One of the most salient bits of wisdom in Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, (and there are lots of these salient bits there) is his definition of totalitarianism. A totalitarian, according to Peterson, is one who thinks he has it all figured out – that he is possessed of the answer – and that nothing more need be known or found out. He tells us – and this is a part of his fine insight, too – that such thinking may be present not only on a political or societal level as was obvious in communism and fascism, but that individuals may be totalitarian in their personal lives, as well. That is, some eighteen-year-old kid may decide that his life’s goal is to retire at age 50. He’s got it all figured out. Doesn’t need to know anything else.
This, says Peterson, is a prescription for misery because this 18 year old – like every other 18 year old – doesn’t have it figured out and what he needs more than anything else to flourish in this life is that humble attitude that is always searching, always willing to admit mistakes and always ready to learn more and to be corrected.
Amen to all that. It’s good advice – advice that every 18 year old, and every 70 year old, ought to heed. But I think that in one important aspect, at least, Peterson may be guilty of totalitarian thinking himself.
Although throughout the book Peterson demonstrates a familiarity with and in some instances a depth of understanding of the Bible and although he sees personal and societal problems as finally moral problems, I think he is at last dismissive of Christianity. Although he admires the wisdom of the Bible, he does not seem to believe that Christianity is what it purports to be. He comes very close to saying that Christianity simply does not stand to reason; that it cannot stand in the face of what science and philosophy have taught us over the last few centuries. He seems to be saying that although no rational person can actually accept the miraculous claims of Christianity, the stories in the Bible – like those in other religious writings and traditions – may instruct us about human nature and the world.
It is as if he has, following the lead of modern critics such as Friedrich Nietzsche, seen it all and figured it all out and has separated the wheat from the chaff. Christianity is not, for Peterson, what it was for the Apostle Paul and what it is and has been for countless believers today and down through the centuries. That is, Peterson does not experience God as a living and active Being with whom he can communicate and upon whom he may rely. For Peterson, the resurrection is an archetype or spiritual dynamic and not what Dorothy Sayers described it to be, that is: “a thing that actually happened.”
More than once in the book, Peterson describes personal practices that come very close to prayer. When he and his wife are at loggerheads, they retire to separate rooms in their home and ask themselves what it is within them that they might change so that they might come out of the chaos and into order again. This sounds a lot like a prayer of repentance to me, although Peterson avoids calling it that and seems to contend that the answers come from deep within or from the collective unconscious or something and not from the living God who hears the cries of humble and contrite hearts.
This, of course, ignores the living experience of millions who have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. That is, people who know from experience – from a surrender of their lives to Christ and a subsequent and enduring experience of grace – that what the Bible says about Christ is actually true and not merely some helpful myth or analogy.
In that measure Peterson also ignores, for example, the testimony of Alexander Solzhenitsyn that, ironically, is one of the touchstones of Peterson’s book. Men like Solzhenitsyn and Dostoyevsky who wrestled through the modern critiques of Christianity have come out of the desert into faith – into an embrace of Biblical Christianity. Peterson will not go that far. He knows too much. He is sure of too much.