Jordan Peterson: An interview with the preaching professor
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.
“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.