Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and Professor at the University of Toronto, is taking the world by storm. An “intellectual giant,” Peterson has captivated the minds of people from almost all walks of life. His current book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, was a #1 bestseller. His YouTube channel has nearly 1 million subscribers. Originally rising to fame due to political controversy, followers have become enthralled by his psychological representation of biblical stories and ancient myths. Peterson describes the bible as the “best guide that we have for life.” He speaks of objective truth and is a strong proponent of the foundations for Western Civilization. For these reasons, Peterson has become somewhat of a hero for conservative groups – many of whom identify with a Christian faith.
Indeed, Peterson has a unique gift for drawing profound insight from biblical narratives and connecting them to the deepest parts of human desire – something even the best pastors struggle to do. Peterson’s almost prophetic lectures have led many to inquire about his personal religious faith. To many Christians, however, his answers are underwhelming. Although he seems to assert the existence of God, Peterson is cautious about dabbling in the metaphysical realm. He suggests that the metaphysical exists, but always highlights its mysteriousness.
Yet, Peterson is fascinated by the person of Jesus Christ. The image of Christ has even appeared to him in a dream. To Peterson, Christ is the ultimate archetype for humanity. In an interview with Russell Brand, Peterson describes Christ as a representation of the Self – a figure who models perfectly the human need to continuously face death and be resurrected. However, in another interview, Peterson reveals his reservations about declaring Christ’s story as “literally” true, saying that he needs to “think about that for about three more years” before he can give a more definitive answer. In many ways, his beliefs model those of Unitarians, although ironically, Peterson speaks in a more spiritual (or even evangelical) tone.
Jordan Peterson strikes me as someone who is on the verge of (an even more) profound truth. His psychological studies have led him to the foot of the cross. Christians can find great insight from much that Peterson says about the bible and Jesus. The truths that he speaks of are indeed objectively true. In many ways, Jesus is in fact a symbol for us. He is an archetype of the Self – an archetype of humanity.
Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his book A Theology of History, makes much the same claim as Peterson. He writes regarding Jesus, “The uniqueness of the God-man, who is in virtue of his nature the norm of humanity – this uniqueness is, from a purely human point of view, the simple uniqueness of a man.” Like Peterson, von Balthasar sees Christ as representative of humanity, both individually and collectively. He is the “norm for humanity.” Later in the book, von Balthasar suggests that Jesus’ relationships with people were all archetypical. In other words, relationships to Christ are perfect manifestations of all abstract (general) relational concepts. For instance, “Jesus and Peter” is not an example of a master-disciple relationship, but is the unique and ultimate master-disciple relationship. Yet for von Balthasar this is not the true profoundness of Christ’s character. The true profoundness is that Jesus is the archetype embodied – written into history. He writes, “The value of the historical pole of human existence is thus heightened by the historical character of Christ’s revelation and to some extent liberated from its unjust imprisonment within an unhistorical philosophy of essences, raised, to some extent, from the sphere of pure philosophy to a participation in the factuality of theology.” Christ as archetype may give meaning to the individual, but Christ as historical archetype gives meaning to humanness itself – which cannot be separated from history.
It remains to be seen whether or not Jordan Peterson will discover this profound truth. He may continue to draw truth from the “myths” that he knows so well. However, he may find, like the once atheistic C. S. Lewis, that there is so much more to be found. Lewis too once stood in Peterson’s place, at the intersection of fact and fiction. Yet, as Patrick Coffin points out to Peterson himself, it was a simple conversation with two friends that changed Lewis’s mind:
“Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’.
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”
Are we witnessing the making of the next C. S. Lewis?
I hope so.