the origin of the universe and life on earth, and then showed it to Moses and asked him to write down what he saw, he wouldn’t be talking about dark energy and he wouldn’t comprehend what the narrator of the documentary meant by the timescales.

Switching now to Jordan Peterson: He thinks the good life rests on the proper balance between order and chaos. We need to pay proper respect to the social hierarchies and other institutions we inherit from our ancestors, because they evolved into their current form for a reason. On the other hand, we can’t be utterly subservient to tradition.

Regarding the Bible, Peterson is in awe of the wisdom it contains. He can spend 2 hours dwelling on the significance of Cain killing his brother Abel out of envy and spite. Peterson thinks you can learn a lot about human nature from studying this tale. (John Steinbeck did too, by the way, which is why he wrote the amazing novel East of Eden.)

In JP’s worldview, if the Bible stories were merely fanciful tales (like the story of Paul Bunyan), then they wouldn’t be so popular and enduring. Also, if they were merely the opiate of the masses, designed to keep the people docile while they were being fleeced by the ruling class, then you’d expect them to be cheerier. (Consider the character Moses in Animal Farm and the simplistic promises he gives the other animals who are suffering, first under the humans and then under the pigs.)

So it’s true that JP doesn’t think the literal accuracy of the Bible stories is important. On that account, I disagree, especially when it comes to the crucial questions of Jesus’ identity and accomplishments. However, JP himself (especially in interviews) I believe–and someone correct me if you think I’m misremembering his statements–says stuff along the lines of, “Jesus was probably a historical man, who came as close as possible to fulfilling human potential in pursuing the highest end with singleminded discipline. If you want to know just how much better your life could be, and how much you could accomplish if you put your heart and soul into the pursuit of The Good as you define it, then Jesus is your role model.” (Again, this isn’t even me trying to quote him, I’m just paraphrasing and lumping together a bunch of statements I think I heard him say when people ask him about Jesus.)

I have also learned a great deal about early Bible stories from listening to JP. Even though this is incredibly obvious in retrospect, it had never occurred to me before that sacrifice is simply a bargain with time. So although the notion of sacrificing animals in order to appease the gods strikes us as barbaric and unscientific, the idea of reducing consumption today in order to expand consumption in the future is pretty basic economics. If there were a God trying to teach His chosen people how to achieve success on earth, then getting them to appreciate sacrificing even choice possessions in pursuit of something higher is a pretty good lesson.

Finally, the supreme benefit of JP in this realm is that he gives permission to intellectuals to study the Bible. I know of one person who came to Jesus partly through listening to JP’s lectures on the Bible. It’s not that JP himself gave an altar call, of course, but rather that listening to a brilliant academic like JP spend so much time analyzing the Bible showed that the normal prohibition–“You can safely disregard this irrational book of myths that has done nothing historically except justify oppression”–was wrong. Once someone is willing to consider the Bible without that veto threat hanging overhead, the invitations from genuine Christian believers are more palatable.

12 Responses to “My Thoughts on Jordan Peterson’s Take on the Bible”

  1. Rory says:

    I feel like I’ve finally made it as a commenter.

    Something of a follow up though: in a previous post I can’t find now you (I think) described Christianity as preparation to create the mindset that would either become your eternal hell or heaven given the ultimate view of the world from a godly perspective. In the post I read it as coming from an almost Christian universalist mentality (e.g. here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LxiM3jRA-E) in that Christianity would be the preparation you would need, but it holds no monopoly on it.

    How do you feel about the Christian universalist perspective, given your previous writings – which I hope I’m characterizing fairly – and also the biblical statement by Jesus that “no man can come to know the Father but through me?”

  2. Jim O'Connor says:

    Peterson’s cosmology has no official place for grace (yet). But it isn’t a cosmology, it is a “psychological significance”. So that isn’t too surprising. Except that we (listeners) want him to make it into the theory of everything (Jordan Peterson, do you believe in God? I act as if I believe, and how you act is the ultimate revelation of what you believe, not the words you mouth.). But then, it is getting really CLOSE to a theory of everything, as we see him talking to Harris et al.

  3. Patton says:

    Dr. Murphy, a little off topic here, I hope you don’t mind.

    First, thanks for all that you do to bring the Austrian program and Christian ethics to as many as possible. I cannot think of a more important mission.
    As an Austrian and Christian, there are several very interesting facets of Dr. Peterson’s work that I wanted to mention.

    One of the most intriguing parts of Dr. Peterson’s corpus is that his psychology seems to arrive at the axiom of action independent of Mises. I’m not sure if he is familiar with Mises, but when discussing economics he cites “homo economicus” and other devices Austrians have dispensed with, leading me to believe he isn’t familiar. He describes reality as a “forum for action” and spells out the psychology of valence in a way that is strikingly similar to Mises’s epistemology for his axiom in “Human Action” and “Theory and History”. What are your thoughts here? I can tell you it makes my hair stand up to think that there may be a cogent and consistent theory of psychology that dovetails with the Austrian axioms. This would be an enormous epistemological boost to praxeology and offer a rebuttal to those who call us mystics for the idiosyncratic a priori Mises asserts.
    Have you made your way through “Maps of Meaning” yet? If not, it is a must, but the videos do a fine job to summarize.

    Another of his assertions I find compelling is the fact that belief is central to cognition. There is no reason, no logic, without first having belief. Everyone must assume an unverifiable and self-referencing axiom to begin reason, similar to Kuhn’s philosophy of science. Put another way, belief or faith, religion even, are essential qualities of what it is to be human. Even the strict existentialist must make the objective materialist assumptions to begin reasoning forward. This is akin to Proverbs 9:10, that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”
    Here is a TEDx talk where he expounds on this:

    Last, one of his conclusions is that there is evidence of a universal ethic, that of the divine individual (individualism), in the emotional affect of behavior, which of course is motivated by reasoning which begins with assumptions of belief, per his theory. He is rebutting Hume’s is-ought problem if I’m reading him right. I find this compelling, as the metaphysics required to discuss ethics gives us no rational argument against the relativists who simply begin with a contrary metaphysical axiom. Peterson is giving us evidence where only pure logic existed before.

