Jordan Peterson P2 - Imago Dei or Imago Lobster?


(SeanO) #1

This is a series of post on Jordan Peterson’s book ‘12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’. It has become popular and it is important to understand why it is appealing to this generation and how it is different from the Gospel. Each post will be on a specific chapter or section of the book and the hope is that we can engage in conversation over these matters. I hope to represent his thought accurately - but due to being human may not always do so.

Chapter I

Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back

In his first chapter, Peterson posits that we all have something in common with lobsters that is important to understand if we want to be successful. Lobsters have a hierarchy - a pecking order - and the more important lobsters have better homes, the best love life and higher serotonin levels. When a lobster loses a fight for territory with another lobster, its brain chemistry changes and it becomes more likely to lose the fight for territory the next time as well.

Whenever we face tyrants in real life, we humans must muster a strong protective territorial response to survive. Resisting tyranny requires embracing our capacity for violence in defense of our territory. In addition, if we chose to voluntarily ‘accept the burden of Being’, Peterson’s way of saying be proactive, we can respond to challenges in our lives with high serotonin levels - as if we are dominant - rather than with low serotonin levels - as if life has the upper hand on us.

Peterson says that, in the ‘language of the ancients’, this behavior is the same as ‘letting your light shine before men’ and ‘acting to please God’.

Why Are These Ideas Appealing?

What do you guys think?

I think the ideas presented in this chapter are appealing because they make you the hero of your own story and encourage you to find your own identity apart from a real God. Peterson takes Scripture out of context and uses it to support self-realization (basically, though that is not the word he uses). I also think his reliance on evolutionary theory and evolutionary psychology appeals to the modern young person, who feels that by aligning themselves with evolution they are more sophisticated and intelligent.

In addition, our culture needs someone to tell them to ‘stand up straight’ and ‘be a man’ and ‘work hard’. People want to be responsible - they want rites of passage - they want to mature. But so much of our culture is built around enticing us rather than challenging us and so I think Peterson strikes a real need by actually challenging us to mature and take responsibility for ourselves.

Critique of Chapter I

My response to this chapter could be aptly summarized by a quote from Blaise Pascal:

"It is dangerous to explain too clearly to man how like he is to the animals without pointing out his greatness. It is also dangerous to make too much of his greatness without his vileness. It is still more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both, but it is most valuable to represent both to him. Man must not be allowed to believe that he is equal either to animals or to angels, nor to be unaware of either, but he must know both.” Blaise Pascal

I believe that Peterson fell into the category of explaining how like we are to animals without pointing out our greatness. He has painted us in the Imago Lobster rather than in the Imago Dei. Peterson does not, as far as I can tell, believe we have a spirit. His philosophy in this book is that of a naturalist. The ancient word soul for him describes nothing more than functions of the mind.

In addition, Peterson modifies Scriptures about letting our light shine before men - the light of the Spirit of Christ - into passages meaning nothing more than pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps and facing the world head on. His message is one of self-salvation and knows nothing of a Savior apart from ourselves.

What are your thoughts?

What is your response to this chapter? What are your thoughts?

Quotes from Chapter I

“Wrens are small, and they’re cute, but they’re merciless”

“The songs they sing, so peaceful and beautiful to human ears, are siren calls and cries of domination”

“Lobsters and wrens are obsessed with status and position, like a great many creatures”

“When the aristocracy catches a cold, as it is said, the working class dies of pneumonia”

“A lobster loser’s brain chemistry differs importantly from that of a lobster winner”

“The same brutal principle of unequal distribution applies outside the financial domain - indeed, anywhere that creative production is required” - the top few get the best of everything, from living location to mate

“This (the fact that the lobster has a hierarchy) means that dominance hierarchies have been an essentially permanent feature of the environment to which all complex life has adapted”

“All that maters, from a Darwinian perspective, is permanence - and this dominance hierarchy, however social or cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years. It’s permanent. It’s real.”

“Much of the basic neurochemistry is the same” (between lobsters and humans regarding dominance hierarchy)

“Higher spots in the dominance hierarchy, and the higher serotonin levels typical of those who inhabit them, are characterized by less illness, misery and death, even when factors such as absolute income - or number of decaying food scraps - are held constant. The importance of this can hardly be overstated.”

“When operating at the bottom (of the hierarchy), the ancient brain assumes that even the smallest unexpected impediment might produce an uncontrollable chain of negative events”

“The body, with its various parts, needs to function like a well-rehearsed orchestra. Every system must play its role properly, and at exactly the right time, or noise and chaos ensue. It is for this reason that routine is so necessary. The acts of life we repeat every day need to be automatized. They must be turned into stable and reliable habits, so they lose their complexity and gain predictability and simplicity.”

