Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Part 26, The Harms of Ideology

In Peterson's long reflections on concentration camps in the final chapter of Maps of Meaning he turns to speak about how ideology thwarts healthy adaptation.

According to Peterson, ideologies block us off from the facts and truths of life, and this rejection of reality interferes with our ability to cope and adapt. Peterson writes (emphases are his):

Ideology confines human potential to a narrow and defined realm. Adaptation undertaken within that realm necessarily remains insufficient, destined to produce misery--as it is only relationship with the transcendent that allows life to retain its savor. Ideology says "it must be thus," but human behavior constantly exceeds its realm of representation; such capacity for exception must therefore be denied, lest faith in ideology vanish, and intolerable chaos reappear. The ideologue says: anomaly means dissolution, dissolution means terror--that which frightens is evil; anomaly is evil. It is not the existence of anomalous information that constitutes evil, however--such information rejuvenates, when properly consumed. Evil is the process by which the significance of the anomaly is denied; the process by which meaning itself--truth itself--is rejected. This rejection means, necessarily, life is rendered unbearable, hellish...

The fact, regardless of content, is not evil; it is mere (terrible) actuality. It is the attitude to the fact that has a moral or immoral nature. There are no evil facts--although there are facts about evil; it is the denial of the unacceptable fact that constitutes evil--at least insofar as human control extends. The suppression of unbearable fact transforms the conservative tendency to preserve into the authoritarian tendency to crush; transforms the liberal wish to transform into the decadent desire to subvert. Confusing evil with the unbearable fact, rather than with the tendency to deny the fact, is like equating good with the static product of heroism, rather than with the dynamic act of heroism itself. Confusion of evil with the fact--the act of blaming the messenger--merely provides rationale for the act of denial, justification for savage repression, and mask of morality for decadence and authoritarianism. 

Here we're bumping into material in Maps of Meaning that has made Peterson such a controversial figure and a hero among free-speech absolutists, the Alt Right and the Intellectual Dark Web. Peterson rose to prominence for his public refusal to comply with Canada's Bill C-16 regarding the use of preferred pronouns for transgender persons. Peterson's public stand against "political correctness" made him both famous and infamous.

On the left, Peterson's "free speech" stand regarding Bill C-16 is considered to be an example of bigotry. But in the passage above, we get a window into Peterson's defense of his actions. 

Peterson's concern regarding Bill C-16 is that if the state begins to control speech--telling us what words we can or cannot use--this will interfere with our ability to seek and speak the truth. Recall in the quote above that Peterson is reflecting on the totalitarianism of Soviet Russia and the Gulag. To be sure, we can debate if Bill C-16 is a form of "soft totalitarianism," as Rod Dreher would argue, or a step toward a more civil and tolerant society, especially for transgender persons. Regardless, the phenomenon Peterson is describing, how ideology refuses to face inconvenient truths, is legitimate. I'm reminded of Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Possessed (also titled The Devils or Demons) where we follow a group who become demonically "possessed" by their ideologies, leading to bad ends. It's hard not to look at Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia as Peterson does in Maps of Meaning, along with other totalitarian states and revolutionary movements, and conclude that political and nationalistic ideologies have been the greatest source of evil in the modern world. 

My point is that, while it might be hard for some to separate Peterson's actions regarding Bill C-16 from the point he is making, I do think he is making a legitimate argument. Ideological systems do deny reality, making it difficult to adapt successfully to the realities of the world. And to see this, it might be helpful to spread the love around. There are ideologies aplenty. 

For example, just look at free speech and Second Amendment absolutists. The word "absolutist" should be a red flag. "Absolutist" movements are ideologies, people committed to an idea no matter the human cost or toll. In short, many of the people on the right who are huge fans of Jordan Peterson are just as ideological as the people on the left. For every totalitarian on the left there is a fascist on the right. 

