Friday, April 27, 2018

Jordan Peterson as the Nietzschean Hero of His Atheistic Personal Religion

Jordan Peterson shows a conflict in his soul between scientific atheism and religious longing.  That explains his fascination with Friedrich Nietzsche and Carl Jung, who struggled with the same conflict.  And like both Nietzsche and Jung, Peterson has tried to resolve this conflict by becoming the redeeming hero of his own atheistic mythopoetic religion.  One might say that he has succeeded in this in so far as he has attracted followers around the world--particularly young men--who say that he has saved their lives. 

Many Judeo-Christian religious believers have been impressed by the way he uses his interpretations of the Bible to convey his moral message about how young men need to grow up and take responsibility for their lives as they learn how to "walk with God."

But isn't there something deeply delusional about such atheistic religiosity--a fake religion offering a fake redemption for atheists who want religious feelings and religious morality, but without having to believe any religious doctrines, such as the existence of God?  I have raised that question in some of my posts on Nietzsche (here, here, here, here, and here)  and Roger Scruton (here and here).

Peterson's second book--12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos--became a worldwide bestseller as soon as it was published in January.  How exactly do his "12 rules for life" provide "an antidote to chaos"?  In his first book--Maps of Meaning--he explained that only the Hero can give us the antidote to chaos:
"Terrible, chaotic forces lurk behind the façade of the normal world.  These forces are kept at bay by maintenance of social order.  The reign of order is insufficient, however, because order itself becomes overbearing and deadly, if allowed unregulated or permanent expression.  The actions of the hero constitute an antidote to the deadly forces of chaos, and to the tyranny of order.  The hero creates order from chaos, and reconstructs that order when necessary.  His actions simultaneously ensure that novelty remains tolerable and that security remains flexible" (91).
And who is this Hero who creates order from chaos?  Well, of course, it's Jordan Peterson!

The first epigram for Maps of Meaning is from Jesus: "I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world" (Matthew 13:35).  This is followed by a Preface entitled "Decensus Ad Infernos,"  in which Peterson tells the story of his life and how he discovered the secret teachings that he will now reveal to the world.  This discovery required that he "descend into the underworld"--into the darkest depths of his unconscious--which was required for him to become the "revolutionary hero" (279, 457).

In the Preface, Peterson describes how as a young man he dreamed "absolutely unbearable dreams" and had terrifying visions that made him depressed, anxious, and even suicidal.  He thought he was falling into insanity.

Coming home late one night from a college drinking party, Peterson says he was "self-disgusted and angry," and then he felt compelled to paint a picture: "I sketched a harsh, crude picture of a crucified Christ--glaring and demonic--with a cobra wrapped around his naked waist, like a belt.  The picture disturbed me--struck me, despite my agnosticism, as sacrilegious. I did not know what it meant, however, or why I had painted it. Where in the world had it come from?  I hadn't paid any attention to religious ideas for years. I hid the painting under some old clothes in my closet and sat cross-legged on the floor. I put my head down.  It became obvious to me at that moment that I had not developed any real understanding of myself or of others" (xix).

Since his dreams and visions seemed religious, he started reading Jung, because he had heard that Jung had become an interpreter of religion and myth.  Although he could not understand much of what he read, he was impressed by this observation by Jung: "It must be admitted that the archetypal contents of the collective unconscious can often assume grotesque and horrible forms in dreams and fantasies, so that even the most hard-boiled rationalist is not immune from shattering nightmares and haunting fears."  This suggested an explanation for his disturbing visions of religious imagery.

I can understand what Peterson is describing, because I had a very similar experience as a college student.  I had many disturbing dreams that might have indicated a crisis of religious belief.  To interpret my dreams, I studied many of Jung's writings intensely for about a year.  I wrote out my dreams and tried to interpret them through Jungian psychology.  It was fascinating and upsetting at the same time. But then as I saw more of the spooky occult ideas in Jung--ancient mystery religions, spiritualist talking to the dead, astrology, alchemy, and so on--I was bothered by what looked like an weird religious mishmash dressed up as science.  So then I turned away.

Peterson went much deeper with his Jung studies than I ever did, and he was able to see that his picture of a crucified Christ with a snake wrapped around him was an archetype from the collective unconscious--an archetype of the Savior assimilated to the serpent that is both fascinating and terrifying as symbolizing death, judgment, and rebirth: "The ideal of the Savior necessarily implies the Judge--and a judge of the most implacable sort--because the Savior is a mythological representation of that which is ideal, and the ideal always stands in judgment over the actual.  The archetypal image of the Savior, who represents perfection or completion, is therefore terrifying in precise proportion to personal distance from the ideal" (472).

