Is Genesis psychology or history? A response to Jordan Peterson
Published: 26 July 2018 (GMT+10)
We recently listened to a lecture series on the psychological significance of the biblical stories by Dr. Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at Toronto University. It has taken a long time to distill the hours of lectures down to a form that can be examined in something as short as this article. It was a daunting task! However, the first lecture alone has over 2.5 million views on YouTube, indicating that Peterson’s lectures have a real audience, so it is worth talking about them here. His lectures are generally admired by his devotees, in much the same way that faithful churchgoers regard the sermons of their pastor; however, we found them intensely tedious, rambling, and hard to follow.
Peterson’s view of ‘fundamentalists’
Peterson believes that people who read the Bible historically or scientifically are ‘fundamentalists’ who misunderstand the purpose of the biblical stories. He makes occasional comments that reveal a deep contempt for us. For example,
“The poor fundamentalists, they’re trying to cling to their moral structure, and I understand why, because it does organize their societies, and it organizes their psyche, so they’ve got something to cling to. But, you know, they don’t have a very sophisticated idea of the complexity of what constitutes truth, and they try to gerrymander the biblical stories into the domain of scientific theory, promoting creationism, for example, as an alternative scientific theory, that just isn’t going to go anywhere you know? Because the people who wrote these [expletive deleted] stories weren’t scientists to begin with; there weren’t any scientists back then!” (lecture 1, around 1:31:31. In the future such references will be formatted ‘1, 1:31:31’)
Regarding the Flood narrative he says,
“And we read it, you know, cynical modern people, we read it as if it was written by primitive people who thought that it was really the case that someone could build a boat, and put two of every kind into it, and thereby save the world. It’s embarrassing to see things interpreted in a manner that shallow, especially by people who don’t have ignorance as a justification. You know, these stories have to appeal to everyone, right? And there’s lots of people in the world who aren’t very bright, and so they tend to take things concretely, like a child would take things concretely if you read them a story. This story can be taken concretely, but it has to be because these stories have to be for everyone. But if you’re sophisticated, that doesn’t mean you should dismiss it as if it’s written for a child. Maybe you have an obligation to look a bit deeper and think for a moment that it wouldn’t have been conserved for these many thousands of years if there wasn’t something more to it than a casual intellectual dismissal would indicate.” (7, 1:44:00)
So Peterson, based on his own statements, seems to think ‘fundamentalists’ are people who aren’t very bright. They do not understand the “complexity of what constitutes truth”, they take things concretely as a child would do, and they cling to religious stories because it organizes their psyches and societies. So they can safely be dismissed so he can get to the serious business of finding out what Moses was really writing, which was apparently Jungian psychology.
Contrast this with Hebrew scholar James Barr who said, “Probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writers of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that: a. creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience; b. the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to late stages in the biblical story; c. Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguished all human and animal life except for those in the ark.”
Peterson does not have a Christian view of the Bible
Dr. Peterson believes that the biblical stories were put together as various tribes pooled their mythological stories. As part of their negotiation, their gods were ‘absorbed’ into one another until we got this meta-god, which is all the gods of all the cultures melded together (1, starting at 53:41). In his view, the Bible is the result of a process that happened in an inaccessible pre-history. The problem is, there is no evidence for this view!
His view doesn’t do justice to the large-scale structure we find in the book itself; for instance the toledot structure, the chiasms, and so on. Genesis is a self-contained story of the origins of the world, mankind, sin and its consequences, and the Israelite nation. Additionally, the grammatical structure of the narrative makes it clear that it intends to relay history and not myth. For example, the accurate details of Canaanite geography at the time support this.
Peterson presents the so-called ‘Documentary Hypothesis’ (itself the product of 19th century liberal scholarship) as if it were unquestionable fact (1, 1:37:03). He never even for a moment allows the audience to consider that Genesis may have been written by the man the text itself, as well as the universal testimony of the ancient Jews and early Christians, ascribes as the author—Moses! This is snobbery at its worst.
Peterson does not have a Christian view of God
Jordan Peterson is very coy when asked if he believes that God exists. I have never known a believer in God who is not willing to simply say, “Yes, I believe God exists as a personal Being”, so we are forced to take his refusal to answer straightforwardly as an indication that he does not believe in God, in the Christian sense.
If any Peterson fan wants to contest this, please include in your comment a link to where he has said straightforwardly that he believes in God. We have read both of his books and listened to hundreds of hours of his interviews and lectures, but we do not claim to have listened to everything he has ever said.
If he did want to say that he believes in God as a personal Being, the biblical series would have been a good place to do it. Instead, we get this weird statement that “The idea of God the father is something akin to the a priori structure that gives rise to consciousness” (3, 3:49). “The idea of God the Father is something like the birth of the idea that there has to be an internal structure out of which consciousness itself arises that gives form to things” (3, 11:06). So is it the structure, or the idea that there has to be a structure?
He also addresses the other members of the Trinity: “I also mentioned that I see the idea of both the Holy Spirit and also of Christ, and most specifically of Christ in the form of the Word, as the active consciousness that structure produces and uses, not only to formulate the world … but to change and modify that world” (3, 11:28).
We could ask Peterson to explain in plain language what exactly any of that is supposed to mean, but it should suffice to show that, whatever he means, it isn’t what Christians have always meant by saying that God is one Being, eternally existing in three Persons who are equal in deity, power, and glory.