Consider, as a different example, my recent post about the Southern Baptist Convention report on sexual abuse. In that post I made the argument that patriarchal power arrangements are unsafe. Following Peterson's quote above, those are the facts. The SBC's own report is evidence of those facts. So why do many Christians groups persist in perpetuating gender hierarchies in denial of those facts? Answer: Ideology. A reading of Scripture is taken as "the truth," in an absolutist way, walled off from and imposed upon human experience, no matter the human cost or toll. This is why I suggested in my post that the SBC spend some time in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, to reflect upon how their hermeneutics intersect with human suffering. As Peterson writes above, it's hard to face up to those facts, but that courage opens us up to more healthy and adaptive choices. Refusing to attend to those facts, however, continues to perpetuate suffering and evil. As Peterson comments, facts aren't evil, it is our "attitude to the fact that has a moral or immoral nature." That's the choice facing the SBC, their attitude toward the facts. 

My attention to the facts of human experience in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is why my theological positions tend to tip toward the progressive, even as I try to distance myself from the various ills and ideologies now "possessing" the progressive Christian camp. Maybe it's because I'm a psychologist, but I constantly attend to the intersection of hermeneutics and harm. To be clear, I don't think this attention destines one to become a "liberal" or "progressive." I just happen to think harm is a useful tool for Biblical discernment. I have crazy ideas like that. And attention to the intersection of hermeneutics and harm, allowing the facts of human experience to affect how you read the Bible, will push you away from ideological readings of Scripture.

Let Me Hold To the Better

“Even if there be no hereafter, I would live my time believing in a grand thing that ought to be true if it is not. And if these be not truths, then is the loftiest part of our nature a waste. Let me hold by the better than the actual, and fall into nothingness off the same precipice with Jesus and Paul and a thousand more, who were lovely in their lives, and with their death make even the nothingness into which they have passed like the garden of the Lord. I will go further, and say I would rather die forevermore believing as Jesus believed, than live forevermore believing as those that deny Him.”

--George Macdonald, from the novel Thomas Wingfold, Curate

This is Prayer

The other day when I began to pray I had a mystical experience. 

I say "experience" because it was part sensation and part vision in my mind.

In the vision I was falling, because I had tripped and lost my balance. I saw this, but also felt the sensation of falling. And in the vision I instinctively reached out my hand, as you do, to catch and steady myself. I needed to make contact, immediately, with a chairback, a wall, a handrail. Contact with anything sturdy to prevent my fall. I needed to grasp ahold of something more solid than myself. 

That was the vision/sensation, a flash of feeling and seeing--falling, panic, the urgent need to reach out, extending my hand, making contact, relief.

And then the final part of the experience, a coda, a voice that said, "This is prayer."

Law and Metaphysics: Part 2, Chasing the Horizon

In my discussion with my colleagues, two lawyers and a bible scholar, about metaphysics and law we eventually turned to the issue of natural law.

To catch everyone up, the idea of "natural law" within Christianity comes mostly from the Catholic tradition, Aquinas most especially. The notion here is that human reason can discern certain moral truths through reflection upon the natural world. For Christians, "natural law" is an attempt to perceive God's divine plan within the design of the created order. Many who espouse natural law turn to a passage in Romans 1:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1.18-20)

In this famous passage St. Paul appears to hold Gentiles morally culpable for failing to obey a moral code which should have been "plain to them" given that God's "invisible qualities...have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made." 

Against this view, Karl Barth famously said "No!" to any sort of natural theology or law, arguing that any knowledge of God that doesn't first and primarily begin and end with God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ is illicit and out of bounds. Personally, I lean toward Barth on this. I think it is very hard to read any moral code off of a physical description of the natural world. Further, I think the noetic effects of sin are profound enough that, even if there were a moral logic to be observed in the world, our blinkered and sin-warped minds would fail to read the message plainly.  

All that to say, in my conversations with Andy, Chris and Cliff about law and metaphysics I pushed away the idea that human laws could be critiqued as "unjust" from the position of natural law.

