The Redemption of Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist who vaulted to public fame (or infamy) following his stand against Ontario’s Bill C-16. As such, a man who would have been solidly a “liberal” in the 80’s and 90’s became somewhat of a hero to conservatives. I first came across him following his interview with Cathy Newman a couple of years ago and watched, with some level of delight, as he calmly articulated responses to what were clearly antagonistic questions. Then followed his uber successful book, 12 Rules for Life, and tours across the world that saw millions of people attend. He is broadly considered by friend and foe alike to be one of most influential intellectuals of the 21st century.

If we accept as axiomatic that academia and the media lean left – like if all passengers on a boat were academics the the boat would be in real jeopardy of tipping over – then it makes some degree of sense that Peterson would be so welcomed into conservative and even Christian circles as a comrade. His hatred of cultural Marxism and his ability to articulate cogent critiques of identity politics made him the natural enemy of the Left. On top of that, he managed to educate large numbers of people to the difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, making the argument that a demand for equality of outcome is contrary to human nature. He argues against the notion that the West is an oppressive patriarchy, and that alone is enough to make one hated in our world.

Nevertheless, Peterson is not a Christian, and certainly not an orthodox one. He is a Jungian who appreciates Jesus Christ as an archetype of good and he is a social critic who understands the Bible to be the most important document of Western Civilization. He longs for a return to Enlightenment ideals where the individual is prized more than the community to which they belong. His books encourage individuals to take responsibility for themselves, so there is a good deal of advice like “Start by cleaning your room.” At least, that is my summary of his beliefs. As such, he does not believe in a literal, historical Jesus whose death can propitiate the wrath of a holy God.

But Christians can learn a lot from both the success and the failure (if I may generalize it that way) of Peterson. We can learn that America needs a dad. Peterson is not the caricature of macho masculinity often put forth as a straw man by egalitarians. He is a straight talker who risked his career for something in which he believed. He preached personal responsibility to a generation from whom little was expected. It shouldn’t surprise us that his audience skewed towards young males who were desperate for someone to tell them that they could and should do something worthwhile with their lives – the very audience that churches are missing. In a touchy-feely world, Peterson was a breath of truth talking fresh air.

In the midst of all of the social unrest being experienced in the United States and the clear Marxist leanings of the many fomenting rebellion, I wondered what had become of him. In 2019 Peterson fell off the map until his daughter – a food blogger/influencer – posted in late winter of 2020 that they were in Russia getting treatment for withdrawals from a drug he had been taking called clonazepam, which is a benzodiazepine. In a new Youtube interview with his daughter, Peterson talks about how he developed the dependency (more on this in a minute) and how it led to a condition called akithisia and then the traumatic treatments he took in order to recover. I think it’s safe to say that Jordan Peterson is hated by many and has endured unjust accusations against his character and his actual positions on many issues. So it must be with some degree of trepidation that he re-enters the public eye having just emerged from an ordeal that many will consider a personal failure on his part.

One thing I have noticed in recent years is the increased optimism regarding pharmaceuticals for the treatment of anxiety or depression or PTSD in the Christian counseling community, even among the theologically conservative. I think Jordan’s case is worth noting because he is a trained clinical psychologist with a philosophy of personal responsibility, and yet he came to be physically dependent on a drug without really being aware of what was happening.

So my vast readership, being known for their intellectual acumen, no doubt have picked up on my use of “physical dependency” as opposed to “addiction”. Is this a legitimate biblical distinction, or is this just semantics? In Ecclesiastes 2:3, the Preacher says that “I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom”, which I take to mean that he made sure that wine never conquered his will or his desire. But that’s a dangerous game to play. In our modern era we might imagine someone with some disease choosing to use marijuana – as opposed to a stronger opiate – to manage pain, all the while hating the disease and the treatment. And while Peterson does say that he originally took the drug to manage a severe reaction to food poisoning (clonazepam being a treatment for seizures), the narrative appears to move on to increasing the dosage (under the care of a doctor) to help with the anxiety brought on by his wife’s cancer. In other words, in his case the inner man condition – anxiety – was being treated with an outer man solution, drugs. Like the preacher of Ecclesiastes, Peterson never gave his mind or will over to the drug but the side effects were so devastating that he chose some startlingly extreme treatments in order to overcome them.

This is all part of how we understand human nature in the community of Christ and more specifically among those engaged in counseling. Unlike the materialist, we believe that man has a soul as well as a body. We use terms like “inner man” to describe the reality that while we have a physical brain, we also have a Mind/Heart/Will which are affected by the body, but distinct from it. Humanity is a fusion of these parts and that fusion is made even less distinct since the Fall, when man was separated from God and lost the inner compass that rightly oriented him to his place in the world. As illustrated by Peterson’s experience, there is a very real danger when we choose to treat the issues of the inner man with an outer man solution.

I used to hear things like “We’re agnostic about drugs” from people in the pastoral/counseling community. But I’m not sure that’s sufficient. And I certainly think those who lean towards viewing them as a benefit court danger. (Obviously not many biblical counselors are medical professionals and so great care should be taken as there is an intersection of jurisdictions here.) Is there any counselor or pastor who has yet to run across a case of a believer who developed an addiction to a prescribed medication? I know of believers serving as missionaries who became addicts due to depression and anxiety. I know of families that were destroyed by prescribed pain medication that led to decade long addictions. It’s hard for me to reconcile the risks posed by these drugs against any possible benefit for the treatment of spiritual or soulish issues. Our posture and our prayer ought to be towards helping people out from under the power of every worldly influence and into the liberty of Christ. It has been something like 15 years since my biblical counseling training and my position has only hardened against the use of drugs to treat inner man issues.

So will Jordan Peterson be able to redeem himself? Will he one day have the influence that he used to have? Peterson himself, in classic Peterson talk, says that people will have to come to their own conclusions about whether he is a trustworthy source of influence. It’s hard to imagine the media giving him a pass.

But I certainly know that Jesus Christ can redeem Jordan Peterson. I listened to a conversation Peterson had with Dennis Prager, wherein Prager talked about good and evil and then stated to Jordan that he could tell Jordan is good. Jordan awkwardly tried to field that powerful compliment by saying something along the lines of how he hoped that his life in some way approximated goodness. I appreciate so much that Peterson recognizes that genuine goodness is hard (nay, impossible!) to achieve. We can only “approximate something like goodness”.

What I want most for Jordan is for him to discover that the goodness of Jesus Christ is not just a metaphysical goodness, but an incarnated, historical reality. In other words, I want Jordan to become a believer in Jesus. I actually find myself affectionately minded towards him in this regard in that, though I have never met him, I am moved when I consider this possibility. And it isn’t so that the influence he holds in society could be used for the fame of Jesus, although that is an exciting thought as well. I would just love to see this man-who has looked evil in the eye and exerted all of his strength to try to do something noble with his life and who has remained thankful despite all the evil he has suffered-to enter into the Rest of Jesus Christ and know that we are not saved by our own goodness, but by the Goodness of God.

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