Peterson’s interpretation is controlled by evolution
Peterson states that, “I think in evolutionary terms. As far as I’m concerned, the cosmos is 15 billion years old, and the world is 4.5 billion years old. There’s been life for 3.5 billion years. You know, there were creatures that had pre-developed nervous systems 300–600 million years ago, and we were living in trees as small mammals 60 million years ago, and we were down on the plains between 60 million and 7 million years ago, and that’s about when we split from chimpanzees, and modern human beings seem to emerge about 150,000 years ago, and civilization pretty much after the last ice age, something after 15,000 years ago, not very long ago at all” (1, 1:04:58).
We criticize BioLogos when they import evolution into Genesis, but at least they believe in a personal God. We should view Peterson with even more suspicion.
Peterson’s individualistic ethic
Christianity’s ethic is God-centered. The Great Commandment is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). Out of this flows the Second Commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Since humans are created in God’s image, it is impossible to love God and hate your fellow man. In Scripture, it is God who declares what is good and evil, and because He is perfectly good, His ethical pronouncements are absolute.
This could not be more different from Peterson’s statements:
“Why act morally, if you can get away with something, and it brings you closer to something you want? Well, why not do it? These are good questions! It’s not self-evident. Well, it seems to be tied in with what I just mentioned. It’s like you destabilize yourself and things become chaotic, that’s not good. And if you don’t have a noble aim, you have nothing but shallow, trivial pleasures, and they don’t sustain you. And that’s not good, because life is so difficult. There’s so much suffering. It’s so complex. It ends, and everyone dies, and it’s painful. It’s like, without a noble aim, how can you withstand any of that?” (1, 1:15:56).
Who decides what the ‘noble aim’ is? Apparently it’s the individual himself. Peterson’s interpretation of the Fall is that it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for Adam and Eve to disobey God, because, “How obedient do you want your children to be? You want them to be obedient enough so they don’t get hurt, but disobedient enough so they go out in the world and do something courageous, and they break some rules and they learn some things” (4, 1:45:38). This comes oddly close to the Mormon view of the Fall as a “glorious necessity”.
Peterson is a self-professed admirer of the famous atheist Friedrich Nietzsche, and even goes so far as to say that Nietzsche has been misunderstood and his ideas misapplied by the likes of Hitler and the Nazis. However, when reading Nietzsche’s work, I [PP] find it is Peterson who has misunderstood Nietzsche. Peterson advocates for traditional Christian values, while Nietzsche specifically attacked that mindset in his Parable of the Madman. Nietzsche clearly understood that when God is taken out of the picture, all the trappings of the Christian worldview and Christian society (which are derived from the God of the Bible) also must go, in order to make room for new, atheistic values, which are antithetical to the old Christian ones.
Peterson and religious art
Peterson is mystified by religious artwork. “You know, people put a lot of work into these representations, you know. And there’s thousands of them. They weren’t messing around. These are serious pieces of work. You know, we don’t understand them, but that doesn’t mean that the people who created them didn’t know what they were doing. These were geniuses who created these pieces of work. It’s not like they understood in an articulated manner exactly what they were trying to represent. But what they were representing were metaphors at the core of our culture. To the degree that our culture is functional and good, these are the metaphors upon which it is founded. And they’re not for the faint of heart, you know.” (Lecture 7, 1:32:05).
His use of religious art is odd. Historically, religious artists were working with a set of religious imagery that was both complex and beautiful, but also bounded and understandable. For instance, John is often depicted as younger than the rest of the Apostles, because he was the last one to die and because his gospel references a ‘young man’ that many scholars believe was autobiographical. But it is often possible to understand a piece of religious artwork simply from the Christian interpretation of the Scripture being depicted. Peterson seems to have no experience with religious artwork or how it is traditionally interpreted, which leaves him open to an ironically postmodern way of reading his own thought into the artwork.
I believe the great artists would be offended by the suggestion that an apparently godless psychologist knows better than them what they were trying to represent. In lecture 3 at 1:35:38, Peterson shows a picture of Moses coming down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, and he says the Israelites were terrified because of the revelation of the universal moral law—“break the universal moral law and see what happens”. But we know from the context of the biblical story why they are terrified. Moses has been on the mountain for 40 days receiving God’s law, and they already knew from their experience that God had forbidden idolatry. But they had Aaron build the golden calf while Moses was gone, and they were cavorting in idolatrous worship when he came down from the mountain. They were afraid of Moses’ fury and the judgment of God for their idolatry. You don’t need some sort of message about ‘hierarchies’ to understand the biblical imagery.
In the same lecture at 1:40:55, he shows a picture of the two men holding up Moses’ hands, and says this means, “Serve tradition, serve the Father”. This is a mindless, ironically postmodern, way of interpreting paintings with well-established meanings in the Christian tradition. Aaron and Hur were holding up Moses hands because every time he let them down the Israelites started to lose the long battle with the Amalekites (Exodus 17:8–16). There is nothing about ‘upholding tradition’ in this matter-of-fact historical account.
Moses was not a Jungian psychologist
Cited above, Peterson claims that it is inappropriate to try to import scientific meaning onto the biblical texts, because the texts were not created by scientists and because there were no scientists around then. But we believe the texts to be history and can respond, “Neither were they Jungian psychologists, so it is just as inappropriate to import psychology into the biblical text.”
One would hope that Christians would show sufficient discernment to see the errors in Peterson’s presentations. But the size of his audience indicates there are probably many who would otherwise call themselves evangelical but have been duped by his mendacity. To them, we give a warning: Peterson’s method of interpreting Scripture according to his pre-existing beliefs, and his preaching of our ability to choose our own ‘noble aim’, is serpentine, not Christian. Even if pop culture wants to view Peterson as some sort of conservative voice of religious reason, he is actually promoting a worldview which is diametrically opposed to Christianity.