What I argued for instead of natural law is what I'll describe as "meta-law," borrowing an idea from cognitive psychology. In cognitive psychology there is a notion called "meta-cognition," our ability to reflect upon our thoughts in a recursive fashion. The idea is simple enough. You can think about yourself thinking. You can reflect upon your reflections. You can observe yourself observing. And so on, recursively, like a collection of nested Russian dolls. This ability to observe our own thinking is called "meta-cognition," and psychologists think it's at the heart of higher mental function, this ability to "stand back" from our own thoughts in a self-reflective, self-observing manner.

I think something similar is going on with metaphysics and the law. It's not that we can read, transparently and concretely, the Moral Law written on heavenly clouds. We don't see this "higher law" so clearly or crisply. Rather, as with meta-cognition, we tend to assume that law has as a meta-framework. We can step outside of the law to adopt a meta-legal posture of evaluation. 

However, the question soon comes: Where do we find this meta-legal "perch of observation"? Here is where the metaphysics shows up. When engaged in meta-legal reflection, pondering if a law is unjust, we attempt to adopt the vantage of the transcendental notion of justice. To be clear, as noted above, justice, as a transcendental notion, is not clear or transparent to our finite minds. Justice is, rather, a horizon our minds are straining toward, provisionally and experimentally. And crucially, that we cannot reach the horizon doesn't mean the horizon doesn't exist. To engage in meta-legal reflection, therefore, is to push toward this transcendent horizon, asking what justice, as a transcendent ideal, demands in light of current legal arrangements.   

Again, to restate the point, this attempt to push toward the transcendental horizon is experimental and error-prone. We don't see very clearly. But we can assess the fruits of any given meta-legal conclusion. Is the new legal arrangement more or less rational, intelligible, and universal? Pragmatically, what are the effects of the new legal arrangement upon human flourishing? And so forth.

But if that's the case, why do we need recourse to metaphysics at all? Could we not be completely pragmatic about the law, simply adopting better laws to promote flourishing? Yes, of course, one could be wholly pragmatic about the law and ditch the metaphysics. Many legal theorists and lawyers are pragmatists. But for my part, I'd simply suggest that pragmatism isn't wholly satisfactory in light of the issues I raised in the last post. I'd argue that, when push comes to shove, most legal pragmatists are functional Platonists. If fact, most people, if you inquire about justice and the law, are Platonists. The human mind possesses a deep intuition that laws must be evaluated from a transcendental perspective. Not, as I've pointed out above, God writing morals in the sky for us to read, but, rather, the Platonic notion of a transcendental horizon that we cannot reach but are always chasing. 

Law and Metaphysics: Part 1, On Unjust Laws

On a spring break backpacking trip with my colleagues Andy, Chris and Cliff, two lawyers and a Bible scholar, we had a chat about law and metaphysics.

I am fascinated by the relationship between law and metaphysics. Specifically, how is it possible that a law can be called "unjust"? 

Three examples Andy, Chris, Cliff and I talked about. 

First, the Nuremberg war crime trials. How is it possible for one sovereign nation to call into question the laws of another sovereign nation? What is the legal justification for a "crime against humanity"? That is to say, why were the Nuremberg verdicts morally "right" in a way that transcends the criticism that the winners get to write the history books? More simply, were the Nazis "wrong" simply because they lost? Who gets to decide when two nations disagree about some moral truth? 

Second, Martin Luther King Jr's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" where King calls attention to the injustice of Jim Crow segregation laws. In the eyes of the law, King was a law-breaker. And yet, we consider King righteous even though he sat in jail. The criminal can be morally correct.

Lastly, the "Higher Law" and the American abolitionist movement. Slavery was enshrined in the US Constitution. And yet, the American abolitionists pointed to a "Higher Law" that stood above and called into question the moral integrity of the Constitution. The US Constitution was morally wrong.

There are many other examples, but these cases illustrate the main point. There exists some moral vantage "beyond" the law that creates an ability to level moral criticisms against current legal arrangements, both within nation states and between nation states. There exists a transcendent vision of justice that cannot be reduced to the sovereign fiats of nation states. Laws can be unjust. The founding documents of sovereign nations can be morally wrong. Victory or loss in war doesn't give you the right to determine what is or is not a crime against humanity. 

