What should Christians make of this Toronto psychologist?
Few academics are super-famous. Most are not that wealthy. Hardly any are objects of extreme devotion or hate. But in the space of less than two years Jordan B. Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has managed to achieve fortune, fame, incredible allegiance and, sadly, enormous animosity.
Peterson has almost 800,000 YouTube subscribers, 440,000 Twitter followers, and his book 12 Rules for Life is a runaway bestseller (Random House, 2018). He has been featured on CBC, NPR and BBC. Over two days in late January The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the National Post each had editorials or opinion articles about him.
His views have drawn relentless hostility from many corners, including a testy interview with British TV personality Cathy Newman (the video from January 2018 was viewed over 6 million times in less than a month). He has been called a "dangerous scholar" (Chronicle of Higher Education), "the guru mystic as shameless huckster" (The Globe and Mail) and "the stupid man’s smart person" (Maclean’s). He is often the object of vile and abusive speech online, and activists have violently opposed some of his public events. (Likewise, contrary to Peterson’s clear direction, some of his supporters have duplicated that nastiness and violence.)
What explains the fame, the fans and the outrage? Basically, Peterson’s stardom and infamy arose from his public objections in 2016 to Ottawa passing rules (Bill C-16) on what pronouns Canadians must use for transgendered persons.
The issues around Peterson are important for Christians on many levels.
First, there are important principles at stake involving free speech. This is the professor’s main concern in the fight over use of pronouns. He warned left-wing political correctness will lead to injustice. His concerns were demonstrated recently in the treatment of Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student at Wilfred Laurier University whose supervisors disciplined her for showing her class a TVO clip that featured Peterson. Her exposure of this mistreatment went viral.
Second, beyond arguments about pronoun use (he, she, ze, hir, ey, em, etc.) and freedom of speech, the public animosity around Peterson points to the need for Christian understanding and sensitivity toward transgendered persons, who clearly must be living with exactly such animosity in a less public way. Imagine the enormous angst, fear, suffering, societal ridicule and emotional burdens that must be borne by almost anyone struggling with gender identity.
Third, controversies aside, Peterson offers tons of sane but tough advice in his videos, podcasts, articles and new book. His psychological insights seem to have brought special help to young adult men struggling for identity and purpose. The book is subtitled "An Antidote to Chaos," by which Peterson means the damage done to societies fractured by postmodern relativism, Marxism, nihilism, political correctness, totalitarian ideologies, misguided elements in feminism and so on.
Fourth, Christians can celebrate that Peterson, unlike many academics, has a positive view about Christianity and the many ways Judeo-Christian traditions have shaped Western society for good. He laments the loss of Christian values and has a high view of the Bible (witness his 14-part series on The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories) and a deep admiration for the teaching and person of Jesus.
Despite his Bible-friendly views, Peterson struggles to affirm belief in God and identify as a Christian. He said in a Vancouver interview he acts as if God exists. While he believes Jesus is historical, he told British journalist Timothy Lott he was agnostic about whether Jesus rose from the dead. Peterson gives enormous weight to the concept of the Logos (translated as "Word" in John 1:1–3), but has yet to appreciate the full implications of John 1:14 that the Word "was made flesh and dwelt among us" and that Jesus was "in the beginning" and "was with God" and "was God" (John 1:1).
Ironically, while Peterson remains unsure about some core truths of the gospel, God has used his teachings to bring a new respect for Christian faith among some people to the point a few have become believers. A case in point is Robert Rzepka, an Ottawa civil servant who traces his return to God to the moment he heard Peterson on the Joe Rogan podcast (yes, the Joe Rogan of mixed martial arts fame). Rzepka reports he was in a downward spiral in his life, feeling empty emotionally and spiritually, when everything changed on a drive in March 2017 to visit his parents in Arizona. "Somewhere in Oklahoma, in the middle of the night as I was zooming down the highway, I listened to Jordan Peterson."
James A. Beverley is professor of Christian thought and ethics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto. He is publishing more on this topic at www.GuideToJordanPeterson.com. Read more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/ReligionWatch.