Jordan Peterson and Orthodoxy: Another Point of Contact

Clinical psychologist, Professor at the University of Toronto and international phenomenon, Dr Jordan B Peterson, is famous (or perhaps infamous?) for his engagement with cultural and political issues particularly surrounding free speech. Those who follow his lectures or have read his books would know that he has a staunch respect for Christianity, believing that it forms an indispensable foundation for modern western society. Though he himself holds rather un-orthodox views of Christian metaphysical reality (his reasons why being rather interesting), his psychologically informed views on Christianity and the Bible are certainly compatible with various sectors of Christian belief.

Interestingly, Peterson appears to have some sort of affinity with Eastern Orthodox Christianity or at least, the Eastern Orthodox have an affinity towards him. He has given lectures with Orthodox priests, is friends with Orthodox cultural critic and woodcarver Jonathan Pageau, and has having spent time touring and exploring the symbolism of the iconography of the Protection of the Mother of God Russian Orthodox Cathedral in the heart of Melbourne, Australia. Peterson explains that this affinity is due to the fact that his philosophy for individual living emphasises the adoption of responsibility in the face of adversity and suffering in order to pursue ultimate meaning. That is, ultimate meaning is found in action. Orthodoxy seems to say much the same by its emphasis on the imitation of Christ. Compared to traditional Western modes of Christianity, which conceptualises Christianity as a cognitive framework first and foremost (belief in a series of propositions in Christ), this emphasis lays at the forefront of Orthodoxy. This is not to say that there isn’t an emphasis on cognition and belief in Orthodoxy, and that there is no emphasis on the imitation of Christ in the West, but rather, there is clear precedence of order in both.

This, I think, is largely illuminating as to why so many theologically eastern Christians tend to like Peterson. Whilst I wouldn’t want to suggest a blanket endorsement of Peterson’s views, there certainly is a lot of overlap between how he views the world and how the Orthodox Church views the world. I wish to play with this idea and suggest another point of contact between Jordan Peterson’s philosophy of personal responsibility and Orthodox Christianity. It might be an exaggeration to say that this is an entirely new observation, but I think it’s an appropriate nuance which hasn’t been touched upon so far.

 

Jordan Peterson and Social Responsibility

A few months ago I was sitting with a few of my friends, watching Jordan Peterson live from my television. He was participating in a panel on Q&A, a show which invites various prominent individuals to answer various questions posed to the panel by the audience, often of a political and cultural nature. There was an interesting (and rather barbed) exchange that he had with a particular individual in the crowd. The premise: that certain issues are too large for individuals to tackle in and of themselves and the necessity for adopting individual responsibility is too banal as a form of advice. The response: there certainly is a room for social action and movement – no one is denying that – the problem is that societal change must be predicated upon the change of individuals, who necessarily need to take responsibility for themselves before they critique the world, in order that their critique of the world may be accurate, effective and good.

I think that this is the salient point: Peterson is, in some sense, trying to inculcate holiness within his audience. Individuals are meant to be and live a certain way in concordance with “right existence” and it is this right existence which transforms the world around us. Albeit, though it has secular trappings, Peterson is trying to communicate the idea that people need to tend to themselves, to be watchful and pursue personal “righteousness” which will resultantly change the world around them. Orthodoxy has a similar view, in that growth in righteousness and holiness are the grounds by which we as Christians can save the world, participating in God’s work around us.

To explain, the goal of one’s life, in Orthodoxy, is to be united to God, becoming so attached to God that we are caught up in blissful, eternal intimacy. We become so enjoined to God, in the personal, inner-Trinitarian life of God that we are, by grace, totally alike to God. To use ancient Christian language, we become “god”, thought God remains as “God”, as God is the sole source of life, being and divinity. What Christ is by nature we become by grace. The way one becomes holy, then, is through the mortification of sinful tendencies, fighting against the “passions” and vices that consume us, so that one might be less consumed by the self’s desires, and be reoriented toward God and neighbour. In other words, the battle of repentance makes us holy. This is the picture of salvation in Ancient Christianity: participation in God, achieved through a life of repentance, growing closer to God and increasing in holiness.

However, as we see with Christ in the Gospels, holiness is infectious. Holiness is not a self-righteousness which refuses contact with the outside world (though it does denote some self-limits of purity and exclusion). It does, however, orient the self towards the other. It wills the good of other as other, serves them and, provided they allow it, transforms them in the same manner as one is transformed. Consider the incident of Christ with the woman suffering from bleeding. This incident, I believe, is paradigmatic for how holiness in the Kingdom of God, in the Church, is to be conceived. By ancient Jewish Law, this woman should have been considered ritually impure and unclean, thereby being placed on the periphery of society – excluded and ostracised from the worship of God and from her community. It is Christ’s holiness that heals and changes her, in her cooperation by faith. St Seraphim of Sarov echoes a similar sentiment:

“Acquire a peaceful spirit, and then thousands around you will be saved.”

The idea is that focusing on one’s own holiness, on one’s own transformation, will result in the change in others that is much needed. This focus on the self could hardly be considered selfish, as it is instead the ultimate act of service – a view of the self in order to change the self so as to better love God and others. This prior holiness is necessarily required to be able to appropriately, and prophetically, critique the surrounding world around – to point out its own issues. As Christ himself said:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Matthew 7: 1- 5 (NRSV)

It seems rather plain what Christ is saying here – look to yourself before you proclaim judgement on others. There also seems to be a slightly missed nuance in this passage however: how can one expect to see something as small as a speck in the other’s eye when one has an entire plank in their own obstructing their vision? It seems like one’s own judgement is likely to be misguided if one is blinded (and dangerously so if one is unaware of this blindness). This becomes critical when critiquing the world, as the blindspots tend to manifest in large scale harm. Orthodoxy’s sordid history with  communist revolutions tend to act as a testimony to this reality.