In short, we all live with the understanding that there exists a metaphysics of justice that transcends the law.

Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Part 25, The Gulag Archipelago

Having described the Satan archetype, Peterson turns in Maps of Meaning to reflect upon a case study of "the adversary in action." For Peterson, the prime twentieth-century example of the satanic at work in human affairs is the concentration camp. Peterson writes:

The invention, establishment and perfection of the concentration camp, the efficient genocidal machine, might be regarded as the crowning achievement of human technological and cultural endeavor, motivated by resentment and loathing for life...[The concentration camp is] the perfection of the factory whose sole product is death...Such enterprise constitutes, perhaps, the prime accomplishment of the cooperative bureaucratization of hatred, cowardice, and deceit. Tens of millions of innocent people have been dehumanized, enslaved and sacrificed in these efficient disassembly lines, in the course of the last century, to help their oppressors maintain pathological stability and consistency of moral presumption, enforced through terror, motivated by adherence to the lie.

Peterson's reflections upon the evil of concentration camps in Maps of Meaning is extensive. And those who follow Peterson know how important Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago are to his thinking. Peterson quotes Solzhenitsyn extensively in Maps of Meaning.

The centrality of the concentration camps to Peterson's thinking is distinctive. Not many public intellectuals focus so relentlessly upon this depravity. Some might take this to be a morbid fascination in Peterson's thought. I happen to think it is a virtue, and it explains a lot about Peterson's distinctive location in the intellectual ecosystem. 

Simply, Peterson is no liberal humanist. Any optimism we might have entertained about humanity should have died, according to Jordan Peterson, in the ovens of Auschwitz and the snows of the Gulag. I agree with him. When you listen to Peterson talk about The Gulag Archipelago your are hearing sermons on Original Sin and Total Depravity. This pessimistic view of humanity is another reason why Peterson is a conservative thinker, and why many Christians find him a sympathetic conversation partner. 

Additionally, the concentration camps are modern evil. These are atrocities committed in the wake of the Enlightenment, and in the case of the Gulag justified by a materialistic metaphysics. The Gulag Archipelago is a key reason why Peterson won't let atheists wag a moral figure at Christianity.

Finally, at the start of this series I shared that one of the reasons Peterson is such a compelling thinker is that he's playing a high stakes game. Jordan Peterson isn't giving you a TED Talk, sharing a life hack or business tip. Jordan Peterson likes to talk about torture and the gas chambers. Human evil is central to this thinking. And that preoccupation with evil is what makes Peterson a religious thinker.  

Performing the Self

In Hunting Magic Eels I describe what I call "the Ache," the suite of dissatisfactions and emotional ailments we experience in a secular, godless, post-Christian world. As I say in the book, "God may be dead but we sure do miss him."

Since the publication of Hunting Magic Eels I've come to ponder more and more a particular aspect of the Ache, what I'll call "the performance of the self." 

Here's how Matthew Crawford describes the performance of the self in his book The World Beyond Your Head:

Once upon a time, our problem was guilt: the feeling that you have made a mistake, with reference to something forbidden. This was felt as a stain on one's character...[Today] the dichotomy of the forbidden and the allowed has been replaced with an axis of the possible and the impossible. The question that hovers over your character is no longer that of how good you are, but of how capable you are, where capacity is measured in something like Kilowatt hours--the raw capacity to make things happen. With this shift comes a new pathology. The affliction of guilt has given way to weariness--weariness with the vague and unending project of having to become one's fullest self. We call this depression.

Alain Ehrenberg describes this as "the weariness of the self," how the performance of the modern self is an exhausting and depleting project. Ehrenberg writes, "Depression presents itself as an illness of responsibility in which the dominant feeling is that of failure. The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of having to become himself."

Summarizing, what I'm describing as "performing the self" is, in the words of Crawford, "the vague and unending project of having to become one's fullest self" which leads to "the weariness of the self," chronic fatigue at "having to become oneself." 

This modern ailment--performing the self--is one of the reasons mindfulness meditation is experienced by many as such a relief. In practicing mindfulness my ego rests in a non-performative space. I am no longer performing the self, my self is simply present. In Christian contemplative prayer, we practice a similar type of rest. Contemplative prayer is learning to hold the self before God in a non-productive posture. Sabbath is a similar type of non-productive experience, where productivity is set aside for the enjoyment of God, life, and relationships.

The Ambivalence of Solomon

As a part of my annual Bible reading plan, reading through the Bible during the year, I've been in 1 Kings. What struck me going back through the story of Solomon once again was how deeply ambivalent a character Solomon is in the history of Israel.

Mostly, when we think of Solomon, we think of the good stuff. Namely three things. First, his humble request for wisdom in leading Israel. Second, his building the temple. And third, his leading Israel to its geo-political and economic zenith. 

For the first ten chapters of 1 Kings Solomon goes from one positive to another. And then--Bam!--a huge twist in the story comes in Chapter 11. In a few short verses we're told that as Solomon grows old his many foreign wives turn him toward idolatry. And not just any old idolatry, some pretty hard core stuff. For example:

So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not completely follow the Lord, as his father David had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem.
Molech, you'll recall, is the god to whom the Israelites sacrificed their children to in the Valley of Hinnom (also called Gehenna). Molech worship, with its child sacrifices, is the worst case of idolatry recounted in the Old Testament, and its origin in Israel starts with Solomon. And because of this idolatry, at the end of Solomon's life, God declares that he will divide the nation. This divided kingdom, Israel to the north and Judah to the south, will pave the way to the final exile of both kingdoms. And it all traces back to Solomon. 

So, was Solomon a good king or a bad king?

The stories we tend to tell about Solomon are the ones suggesting that he was a good king. But Solomon's legacy, specifically his introduction of Molech worship into the life of Israel, seems to, at least in my eyes, wipe all that away. Solomon was a bad king, perhaps even the worst king of Israel.

What is curious to me is how 1 Kings is sort of mute about all this. Very little by way of explanation is given. The prolonged, ten chapter narrative of Solomon's rise to glory is followed by a very perfunctory and terse accounting of Solomon's fall in Chapter 11. It reads like an embarrassing coda. I'm sure the historical-critical scholars have had tons to say about all this, but I'm reading the story here canonically, listening for a word from the Lord. What's the take home message of the story of Solomon? Solomon's fall from grace into Molech worship seems so egregious as to call his entire legacy into question. And if it does, Solomon's whole story--from the request for wisdom, to the building of the temple, to his great wealth and power--has to be read as a very tragic and cautionary tale. 

Is Solomon's fall a sad ending to an otherwise glorious story, or a shadow that falls across the entire story, and even upon the legacy of the temple itself?

Mediating Mattering

As I share in Hunting Magic Eels, psychologists have recently come to highlight the impact of mattering upon mental well-being. Mattering, sometimes called "significance" or "existential mattering," is the conviction that your life matters, that it counts, that your existence has significance.

Obviously, you can see how mattering, especially if it is a durable conviction, would support emotional health. Lots of data show this association. But it should also be obvious that mattering is hanging in metaphysical thin air. Why, exactly, do you matter? And if you don't feel like you matter, how can you come to believe it?

Left to ourselves, mattering is hard to come by. Telling yourself you matter will only get you so far. Mattering has to be mediated, has to come to us externally, from others. That is the point of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer's quote that I've shared many times before:

Help must come from the outside...God has willed that we should seek and find God’s living Word in the testimony of other Christians, in the mouths of human beings. Therefore, Christians need other Christians who speak God’s Word to them. They need them again and again when they become uncertain and disheartened because, living by their own resources, they cannot help themselves without cheating themselves out of the truth...The Christ in their own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians. Their own hearts are uncertain; those of their brothers and sisters are sure.
We mediate mattering for each other. When our hearts are uncertain we speak life into each other. Help comes to us from the outside. Mattering is spoken into us. In our homes, with our friends, in our churches. Mattering should not be reduced to solo self-talk, for it most powerfully resides in relationships of care and love, relationships that convince us that we matter.

