Understanding Jordan Peterson’s Theology

The person who has been hailed as the most influential biblical interpreter in the world today is ironically not a pastor, theologian, or biblical scholar, he’s a Canadian psychologist with no formal theological training. Yet his insights into the Scriptures have encouraged and inspired millions, reawakening a highly secular population to the wonders of ancient theological wisdom. Jordan Peterson’s YouTube series on the Bible is fascinating because of how much it resonates with insights from the ancient Orthodox Christian tradition.

– Jordan Peterson is renowned for his theological interpretations of the Bible, despite not being a Christian.

– His theology of the Trinity lacks an understanding of our loving God.

– Love is the incredible link between the Trinity and influences all of Christian theology and biblical teaching!

Interestingly, Peterson introduces his whole series on God and the Bible by invoking this notion of ‘mystery.’ This is interesting because the Greek word ‘Mysteria’ actually means ‘to reveal.’ By approaching God and the Bible as a mystery, Peterson seems to miss the fact that the Greek word mysteria actually refers to a reality that is otherwise hidden but now is being revealed for us to encounter, know, and embrace. In this theological sense, a mystery is not something like a riddle that has to be solved. Rather, it’s a hidden reality that we now have access to.

It’s ironic because though he missed it, this theological notion of mystery, mysteria, is actually what makes Peterson so significant today. He sees the ancient wisdom of the Scriptures as being a profound and perpetual source of timeless meaning and significance for our humanity. No matter what we do, no matter how secular we claim to be, these biblical stories continue to endure, inspire, and evoke astonishing works of human creativity and imagination. It all means that the Scriptures offer timeless nourishment for our souls, and as a psychologist, Peterson is revealing to us the source of that timeless nourishment and psychological health.

He is arguably mistaken when he says that ‘we don’t understand how people could have believed these stories.’ He doesn’t understand why people for thousands and thousands of years believed in God or gods and angels and demons intimately interacting with us. Peterson is overlooking a very important notion that scholars refer to as ‘cosmic piety.’

A cursory survey of ancient sacred texts from cultures all over the world demonstrates that humanity once shared the perspective that the world in which we live was brimming with divine life. As such, every person born into the world was born into a divine obligation. We were all obliged to conform our lives to a harmonious relationship with that divine meaning and purpose. Every ancient culture worked this out in its own unique and specific ways, but the whole of the ancient world shared this common conception of cosmic piety. They agreed that the world is filled with divine meaning and purpose and thus we’re all obligated to conform our lives into a harmonious relationship with that divine meaning and purpose.

We can push that a step back and ask where cosmic piety comes from. Why did all ancient civilizations believe the world was filled with divine meaning and purpose in the first place? There are several explanations for that. One of the more compelling ones from cultural anthropology is that our religions and rituals are amplifications of the first conscious human encounter with reality. All of our religions and rituals are the reproduction in time and space of the astonishment we felt the first time humanity encountered reality.

The Roman Catholic essayist G.K. Chesterton likened this to the sense of astonishment that children get from fairy tales. A fairy tale describes a river running with wine so that we might recall the astonishment we felt when we first encountered them running with water. And at the heart of every first encounter with reality is a vertical dimension of being. In the Western tradition, we refer to God as a being that is high and above us. Cultural anthropologists virtually all agree that the very moment we come into being is coterminous with the very moment we consciously encounter divine life. It’s no coincidence that in discussing all of his lectures on God, Jordan Peterson roots those lectures in the Book of Genesis, the Book of Beginnings!

Peterson said, “I’m scientifically minded, and I’m quite a rational person. I like to have an explanation of things that’s rational and empirical, before I look for any other kind of explanation. I don’t want to say that everything that’s associated with divinity can be reduced, in some manner, to biology, evolutionary history, or anything like that. But, insofar as it’s possible to do that reduction, I’m going to do that. I’m going to leave the other phenomena floating in the air, because they can’t be pinned down. In that category, I would put the category of mystical or religious experience, which we don’t understand, at all.”

This is one of the key contributions that Jordan Peterson is making in terms of a massive paradigm shift going on in the world. Peterson’s quote represents something called a post-secular perspective. A secular vision of the world was dualistic in that it insisted on a hard separation between science and religion, but post-secularists like Peterson recognize that dualistic visions of religion vs. science have collapsed. The more science discovers the more religious we find it becoming.

