Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson: Week 33, A Recap and Review

Guess what? 

I'm on vacation with my family and forgot to bring along my copy of Maps of Meaning. So this Friday and the next two I'm unable to push us further into the book. 

Given that situation, I thought this week we could pause and take stock. Many new readers have joined this blog or the Substack newsletter since the start of this series, and so might have missed some important moments. Plus, thirty-three installments into this series even the most devoted of readers might have missed a post or two, or would like a reminder about the territory we've covered. With that in mind, a little recap and review.

To start, why am I doing this series about such a controversial and polarizing figure? A person, in fact, who gets more controversial and polarizing by the day!

As I shared at the start of this series, my interest in Jordan Peterson is narrow and twofold. First, along with many others, I was stunned at how successful Peterson's lectures about the Bible were received, especially by young men, many of whom had been attracted to skepticism and atheism. Peterson was able to get a post-Christian world to sit up and take the Bible seriously. That success should interest a church wanting to be involved with evangelism. 

My second interest in Jordan Peterson is his appeal to young men, many of whom seem lost. This is a demographic the church struggles with, so getting some insight into Peterson's attractiveness among young men could help the church with some crucial demographic discernment. 

Those are my two, narrow interests in Jordan Peterson. Trouble is, there's a lot more going on with Peterson that turns people off and causes people to question my giving him any attention at all. Can you bracket out those controversies to look narrowly at specific parts of Peterson's work? I have tried to do so in this series. You can judge how successfully. 

Looking back, then, over thirty-two weeks of posts, what have we observed? Let me try to summarize by sharing the positives and the negatives I've taken from Peterson's book Maps of Meaning, his magnum opus. 

Overall, there are four things I've really appreciated about Jordan Peterson's work.

First, his moral and existential urgency. As I shared early in this series, Peterson is playing a high stakes game. He's trying to save your soul. That passion and pathos makes him a compelling, even electrifying, figure to many. And I think the church can learn from this. By and large, the church has turned away from hellfire and brimstone preaching. We don't dangle audiences over the pit of hell anymore. Which is a shame, because you know who does this all the time? Jordan Peterson. Here's a public intellectual who talks about hell, damnation, evil, and Satan all the time. These aren't normal topics among academics, public intellectuals, or pundits. And yet, millions of people have listened to Peterson's lectures on the Bible. And I think a huge part of the appeal is the hellfire and damnation aspect. 

So, how does Peterson get away with this in a way Biblical fundamentalists cannot? This is the second thing to appreciate about Peterson, his Jungian approach to Scripture. Peterson isn't talking about a literal hell, he's talking about psychological and relational hell. Existential hell. Hell on earth. As we've learned in this series, Peterson reads the Bible mythologically, using it to convey timeless truths and wisdom about the human experience and predicament. And given Peterson's evolutionary twist, we ignore these myths are our peril. Blow off a myth and you're walking off an adaptive cliff. Myths have been forged in the fires of human adaptation and they contain the distilled wisdom of the ages. Myths are a lifeboat. Myths are a compass. And the Great Myth of the West is the Holy Bible. So if you blow off the Bible you're pretty much headed for hell. Not a literal hell, but a hell of your own making. 

Which brings us to a third positive about Jordan Peterson. According to Peterson, values are encoded in our actions. Behaviors are beliefs. Everyone in the West is functionally Christian because everyone in the West is operating, implicitly and behaviorally, according to the Judeo-Christian myth. The Bible is our cultural operating system. 

Basically, Peterson has been able to sidestep tired theological and apologetical debates with non-believers by observing the values implicitly at work in our behavior and psychology. No one lives like a nihilist. People act "as if" the Bible is true.

A final positive thing we've observed about Jordan Peterson is how his "order the chaos" and "slay the dragon" message appeals to young men. People need to feel like their lives have a heroic aspect, and Peterson's work with the Jungian hero archetype has found a resonance with many, not just with young men, but perhaps young men especially. Many of us need dragons to slay, and the church should think about how that impulse can be redemptively evoked and directed, rather than shamed or squashed.

If these have been some of the positive things we've found in Maps of Meaning, what have been the negatives? I've raised two concerns repeatedly in this series.

First, Peterson tends to gender Chaos as feminine. Thus, the imperatives to "order the chaos" or "slay the dragon" can traffic in implicit misogyny. This is especially worrisome given Peterson's fans among the alt-right. In this series I also made a contrast between Jordan Peterson and how Carl Jung thought about the Anima and Animus archetypes. Specifically, where Peterson casts the relation between the Hero (masculine) and Chaos (feminine) agonistically, Jung sees the Anima (feminine) and Animus (masculine) as operating synergistically

To be clear, I'm not trying to damn Peterson's project here. Nor am I saying his "slay the dragon" and "order the chaos" sermons are not true. I just said above how I appreciate those messages. But I am noting a place where Peterson's message can be corrupted and co-opted by misogyny, patriarchy and toxic masculinity. This temptation and corruption needs to be monitored in discerning how Peterson's work is being received and put to use.

The second criticism I've had about Peterson is how he handles Jesus. Simply, Peterson casts Jesus as an existential hero who faces and carries, with courage and love, the unbearable suffering and pain of existence to create something redemptive and beautiful. As I've repeatedly said, this is true as far as it goes. I have no problem seeing Christ as an existential hero. My repeated objection, however, is reducing Christ to an existential hero. At the end of the day, Christ is a model of coping for Jordan Peterson. And while Christians believe we are called to follow and imitate Jesus, we believe that Jesus is much more than a heroic exemplar. Of course, if that's all the Jesus you can muster or believe in, that's cool. But Christians believe that Jesus is much more. For example, as I've pointed out in this series, the cross of Christ is the epistemological crisis of the world. No human theory stands in judgment of the cross. The cross, rather, calls into question all human theories, including the theories of Carl Jung and Jordan Peterson. 

This, then, is a summary of what I consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of Jordan Peterson's Maps of Meaning given my particular concerns. 

As for what we'll do for the next two Fridays while I'm away from my copy of the book, we'll just have to see. I'll give it a think. Have a blessed weekend.

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