 

Conclusion – Some inadequacies with Peterson.

Whilst I do think that Peterson and Orthodoxy do overlap in this important manner, there appears to be some missing elements in Peterson’s presentation. If I may be so bold, I think that Peterson ultimately falls into the cognitive trap that he outlines when explaining the difference between western and eastern Christianity in an earlier linked video. In other words, as far as I can tell, change is conceptualised purely in individual terms. The individual is seen as an all determining “I”, rather than a composition of an individual “I” and a complex nexus of relations. That is, individuals are not just I, individuals are “I’s in relation”, which, frankly, is the only way which we can conceptualise ourselves as individuals in the first place. Furthermore, the idea of personal holiness is grounded in relationship – it is being united to an other: God. And the vehicle by which this is achieved is via the Church – the community of God’s people. This is something which, I think, Western Christianity (or at least, Protestant Christianity) necessarily traps itself into by foregrounding itself as a cognitive construct, rather than a mode of living, and thus a community to exist within.

To take an anecdotal example, when I was an Evangelical, I heard the common refrain that now I was saved, I get to serve God, and that I was to become holy. The problem was that there was no larger structure that I could become a part of. I had to figure things out for myself, take advice here and there, but ultimately it was up to my discretion. Now that I am Orthodox, whilst I am given some degree of personal discretion, I am ultimately beholden to the framework of the life of the Church, designed so that I may become better and be better united to God. I am given the sacraments of Confession and the Eucharist (which I participate in with others), I follow a calendar of fasts and feasts, and I am beholden to a tradition with its own rules and beliefs so that I need not make my way in the world on my own – a task which inexorably is impossible for any person.

So, to summarise, Peterson doesn’t account for the beginning of the process of “holiness” or the maintenance of this process, which is ultimately presupposed by community, because there is no such thing as an individual “I” outside of community. One begins the journey of “personal mastery” from the context of a community – from an external influence – and is sustained in this process by a community. Whilst it stands to reason that Peterson wouldn’t deny the necessity of groups and collectives, it seems to me that he does underplay their necessity.  Regardless, there is a lot to like in what he has to say.

5 thoughts on “Jordan Peterson and Orthodoxy: Another Point of Contact

  1. I skinned this article and didn’t agree with its stance on holiness..I tend to think the article is legalistic…and since I have come out of “legalizim’ I run from any forms of it..

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    1. Hi Ann, thanks for commenting.

      Would you be willing to elaborate on what you mean? Could you explain why you don’t agree with how the article understands holiness and why you think it is legalistic?

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  2. From what I can tell, Peterson and Evangelicalism represent modern and individualistic views of the world. But Christianity is ancient and thus communal.

    For instance in the Old Testament, sin and holiness are concerns primarily for the community. The people must be holy and the people must not sin. The consequences of failure in these regards are likewise on a communal scale. The people will be expelled from the land. Because of this, the primary way someone is to love his neighbor is by rebuking him (Leviticus 19:17). To steer an Israelite away from sin is to protect the whole community.

    There seems to be somewhat of a divide within the scriptures as to whether individuals are held responsible for sin or if the sins of previous generations can fall upon the children. At least in this life, I’ve always thought the latter was more realistic.

    I think the ancients had a different view of societal cause and effect compared to our individualistic vision—which might explain Paul’s screed against idolatry in Romans 1. Seemingly harmless behavior can have grave consequences down the line. But that falls pretty far from the topic at hand.

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    1. Took me ages to finally respond to this, but I’ve only recently had the will to start writing again.

      I’m not sure if it’s entirely unrelated to the topic at hand. Peterson’s way of looking at Christianity is a very modernist – dare I say Protestant – take. It’s why I have some problems with it: an emphasis on the divine seat of the individual without understanding that individuals conceive of themselves in the light of community, is flawed. It gives rise to the self-autonomous thinking that we’ve discussed before.

      Your note on Romans 1 is interesting. Perhaps some more investigation is needed there? Off the top of my head it really does read as if that Paul’s condemnation of them is on the basis of the exchange of attributes Divine attributes applied to idols. There may be an implicit recognition that this would imply passing on these values to the next people, but I think we have to ask the question of how general Paul is being.

      Is he referring to all Gentiles more broadly? Is he referring solely to Pagans in Rome? Is he using a local incident as an illustration for a general point anyway? It reads to me that Paul is generally talking about Jews and Gentiles as people groups. I’m not sure, therefore, that his concern is about the propagation of unholiness to the next generation by idol worshipers (though this would certainly be assumed).

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  3. Good points. I see Romans 1 as Paul’s attempt to explain why Greek society is the way that it is. All the wickedness and perversion of the Greek world is traced back to an initial failure (or refusal) to worship the wholly transcendent God. For Paul, this society (and its Jewish equivalent) is now being judged and will perish. But the Greek (predominantly God-fearers) and Jew who do what is right will inherit the age to come, a kingdom founded upon human submission to the one God.

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