Jordan Peterson: An interview with the preaching professor

Jordan Peterson delivering a lecture at the University of Toronto in 2017. Photo by Adam Jacobs (Wikimedia).Jordan Peterson delivering a lecture at the University of Toronto in 2017. Photo by Adam Jacobs (Wikimedia).

In 2018, Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto, released 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Since its debut, the book has sold over 700,000 copies in the United States. Prior to its release, Anna J. Marchese, an intern at America, interviewed Mr. Peterson by phone on August 3, 2017, on his lecture series and his relationship to religious thinking.

A multidimensional foam sculpture hangs on the wall of Jordan Peterson’s home. Should you have any familiarity with Mr. Peterson, you are no stranger to this artwork. It graces the cover of his first book, Maps of Meaning, and is the icon for his YouTube channel, which boasts millions of views. Spanning five feet, the homemade sculpture was a three-month project for the University of Toronto professor. Within the sculpture’s many quadrants are rectangles in gray, yellow and red, reminiscent of a mandala. Mr. Peterson explained to me that the sculpture’s title, “The Meaning of Music,” concerns the artist’s inspiration.

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“I was trying to conceptualize, visually, what music meant,” he said. “Music has an intrinsic meaning, which has always been mysterious to me. It isn’t obvious to me how unarticulated meaning could be made manifest like that.”

Mr. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life has sold over 700,000 copies in the United States.

The sculpture has a cold, calculated complexity to it, not unlike its creator. A clinical psychologist by training, Mr. Peterson lectures on cultural archetypes, drawing heavily on the work of Carl Jung. He explains mythology and personality with passion, in a voice reminiscent of Kermit the Frog. The combination has sparked a healthy dose of memes and parodies from devotees and detractors featuring the Muppet in place of the professor.

Mr. Peterson says that after he finished the sculpture, he took a moment to contemplate what he described as the “three-dimensional representation of a two-dimensional representation of a one-dimensional space” mounted before him. Then came an otherworldly experience: “It was as if the heavens opened up. It was just like a Renaissance painting. I was in my living room. I didn’t go anywhere. But it was like I was in two places at the same time. It was as if something living, awe-inspiring descended on me and changed me. I suppose that was an intimation of immortality or a glimpse of heaven.”

Reflecting on that mystical moment in front of his sculpture, Mr. Peterson confides: “The only real way I can think about that experience was that it was a revelation. It was an experience of God.”

This conversation provides an unusual view of the controversial Canadian, who rose to prominence in September of 2016 for voicing opposition to Bill C-16, which amended the nation’s Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to include “gender expression” and “gender identity” as protected classes. His criticism of the legislation, hedged in a critique of political correctness and the threat of compelled speech, was met with protest from professors, students and transgender advocates alike. It also spawned support from various sources, including the New York Times columnist David Brooks and David French of National Review, and garnered Mr. Peterson an active online following, one that has turned him into an internet father figure for a huge population of meme-saturated young men. It has also earned him a reputation among his critics as a transphobe, a sexist and even the “stupid man’s smart person.”

Mr. Peterson deals with the Bible insofar as it presents a rational, historical and biological case for belief.

That Mr. Peterson has used his popularity to launch a lecture series on the “Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories” is not entirely unexpected. His biblical lectures are virtually indistinguishable from those he has given in a psychology course, both in content and delivery. They deal with the Bible insofar as it presents a rational, historical and biological case for belief. The lectures leave out all miraculous or metaphysical content. Mr. Peterson is hesitant to make any claims about the divinity of the New Testament’s main player, concerning himself solely with Jesus’ archetypal image and its implications for personal behavior.

Mr. Peterson, who was raised in the United Church of Canada, is neither a Bible-thumper nor a theologian, and his reading of Scripture is one part psychosocial investigation of the Book of Genesis and two parts lesson on how to live a fulfilling life, points that are also featured in 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Why focus on the Bible, and why do so now?

I’ve done some analysis of the biblical stories as part of my psychological work. I knew that I had more to do, and every time I’ve done it, it’s been extremely valuable. It makes me a better teacher because I have a richer understanding of cultural history.