A Long Hot Summer: On Suffering and Love

You might have noticed the heat wave here in Texas. The highs over the weekend here in Abilene were around 108 and 109 degrees. Today the predicted high is 104. I'll be out at the prison tonight.

Last Monday the high was 106. The prison is not air-conditioned. This wasn't a problem in the past. Before COVID, our classes were held in the chapel, which is located in the administration building. The administration building does have AC. So our class was cool during the Texas summers, and a welcome relief from the heat for the men attending the study.

But having started back up after COVID, due to understaffing, our study is no longer in the chapel but in a multipurpose room in one of the inmate buildings. Like the entire building where the inmates live, the multipurpose room has no AC.

I hoped that we would have had more time. Last May and June was wet and cool. But this year, summer heat arrived early and with a vengeance. Record setting temps almost every day. 

Last week, given the heat, I faced a tradeoff. There is a massive fan in the multipurpose room, so large it roars like an airplane. But the fan helps move the air and is the only tool we have to fight the heat. Trouble is, with that roar you can't hear anyone speaking in a conversational voice. You have to practically yell. And the class is two hours long. More worried about the heat, I said let the fan rip and I'll yell. So I yelled through a class studying the book of 2 Corinthians. I yelled myself hoarse and left the study dripping with sweat.

Tonight will be exactly the same, and won't change much at all until September. 

My theology is weird enough that I'm sort of grateful for having this experience. I feel like, in a small way, I'm sharing in the suffering that the men experience every minute of every day. My raw, rasping voice and shirt soaked in sweat is a participation in the sufferings of Christ. Christians used to think like that. I think that is what Paul is saying in 2 Corinthians, in a text I yelled about last week:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
I'm not completely sure what Paul is saying in this passage, but I think he's talking about the cost of love. When we love we suffer to give life to others. I know that notion will seem deeply problematic to many, very medieval and masochistic. But I'm not talking about suffering for the sake of suffering, or the suffering of abuse victims. I'm talking about why Jesus suffered. Why Paul suffered for the church he planted. They suffered because of love. Death was at work in them to give life to others. I think that is what love does. And if you have loved, I think you know what I'm talking about. 

But if that is not your truth, hey, that's fine. It is my truth. My truth this evening, and every Monday evening during a long hot summer.

Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Part 24, The Father of Lies

Having described evil as the "voluntary rejection of the process that makes life tolerable," Peterson continues his reflections about the Satan archetype. Specifically, outside sociopaths, why would anyone make choices like these? Why choose evil? Why choose to make life harder rather than easier?

Well, as Peterson describes, facing reality is "truly horrible and terrifying." Facing the unknown is scary. Change can be very hard. 

After I got my graduate degree in psychology, I worked for four years in an inpatient psychiatric hospital. And one of the truly tragic things I observed is how, after discharge, people would return to dysfunctional situations. Addicts would return to their friend group who used drugs. Abuse victims would return to their abusers. All this led me to a fundamental psychological insight: "The brain craves predictability more than happiness."

Adaptively speaking, the brain doesn't care if you're happy and fulfilled. The brain's number one job, forged in the fires of Darwinian evolution, is to keep you alerted to threats, keeping you alive. And key to that success is living in an environment that is known and predictable. And so, upon discharge, my patients would return to the known, even if the known was unhappiness. We'll choose the unhappiness we know over the possibility of joy. The brain defaults to the predictable. 

Peterson commenting on this,

We have been granted the capacity for constant transcendence, as an antidote, but frequently reject that capacity, because using it means voluntarily exposing ourselves to the unknown. We run away because we are afraid of the unknown...