The important point here is that the new science emerging is not rediscovering religion simply because of a new philosophically-derived tolerance of religion that science can patronizingly acknowledge. Rather it’s science itself discovering fundamentally religious truths inherent in the very nature of the physical world that it’s studying. This is the case with psychology, which of course is Peterson’s field of expertise. This shift towards a post-modern or post-secular, post-dualist science is organic to the scientific process itself.

Peterson discussed the Bible, saying, “Ok, to understand the first part of Genesis I’m going to turn, strangely enough, to something that’s part of the New Testament. This is a central element of Christianity. It’s a very strange idea that’s gonna take a very long time to unpack. This is what John said about Christ. He said, “In the beginning was the word.” That relates back to Genesis 1. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Three sentences like that take a lot of unpacking because, well, none of that seems to make any sense whatsoever. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was both with God and the word was God.” So the first question might be, what in the world does that mean? “In the beginning was the word.” That’s the logos, and the logos is embodied in the figure of Christ. There’s this idea in John that whatever Christ is—a son of God—is not only instantiated—a particular time and place, as a carpenter in some backwoods part of the world—but is also something eternal that exists up outside of time and space, that was there right at the beginning.”

It is very fascinating that Peterson interprets the Book of Genesis in light of the New Testament. If we go back to one of the major theories of how ritual and religion came about, ritual and religion are the representations of the world as humanity first encountered them. This involves a direct encounter with a vertical dimension of being, so that is why we have the ancient Greek and Roman conception of the Golden Ages and the biblical Garden of Eden. This is where humanity encounters reality as it directly intersects with eternity. Because that original encounter is with the eternal, that which transcends time and space, the whole of our humanity – our origin, meaning, morality, and our ultimate destiny are all entailed in that original encounter. This sheds light on why Christians throughout the ages always interpreted Genesis, the beginning, in light of the New Testament, the end.

What links all of this together is the Greek term that Jordan Peterson referred to, Logos. The New Testament Book of St. John begins with the opening line: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The original term for ‘word’ there is Logos, and in the ancient world, Logos referred to that divine principle that harmonized and unified the four elements of the cosmos, earth, air, fire, and water. The Greeks and Romans were obsessed with what gave the cosmos its order, symmetry, and arrangement. and the answer was a divine principle outside of the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. That is what they called the Logos. Christ in the New Testament is identified as that divine principle, hence why we have four gospels that reveal that the cosmos is being recalibrated around Christ, who is the Logos.

When the early Church read Genesis, they read it in many respects as the very first Incarnation of Christ the Logos. Creation is the original material manifestation of the divine order of the Logos. This is so fascinating because when the cosmos falls in the sin of Adam and Eve which Peterson deals with in later lectures, that integration of all things in the Logos begins to crack. The world begins to unravel. And so, the eternal Son of God, that vertical dimension of our encounter with reality, comes down to earth and becomes man in the Incarnation.

Then the whole cosmos begins to recalibrate around him. So the stars align around him at his birth on Christmas Eve. The waters align around him in his baptism in the Jordan, and we even see the Spirit descending on him like a dove over the waters in a manner comparable to the description of the Spirit in Genesis 1 v. 2, the dry land on the third day of creation produces grain and fruit which becomes the bread and wine identified with Christ’s body and blood. The whole of the cosmos mysteriously participates in the incarnation. This is because Christ is the Logos.

Jordan Peterson describes the Christian vision of the Trinity, saying, “There’s an idea in Christianity of the image of God as a Trinity. There’s the element of the Father, there’s the element of the Son, and there’s the element of the Holy Spirit. It’s something like the spirit of tradition, human beings as the living incarnation of that tradition, and the spirit in people that makes relationships with the spirit and individuals possible. I’m going to bounce my way quickly through some of the classical, metaphorical attributes of God so that we kind of have a cloud of notions about what we’re talking about when we return to Genesis 1 and talk about the God who spoke chaos into Being.