Mr. Peterson is hesitant to make any claims about the divinity of the New Testament’s main player. 

But there’s a deeper reason, which is that it’s very difficult to overestimate how fundamental the biblical stories are. They’re the pillars upon which Western civilization rests, for better or for worse. I happen to be a big fan of Western civilization; I think it beats the hell out of tyranny and starvation. I think that our culture is in somewhat of a crisis. We are not as confident about what we’re doing and why as we could be. I wanted to go back to the foundation and approach it in a manner that was commensurate with the understanding of an educated modern person. That would be someone who’s scientifically educated and who’s skeptical.

In your lectures, you define “religion” in opposition to “ideology.” Could you explain the difference between the two?

To me, ideology is corrupt; it’s a parasite on religious structures. To be an ideologue is to have all of the terrible things that are associated with religious certainty and none of the utility. If you’re an ideologue you believe everything that you think. If you’re religious there’s a mystery left there. The mystery is whatever God is. That mystery has the possibility of keeping you humble. You’re not the ultimate authority, and you’re accountable in some ultimate sense.

‘To me, ideology is corrupt; it’s a parasite on religious structures.’ 

Now, you might say that doesn’t translate directly into proof for God, and obviously it doesn’t. But I think you could make a very compelling case that people are ultimately responsible, and if they don’t act that way. all hell breaks loose. Plus, religious thinking is a human universal that’s biologically instantiated. There’s every bit of evidence that capacity for religious thinking and experience evolve.

If we’re seeing the evolution of religion, is what you’re doing the eventual outcome of what’s going on in churches today [in terms of declining attendance]? Do you see your professorial role as somewhat pastoral?

God only knows. Thirty years ago, when I started writing Maps of Meaning, I was trying to solve a problem. That problem was the Cold War: Was it just a battle of ideologies and opinions? Was it two grand narratives, one communist, one capitalist, neither with any more reality than the other? That’s one argument. The other argument is that there’s something fundamental at stake here, deeper than opinion. I was trying to find out which of those two was true.

‘People always tell me the same thing: It’s as if you’re telling me things I already know.’

I found this wasn’t just a matter of opinion. There’s something about what the West is founded on that totalitarians violated and caused immense destruction due to that violation. I think it’s a biological or a metaphysical reality. I started to understand that reality as respect for Logos, and religious language was the right way of formulating it. That was a real shock to me because I wouldn’t say that I was religious when I started my investigations.

Now I’m talking to people about what I’ve discovered. It’s simply not the case that our civilization is based on principles that are merely one opinion among many. That’s dangerously wrong. It’s a relief for people to hear that. People always tell me the same thing: It’s as if you’re telling me things I already know.

You were raised going to church but ended up leaving. What was the motivation behind that departure?

I left for the reasons that everyone’s leaving. I thought that most of what I was being told was lies. I was a reasonably smart 13-year-old, and I already knew a fair bit about evolutionary history, about the age of the world and all of those things. I talked to the minister about that, and he didn’t have any answers. He didn’t believe what he was telling me.... I’ve had the same experience many times sitting in church, listening to preachers, and my impression generally is: You don’t believe what you’re saying. That’s no good. You can’t teach those lessons and not think they’re true.

I think that the fundamental traditions that the Catholic Church espouses are correct. At least they’re correct compared to most conceivable alternatives.

There’s something that isn’t working in the church with regard to its ability to communicate to modern people. Carl Jung pointed out that our scientific knowledge, once differentiated from alchemy, leapt forward madly, but our religious knowledge didn’t. What I see not working well with the church is that it hasn’t been brought up to date. I don’t mean modernized, because it has to be brought up to date with the traditions intact.

How can the church be brought up to date with its traditions intact?

That’s what I’m trying to do, to not say, “Those were rules for people who we have nothing in common with, and everything is different now.” I don’t believe that. I think that the fundamental traditions that the Catholic Church espouses are correct. At least they’re correct compared to most conceivable alternatives.

‘The church hasn’t contended well enough with the intellectual problem that it faces.’

