Jordan Peterson, Atheism, God, and Suffering

Most people who know me well, know that I am a pretty big fan of Jordan Peterson, the Canadian Psychologist. I’ve watched a large portion of his videos on Youtube, listened to many of his interviews and talks on podcasts, and loved his book 12 Rules for Life. All of these things, including the Self Authoring program he developed with a couple other psychologists, has helped me improve certain aspects of my life. His talks tend to focus on telling the truth, taking responsibility for your life, and avoiding the dangers of groupthink and ideology.  I think he’s one of the most important intellectuals alive.

peterson

One of the conversations that always seems to be hanging over his head is what he believes about God. His ideas are greatly influenced by Christianity and he regularly references the biblical stories, but his main interest is in the psychological truths the stories tell us. People often ask him whether he believes in God, and he says he hates that question, because it is unclear to him what the questioner means and he sees it as an attempt to “box him in.” Still, he says he lives as if God exists and he maintains that is the only way to live.

This last week, I listened to a fascinating conversation he had with Susan Blackmore, a self-professed atheist on a Christian radio program. They discussed the question, “do we need God to make sense of life?” Blackmore, unsurprisingly, argued that we did not. Peterson took the position that God (or his conception of God) is the very thing that makes sense out of life.

In the video below at the 38:18 mark, the Christian host asks Jordan to elaborate on the claim he makes in his book that most atheists simply are not atheists in their actions. Watch how the conversation proceeds through the end of the video (approximately 9 minutes).

 

Near the end (about the 45:40 mark), when the interviewer asks them again whether we need God to make sense of life, Jordan neatly summarizes his position and helps us see what he means when he uses the word God. His argument is basically this:

  1. God is what allows us to to make sense of life.
  2. We all have a hierarchy of values and whatever is at the top of that is “God” for us.
  3. How we intellectually think about God, as he defines God, has very little impact on how God acts upon us in the way we live our lives.

His last point, is illustrated by his conversation with Susan over whether she is truly an atheist. She basically does not believe in the God of classical theism, meaning a personal being that can be named and reveal Godself to humanity. Yet, Jordan says that her very actions of living as if the world has meaning by attempting to bring order to chaos is in itself an act of embodying the logos.

Remember, the logos is the Greek principle of order and wisdom, from which we get our word  “logic.” In the Bible, the Hebrews understood it as the personified wisdom through which YHWH created the world (Proverbs 8:22-32). The prologue to John’s gospel (John 1:1-18) identifies the  logos with the eternal God which “became flesh and lived among us” (vs. 14) in the person of Jesus. John also tells us that the logos, in addition to being God’s creative agent, is “the light of all people” (vs. 4). So, according to Peterson, when anybody is pursuing wisdom and exercising their ability to reason (bring order to chaos), they are embodying the logos, whether or not they name it as “God.”

As I listened to their conversation, I reflected on how I might address Peterson’s argument about God. I think it’s very compelling and persuasive on a number of levels, however, I think it stops short of a genuinely Christian answer. I find that I can say both “yes” with some serious qualifications.

I can say yes to his argument in that God is the ground of everything that exists and human beings, by default, attempt to reach God. Acts 17 illustrated this when it tells us that Paul, in Athens, noted that the Greeks were highly religious, even to the point of erecting an altar to the “unknown god.” Paul told them that God created all people and placed them on the earth, “so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him–though indeed he is not far from each one of us” (17:27). He then makes the claim, quoting a pagan poet, that “in him (God) we live and move and have our being” (17:28). We simply cannot exist independently of God, even if we do not know his name.

Peterson hits on a very important theological truth when he says that whatever is at the top of our hierarchy of values is “god” for us. He claims he got this idea from Jung, but Jung, who was the son of a Reformed pastor would know that this is deeply ingrained in the Christian tradition. This is true, but the problem is, as John Calvin said, “man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols.”

In Christian terms, sin has created a separation between human beings and God, so we attempt to bridge that gap with gods of our own making. We want to be fully reunited with God, “in whom we live and move and have our being,” but sin prevents us from being able to do that on our own. We constantly try, but we constantly aim at the wrong gods, and that is the reason why Christians maintain that we are fully reliant upon God taking the initiative in revealing himself to us and coming to us. This happens when God personally calls Abram and reveals his divine name to Moses. But the full and complete revelation of God occurs in the incarnation of Jesus, who is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:3). We simply cannot think or reason our way to God, who is completely and wholly “other” from us. When we try, we create idols.

Peterson is on the right track, but his understanding of God falls short of the one we see revealed in history to the people of Israel and in Jesus Christ. This understanding of God comports well with a non-specific “higher power,” but is not a God that can be personally known. From an orthodox, Christian perspective, I would press him on whether such a god that he describes can address the problem of suffering as well as the God of the Bible can.

I was reminded of this clip (below) of the German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann being interviewed on who God is for him. Moltmann explains that without Jesus Christ, “the human face of God,” he would not believe in God. The reason for that is that the suffering of the world is far too great to make belief in God credible, unless that God is also capable of suffering with his creation. Moltmann would know, too, because he became a believer in a prison camp after conscripted into the German army as a teenager during World War 2 and captured by the British. When Moltmann read the story of the crucifixion of Jesus crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he knew he found a God who is capable of taking the evil of the world seriously.

 

While I really love Peterson’s ability to gain wisdom from Christian theology and the Biblical stories, I think it’s still missing an important piece.

Thoughts? Pushback?

 

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2 thoughts on “Jordan Peterson, Atheism, God, and Suffering

  1. Pingback: How is God Known? | Brandon Colbert

  2. Pingback: Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, and Biblical Inspiration | Brandon Colbert

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