“The forces of tyranny expand inexorably to fill the space made available for their existence. People who refuse to muster appropriately self-protective territorial responses are laid open.”

“There is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character. This is one oft he most difficult lessons in life.”

“Standing up means voluntarily accepting the burden of Being. Your nervous system responds in an entirely different manner when you face the demands of life voluntarily. You respond to a challenge, instead of bracing for a catastrophe…it means acting to please God, in the ancient language”

“Thus emboldened, you will embark on the voyage of your life, let your light shine, so to speak, on the heavenly hill, and pursue your rightful destiny. Then the meaning of your life may be sufficient to keep the corrupting influence of mortal despair at bay”

(Jimmy Sellers) #2

Did Peterson explain why a lobster and not a primate? I thought the same thing could be said of them. They compete for terf and mates and when they loss they slip in the social pecking order. Do you think it was for effect?

(SeanO) #3

@Jimmy_Sellers Yes, certainly for effect. And because the lobster is, from an evolutionary perspective, much older. So Peterson wanted to trace the dominance hierarchy back half a billion years rather than just to primates.

(Olivia Davis) #4

@SeanO Hi Sean!
I’m really intrigued by this series and I want to understand more the motivation behind it.

If I understand correctly, you want to explain how 12 Rules for Life and more generally his thoughts are different from the gospel.

I’m wondering, has his work led to confusion about the gospel, or is it just that lots of Christians are following him (for whatever reasons)? If the latter, is it concerning that Christians are following him? (Sorry I’m throwing a bunch of questions at you.) Have you had experiences where Christians are taking his philosophy/psychology as theology? All of these seem like possibilities, I’m just curious about what prompted the question to ask how JP’s ideas conflict with the gospel.

(SeanO) #5

@Olivia_Davis Thank you for your interest. I think there are two basic reasons:

1 - His books are striking a thread in our culture, or at least a subculture of our culture, and it is helpful for us to understand why
2 - There are at least some Christians that are taking his teaching as being an appropriate understanding of Scripture

@CarsonWeitnauer was also interested in launching this series and may be able to add some anecdotal evidence as to why he thought it would be helpful.

@Olivia_Davis, what are some reasons you think these ideas might appeal to this generation?

(Shawn Cooper) #6

They appeal to this generation in much the same way as the politics of Donald Trump. People were tired of feeling like they were ignored or left out. It had built up to a sort of resentment and anger and to have someone stand up and bloody the nose of the “man” was satisfying. Peterson adds to this a dimension of I can believe what my parents believe and what I want to believe without having to be “constrained” by “God”. Before Peterson, try and think of an American political conservative that was intelligent, well spoken, hit back at liberal theology and looked appealing doing it.

(SeanO) #7

@CroaMagna Thank you for those thoughts - I had not thought of correlating it with the political climate. I think there are similarities between Trump and Peterson in that they both targeted a group of people who had a felt need that they could meet when they chose their audience. Beyond that, I am not sure how far the similarities go - I would need to do quite a bit more thinking.

(Olivia Davis) #8

@SeanO You say that Peterson “targeted a group of people who had a felt need that they could meet when they chose their audience.” I’m a little confused by what you mean here, so could you break it down a little bit more for me?

Who is Peterson targeting, and which needs is he trying to fulfill? Also, this might be a bit of an aside, but when do you think he chose his audience — do you mean when he wrote 12 Rules for Life?

(SeanO) #9

@Olivia_Davis Yes, I am referring to “12 Rules of Life” but also to his broader platform. I do not want to imply that Peterson himself is not genuine. I have not met him and these may be his sincere views. Even so, generally both political campaigns and publishing houses require politicians / authors to clearly articulate their audience - who they are targeting with their work.

It is my opinion, and I emphasize that it is an opinion, that Peterson chose as part of his audience those who grew up with the Bible but had converted or were in the process of converting to a more naturalistic framework. They still needed a moral framework and wanted to integrate Scripture somehow into it, but their unbelief prevented them from using the traditional system.

Of course it is obvious Peterson reached a much broader audience and may have been targeting a broader audience. I would have been interested to be a fly on the wall in his conversations with the publisher.

Does that make sense?

(Carson Weitnauer) #10

Hi Olivia,

I have noticed enormous interest in Jordan Peterson. He is regularly covered in mainstream newspapers and magazines, has millions of social followers, and is earning hundreds of thousands a year through donations via Patreon. His book, 12 Rules For Life, is currently the second best selling non-fiction book on all of Amazon. I think there are other interesting data points and anecdotes about him, but there’s a start. :slight_smile:

I’ve also noticed that apologists often engage with different worldviews in very classical ways. For instance, we compare Christianity with Buddhism, Islam, atheism, etc. But it is less common to see the Biblical worldview contrasted with someone like Jordan Peterson. However, I would suggest that Peterson’s thought is worth understanding. Depending on our context, it may prepare us for evangelistic and discipleship conversations with many people.