We also reject the unknown by clinging too closely to habit and social conventions. We stick too close to the group, fearing we'll stand out as distinctive individuals. For example, I find it baffling how the younger generation, who claim to prize individuality and authenticity, willingly become "followers" of social media "influencers." I mean, if you prize being an individual so much why are you always following, following, following? Rebels aren't followers. And why in the world would you follow anyone called an "influencer"? Wouldn't a true individual resist being influenced?

But let's not throw the kids under the bus. We adults are just as bad. We have our own forms of social conformity. 

But again, these choices aren't happening consciously. We don't self-identify as lemmings and sheep, even though we are behaving that way. We avoid this reality, Peterson says, by lying to ourselves:
The individual who fails to modify his habits and presumptions as a consequence of change is deluding himself--is denying the world--is trying to replace reality itself with his own feeble wish. By pretending things are other than they are, he undermines his own stability, destabilizes his future, and transforms the past from shelter to prison.

The individual embodiment of collective past wisdom is turned into the personification of inflexible stupidity by means of the lie. The lie is straightforward, voluntary rejection of what is currently known to be true. Nobody knows what is finally true, by definition, but honest people make the best possible use of their experience. The moral theories of the truthful, however incomplete from some hypothetical transcendent perspective, account for what they have seen and for who they are, insofar as that has been determined in the course of diligent effort. 
A couple of observations.

First, I'd quibble with Peterson's characterization of the lie as "straightforward, voluntary rejection of what is currently known to be true." I don't think it's so straightforward. I think self-deception is more unconscious, a defense mechanism. To be sure, to the outside observer, the person in the grip of a deception looks to be willfully rejecting the facts staring them in the face. But on the inside of the deception people think they are, in fact, seeing the truth. And that's what makes the deception so hard to refute or dispel. Few people believe things they know to be untrue.

Second, as observed in last week's post, we see here again that agonistic theme in Peterson's work, how rejecting the lie and facing the terrible truth is "determined in the course of diligent effort." We have to act heroically to break out the "prison." Don't exchange a terrifying truth for a "feeble wish." Be the hero!

But lastly, there is here another convergence between Peterson's thought and Christianity. 

Specifically, in the Bible Satan is described as "the father of lies." And in 2 Corinthians 4, Paul writes that "the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel."

Satan's work is often perceptual and epistemological. Scott Peck famously highlighted this aspect of the satanic in the title of his best-selling book "The People of the Lie." In Scripture, spiritual freedom and imprisonment is often described as an epistemological struggle, the most famous example being from Jesus himself: 

"You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

The Prophetic Imagination: Part 3, Interrupting Hate

How can we believe in God non-violently? By practicing a prophetic imagination. As I share this with my students, there are three facets of this imagination. 

The first facet, described in Part 1, is how the prophetic imagination hears the voice of God as a message of divine solidarity with the victims, the weak, and the oppressed. This is Moses telling Pharaoh, "Let my people go!"

The second facet of the prophetic imagination, described in Part 2, is hearing the voice of God in moral self-criticism, attending to how we ourselves have become Pharaoh, how we hurt and victimize others. 

The final facet of the prophetic imagination that I share with my students is how the voice of God interrupts our hate.

The classic example here is the book of Jonah. We tend to think that the story of Jonah is a whimsical folktale about a whale. In my opinion, however, Jonah is one of the most outrageous, scandalous, shocking, and radical documents ever written. How the book of Jonah got included in the Bible is mind-boggling.

Jonah, you'll recall, is to preach a message of repentance to the Assyrians, an opportunity for grace. You'll also recall who the Assyrians were. The Assyrians were one of the most violent and brutal empires in the ancient world. And they commit genocide upon the ten northern tribes of Israel, conquering them and taking them into slavery where they are never heard from again, lost to history. Ten tribes, vanished, gone. 

Of course, Jonah says "Hell no" and runs the other way. He wants no part of extending grace to his enemy. And yet, God forces him to go. And grace does come to Assyrians, causing Jonah to rage and fume. And in the face of Jonah's spitting anger God asks Jonah, and through Jonah all of Israel, this haunting question: "Should I not have compassion on this great city?" 