But the church hasn’t contended well enough with the intellectual problem that it faces, which is a challenge to its presuppositions by the scientifically informed mind. That doesn’t work out so well because science is unbelievably and demonstrably powerful. The cathedrals shouldn’t be empty. The churches shouldn’t be deserted. People should want to come to them or need to come to them, and they don’t. That’s because they’re not being offered something that is palatable, spiritually palatable.

What is the end goal of your lecture series? Do you think you will eventually say, “I’ve reached a point where I’ve come to believe this”?

I think that happens with all the lectures. My experience in going through deep mythological stories, biblical stories included, is that I usually find out why they’re true. I start with an assumption of respect. I assume the Bible has been around for as long as it has for a reason. The reason isn’t that our ancestors were ignorant or that fundamentalist Christians are deluded. Both of those are true to some degree, but they’re not sufficient.

Our civilization is structured on the basis of this story, which is something like the conscious capacity for communication brings Being into existence. You can’t dispense with it because it’s a statement of the ultimate value of the consciousness of the individual. I would say that’s something that Christianity emphasizes to a tremendous degree. It’s not something that we can just dispense with.

Of the stories that you’ve covered, is there one that best captures the problems facing society today?

The Tower of Babel is a good one. I like Cain and Abel as well, because the story of Cain and Abel is about resentment and jealousy. Very much of what I see happening politically and philosophically is motivated by resentment and envy. I think the postmodernist neo-Marxist movement is Cain-like. It has no gratitude for the remarkable achievements of humanity. It’s aiming to tear everything down.

We’re unbelievably fortunate to live in our time and place. It isn’t that way because we exploited the rest of the world and robbed them blind. It’s that way because we decided to take a stand for the nobility of the individual.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
7 months 2 weeks ago

Jordan Peterson is one of the hottest persons on the planet. A YouTube video of an interview on the BBC went viral with several million views.

But I would not look to him on religion. I have little feeling for what he believes about God after reading him and listening to his lectures.

He is the master of human nature or the natural law. Between him and Jonah Goldberg (new book just out), one can learn a lot about what we are about and how to live a better life. He uses Pinnochio to illustrate many of his thesis and has a Youtube series of his graduate lectures. He teaches at the U of Toronto.

His book was number one every day for over a month on Amazon after it came out in February.

Congratulations to America for publishing this interview. Hopefully, it will lead people to his book and his Youtube series. But readers including the editors and authors should read Jonah Goldberg as well as Jordan Peterson.

Maybe the author should interview Goldberg. He is not an atheist but proceeds in his new book as if there is no God to come to conclusions that could lead to better lives and how close we are to throwing it all away.

A friend who works with me just pointed out that what Peterson and Goldberg miss is that there must be more than this life. Otherwise life is really meaningless. But that is not Peterson's and Goldberg's focus. Their focus is on a better life in this world for each person.

Rhett Segall
7 months 2 weeks ago

I've been reading "12 Rules for Life" and find it engaging and insightful. Peterson's use of Biblical stories illustrating human psychology evokes memories of Erich Fromm's"The Art of Loving" and its use of the Adam and Eve story's powerful presentation of shame and guilt in human sexuality. What I think is critical for a believer is remembering that psychological insight, a valid enrichment of Biblical stories, is not the purpose of Biblical revelation. Rather, their fundamental purpose is an assertion of God's real, ontological, presence in human history.

Terence Dunn
7 months 2 weeks ago

Prior to reading this article, I was not familiar with Dr. Peterson. But two ideas outlined herein caught my attention, and I believe also offer insight into the controversy surrounding him.

The first idea that caused me to pause was his explaining the difference between ideology and religion, beginning with, “If you’re religious, there’s a mystery left there.” I stopped and re-read that paragraph 3x, then a 4th aloud to my wife, with whom it also resonated.

My second “moment” was his differentiating “modernization” from “abandonment of tradition.” This too reflects my own philosophy.

And so as I would whenever I encounter an article about someone from whom I felt I might learn, I clicked through to read counterpoints. And I must say I’m a bit perplexed.

At the heart of the controversy surrounding Peterson are ultimately two themes: what is “truth”, and what is one’s responsibility to others. His ideas about these are generally logical, yet life-affirming. As described by detractors, his endeavors to implement his philosophies are disturbing, seeming to focus largely on profitably establishing himself as the arbiter of truth combatting a conspiracy of the intelligentsia.