So, for the sake of becoming more faithful evangelists, I thought it would be helpful if our community created a world-class discussion and evaluation of his thought. Let’s understand it, sympathetically, on its own terms. Let’s see where he is following the grooves of the Biblical storyline as a common touch point. And let’s do our best to insightfully contrast the places he isn’t aligned with the Biblical worldview.

If we work together, in prayer, with humility and care, I think we can create a set of resources and discussions about Peterson’s thought that are distinctively helpful.

(Joshua Spare) #11

If I may contribute a few thoughts as to the massive interest surrounding Peterson. I’ve had a small amount of exposure to Peterson through some articles, podcasts, and videos by and about him, so I would certainly not consider myself well-versed in the Petersonian universe. At this point, I’m anxiously awaiting his 12 Rules for Life to arrive, so that I can catch up with @SeanO and engage more pointedly in his discussions.

However, here are a few aspects of Peterson that I think certain pockets of people have found especially intriguing:

  1. He is a philosopher, but of the practical sort - Very often, I think we see a pattern where the philosophers are quite removed from current, popular thought. Think, for example, of the onset of post-modern thought. The academic, philosophical groundwork for the postmodern climate was laid in place decades ago in the works of Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida, and many others, but the modern climate of postmodernism, if I may use the words so crassly, didn’t really set in until the past 20 years or so. In contrast, we see Peterson explicating his philosophy of life and the world and then laying out the practical implications in the same talk; it doesn’t take 20-30 years of processing for the academic thought to slowly trickle down to popular understanding and application. I think that this is immensely appealing for people to find high and lofty theory about the nature of the world and of people so closely tied to the practical implications of how one can modify and shape their life accordingly.

Assuming this is true, I think this too is one of the great appeals of well done Christian apologetics - we have the opportunity to show the structure of the world and of people through the lens of Christian thought, and then to show how that utterly transforms our daily life!

  1. He appeals to the concomitance of the climate of the dreamer and the realist - Perhaps the greatest contingent of Peterson’s followers is young, college age students (particularly men, I believe). This generation has been brought up in the climate of “you can do whatever you want to do; just believe that you can and you will do it” as well as alongside the climate of the older generation of “put your head down, work hard, and you should survive life.” If I may be permitted to generalize exceedingly, I think that the failure of the “dreamer” mentality is causing a tendency towards a realism or even pessimism in the younger generation, but there is still an immense allure of the “dreamer” mentality. One of the aspects that I see in Peterson’s philosophy is that he has a very cynical view of the nature of realty, but in the face of this, he encourages young people to stand up and take responsibility for their actions. In doing so, Peterson paints a picture of inevitable success and achievement despite the deficiencies of the world around. He seems to bridge the divide well of living in the world of the realist while still orienting oneself toward fulfillment of dreams. I found a discussion between Peterson and Jocko, a former Navy SEAL and author of another popular self-help book Extreme Ownership, especially enlightening in this capacity.

I think this too is primed for apologetic ministry. We have the opportunity to engage with people who feel a need, a desire, a longing for something greater and bigger, but the world seems so ineffective at fulfilling those needs and longings. Another aspect of this is that I think that people are feeling a void of values in their lives; dreaming and wish-fulfuillment are no longer cutting it. Where Peterson is offering responsibility and discipline as the elixir we can show the ultimate value and ultimate purpose found in the worship of our God.

  1. He is a very smart and politically conservative - I think that Peterson has a great skill at explaining himself and his beliefs in a calm, logical manner with minimal appeals to emotion; mixed with political conservativeness, this can be especially compelling for some. The New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an article about Peterson, and in the article he discusses one paticular viral video of Peterson’s:

His most recent viral video, with over four million views, is an interview he did with Cathy Newman of Britain’s Channel 4 News. Newman sensed that there was something disruptive to progressive orthodoxy in Peterson’s worldview, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. So, as Conor Friedersdorf noted in The Atlantic, she did what a lot of people do in argument these days. Instead of actually listening to Peterson, she just distorted, simplified and restated his views to make them appear offensive and cartoonish.

Peterson calmly and comprehensibly corrected and rebutted her. It is the most devastatingly one-sided media confrontation you will ever see.

I’m not sure of the value or veracity of these thoughts, but it is my best encapsulation of the little bit of Peterson to which I have been exposed. I’m sure that there are others who are far more familiar with Peterson’s thought and I would welcome correction or clarification.