By: Fr Terry Tastard
Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos - London: Allen Lane, 2018, 410 pp, £16
Jordan Peterson is a phenomenon of our times. His comet seemed to come from nowhere and light up the sky of the blogosphere. A professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, he was famous for refusing to kowtow to academic gender newspeak. With this book he has become even more famous - or notorious. He dares to say controversial things, for example that gender is largely a function of biology, and that the current pre-occupation with victimisation disempowers those who use it. Political correctness is not his forte. The liberal commentariat is enraged.
This book belongs to the self-help genre. You would be embarrassed to be seen reading a self-help book on the work commute and might consider plain wrappers. But you would probably be quite happy to be seen reading Jordan Peterson (unless you were afraid of the thought police). Young adults have been devouring his YouTube videos and crowding his public talks. At time of writing this book is high in the best-seller lists
He sees humankind as continually poised between order and chaos. Life, or as he says, Being, is a struggle which pulls us one way or another. If our lives are ordered by wisdom and structured by rules, then it is more likely that we will find the balance to deal with chaos, and to flourish within order. His influence here is the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, with his emphasis on the strong-willed individual. In some ways this is a strange choice. Nietzsche despised Christianity whereas Peterson respects it as a source of courage and personal renewal.
Some articles about Peterson have rather lazily said that he is a believer in God, but actually his position is more nuanced. He takes religion seriously, and especially the wisdom contained in its myths such as the creation stories of Genesis. However he shies away from specifying how he believes in God. Here Peterson seems Jungian. For him religion is real in its power to link with transcendent values, but what reality lies beyond that he is reluctant to say.
Many of the 12 rules enunciated here are congruent with Christianity, for example 'Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world ' (rule 6) and 'Pursue what is meaningful - not what is expedient' (rule 7). A Christian, however, would be troubled by the emphasis on self-determination which runs throughout the book. For example, 'You must determine where you are going, so that you can bargain for yourself … You have to articulate your own principles, so that you can defend yourself against others taking inappropriate advantage of you' (p 63). Isolating this quotation distorts the book by making it seem tritely aphoristic, which it is not. There are insights, challenges and thought-provoking arguments throughout. But still: a Christian might wonder whether there is any room for grace in this herculean heroism.
This colours his account of Christ, where he writes that 'Christ's archetypal death exists as an example of how to accept finitude, betrayal and tyranny heroically … and not to victimize ourselves in the service of others. To sacrifice ourselves to God (to the highest good if you like) does not mean to suffer silently and willingly when some person or organization demands more from us, consistently, than is offered in return' [italics added]. This is not the Suffering Servant. We might wonder whether it is the cross as Christians recognize it, where there is no choice but to suffer and to know that Christ walked this path before us.
And yet: this book with its mixture of neuroscience, biblical studies, psychology and philosophy is strangely compelling. It bowls along, challenging the reader to take his or her life seriously. The Church needs to ask why Jordan Peterson can attract young adults by offering spirituality strong on self-discipline, alertness and honesty. These ought to be strong suits for the Church. That he succeeds where the Church does not is food for thought.
Fr Terry Tastard is a parish priest in the diocese of Westminster and author of Ronald Knox and English Catholicism (Gracewing).