Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Part 6, Myth is Both Less and More

Having made the point that modern people continue to live "as if" their founding myths were true, and in the case of the West this means the Bible, Peterson describes more specifically the nature of myth in contrast to science. He writes:

We appear to have made the presumption that stories such as these--myths--were equivalent in function and intent (but were inferior methodologically) to empirical or post-experimental description. It is this fundamentally absurd insistence that, above all, has destabilized the effect of religious tradition upon the organization of modern human moral reasoning and behavior. The "world" of the Sumerians was not objective reality, as we presently construe it. It was simultaneously more and less--more in that this "primitive" world contained phenomena that we do not consider part of "reality," such as affect and meaning; less, in that the Sumerians could not describe (or conceive of) many of those things the processes of science have revealed to us.

Myth is not primitive proto-science. It is a qualitatively different phenomenon. Science might be considered "description of the world with regards to those aspects that are consensually apprehensible" ... Myth can be more accurately regarded as "description of the world as it signifies (for action)." The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive. Myth describes things in terms of their unique or shared affective valance, their value, their motivational significance ... We are familiar with scientific thinking and value it highly--so we tend to presume that it is all there is to thinking ... But this is not accurate. Thinking also and more fundamentally is specification of value, specification of implication for behavior.

These themes could be familiar if you've been following on Fridays. I find this passage adding some things to consider. Specifically, there's the modern, scientific, and atheistic tendency to see ancient myth as "proto-science," early and childish attempts to explain thunder or why the sky is blue.  And if not failed science then a collection of fairy-tales. Peterson pushes back upon these characterizations by elevating the stature of myth, arguing that myth wasn't primarily interested in empirical description. Myth is interested, rather, in valuation in the service of action.

Consider how this changes how we might approach a text like Genesis, as Peterson does in his Bible lectures. Genesis 1, for example, isn't failed, primitive science. The concerns of Genesis 1 are valuation and setting humans within this matrix of valuation, providing for us a forum of action. The issues of Genesis 1 are not "Did the Lord God create the world in six literal days?" but concern, rather, "What does the world signify? What is human life for? What are the navigational points on my moral compass?" As Peterson says, myth is both less and more. Less because it's not really good as a scientific account of the world, but more in that myth considers value, meaning, and morality as real, even more real than atoms and electrons.  

Let me conclude with an observation about Peterson's mythological approach to the Bible, as it's here where you start to hear some ambivalence about Jordan Peterson in theological circles. A purely mythological approach to the Bible unsettles and worries those who want the conversation about God to be more metaphysical and ontological. Peterson stubbornly resists moving in that direction. He keeps the focus on the drama of human action. And yet, because of this, Peterson is very effective in pushing back on atheists. By eschewing metaphysical debates, Peterson hits atheists where they are weakest: the vacuum in their worldview on the issues of value, meaning, and morality. Which is to say, the most important things in life! 

By contrast, when Christians debate atheists the conversation shifts to metaphysics, putting Christians on the defensive. Atheists bring up things like how Genesis 1 is crap science and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or say things like, "You don't believe in Odin, and I don't believe in your god. So what's the difference?" Christian/atheist debates tend to get bogged down in these worn out metaphysical exchanges. 

Peterson, with his mythological approach, blows past all that. And because of this, Peterson has gotten a hearing among atheists as has put them on the defensive. 

Does this mean I think Christian apologetics and church evangelism should adopt a mythological approach in introducing the Bible to a secular, post-Christian world? Could, for example, a mythological approach be a bridge to a fuller more metaphysical and ontological understanding of the Bible? Or does the mythological approach give too much away?

I expect answers will differ here. Regardless, I think it's worth pondering exactly how and why Peterson is effective among atheists where most Christians struggle. 

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply