Jordan Peterson Preaches the Practical Value of a Faith He Doesn't Have: Hope Is the Missing Link
BOOK PICK: His latest book ‘Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life’ draws on his personal quest to unlock the mysteries at the very core of the Church’s response to suffering, evil in the world, and Christ’s redemptive act on the cross.
12 More Rules for Life
By Jordan Peterson
432 pages, $29
To order: amazon.com
During an April 2021 podcast with Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron entitled, “Christianity and the Modern World,” Jordan Peterson marked the striking exodus of many young Catholics from their cradle faith and offered his own diagnosis of the problem: The Church did not ask enough of them, and so it had failed to make the adventure of faith challenging and thus appealing.
Bishop Barron took Peterson’s judgment seriously. Afterall, the best-selling author of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (5 million copies sold in English and translated into 50 languages) has attracted a vast global audience by exhorting his youthful followers to embrace responsibility, resist a culture of victimization, and engage with faith traditions and classic texts that uphold inconvenient moral truths.
Some parts of 12 Rules for Life are the stuff of self-help literature (“Stand Up Straight with Your Shoulders Back”). Others are rather whimsical (“Do Not Bother Children While They Are Skateboarding”). And a few are profoundly anti-woke (“Set Your House in Order Before You Criticize the World”).
Taken as a whole, they reflect the author’s belief that many young adults who have “failed to launch” did not receive a strong practical or philosophical framework from their families and schools and are in desperate need of help.
Bishop Barron, reviewing the Church’s mixed record of catechetical and moral formation, agreed that “Catholic lite” had failed to tap the imagination and idealism of the next generation. In contrast, he said, the Canadian psychologist had a particular gift for biblical exegesis, bringing the Old and New Testament stories to life in a way that spoke to millennials.
Peterson’s new book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, returns to the familiar terrain of his first best-seller. But chapters that address the interplay of “order and chaos” are less structured and punctuated by digressions and occasional banalities. Likewise, readers who savored the author’s fresh, illuminating interpretation of Bible stories in 12 Rules for Life may be disappointed with his treatment of the text less memorable this time around.
Nevertheless, Beyond Order offers timely principles for readers who are just emerging from a pandemic that cost lives and livelihoods, stirring fear and alienation.
In the wake of violent political protests and the random vandalization of public statues commemorating historic figures, “Rule I: Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievements” and “Rule XII: Be grateful in spite of your suffering” bookend this spirited defense of organized religion, democratic practices and plain common sense.
Like many other conservative public intellectuals, Peterson believes that the decline of organized religion has made totalizing ideologies more appealing. Readers are warned to be wary of this path (“Rule VI: Abandon Ideology”). And those seeking an integrated vision of life are directed to the world’s great faiths as a starting point.
“The core idea is this: subjugate yourself voluntarily to a set of socially determined rules — those with some tradition in their formulation — and a unity that transcends the rules will emerge,” he writes. “That unity constitutes what you could be if you concentrate on a particular goal and see it through.”
A related theme in Peterson’s arsenal is the moral and curative power of “gratitude.”
This virtue has deep spiritual roots, and the author turns to the Bible’s seminal account of God’s creation of the world, observing that the “goodness of creation reflected the fact that Truth, Courage, and Love were united in his creative action. Thus there is an ethical claim deeply embedded in the Genesis account of creation: Everything that emerges from the realm of possibility in the act of creation (arguably either divine or human) is good insofar as the motive for its creation is good. I do not believe there is a more daring argument in all of philosophy or in theology than this: To believe this, to act it out, is the fundamental act of faith.”
But as an experienced therapist, Peterson also knows that childhood trauma, or some other brush with adversity or injustice, can destroy a person’s belief in the essential goodness of the Creator, and by extension faith-based values and institutions. For this reason, many of his readers must consciously nurture an appreciation for what they have received.
Shockingly, the author is counseling gratitude at the very time that America’s racial reckoning has badly damaged the moral credibility of its social and political order. Nevertheless, he believes that gratitude is an essential element of human flourishing and posits it as a precondition for fruitful reform, at both the personal and societal level, with the example of Jesus Christ (“I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it”) as a model for emulation. To be clear: This is not a blind, naïve endorsement of tradition. Rather, his argument is grounded in a highly realistic approach fully alive to both the stubborn existence of sin in the world and the tragic outcome of atheistic systems that sought and failed to eradicate it.
Beyond Order’s most distinctive contribution, however, arises from the author’s expertise as a clinical psychologist.
In several fascinating case studies of former patients, he shows how the particularly modern problem of overly protective parents leaves their adult children ill-equipped to navigate tough times and call out bad acters. Another chapter examines the hold that inaccurate and unexamined memories can have over our present-day choices and relationships. “We must recollect ourselves or suffer in direct proportion to our ignorance and avoidance,” he writes.
Compared with the more basic guidance of 12 Rules for Life, which famously admonished readers to make their bed every day, Beyond Order is an attempt to nudge readers to the next level. Now that they have achieved a measure of stability, with a job and a relationship, how do they hold onto both while continuing to learn and grow? Much of his guidance has a practical bent (“Rule II: Imagine who you can be and then aim single-mindedly at that” or “Rule VII: Work as hard as you possibly can on one thing and see what happens”).
More broadly, Peterson’s work is driven by a deeply personal quest to unlock the mysteries at the very core of the Church’s response to the human condition: the meaning of suffering, God’s toleration of evil in the world, and Christ’s redemptive act on the cross.
The father of a beloved daughter diagnosed in her childhood with a painful debilitating condition, he spent two decades at her side during almost 20 surgeries. This grueling trial is surely a key to Peterson’s appeal, for his firsthand experience with suffering gives his voice real authenticity and makes his tough-love solutions more palatable.
During the three years since 12 Rules for Life became an international best-seller, Peterson has suffered through many more trials. In the “Overture” of Beyond Order, he describes the cascading series of medical and psychological crises, including an addiction to the sedative benzodiazepine, that resulted in his physical collapse. He has since regained his health, but recent YouTube videos reveal that his characteristically gaunt face has aged significantly during this period.
The author’s deteriorating condition had been global news, so the revelations in the “Overture” will not come as a shock to his supporters. But his predicament points to the enormous burden this curious modern prophet carries on his shoulders as he goes against the grain of contemporary mores and touches millions of lives in the process.
Peterson preaches the practical and psychological value of faith, but he does not have it, and thus he is cut off from this wellspring of hope. Many of his Catholic friends, including, no doubt, Bishop Barron, are prepared to accompany him on his idiosyncratic pilgrimage.
But the weight of the responsibility he carries should also provoke deep soul-searching among Church leaders and educators. Why are his efforts so necessary and urgent? And why have so many Catholic pastors, teachers and parents failed to make the faith matter in the lives of young Catholics?