“There’s a fatherly aspect, so here’s what God as a father is like. You can enter into a covenant with it, so you can make a bargain with it. Now, you think about that. Money is like that, because money is a bargain you make with the future. We structured our world so that you can negotiate with the future. I don’t think that we would have got to the point where we could do that without having this idea to begin with. You can act as if the future’s a reality; there’s a spirit of tradition that enables you to act as if the future is something that can be bargained with. That’s why you make sacrifices. The sacrifices were acted out for a very long period, and now they’re psychological. We know that you can sacrifice something valuable in the present and expect that you’re negotiating with something that’s representing the transcendent future. That’s an amazing human discovery. No other creature can do that; to act as if the future is real; to know that you can bargain with reality itself, and that you can do it successfully. It’s unbelievable.

“It responds to sacrifice. It answers prayers. I’m not saying that any of this is true, by the way. I’m just saying what the cloud of ideas represents. It punishes and rewards. It judges and forgives. It’s not nature. One of the things weird about the Judeo-Christian tradition is that God and nature are not the same thing, at all. Whatever God is, partially manifest in this logos, is something that stands outside of nature. I think that’s something like consciousness as abstracted from the natural world. It built Eden for mankind and then banished us for disobedience. It’s too powerful to be touched. It granted free will. Distance from it is hell. Distance from it is death. It reveals itself in dogma and in mystical experience, and it’s the law. That’s sort of like the fatherly aspect.

“The son-like aspect. It speaks chaos into order. It slays dragons and feeds people with the remains. It finds gold. It rescues virgins. It is the body and blood of Christ. It is a tragic victim, scapegoat, and eternally triumphant redeemer simultaneously. It cares for the outcast. It dies and is reborn. It is the king of kings and hero of heroes. It’s not the state, but is both the fulfillment and critic of the state. It dwells in the perfect house. It is aiming at paradise or heaven. It can rescue from hell. It cares for the outcast. It is the foundation and the cornerstone that was rejected. It is the spirit of the law.

“The spirit-like aspect. It’s akin to the human soul. It’s the prophetic voice. It’s the still, small voice of conscience. It’s the spoken truth. It’s called forth by music. It is the enemy of deceit, arrogance, and resentment. It is the water of life. It burns without consuming. It’s a blinding light.

“That’s a very well-developed set of poetic metaphors. These are all…what would you say…glimpses of the transcendent ideal. That’s the right way of thinking about it. They’re glimpses of the transcendent ideal, and all of them have a specific meaning. In part, what we’re going to do is go over that meaning, as we continue with this series.”

This is a very profound description of God as Trinity. However, nowhere in his listing of all these poetic attributes did Jordan Peterson ever refer to Love! After a word search analysis through the entire transcript of this opening lecture, which was 2 ½ hours long, the word ‘love’ appears only once. It was not about God. This is unfortunate because you cannot talk about the Christian notion of the Trinity in any intelligible way without being grounded in Love. In the Christian vision, God, who is infinite (God doesn’t exist as much as he is existence itself and the fullness of Being that is the precondition for the existence of everything that participates in this infinite eternal existence), this God is fundamentally a God who is love.

That love blossoms, and is eternally expressed and lived out in the infinite fellowship of the Trinity. The Father expresses his love by giving of himself and by emptying himself. The Greek word that describes this is kenosis. He empties himself to be filled with the Son and the Spirit; the Son empties himself to be filled with the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit empties himself to be filled with the Father and the Son. This vision is so essential because this infinite divine love not only accounts for why God created the cosmos in the first place, which is the sharing of the outflowing overabundance of the infinite fountain of his love. It also accounts for how God saves the cosmos when it falls.

For when the cosmos falls through humanity’s sin, God rescues us by emptying himself and becoming human and going down into Hades and rising again, seated at the right hand of the Father. He draws the whole of the cosmos back into eternal fellowship with himself. So when the cosmos falls, it’s not as if God has to do something entirely new or different. This vision of Trinitarian love and delight means that when the cosmos falls, God simply does what he has always been doing, now and forever, and unto all the ages.

He empties himself to draw his creation up back into the infinite fountain of love and delight! So LOVE is what links the Trinity with the Incarnation. The same logic that characterizes the eternal relationships of the Trinity characterizes the rationale for the Incarnation itself.

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