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7 things Jordan Peterson taught me last night

And what Christians can take away from his 12 Rules for Life

Last night, along with a few thousand close friends, I heard Jordan Peterson speak at Sydney’s ICC Theatre during his ‘12 Rules for Life‘ speaking tour of Australia.

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Many succumb to the temptation either to enshrine the internationally known psychologist and speaker as a saviour or pillory him as a pretender. Here are some of my thoughts about Peterson and his appeal, after checking out his speaking gig last night. You be the judge if I’ve resisted the temptations:

1. People, especially younger people (25-40ish), are looking for a guide in life. They really, really are hungry for a trustworthy guide.

2. This guide must help people live in reality as it really is. Peterson did a good job last night at showing the undesirable, and essentially unlivable (even malevolent), nature of social constructionism, as well as the definition of personhood by group rather than individual – and Marxism.

3. As he draws on ancient guides (especially the Bible), Peterson’s appeal flows from how he manifestly is trying to help people live well in the world as it is. So he has authority – drawn from his wide and deep reading of the great books and stories – as well as an extraordinary intellect and facility with words. He also demonstrates compassion – he’s a psychologist whose desire to help people live well seems to permeate everything he says.

4. People are absolutely open to the Bible’s description of the world – individual responsibility, image of God, good and evil running through every human heart, the centrality of sacrifice.

5. Peterson’s answer to whether he believes in God was illuminating and brilliant. Essentially he is convinced by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that there only ever has been one true Christian, and he ended up on a cross. That is, none of us live as though we believe in God, because saying we believe in God is actually a comment on how we live; we all manifestly fail to live consistently with the idea of a transcendent, personal, good and powerful deity. This is spot on, and boy did it resonate with the crowd. Because it is so true.

6. It seems to me, the point of departure from orthodox Christianity is that Peterson gets us all the way to a crushing awareness of our inadequacy, but then doesn’t take us to grace and (for theologically minded friends, I’m channelling some JB Torrance and Karl Barth here) the vicarious faith, obedience, and life of Jesus. As the incarnate son of God, Jesus lived precisely the life I cannot live. My friends who have found Peterson most helpful spiritually are the ones who have come through addiction/12 steps recovery, where Peterson’s excruciatingly accurate diagnosis is combined with the extraordinary grace made manifest in Jesus (or AA).

7. I feel acutely my own deep moral, spiritual, and intellectual limitations, and the hubris of standing in judgement over a man who is pouring out his life (with his truly prodigious intellect) for the good of others. But there we have it.

As I still digest Peterson’s presentation, what might be some learnings for those of us who are apprentices of Jesus? The following are three tentative and provisional learnings which I could speak for an hour to two about each – and still fail to do justice to them. But Peterson inspired me to return to my Christian faith and examine what it offers to anyone seeking direction and purpose in life.

1. Wholeheartedly embrace Jesus as our guide to all of life, and the Bible as the most true story of all. Stop trusting (and selling) Jesus as only a ticket to heaven, and learn to follow him as the most brilliant exponent of, and guide to, life in all its fullness. And do this with boldness and integrity, and very great intellectual rigour. Never from a stance of sanctimonious defensiveness, but with humility, and raw honesty, and great hope. Then people will start to look to us as guides for them in the painful adventure of their lives.

2. Examine our hearts, and our practices, to see if we exude love and compassion and understanding for the real situation and problems and struggles of those we wish to guide on the journey of faith. We can’t be satisfied with facile, albeit true-at-one-level, diagnosis of people’s struggles along the lines of, ‘we’re separated from God by our sin.’ I mean yes, of course, but what the heck does that actually mean in the lived experience of people walking past my door? Maybe Jesus was onto something when he wept over Jerusalem, when he saw people as sheep without a shepherd?

3. Be full of courage. Wrestle with God. Pursue truth in all domains, as God gives us opportunities, with fierce, relentless compassion. Knowing the truth will set us free, but it will do so through fire. Don’t expect it to be easy. It is our terrifying vocation to bear the pain of bearing witness to truth. Absorb the rejection. Pray for those who persecute you. And don’t ever give up.

Mark Leach is the minister at Darling Street Anglican church, Rozelle, Sydney.

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