I value my Catholic faith and the intellectual talents God has given me. I humbly acknowledge that I lack many talents essential to sustaining life and community, and am dependent on and respect others for their contributions of these.

To achieve progress and development both in science and human relationships, we must suspend prejudice in favor of objectivity. I’m not saying we should abandon morality or ethics, but rather, that better understanding that “mystery” that creates space for God requires us to consider context and outcomes. Hopefully to clarify: given the diversity present in our world, we need not commit acts we believe to be “evil” to study their impact; oftentimes we can find that others have already committed those acts and we can learn from the outcomes wrought!

The criticism of “thought police” is that by placing restrictions on human imagination and expression, a group in power (or at least in majority) can eradicate the minority’s “evilness.” This is observably untrue, as ultimately the definition of what is unacceptable grows until the regime collapses either from its own corruption within, or from provoking external retribution.

By contrast, “political correctness” accepts all claims as true on face value, regardless of the logic or validity of the claim, even when the claim is patently absurd.

These are two edges of the same sword, with “conservative” thinking reflective of the form and “liberal” often characterized as the latter.

I believe we are called to recognize that the truth is in between these extreme-yet-same fallacies. We needn’t have shadowy conspiracies to scapegoat or unnamed “sinners” to blame. All we need to destroy society is to wrap ourselves in righteous indignation, walled off from those (scary, crazy, heretical) others.

Too many political figures thrive by leveraging fear to control us, and too many con artists in all walks of life use the same tactics to profit. Is Dr. Peterson of that ilk? I don’t know, but I’m curious to explore further.

Thank you for provoking my curiosity.

Terence Dunn
7 months 2 weeks ago

Prior to reading this article, I was not familiar with Dr. Peterson. But two ideas outlined herein caught my attention, and I believe also offer insight into the controversy surrounding him.

The first idea that caused me to pause was his explaining the difference between ideology and religion, beginning with, “If you’re religious, there’s a mystery left there.” I stopped and re-read that paragraph 3x, then a 4th aloud to my wife, with whom it also resonated.

My second “moment” was his differentiating “modernization” from “abandonment of tradition.” This too reflects my own philosophy.

And so as I would whenever I encounter an article about someone from whom I felt I might learn, I clicked through to read counterpoints. And I must say I’m a bit perplexed.

At the heart of the controversy surrounding Peterson are ultimately two themes: what is “truth”, and what is one’s responsibility to others. His ideas about these are generally logical, yet life-affirming. As described by detractors, his endeavors to implement his philosophies are disturbing, seeming to focus largely on profitably establishing himself as the arbiter of truth combatting a conspiracy of the intelligentsia.

I value my Catholic faith and the intellectual talents God has given me. I humbly acknowledge that I lack many talents essential to sustaining life and community, and am dependent on and respect others for their contributions of these.

To achieve progress and development both in science and human relationships, we must suspend prejudice in favor of objectivity. I’m not saying we should abandon morality or ethics, but rather, that better understanding that “mystery” that creates space for God requires us to consider context and outcomes. Hopefully to clarify: given the diversity present in our world, we need not commit acts we believe to be “evil” to study their impact; oftentimes we can find that others have already committed those acts and we can learn from the outcomes wrought!

The criticism of “thought police” is that by placing restrictions on human imagination and expression, a group in power (or at least in majority) can eradicate the minority’s “evilness.” This is observably untrue, as ultimately the definition of what is unacceptable grows until the regime collapses either from its own corruption within, or from provoking external retribution.

By contrast, “political correctness” accepts all claims as true on face value, regardless of the logic or validity of the claim, even when the claim is patently absurd.

These are two edges of the same sword, with “conservative” thinking reflective of the form and “liberal” often characterized as the latter.

I believe we are called to recognize that the truth is in between these extreme-yet-same fallacies. We needn’t have shadowy conspiracies to scapegoat or unnamed “sinners” to blame. All we need to destroy society is to wrap ourselves in righteous indignation, walled off from those (scary, crazy, heretical) others.