Notice what this means.  Jesus is not really the divine Son of God whose crucifixion promises divine redemption of human beings, so that they can ascend after death to eternal life in Heaven.  Rather, Jesus has become a mythic symbol of human self-redemption through heroic devotion to an ideal ethical life on Earth.

Peterson explains that the teachings of Jesus Christ "signified transition of morality from reliance on tradition to reliance on individual conscience--from rule of law to rule of spirit--from prohibition to exhortation."  "What principle is rule of spirit, rather than law, predicated upon? Respect for the innately heroic nature of man. . . . All behaviors that change history, and compel imitation, follow the same pattern--that of the divine hero, the embodiment of creative human potential. . . . it becomes possible for the creative individual to mimic, consciously incarnate, the process of world-redemption itself" (395-97).  Christ taught us to "put truth and regard for the divine in humanity above all else, and everything you need will follow. . . . that the hero must be incorporated into each individual--that everyone must partake of the essence of the savior" (398).

Peterson learned from Jung that "the central ideas of Christianity are rooted in Gnostic philosophy"--in the Gnostic secret teaching that the true inner self of every individual is divine. According to the Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic text, Christ said that "the kingdom of heaven is spread out upon the earth, but men do not see it" (456).  For human beings to achieve heaven on earth, they must learn from the "mythological worldview, which specifically attributes divine status to the individual," and they must accept "the absolute personal responsibility imposed in consequence of recognition of the divine in man" (466).

Peterson makes it clear that in speaking of the divinity of individuals, he is not identifying divinity as some supernatural or superhuman reality.  Rather, divinity is nothing more than the creative capacity of human individuals in their subjective experience of mythic story-telling, by which they poetically create the gods (466-67). 

This echoes Nietzsche: "And how many new gods are still possible! As for myself, in whom the religious, that is to say god-forming, instinct occasionally becomes active at impossible times--how differently, how variously the divine has revealed itself to me each time!" (Will to Power, sec. 1038). So Nietzsche's famous announcement of the death of God does not necessarily mean the death of religion as such.  "It seems to me that the religious instinct is indeed in the process of growing powerfully--but the theistic satisfaction it refuses with deep suspicion" (Beyond Good and Evil, sec. 66). 

Nietzschean religion, therefore, will be an a-theistic religion--a religion without any theistic belief in the existence of God.  That's the kind of atheistic religiosity that Peterson creates in his two books and in his YouTube videos that have attracted millions of readers and viewers.

That Peterson is indeed the founder of a new atheistic religion is indicated from the very beginning of 12 Rules for Life.  In his Foreword for the book, Norman Doidge compares Peterson's teaching us his 12 Rules to Moses' bearing the tablets of the Ten Commandments.  And just as the Bible presents the Mosaic law as part of a dramatic story that illustrates the rules and makes it easier to understand them, Doidge explains, so does Peterson's book tell stories and interprets myths that illustrate and explain his 12 rules.

Peterson sees three themes in all religions--suffering, limitation, and redemption.  Life is suffering.  This must be so because of the limitations of existence--human beings are physically and emotionally fragile, and they inevitably grow old and die, and so they will always suffer.  To overcome suffering, they must be redeemed or reborn for a new life.

Since these three religious themes are Peterson's main themes, he seems to be a religious teacher, and indeed much of his teaching about these themes comes from his interpretation of religious texts like the Bible.  But any reader who looks carefully at what he says about these themes will see that he never moves beyond the purely natural reality of human experience--either the objective human experience of the physical and social world or the subjective human experience of the human mind--and he thus implicitly denies that there is any superhuman or supernatural reality of God, gods, or life after death in Heaven or Hell.  He assumes that God really is dead.

Consider what he says about limitation.  He describes his thoughts about his three-year-old son Julian.  "He's three, and cute and little and comical.  But I am also afraid for him, because he could be hurt.  If I had the power to change that, what might I do?" (12 Rules, 341).  Julian could be made of titanium.  He could have a computer-enhanced brain.  And so on.  But even if this were technically possible, it wouldn't work.
"Artificially fortifying Julian would have been the same as destroying him.  Instead of his little three-year-old self, he would be a cold, steel-hard robot.  That wouldn't be Julian.  It would be a monster.  I came to realize through such thoughts that what can be truly loved about a person is inseparable from their limitations.  Julian wouldn't have been little and cute and lovable if he wasn't also prone to illness, and loss, and pain, and anxiety.  Since I loved him a lot, I decided that he was all right the way he was, despite his fragility" (341).
Notice that Peterson says nothing about  the possibility that Julian could be resurrected from death and reborn for eternal life in Heaven, where Peterson could be reunited with him.  Notice also the implication that if the natural limitations of personal identity are inseparable from what makes a person lovable, then resurrecting our loved ones for eternal life without limitations in Heaven would not satisfy us, even if it were possible.  Peterson thus implies that the poet Wallace Stevens was correct in declaring: "Death is the mother of beauty."  (This thought that immortality might be both impossible and undesirable has been developed in some posts here, here, and here.)