That's how the book ends, with that question, just hanging there. And that's really the whole point of the book of Jonah, to forever lodge that question in the moral consciousness of Israel. That question--"Shall I not have compassion on these people you hate?"--is like a moral thorn in the brain, a question that pricks, haunts, disturbs, and interrupts our easy hatred. 

That is the prophetic imagination in the book of Jonah, the moral thorn and the haunted conscience, the voice of God asking us to have compassion on those we hate.

The Prophetic Imagination: Part 2, Moral Self-Criticism as the Voice of God

After having discussed Moses and Egypt with my students to illustrate the prophetic imagination, we next turn to the Hebrew prophets.

There's an important contrast between what Moses is doing and what the Hebrew prophets are doing. Simply, with Moses the prophetic voice of Israel is directed outward, toward Egypt. But with the Hebrew prophets the prophetic voice is directed inward, against Israel herself.

I've reflected on this before on the blog, how I find the inclusion of the prophets in the Bible to be a bit of a moral miracle. Most of us like to whitewash our lives, work to hide the worst about ourselves, and take a lot of effort to keep the dirty laundry out of view. But with Israel their moral failures get enshrined and put on full display in the prophetic books. In the prophets we see moral self-criticism named as the Voice of God, as sacred, holy Scripture.

As I said, I find that miraculous. I highly doubt any of us would like to see a laundry list of our sins and failures included in the Bible. Nor would a nation want to include an account of its sins in every history book taught to its children. We'd rather leave all that out. Yet that's exactly what Israel chose to do. Instead of hiding and obfuscating, Israel held up the mirror, took a hard look, and then added it to The Book. 

And that, I tell my students, is the second part of the prophetic imagination. It's not just to look at the Pharaohs of the world and say, "Let my people go!" The prophetic imagination is the capacity to practice moral self-criticism, and then hearing that criticism as the Voice of God.

It's easy to play the prophet for others, that's sort of thrilling, but it's much harder to direct that prophetic rebuke at oneself. How many of us display a robust capacity for moral self-criticism? Where do you hear God speaking against you, your preferred politics, and your nation? 

If you hear nothing but crickets, you've lost the prophetic imagination. 

The Prophetic Imagination: Part 1, "Let My People Go!"

I teach a class at ACU entitled "Psychology and Christianity." In one of the units of the class we talk about the relationship between faith and violence. If not physical violence, then at least attitudinal violence toward others. The question we ponder during this unit is, "How can we believe in God non-violently?" 

Following an argument I make in The Slavery of Death, I introduce the students to Walter Brueggemann's notion of "the prophetic imagination." Cultivating the prophetic imagination creates a non-violent capacity within ourselves and faith community. In my class I walk the students through three distinct expressions of the prophetic imagination.

The first expression is the one Brueggemann starts with in this book, Moses going to Pharaoh and declaring "Let my people go!" 

As Brueggemann argues, the first slave that has to be set free from Egypt is God. The gods of Egypt had come to sacralize, legitimize, and justify an oppressive status quo. Thus, the first act of the prophet is to proclaim the "freedom of God," to undermine the sacred justifications of current power arrangements. God has to be "at liberty" to stand over and against Pharaoh in divine, sacred indictment. When God is free to speak against Egypt a capacity for a new social imagination is created as God stands in solidarity, not with Pharaoh, but with the slaves, not with the oppressors but with the oppressed. 

So this, I tell my students, is where the prophetic imagination begins. Is God being used to legitimize current power arrangements or to criticize current power arrangements? Is God standing with those at the top of the power hierarchy or with those at the bottom

To be clear, the issue here isn't about some specific policy recommendation but is, rather, the capacity to hear the word of God speaking from the margins against the status quo. And critical to this capacity is the freedom of God, the ability to imagine some daylight between God and current power arrangements. When that gap exists a capacity for moral, prophetic critique is created and cultivated. God is now at liberty to speak in prophetic indictment and critique.