If you have been previously unaware of Jordan Peterson's existence and the discussion surrounding him, worry no more--the evangelical blogosphere has been working overtime to enlighten you. In fact it could be considered a major feat to have missed this debate in its entirety. I tried to resist myself, but the tide of emails, texts, YouTube videos, and blogs overcame the usual defenses.
For the uninitiated, Peterson is a Canadian secular depth psychologist who has been making waves over the last few months for his controversial yet articulate stands on social issues, witty advice, and ability to command any room into which he walks (David Robertson provides a good introduction). Peterson appeals mainly to the growing masses of disaffected young men who tend to struggle with lack of direction and self-worth--men we see all too often in the church today.
Yet some Christians see far more in him than just this. At the celebratory end of the spectrum, a few argue that Peterson represents the archetype of an emotionally intelligent pastor, one who has been strong where our accepted pastoral wisdom has been weak. At the critical end, some wonder whether Peterson's work is just a thinly veiled application of Nietzsche's transvaluation of values or a justification of pride-as-virtue. That is quite the difference. Which begs the question: what in the world are we to do with the likes of Jordan Peterson?
That evangelicals often reach diametrically opposed evaluations of secular resources is nothing new. Think about Harry Potter or "secular music" or the debates over what media Christians can use. That we keep ending up in widely divergent places on such crucial issues however should at least raise our eyebrows. Perhaps something bigger is going on here. Perhaps such surface level differences signal deeper theological and structural issues in our communities--issues that revolve around how we understand common grace and common ground.
Much ink has been spilled trying to explain why Peterson is so popular with evangelicals. I think I can offer one more reason: Peterson is a respected secular scholar who is affirming important biblical truths in non-biblical ways. This second part also explains why Peterson is so unpopular with some. For example, in his 12 Rules for Life, he comes out in favor of things like corporal punishment in parenting (Prov. 13.24), but argues for this from a common-sense and ultimately authoritarian point of view. As a Christian counselor myself, I find that these kinds of arguments breed inner conflict by affirming the truth in seemingly secular ways. On the one hand, finding a secular voice who affirms Christian values is extremely rare and exciting; on the other, Peterson's methods appear suspect.
And this is where evangelicals usually end up on issues like this: one side voices support for the common grace truth that can be found in a "thing" and the other side protests that the "thing" in view is fueled by basic presuppositions and methodology that necessarily disqualify whatever good can be found in it. It is exceedingly difficult to move beyond these poles once they have been reached. Not only is it hard to do this conceptually (for each position leaves no real room for compromise) but it is also difficult to do this personally. Try convincing a convinced homeschooler that public school options are sometimes acceptable, and vice versa!
On one hand, Peterson advocates for the importance of religion and traditional modes of living, campaigns for sanity in gender roles more courageously and clearly than most celebrity Christians, and sounds curiously biblical on many issues. Maybe he can even teach pastors a thing or two about equanimity, style, and approach. So we should allow our brothers and sisters to voice their tempered support for thinkers like Peterson. Calvin would have had it that way. Speaking on these kinds of people, he says that "so far as they do no harm, they are useful and profitable" and that "Christ declares that we ought to reckon as friends those who are not open enemies."
However, Peterson's worldview is steeped in Jungian archetypal mythology, mixed with a dash of evolutionary psychology. Although he references the Bible, he makes sustained arguments from other religious streams of thought as well. More often than not, Peterson argues from "is" to "ought," using evolutionary developments as guidelines for successful living (cf. Peterson's love for lobsters in 12 Rules). A complete or even moderate buy in by Christians to these principles could end in unmitigated disaster, and we should listen to those brothers and sisters who warn us of this. Calvin faithfully guides as always: "whoever does not assist [in establishing the Kingdom of God] is...opposed to [Christ]." Where secular resources oppose or do not assist the advancement of God's kingdom, at these points they must be opposed themselves.
Categorizing a thinker or system of thought based upon this schema can be exceedingly difficult. Part of the reason for this is that balancing extremes is naturally difficult, as is the task of identifying what constitutes opposition to the gospel. Does a system of thought oppose the gospel, fail to assist its spread, or actually advance it? Peterson is maddening in this regard, for he does all three at times, sometimes even in the same thought!
Perhaps the chief difficulty, however, is our own lack of uniformity of understanding regarding our approach to common grace and common ground in the Reformed tradition. We often (rightly) argue that non-Christian modes of thinking find no common ground with Christian ones. As the non-Christian is diametrically opposed to God in his unrighteousness, so will his thoughts, being born out of the root of rebellion and tainted with sin, end up opposed to God. Of course, the unbeliever will often stumble upon true things, but this is due to God's common grace.
The problem with such a line of reasoning is not the line of reasoning itself--this is perfectly legitimate. The problem is the attitude we so often draw from it; namely, that we must therefore publicly and equally oppose all things non-Christian. This orientation does not actually follow from the insistence that there is no common ground between believer and non-believer. Put another way, opposition of belief does not always necessitate opposition in disposition.
How can this be? First, this is so because it is actually consistent with presuppositional thought. Calling common grace discoveries good is simply saying "Amen!" back to the God who enabled them in the first place. Even more than this, affirming the good and calling out the bad appears to be one of Jesus' favorite ways of engaging the lost. Of the many examples of this, Mark 12.28-34 is the most instructive. After a scribe comes up to Jesus and speaks correctly about the law, Jesus tells him that "you are not far from the kingdom of God." This is a double-edged statement, for Jesus is simultaneously telling this man that there is much good in his thinking and yet that it is not good enough. It is also a brilliant response, for it perfectly balances the call to affirm and challenge non-believing thought.
This does not mean that there isn't a time and place to strongly condemn evil thinking and doing; Jesus does as much in many places. But it is a call to consider the evangelistic import of how we respond to secular resources. Will Jordan Peterson come to Christ if our response to him is exclusively negative? What of his followers? More pointedly, would we have come to God if His response to us had been exclusively negative (Rom. 5.8)?
In The Pursuit of Holiness, Jerry Bridges tells the story of Henry Trumbull's train ride with a drunkard. Each time the drunkard took a swig, he offered one to Trumbull, who each time politely declined. Finally, the drunkard exclaimed, "You must think I'm a pretty rough fellow." In response, Trumbull said "I think you're a very generous hearted fellow," which then opened a door for him to share the gospel. We can only wonder what kind of opportunities we might gain to speak the hard truths of the gospel to seculars if we just led off with the right foot.
Brian Mesimer is a counselor at the counseling center of First Presbyterian Church (ARP) in Columbia, SC.