Jordan Peterson's new book of rules and what I wish he would add

Clinical psychologist, author and love-or-hate commentator Jordan B Peterson has just published his third book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life – the follow-on from his hugely successful and influential book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

Feelings about Peterson run strong and so I thought it might help to say a few words about this, and also about a way of reading, or engaging, with his work.

Peterson is incredibly smart, massively well read, and highly articulate. This is a terribly threatening combination if you are inclined to view his motives with suspicion. But there is much to learn from him if you can read him as a well-intentioned fellow warrior in the battle to survive the awfulness of the world; to survive in such a way that truth, justice and beauty can triumph.

Peterson advances throughout this book a philosophical position that there is a knowable real world beyond us. According to Peterson, we access and interpret this reality through stories, and the fundamental ‘givenness’ of this reality is the basis for the way we organise our lives, biologically, socially, psychologically, and spiritually. On this basis he argues that a ‘natural ethic’ emerges through the millenia, which forms the basis for our values. In this way he seeks to overcome the fact/value division that has plagued moral philosophy for the past 150 years. We might call this a form of critical-realism.

This view of Peterson’s is birthed in his experience as a clinical psychologist. He has spent decades seeing up to 20 patients a week. Thousands of hours in the deepest trenches of people’s lives means that his philosophy – his ‘rules’ – have to work in the real world, as it is, with real people, as they are. This explains the relentless rigour with which he approaches dissecting and understanding the world.

As I read Peterson I am reminded of reading the work of the great Christian phenomenalist philosopher, Dallas Willard. Both have an extraordinary capacity to examine and expose the phenomena of life in ways that are deeply uncomfortable but ultimately life-giving.

This understanding of the world explains why Peterson is so opposed to any kind of ’social contructivism’ that tries to bend reality to a preconceived outcome, such as around transgender language (which Peterson has notably spoken against). Reality is what we run into when we are wrong. We can’t create any old world to meet our present desires.  This also explains why Peterson is so opposed or any kind of ‘ism’ that fatally simplifies the massively complex world we in which we live.

Peterson’s rule on marriage should be required reading for every couple considering the crazy adventure of marriage.

All of this comes into brilliant relief in Peterson’s 6th rule – “Abandon Ideology”. This chapter alone, in my view, is worth the price of the book, and repays close attention. Here’s part of his conclusion in this chapter, “It is much more psychologically appropriate (and much less dangerous socially) to assume that you are the enemy — that it is your weaknesses and insufficiencies that are damaging the world — than to assume saintlike goodness on the part of you and your party, and to pursue the enemy you will then be inclined to see everywhere.” (page 177 of Beyond Order).

Peterson’s rule on marriage – ‘Rule 10: Plan and Work Diligently To Maintain the Romance in Your Relationship’ – should be required reading for every couple considering the crazy adventure of marriage. And also for every couple who are contemplating giving up the battle for the heart and soul, and perhaps reality, of their marriage. Let me give you a taste of what he says. Petersons writes, “There are three fundamental states of social being: tyranny (you do what I want), slavery (I do what you want), or negotiation.” There follows a simply wonderful, harrowing, thought-provoking and ultimately helpful (if applied) section showing how negotiation might apply in  the “Domestic Economy”. This chapter concludes with a discussion about negotiating intimacy and sex in marriage.

A click-bait review might quote Peterson as telling couples to have sex once or twice a week, and then go on to claim this can only be the writing of an oppressive, white, male representative of the patriarchy! Such a review would utterly miss his point. As many marriage therapists have said before him, Peterson’s point is that negotiating sex is extraordinarily hard, but the act of such negotiation, when done successfully over a lifetime, is the key to not just a mutually satisfying sex life, but a mutually satisfying married life as well.

If you can negotiate sex, you can negotiate anything!

Beyond Order also is shot through with biblical allusions, echoes and direct quotes. Peterson is, in my view, a great gift to the church and the world. He shows us that there is a deep, deep hunger in our culture for a reliable, insightful guide who will lead us through the darkest places of our existence so that we can see more clearly the light of the world.

If Christianity is the truest and deepest story about existence, then all other stories can, and do, find their fulfilment in this story. I would recommend that after reading this book, you watch Peterson in dialogue on his Youtube channel, with Jonathan Pageau, a wonderful Orthodox Christian artist, writer, and speaker.

After the bracing ice bath of rules, I need the healing balm of grace.

Having said all of that, two things I would add. And they are not little things. I would add to Peterson’s book a Rule about Grace and a Rule about Resurrection.

Grace because for all the truth of the rules, one of the tragic realities is that such a clear articulation of these rules throws into stark relief my ongoing, tragic failure to live them out. Interestingly, or perhaps tragically, Peterson himself grapples with the massive struggle he is experiencing in his current season of extraordinary illness and pain, to live out his final rule, “Be Grateful in Spite of Your Suffering”.  And who wouldn’t!

So, after the bracing ice bath of rules, I need the healing balm of grace.

And Resurrection because our stories have a wonderful, glorious ending of resurrection, renewal, even theosis, and this ending is in the end not predicated on our performance, or adherence to Peterson’s, or any other rules. Rather, our ending is won for us by the only true Hero of the story, the only person who in story, and history, was the perfect incarnation and instantiation of humanity and divinity and so opens the gate of glory to people like you, and me, and Jordan B Peterson …

Mark Leach is the minister at Darling Street Anglican church, Rozelle, Sydney. He previously contributed 7 Things Jordan Peterson Taught Me Last Night to Eternity.

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Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life

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