    You should check out David Fuller’s articles and videos (Rebel Wisdom on YouTube) as he is doing good work compiling and contemplating Peterson’s work.
    We live in exciting times, don’t we!

  4. Andrew says:

    I was getting really sucked in on Jordan Peterson for a while there. Now I can’t even take him seriously. His attempts to redefine “truth” and his surprise at / evasion of simple questions really turned me off.

    And the more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I see his evaluation of the Bible — as the successful evolution of a cultural meme — as being the worst blasphemy imaginable. His philosophy may be the most extreme version of materialism that I have heard. In it, truth, as every common man understands it, does not matter. What matters is the impact that ideas, the memes, have on the evolutionary viability of their hosts. He wonders whether we have ideas or ideas have us.

    I found it to be thought provoking for a while. But, ultimately, it sounds like a philosophy that Satan himself might happily share with mankind. Because no one could truly buy what Jordan Peterson is selling and maintain his faith in the Truth of the Bible, or truth of any kind for that matter.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Andrew wrote: “[JP’s] surprise at / evasion of simple questions really turned me off.”

      Can you give me an idea of what you mean?

      • Andrew says:

        He does it a lot. I’ve noticed him doing it sometimes in the Q & A sections at the end of his lecture podcasts. But the best example is an interview where he is asked if he believes in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ. At first he reacts as if it is the first time he has ever heard or considered the question. He starts to say that he cannot answer the question. Then he spends minutes deciding whether he can come up with an answer he would be happy with. He says, “It depends on what you mean by Jesus Christ,” to which the interviewer clarifies that he means a real historical human person with a body. And finally he claims that he’s agnostic about the resurrection.

        Here is the relevant piece of the interview: https://youtu.be/RIB05YeMiW8

        Now come on. This is a person who has supposedly spent his life hearing the stories of the Bible and has such reverence for them that he spent months/years developing a lecture series to discuss their significance. How was he so surprised by that question? And why was his answer so meandering and evasive? He clearly didn’t want to answer with a simple yes or no. I think he’d prefer not to say, “I don’t know.” I think he’d like to say, “It doesn’t matter,” in a way that sounds deep and profound and doesn’t discount the value of the Bible or diminish his credibility. But until he comes up with that answer, he has to act surprised and evade and ultimately retreat to “I don’t know.”

        • Mark says:

          James White points out Peterson’s evasiveness in the video I linked to below. I don’t remember the topic, but Peterson talks about needing several more years before he would have something to say about it.

        • Andrew says:

          Another good example is his embarrassing showing on the Daily Show. He’s asked if people should be compelled to provide services to others and says no. Then he’s asked if he extends his reasoning to discriminated minorities and he reaffirms that he rejects compelling service, even in that case. Then he’s reminded of the civil rights movement and he immediately reverses course.

          I get that the Daily Show intends to make him look silly and that he’s a Canadian, but how has this brilliant thinker failed to incorporate the civil rights movement into his conception of human rights? I don’t get how a person saying that compelled service is wrong, on television, is caught off guard by, “But what about the civil rights movement?”

        • Shnarkle Von Barkle says:

          For Jordan Peterson to admit he doesn’t know if he believes in a physical resurrection isn’t evasive, but honest. I can’t say if it is because he’s given it great thought, or none at all. I suspect that his approach to the bible has colored his interpretation to the point where he’s questioning exactly what it means to live a resurrected life.

          On the road to Emmaus we see Christ’s disciples walking along with what their eyes tell them is a complete stranger, but their hearts are burning. Suddenly they recognize Christ in their midst, and just as soon, he’s gone. This is not the type of description one would automatically associate with a physical bodily resurrection. The author is presenting his readers with something quite different, and I think these illustrations are just that. They are illustrations of the teachings that preceded them.

          The gospel is asking us to look for Christ in the strangers we encounter not as an exercise, or just to pretend, but because this is the reality the gospel is presenting.

  5. Mark says:

    Bob –

    Two things to recommend specifically on this issue. First, Creation Ministries Intenational recently critiqued Jordan Peterson and his views on Christianity. Read that here: https://creation.com/peterson-bible-stories

    Second, James White did the same thing here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8y5OdiRnZpw

    I recommend you watch it at 1.25 speed to save time. The first few minutes on humanzees is interesting, but you can jump ahead to 10 minutes and his discussion of Peterson ends at 55 minutes.

    He is critiquing one of Peterson’s videos, and he makes a lot of great points. (It’s kind of a “the emperor is wearing no clothes” thing. And it’s a good one for those who think Peterson is a Christian as he takes the Lord’s name in vain several times.)

    • Mark says:

      Kind of a P.S. Over at Target Liberty, Wenzel posted this video of Peterson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mxk0aAz3JJw where Peterson repeatedly takes Jesus’ name in vain and says G D a lot.

      That’s just in case someone is still trying to make the argument that he’s a Christian. Yeah, and I’m the pope.

  6. Harold says:

    “Last, one of his conclusions is that there is evidence of a universal ethic, that of the divine individual (individualism), in the emotional affect of behavior, which of course is motivated by reasoning which begins with assumptions of belief, per his theory. He is rebutting Hume’s is-ought problem.”

    I don’t see how thus rebuts the is/ought problem. The evidence for a “universal ethic” can surely only be “human ethic” rather than truly “universal.” If there is such a thing, why ought we to adhere to it?

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