Peter Hitchens is probably one of the last real conservatives left today, just like his brother was probably one of the last true liberals, and a really conservative attitude is going to mean skepticism even of conservatism. Unlike many pseudo-traditionalists, his cynicism of novelty extended to Trump’s salesmanship. More recently, he has gained the ire of his fanbase by calling Jordan Peterson’s followers a “semi-cult”, a claim many of them promptly refuted by angrily attacking him all over social media.
Well, Hitchens is an old fogey, but he’s not completely wrong here.
See, Peterson is refreshing to listen to. He sounds like what you want an academic to sound like: widely informed, an excellent lecturer who draws on familiar things to introduce the mind to fascinating new concepts, and, probably most compellingly, his ideas blossom into social commentary with pragmatic application. There is something thrilling about hearing a scholarly voice talk positively about the reality of masculinity as something other than a toxic manifestation of patriarchal oppression (it doesn’t surprise me at all that an academic who talks about gender as something real and meaningful has a gay and transgender following, since that demographic should especially appreciate the importance of gender), and his practical self-help advice—though, frankly, kind of common sense—is, as far as it goes, pretty solid.
It also isn’t surprising that a professor openly criticizing scholarly theories which manage to undermine our trust in rationality rather than fortify it (which seems to contradict the whole purpose of a university!) has gained a popular appeal that academics seldom achieve; so much of modern academia tries to throw doubt on our ability to touch truth, while Peterson, as one used to expect of scholars, is a stalwart proponent of reason. (This is not to say he uses terms like “postmodernism” in their strict sense, but the phenomenon he criticizes on campuses is undeniably real, whatever you choose to call it.) He’s like a snappier Allan Bloom, with memes. (I wonder if he deliberately chose lobsters to discuss in his work, knowing that in a post-Salvador Dali world, lobsters are eminently meme-able.) Finally, like Bloom, even though he is not conventionally religious, he recognizes the importance of taking religion seriously and even seems to see it as essential to talk in religious language. Naturally, all of this holds great appeal to conservative Christian types.
Brilliant minds that have valuable insights aren’t immune to cult-ish propensities. Remember that Pythagoras, as he was generating his world-changing work into mathematics, was also a kind of guru to a monastic arrangement of people who worshiped numbers as divine and refused to eat beans for religious reasons. But a better example would probably be Ayn Rand, who also produced controversial popular content mercilessly savaging the mainstream morality of the day and that had a self-help undercurrent and a philosophical worldview to reinforce it. Because her system, Objectivism, also promised (and, for many people, obtained) empowerment and success, and also made ambitious claims to rationality that made its adherents feel uniquely qualified, it ended up being, to once again use Hitchens’ phrase, a “semi-cult”.
Peterson has nothing of Rand’s self-important bravado; he comes off as much more of a humble seeker, which, again, makes him feel like an ideal academic. But the problem is that he, too, is attracting a lot of disenchanted young people, especially men with their pent-up aggression, with an ambitious program for achieving greatness, and even though he encourages people to look to the ancient sources of wisdom, ultimately, that’s still a part of his recommended program. At the end of the day, he has nowhere else to direct his disciples, nowhere higher than his own framework of interpretation of holy texts and modern research. They have nowhere else to go, really, but to him.
Again, he seems aware of this; he admits that he should probably start going to church, though this is because he sees a psychological and social benefit to church, not because the Logos which he is so fond of speaking about reveals itself (Himself) personally there. And this is the other dangerous component of Peterson’s program: while he sees the Bible as hugely significant, it is significant because of its psychological importance. It is great literature because it tells us so much about ourselves, not because it is a saving revelation of the living God.
Here it is important to remember Jean Daniélou’s distinction between allegory and typology. Daniélou’s scholarship documented how the ancient Greek thinkers had to make sense of the myths, which were held up as the authoritative guide to morality and yet portrayed the gods as horrible, debauched characters; hardly moral examples. They solved this problem by reading the stories allegorically: the characters are metaphors for universal human truths about our experiences. Joseph Campbell’s idea of the monomyth is a good example of a modern kind of allegorization: the Hero’s Journey represents a universal human experience of growing into personal maturity. This is obviously the way Peterson reads the Scriptures, along with other myths and folklore, where the Mother and the Dragon stand in as archetypes for experiences which happen to each individual.