Too many political figures thrive by leveraging fear to control us, and too many con artists in all walks of life use the same tactics to profit. Is Dr. Peterson of that ilk? I don’t know, but I’m curious to explore further.

Thank you for provoking my curiosity.

Tim O'Leary
7 months 2 weeks ago

Interesting person. He has been compared to Joseph Campbell in his focus on the importance of mythology to cultures, but his refusal to be cowed by the Canadian thought police is what has made him most famous. His opponents (largely the Trans part of the LGBT) labeled him alt-right to try to marginalize him, but it only made him more famous. His chief crime in their eyes is he believes males have important duties and roles in society that are unique to them (quelle horreur!) and that political ideologues cannot force him to use unscientific language.

On religion his thinking appears very superficial, although he is to be praised for coming at this subject with more humility than other secular intellectuals. I hope he sticks with his humble engagement of Catholic though on his personal spiritual journey.

Phillip Stone
7 months 2 weeks ago

Unlike other commentators, and the interviewer, I submit myself as an informed commentator and even expositor of Jordan Peterson. (This came to me as a cynical, snide and shallow opinion piece, unworthy of the subject)

I am 75 years old with one wife and 6 children, 50 years a doctor and specialised not only in Internal Medicine but also Psychiatry. A Catholic through infant baptism, and all the non-ordained man's sacraments including the Last Rites, tertiary educated in St John's University Catholic College and the Aquinas Academy and a lifetime of learning from scripture, church documents and experts writing on the psychological / spiritual interface, theology and mystical experience.

I have watched a significant proportion of the Youtube courses he has given and followed much of his public exposure and the backlash he has experienced since becoming a public intellectual.

If there is such a process, he is a pre-evangelising prophet to the youth of today.
It is quite obvious to me that neither the societies of the West nor the institutional religious bodies have had any mind for the young and have gravely neglected their responsibilities to them.

Just as the Christians in South America discovered that to reach the peasants they needed to awaken them to their humanity and their individuality before they could hear the Good News and respond (conscientization), we Christians must awaken the youth to their unique worth and significance as individuals capable of each and every one of them living a life of significance - they have been made to think they are just one more rat in a plague of rats larger than 7 billion living on an insignificant planet of an insignificant star in an immense universe and because they are the product of an unguided process of evolution in just one universe of an infinite number of universes there is no God, no soul and no afterlife.

I have no doubt he is a prophet, guided by the Holy Spirit imparted at his baptism and needs our intense, loving prayer support.

He is an incredibly gifted youth pastor, his love and compassion are worn on his sleeve - already many have had the faith of their family upbringing brought to life through his work, do NOT quench the Spirit.

[I am an Old Earth, Big Bang, very old Universe devotee strongly sceptical of atheistic, unguided Darwinian evolution and see the work of the atheistic and materialists of the Freud, Marx and Darwin schools as abominations of the last century]

J Cosgrove
7 months 1 week ago

[I am an Old Earth, Big Bang, very old Universe devotee strongly sceptical of atheistic, unguided Darwinian evolution and see the work of the atheistic and materialists of the Freud, Marx and Darwin schools as abominations of the last century]

Amen!!!

Dr. Stone,

My son and his wife are in Sydney at the moment. He is giving presentations to a conference on technology. They love the city.

Lisa Weber
7 months 1 week ago

I am not familiar with Dr. Peterson, but this is an interesting article. Making the church "up to date with its traditions intact" is a worthy goal and it sounds appealing, but the difficulty is in the details. I can support the general idea, but I would have to know more about what he envisions before I could wholeheartedly support his thinking.

Dolores Pap
7 months 1 week ago

This is the guy who suggests that' if a woman does not want to be sexually harassed she should not wear makeup. Such a woman is a hypocrite, in his eyes.'

Thomas Mirus
7 months 1 week ago

I don't know who you're quoting, but that is very much a misrepresentation of what Peterson said. He was pointing out that the norms for behavior in a mixed workplace are not sufficiently developed. Nowhere did he say that women who wear makeup at work are asking for harassment, or that those who do so are hypocrites.

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