If you spend any time at all on social media, you have probably heard of Jordan Peterson, the Canadian academic. Until about five years ago he was a fairly obscure figure, outside of his field of psychology. He had a successful academic career in the US and Canada, and wrote a highly ambitious book of cultural-psychological theory called Maps Of Meaning (1999).
However, in 2016 he became embroiled in the debate over new human rights legislation in Canada. He argued against compelling people to use a transgender person’s “preferred pronouns”, taking the view that it was wrong to force people to speak in a particular way that did not reflect what they really believed.
The Canadian government, he suggested, was making it obligatory for people to lie. He set out this position in a series of controversial YouTube videos. Celebrity and notoriety followed, especially after the publication of his 2018 book, Twelve Rules for Life.
Depending on who you asked, Twelve Rules For Life was either glorified middlebrow self-help, rehashing reactionary tropes about self-respect, masculinity and discipline, or a perceptive and timely reminder of timeless virtues for a coddled and distracted generation unused to hard truths. Then there was a global book tour, during which Peterson gave unrehearsed talks to huge audiences.
In 2019 Peterson vanished from public view for many months, fighting a serious illness which nearly killed him, but he re-emerged last year, looking gaunt but otherwise well, and has a new book out. This means that he is once again the focus of discussion.
A lot of this discussion is dull and predictable because, like reactions to his books, it breaks down along partisan lines. Conservatives like his robust advocacy for conscience, discipline and order, and his opposition to the totalising progressive state. Liberals dislike his old-fashioned approach to relations between the sexes.
The secret to getting past these well-worn arguments is to abstract him from the context of the culture war and consider his work on its own terms. This is especially important for Christians, because one thing about Peterson that is often missed in the political back-and-forth is that at least he is fascinated by, and extremely knowledgeable about, the Bible. He does not seem to be a conventional believer – though his statements on the matter are ambiguous – but he reads the Bible with depth and imagination. He appears to be rather more comfortable and enthusiastic talking about it than many clergy.
Bishop Robert Barron, who had a very interesting dialogue with Peterson, has drawn attention to this particular aspect.
In a June 2019 speech to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Barron used Peterson as an example of someone who talks about the Bible in a way that is engaging and helpful for his audiences, who tend to be young and curious about religious matters, but not actually observant.
Whatever his own convictions, Peterson understands on some deep level that Christianity really matters: that it has drama and weight and cosmic significance; that it is a full-blooded, strange, demanding thing; not a nice, biddable, tamed chaplaincy to secular modernity. He not only stresses the need to live in the truth in the face of a hostile culture, but helps people think about how to do that.
In addition – and Bishop Barron also highlights this – Peterson appeals in particular to young men, whom all Christian churches are struggling to attract and retain. There are several teaching points for churches here, I think. First of all, he gives the impression of liking young men, of being interested in them as individuals and valuing the masculine contribution to society. He is curious about their experiences and sympathetic to their struggles in the modern world.
As part of this, he is authoritative, but affectionate and warm. Despite the jokes about him telling people to tidy their rooms and stand up straight, he doesn’t fob off young men with easy or glib answers, nor does he appear to think, as many well-meaning but naïve people do, that good masculinity really means abandoning male norms of interaction and behaviour.
It will probably be clear by now that I am, with a few reservations, a fan of Dr Peterson. But I would say that even for those Christians who are less keen on his ideas, there is a great deal of value to be gained from careful engagement with him.
Niall Gooch is a regular Chapter House columnist. He also contributes to UnHerd.