By Sam Cripps
Dr. Jordan Peterson, a former professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has taken the English-speaking world by storm. His books 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos and Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life have gained a cult following among many young men, encouraging them to get out of the basement and get into the world, to paraphrase Peterson. In the past two years or so, his content has taken a marked turn, leaving the world of self-help and personal development and entering the fray of culture wars.
I wouldn’t have ordinarily been inclined to engage with his work, but one of his more recent videos, “A Message to the Christian Churches,” has encouraged me to offer a response from inside the house.
Throughout this 10-minute video, Peterson encourages churches to be more welcoming to young men. “Invite the young men back. … Say, literally, to those young men, ‘You are welcome here. If no one else wants what you have to offer, we do,’” Peterson exhorts the Church. This, I like. It’s plainly invitational and straightforwardly evangelistic.
“‘We [churches] want to call you to the highest purpose of your life,’” Peterson adds. “We want your time and energy, your effort and your will, and your good will. We want to work with you to make things better, to produce life more abundant for you, for your wife and children, for your community and for your country and the world.”
This is mostly great — a call to work with and through the Church to increase human flourishing. I love it.
But then he continues:
The Christian Church is there to remind people, young men included, perhaps even first and foremost, that they have a woman to find, a garden to walk in, a family to nurture, an ark to build, a land to conquer, a ladder to heaven to build, and the utter, terrible catastrophe of life to face, stalwartly, in truth, devoted to love and without fear.
At the root of this thinking is a theology of conquest as a religious lifestyle. It’s an encouragement to conquer and “win” at life through Christ, as opposed to following Christ the Lamb, who has already conquered. Now, I think I understand what Peterson is doing, and it’s an impulse I try to be mindful of when doing discipleship with young men. He is trying to make Christianity “masculine.” Framing the mission of a Christian in terms of conquering and building can be appealing to men of a certain age.
But this is my worry: he’s doing a better job than the Church in reaching young men. To certain young men, this message resonates deeply. Such theology is nothing new, but is an old and potentially dangerous way of thinking.
I hear echoes of Peterson’s emphases among the young men in my online Bible study. This concerns me, because newer converts and the disillusioned are particularly susceptible to this sort of thinking, and, while some of what Peterson has to say is helpful, even insightful, it’s a poor theological foundation.
This sort of thinking will lead to problems later, when these Christians begin to be discipled in the parish. This theology of conquest is not new in Protestantism, still less in the Church’s history. After all, Constantine was promised: in hoc signo vinces (in this sign [the cross], you will conquer). But while it’s nothing new, I hope that its influence will wane, especially in light of so many disastrous ministries influenced by such thinking. What is doubly troubling is that this influence is from a person not affiliated with the life of the Church, and thus a voice from outside the house of Christian discipleship.
There is plenty to appreciate in Peterson’s work, and even more that should concern us. Beyond his problematic views on women and his politics, it’s the theology he advocates that should concern those of us who do theology. A voice from outside the house, speaking into it, with a message to our young men, advocating a theology of conquest, which is an attractive option for this demographic, is a genuine threat, one we can expect to bear bad fruit.
Iwould encourage us to be watchful of this thinking coming from the outside, untempered by any community of faith, prompted not by a desire for Christian formation but rather political polemics. Our young people, especially our young men, are watching these thinkers and are falling under their influence, often more than they are being influenced by the pulpit. Our job is not to be more relevant, but to be prepared to engage with these thinkers, to direct our young people away from extreme theologies being developed from the outside, and form them inside the Church.
This looks like teaching our young people that it isn’t our job to conquer; it isn’t a Christian calling to strive in competition against our neighbor; and it isn’t our place to fight. Our job, despite what Peterson tells us, is to follow the Lamb who has conquered, to cease our fighting and our striving, to accept our weakness and humble ourselves before God and neighbor. This will always be foolishness to those who are perishing, but for those of us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Christ has conquered; we follow Him. To all other voices saying otherwise, we must respond — to borrow a phrase from Peterson — “Think again, sunshine.”
The Rev. Samuel Cripps is currently the curate at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas. Samuel was recently called as rector of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he is starting this May. He currently lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife Lauren.
Well I agree to disagree, I’m one on those young adults that are converting to Christianity, and the message of Peterson isn’t too far away from the grace of God, if you look at the biblical series of the psychological importance of bible in the western culture, maybe you can relate to the love that has for the scriptures. And is unbelievable how high He is exalting Christ and the message “bear your cross” really, thanks for this article, by the way, I agree that in this particular video, is a little “cooky” and arrogant because the efforts for reaching… Read more »
Thank you, Rev. Cripps, for calling for a truly theological assessment of Peterson. His assumption of what he thinks is a War on Masculinity is theologically bankrupt.
IMHO Petersen is true to his Jungian understanding of individuals and society. He interprets The Scriptures from that perception. As such he is a significant voice and a correction to the preoccupation with self and gender as the standard criteria for life. Compared to the popular theology in TEC, he is more an ally to the Church than many of our progressive teachers.