The never-ending search for masculinity
Jordan Peterson and Michael Jensen weigh in on a new vision of manhood
Men are in crisis. Or at least, that’s what Jordan Peterson believes.
If you haven’t heard of him, Peterson is a psychology professor from Canada who has become internationally known for being outspoken about the crisis of masculinity in the West, and what should be done about it.
“The West has lost faith in the idea of masculinity,” said Peterson in an interview with Rebel Wisdom in January. “[But] I like the masculine spirit. It’s necessary and not fundamentally carnage and pillaging, it’s not fundamentally rape culture, it’s not fundamentally world destroying – all of those aspersions have been cast upon it … Those are reasonable challenges to be set before men, but not reasonable accusations to swallow without criticism.”
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Peterson is pushing back on a current stream of thought that blames patriarchy for all the ills of the world. Striking a chord with young men, in particular, Peterson will be in Australia during March on a speaking tour (so you’re likely to be hearing more about him).
He first hit the headlines in 2016 after refusing to use gender neutral pronouns at the Canadian university where he taught, even though new legislation compelled him to do so. He indicated at the time that he might choose to use the preferred gender pronoun of a particular person if they asked him to. Protests followed, along with serious efforts to remove him from his position, but they all failed.
Since then, the previously little known professor of psychology at the University of Toronto has garnered almost 40 million views on YouTube, thanks to his willingness to take a stand, politely but firmly.
While Christian leaders around the world have been among those to take notice of his opinions, Peterson himself is not a Christian. In an interview with Canadian Christian news site LifeSiteNews.com in February, Peterson said he was not ready to declare whether or not he believes in the historical resurrection of Jesus. “I need to think about that for about three more years before I would even venture an answer beyond what I’ve already given,” Peterson said.
Michael Jensen, an Anglican minister, author and regular contributor to public debate in Australia, believes Peterson is so popular because he is calmly and intelligently challenging the dominant politically correct, left-leaning view of the world. Jensen describes this view as anti-hierarchical and highly supportive of a select group of minorities and their rights.
“…If you don’t appeal to the better natures of men, you find that they just act in a monstrous way anyway.” – Michael Jensen
Also, Peterson is saying something to men as men, says Jensen.
“A lot of that left-leaning discourse, with its influences from cultural Marxism and postmodernism, actually is very alienating to men; it actually is very emasculating,” Jensen tells Eternity.
“It leaves them not able to say anything. It’s continually saying that the patriarchy is to blame for everything, men are to blame for all the ills in the world, and it doesn’t give them an adventure to go on that might actually remedy the problem.
“I find that silencing of men at that point is very very unhelpful and it’s a mistake by certain types of feminists to do that because if you don’t appeal to the better natures of men you find that they just act in a monstrous way anyway. They are powerful, and they will just do what they will do. They won’t contribute to the conversation, they’ll just do what they do.”
“We know what happens if people act poorly, if men act badly. We know that the world turns into something that’s as close to hell that the difference is trivial.” – Jordan Peterson
Both Jensen and Peterson agree that we need a vision of a better masculinity that appeals to men, but they disagree how to get there.
Peterson says a masculinity that men can aspire to is fundamentally centred around taking responsibility.
“We know what happens if people act poorly, if men act badly. We know that the world turns into something that’s as close to hell that the difference is trivial. That’s the story of the 20th century,” Peterson told Rebel Wisdom.
“We should learn that lesson, and that lesson is ‘pick up world on its shoulders and walk forward.’ Pick up the world with all trouble, suffering and evil, and walk forward with it. In bearing that burden, learn you are the kind of creature who can bear that burden and therefore are deserving of respect.
“I’ve never encountered an idea better than that, ‘cause it’s not naïve, it’s the opposite of naïve. There’s terrible evil and suffering, it’s bottomless, but the human spirit is capable of voluntarily taking that on as a challenge.”
Jensen believes that Peterson is on the right track when he identifies that a common failure of men, in general, is that they avoid taking responsibility. But he doesn’t believe that the answer is to pull yourself up by your moral bootstraps.
“In a period of moral chaos and disorder someone who comes in and says, ‘Be disciplined, man up, woman up, grow up’ – that is very appealing.” – Michael Jensen
“Where I live, a 40-year-old bloke is shoving coke up their nose; they’re just after toys, and they’re in their 40s and 50s wanting to play the field and sleep with as many women as possible. They’re not adults, they’re just boys. They’re powerful boys, but they’re dangerous.”
And it’s not just 40 and 50-year-old men who aren’t taking responsibility. Jensen says that in the age of the internet, there is nothing compelling younger men to engage with society because they can just sit at home in track pants, eating Doritos and accessing everything they need via Wi-Fi.
Jensen says Peterson “is both massively appealing and interesting and also potentially dangerous for Christians because he doesn’t really understand grace.”
“He’s after self improvement, and so his book (12 Rules for Life), appealing and inspiring thought it is, asks you to pull yourself up by your moral bootstraps. It says, ‘Wake up, get over it, be disciplined.’ And that is Pelagianism, it’s what Pelagius was doing in Christian Rome. It was appealing then because it was a period of moral chaos, and in a period of moral chaos and disorder someone who comes in and says, ‘Be disciplined, man up, woman up, grow up’ – that is very appealing.
“The trouble is, what we know as Christians is that in order to improve yourself, you can’t start with determining to improve yourself, you must start with grace. You must start with your own helplessness and your own sins.”
“Jesus is the model for modern men. The truly masculine is actually the one who loves through sacrifice to glorify the other.” – Michael Jensen
It’s possible to see glimpses of Christianity in Peterson’s work because he is reading the Bible (including the accounts of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Joseph, and the resurrection of Jesus) as part of his research. And while he is not blankly optimistic about what humans can do, his references to Christianity are removed from their historical contexts.
“So [in Peterson’s teachings] you’re never going to get the true Jesus,” says Jensen. “You’ll get Jesus as a good teacher. But we have to take seriously that Jesus is a good teacher!”
But Jesus is more than just a good teacher, and that will never come through in Peterson’s work.
“The thing I think Peterson misses out on is that actually Jesus Christ is the better story. He’s a better story for all human beings,” says Jensen.
“It’s interesting that Jesus Christ is not just the image of masculinity, but he is a man, he is a sublime man, and yet he displays power in vulnerability, he speaks the truth though it’s difficult, he is courageous even when he’s afraid, he is humble even when he has reason for arrogance.
“Jesus is the model for modern men,” says Jensen. “The truly masculine is actually the one who loves through sacrifice to glorify the other. The true taking of responsibility is to make yourself small.”