What Peterson says about how "existence and limitation are inextricably linked" also implies that God cannot exist.  Peterson speaks about one of his clients whose husband was dying of cancer.  She was troubled by the prospect of his death as she asked "Why?"  Peterson says that the best answer he could give her was to speak about "the tight interlinking between vulnerability and Being."  He told her an old Jewish story: Imagine a Being who is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent.  What does such a Being lack? The answer? Limitation. 

Peterson explains: "If you are already everything, everywhere, always, there is nowhere to go and nothing to be.  Everything that could be already is, and everything that could happen already has.  And it is for this reason, so the story goes, that God created man.  No limitation, no story.  No story, no Being. That idea has helped me deal with the terrible fragility of Being" (343).

Peterson illustrates this thought with the story of the evolution of the comic book superhero Superman.  Over a long period, Superman's powers were expanded, until finally he became invulnerable.  But then he was boring!  "A superhero who can do anything turns out to be no hero at all. He's nothing specific, so he's nothing.  He has nothing to strive against, so he can't be admirable. Being of any reasonable sort appears to require limitation. Perhaps this is because Being requires Becoming, as well as mere static existence--and to become is to become something more, or at least something different.  That is only possible for something limited" (345).

Although he does not explicitly say so, he allows his reader to draw the conclusion: if existence and limitation are inseparable, then God--a Being without limitation--cannot exist.

Consider also what Peterson says about the religious theme of redemption. For many religious traditions, redemption points to the promise of immortality in an afterlife, and perhaps judgment leading to either eternal reward in Heaven or eternal punishment in Hell.  Peterson does speak often of Heaven and Hell.  But he clearly indicates that he has "no afterlife fantasy" (220), and therefore Heaven and Hell are purely earthly experiences in this life (see 63, 159, 109-110, 172, 190, 198, 200, 217-24, 351, 359).  By the way they live, human beings create either Heaven or Hell for themselves and others in their daily lives now.

Consequently, for Peterson, Jesus Christ becomes "the archetypal perfect man" (191), which means that Christian redemption for eternal life becomes human self-redemption for a good human life on Earth.  This is clear, for example, in this passage:
"In the Christian tradition, Christ is identified with the Logos.  The Logos is the Word of God.  That Word transformed chaos into order at the beginning of time.  In His human form, Christ sacrificed himself voluntarily to the truth, to the good, to God.  In consequence, He died and was reborn.  The Word that produces order from Chaos sacrifices everything, even itself, to God.  That single sentence, wise beyond comprehension, sums up Christianity.  Every bit of learning is a little death.  Every bit of new information challenges a previous conception, forcing it to dissolve into chaos before it can be reborn as something better.  Sometimes such deaths virtually destroy us.  In such cases, we might never recover or, if we do, we change a lot. A good friend of mine discovered that his wife of decades was having an affair.  He didn't see it coming. It plunged him into a deep depression. He descended to the underworld.  He told me, at one point, 'I always thought that people who were depressed should just shake it off. I didn't have any idea what I was talking about.'  Eventually, he returned from the depths.  In many ways, he's a new man--and, perhaps, a wiser and better man.  He lost forty pounds. He ran a marathon. He travelled to Africa and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. He chose rebirth over descent into Hell" (223-24).
Peterson's Christian readers will like what he says in the first half of this paragraph about interpreting John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."  But any careful Christian reader who is an orthodox Christian will be disturbed by the second half of this paragraph, which turns the Christian doctrine of redemption by Jesus Christ into an atheistic doctrine of how human beings can symbolically imitate Christ by the way they learn from suffering how to transform themselves for living a better life.

No doubt there is practical wisdom here about developing one's character in the face of suffering so that one can live a better life, which is why Peterson's book has become an international bestseller for readers looking for a self-help manual that is also philosophically deep.  Most serious readers of 12 Rules will agree, I think, with Peterson's hope that this book can "help people understand what they already know: that the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being, and that the willingness to take on that responsibility is identical to the decision to live a meaningful life" (xxxiv-xxxv).

But those readers attracted to this because they think it's a religious teaching--perhaps even a Biblical teaching--are deceiving themselves, and it's a deception intended by Peterson as part of his Nietzschean project for founding a new atheistic religion.


Anonymous said...

Dear Larry,

Are you going to write about Peterson and Piaget and the idea of reconciling religion and science?

Great post, by the way!

Regards from the End of the World.


CJColucci said...

I find most of what you say convincing. What I am not convinced about, however, is that Peterson warrants all this work.

Larry Arnhart said...

I share your doubts. I am trying to decide whether there is any intellectual depth to Peterson beyond the YouTube showmanship.