But this is not the way the Church interprets the Scriptures, or the criteria it used for recognizing their inspiration. Instead, the Fathers read the Bible typologically. The Flood is not about a universal human experience of moral failure and virtuous self-improvement; it is a foreshadowing of the specific historical event of the Cross, just as the Sacrament of Baptism, which fulfils the symbolism of the Flood, is not initiation into a universal cosmic mystery but a participation in Christ’s historical life. The Old Testament is less like Aesop’s fairy tales, which are meaningful because their morals are timeless and ahistorical, and more like the first act of a play, which is only meaningful because of what it builds up to. The hero of the story isn’t you, the reader; Jesus Christ is. That doesn’t mean that Christian symbolism is unrelated to the universal archetypes of other religions, which it often bears a lot of similarity. What it means is that those religions and these mythological stories also ultimately find their meaning and fulfilment in the person of Jesus Christ; they are, as the patristics understood it, the “preparation for the Gospel”.
Peterson takes an allegorical reading of the Scriptures rather than a typological one, and there are a lot of dangers to this. One of them is that it simply isn’t good literary theory; the Scriptures aren’t written in a way that lends themselves to this kind of allegorization. But there is also danger in the ways that Peterson interprets them. Take his reading of the story of Cain and Abel. He understands sacrifice as a kind of contract with—with God? Not exactly; instead it is “the spirit of society” that produces the social contract. (As a student of the history of totalitarianism, Peterson should immediately recognize the danger in substituting “society” for “God”.) He then reads the story as being about how Cain didn’t take responsibility for his own problems, the moral, I suppose, being that he should have owned up to his own failures and fixed his life (and you can read all about how he could have in Peterson’s new book, now available on Amazon). Nothing here about the importance of the shedding of blood in the Israelite understanding of expiation; nothing about how the New Testament sees Christ’s sacrifice as being in continuity with Abel’s; nothing about the Roman Canon: “Be pleased to look upon these offerings…as once you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just…” For someone who encourages young people to listen to tradition, it is strange that he rips these stories out of the traditions to furnish these new, allegorical meanings for them.
And what he misses in the process is the fact of God’s grace. The stories are now about how we can become heroes, not about how God has reached out to us in history to save us from our sins. Peterson has talked about how he doesn’t know the limits of what is possible to someone who aligns himself fully to the Logos, but that Jesus and Buddha were both said to have been able to conquer death because they had attained this level of transcendence. There is no escaping the implication here: you, too, can be like Jesus, if you self-actualize enough.
If you really want to understand what the archetype of the dragon means, you’ll notice the similarity here to the words of a famous serpent.
I’ve seen Christians really get into Peterson’s lengthy lectures on the Bible; often Christians who’ve been disenchanted or frustrated with their own experiences within the Church. Peterson, they say, gives them a whole new perspective on what the familiar Bible stories mean. But that’s exactly what makes me uncomfortable: these readings are so novel because they aren’t about Christ. They turn the Bible into the Book of Virtues, not the cohesive overall story of God’s Trinitarian event of restoring humanity to Himself through the humiliation, suffering, and failure of the Cross. That is where masculinity and femininity are truly revealed, as someone like St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who wrote a commentary on Song of Solomon which understood the soul as feminine and yet created the Knights Templar as a new expression of Christian masculinity, perfectly understood; that is the kind of sanctified insight we need in today’s society.
Peterson, like Campbell, is deeply influenced by Jung, and Jung had his own dialogue with a Catholic priest, Fr. Victor White, who appreciated Jung’s research but challenged his theological interpretation of them as being heretical. We need to look at Peterson’s work with Fr. White’s eyes, and, God willing, persuade Peterson himself of that perspective. There are signs of hope for this, such as his friendship with the Orthodox iconographer Jonathan Pageau, or his recent discussion with William Lane Craig. We should all pray for him; with his following, it’s not just his soul that’s at stake anymore.