Jordan Peterson, Atheism, and Jungian Interpretations of Christianity

Recently, I watched yet another video of Jordan Peterson. This time on Justin Brierly’s show, Unbelievable, on Premier Christian Radio. The series, called “The Big Conversations” pits various theists and atheists in dialogue on life’s most meaningful questions. Here again, however, Peterson is a sort of strange figure, in that it is hard to identify him as an actual theist, although he clearly seems to not be a non-theist. At this particular event, unlike the three-way dialogue he had with William Lane Craig and Rebecca Goldstein in Toronto, Peterson went toe-to-toe with Susan Blackmore, a regular on Brierly’s show.

As is now becoming more common, one winds up feeling pity for Peterson’s interlocutor. Although I do not consider much of what Peterson says to be academically very sophisticated (most of it is a rehashed continental philosophy integrated with Jungian Bible interpretation and evolutionary theory), his demeanor, his seriousness, his intellect, and his amazing gift of communication are an absolute joy to watch. Further, his ability to disarm his opponents and put them in incredibly uncomfortable, existential situations, usually by asking the right question, is absolutely brilliant. Poor Susan Blackmore was caught off-guard several times and if Brierly hadn’t jumped in to save her the kind of awkward silence that is becoming commonplace amongst Peterson’s opponents would have set in.

Peterson is a master at catching people, especially the atheist, in the inconsistencies that exist between their beliefs and their behaviors. No wonder he is hated by so many on the political left. Further, there are other aspects of Peterson’s style that are quite admirable, especially from the perspective of Christian apologetics. He is not overly charitable with his opponents, as I often feel some Christian apologists can be. This can be seen in the Blackmore debate, especially when he calls her out on the statement she makes about why she should get on with life in spite of its ultimate meaninglessness. Moments like this can be refreshing for those who are accustomed to seeing some Christian apologists almost forfeit entire debates either by over evaluating the atheist’s arguments, or by doing somersaults to find some point of agreement with the atheist.

However, even if it is easy to cheer on Peterson in one sense, i.e. in his capacity to show both the shallowness of some atheist thinkers (Dawkins and Harris, in particular), as well as the inconsistencies of those on the political and social Left, still, in another sense, the popular fanfare over Peterson, especially in evangelical communities, needs to be curbed somewhat. After all, the view of Christianity that Peterson promotes, and promotes quite powerfully, is still a far cry from a historic, orthodox Christianity. It is, in fact, a Christianity that is far more Platonic, or gnostic, than historical and biblical. For more on Peterson’s gnostic tendencies see this fine video of the Peterson phenomena by Bishop Robert Barron.  

Peterson’s gnosticized Christianity seems to develop from one figure in particular, one who dominates his thinking when it comes to Christianity and to biblical interpretation. That is Carl Gustav Jung. Jung’s depth psychological interpretation of Christianity and his use of archetypes of meaning as kinds of universal categories of human existence can seem amenable to Christian thought. The problem is, however, they make absolutely no claim to the truth value of Christian beliefs or the actuality of the historical events that ground them. Archetypes may be historical in the sense that they are expressed throughout history in various cultures, and by various communities in various times and places, but whether they are purely projections of the mind, or whether they have actual referents in the external world, is nebulous at best. On a Jungian view of religious belief it is almost irrelevant as to whether or not Jesus even existed

That said, Peterson is bringing something back into the conversation about religious belief that perhaps should be noted. I, for one, admit to having fallen into the trap that any view of Christian belief (whether an affirming, or non-affirming one) that is not proposed within the framework of analytical philosophy or analytical theology is prima facie a substandard view, and not worthy of serious engagement.

While I still think that where continental philosophy crashes, and analytical philosophy picks up the broken pieces the continentals have left behind, perhaps the rejection of continental modes of thinking should not be rejected in toto. Continental philosophy does still seem to speak in an idiom that reaches people in a way that the heirs of Frege and Carnap, Hackett and Plantinga cannot. It appears that Peterson, who often invokes not only Jung, but also Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, and who, as a clinical Psychiatrist, understands the psychological make-up of the average person, realizes that when it comes to religion, the right-brain cannot so easily be left behind.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Jordan Peterson, Atheism, and Jungian Interpretations of Christianity

  1. It almost sounds like you understand what Peterson is talking about. I discovered him about a month ago, maybe a little longer, and since then have watched a whole bunch of videos with him in them. My general impression is that he is crystal clear when he’s talking about politics, law, or social issues, but he’s downright incoherent when he’s talking about religion, and when anybody has tried to get a clear idea of what his position is, it ends up like nailing jelly to a wall. I just don’t know what on earth he’s talking about or what his position is on anything. Even Bill Craig seemed to be a little baffled.

    1. Well, I would say “almost” is a good way of describing my understanding of Peterson. It’s not like a spend a lot of time on him, but I have watched his full dialogue with Craig and Goldstein, the “Unbelievable” show, and various other shorter videos. But, I think if we take into account his professional background, which is clinical psychology, well, all clinical psychologists worth their salt are going to have studied Freud and Jung. Those who study Jung and follow in his intellectual tradition will likely use his categories. I think Peterson does this a lot, and that’s why his views on Christianity become incoherent at some level. When I lived in Austria, I discovered a lot of liberal Catholic theology, much of which was informed by psychoanalysis and Jungian paradigms. It all sounded interesting and profound, but scratch the surface and there was not much substance. With regard to Jung, I’m not saying the man was dumb, far from it, Jung was brilliant, and prodigious in his learning. But, as I pointed out, this is a far cry from either a historical and evidential Christianity, OR anything like the analytical philosophy that has dominated the philosophy departments since the early 20th century. Thus, I think when Craig looks baffled by Peterson, it is not because he doesn’t know who Jung is, or he is unable to comprehend Peterson’s statements, but he is an analytical philosopher, and analytical philosophers are arguing for truth claims using a totally different kind of method; a much more linguistically rigorous and logical one. Most analytical philosophers really don’t give much credence to Jungian archetypes, because this kind of thinking has been largely dismissed in academic circles (well, philosophical ones). So, I think Craig is probably not convinced that Peterson’s views are really that serious, at least philosophically or theologically. Still, he [Peterson] is bringing something back into the discussion, as you said, with regards to politics and social issues. But, on religion, he is not playing on the same ball field as the real philosophers of religion. I’d say he is still in the minor leagues with regards to that.

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