Classifying Jordan Peterson's Biblical Hermeneutic

Jordan Peterson, psychology professor at the University of Toronto, is a public intellectual who has ignited much political controversy in the past few years. However, he first caught my eye after appearing on the Joe Rogan podcast, speaking about the psychological significance of the bible—likewise the title of his lecture series consumed by millions of YouTube viewers. 

Let’s get down to brass tacks. I have my B.A. in biblical languages, my M.Div., and my Ph.D. in theology with a focus on the relationship between religious belief and PTSD. So I’m a theologian with an amateur interest in psychology. When I heard Peterson first dignify theological concepts as indispensable for psychological flourishing, I became a fan instantly. I had never heard someone traverse the terrain of theology, behaviorism, psychodynamic theory, and continental philosophy so fluently and eloquently.

Since that time, my admiration of Peterson has only been solidified. But there is a theme in his interviews where those with religious or anti-religious interests find Peterson hard to nail down. For example, when Peterson is asked: “Do you believe in God?” Peterson says: “I don’t like that question.”

And he goes on to qualify that in a way that we will examine further below. But the initial observation that we can make about Peterson is that he resists simple reductive analysis with the popular categories of ideological analysis of which both Christian theologians and secular psychologists make regular use. So, here we will make an initial attempt to classify elements of Peterson’s thought. And, if “classify” is too strong a term, perhaps we could say that there are strong conceptual resonances between Peterson and certain modes of thinking which help us to sketch the architecture of his project relative to the Bible, and likewise relative to God—and God is a concept which operates close to the center of his system.


‘We’re trying to extract out the core of the guiding principles, and we turn that into a representation of a pattern of being. That’s God. It’s an abstracted ideal, and it manifests itself in personified form.’
— Jordan Peterson

But we must keep in mind the discipline from which Peterson speaks. When he speaks of God, he speaks of the effects of God in psychological metrics: “The question is, what are the principles that guide our behaviour? Well, that’s something like what the archaic Israelites meant by ‘God.’”[1] Peterson continues: “We’re trying to extract out the core of the guiding principles, and we turn that into a representation of a pattern of being. That’s God. It’s an abstracted ideal, and it manifests itself in personified form. That’s ok, because what we’re trying to get at is, in some sense, the essence of what it means to be a properly functioning, properly social, and properly competent individual.”[2]

Just as astronomy was performed by the ancients as a matter of perception from earth’s point of view, Peterson construes theology as an expression of a particular perspective, and he tries to locate what are the universal anthropological conditions which make possible that experience. In order to understand how he accomplishes this, it will be helpful for us to look at how his proposals resonate with the language of historical philosophy relative to speech about God.

G. W. F. Hegel

The first intellectual with which Peterson resonates is Hegel. Hegel was a 19th century philosopher who wrestled with the possibility of speech about God after Immanuel Kant. Kant posited that there was a crude distinction between the world of our perception (the phenomenal realm) and the world as it really is (the noumenal realm). But Kant failed to supply a working method to bridge those two worlds without an appeal to God. Hegel proposed that the noumenal realm was represented by a rational principle, and that this rational principle would inevitably manifest itself on earth one day. He called this rational principle “The Spirit.”

The means by which this rational principle would manifest itself was through a dialectic—a back-and-forth throughout history between a thesis, an antithesis to that thesis, and a resulting single synthesis from the disagreement between a thesis and an antithesis.


For Hegel, this dialectical process will give birth in the real world to the full manifestation of the Absolute Spirit, which is the pure rational principle to which there is no antithesis.

The original thesis represents the world as it is, the antithesis represents those who want to radically change the world. Both likely represent extremes with their degree of untruth. Their utilization in practice will result in a synthesis between the thesis and the antithesis. Then, that synthesis becomes the new thesis, against which a new synthesis comes.

Eventually, this dialectical process will give birth in the real world to the full manifestation of the Absolute Spirit, which is the pure rational principle to which there is no antithesis. This, many think, was Hegel’s way of locating God in the world—not in the past, or in the present, but becoming through past and present toward an eschatological future state toward which we are being pulled toward like a black hole. Hegel comments:

“The Spirit manifested in revealed religion has not as yet surmounted its attitude of consciousness as such. . . . Spirit as a whole and the moments distinguished in it fall within the sphere of figurative thinking, and within the form of objectivity. The content of this figurative thought is Absolute Spirit. All that remains to be done now is to cancel and transcend (aufheben) this bare form.”[3]

Peterson’s explanation of the origin of the God concept sounds familiar:

“From a practical perspective, it’s more like an ongoing dialog. You believe this; I believe this. You believe that; I believe this. How are we going to meld that together? You take God A, and you take God B, and maybe what you do is extract God C from them, and you say, ‘God C now has the attributes of A and B.’ And then some other tribes come in, and C takes them over, too. Take Marduk, for example. He has 50 different names, at least in part, of the subordinate gods—that represented the tribes that came together to make the civilization.”[4]

Here we see, at the very least, a deep resonance between Peterson’s and Hegel’s conception of the origin and purpose of the God concept historically speaking.

Ludwig Feuerbach 

Sociologically speaking, Peterson resonates deeply with a philosopher named Ludwig Feuerbach, who drew deeply on Hegel’s methodology. Feuerbach proposed, before Sigmund Freud, that God was the absolutization and abstraction of man’s greatest strengths and weaknesses.

Whatever was ideal man, that was abstracted to an infinite degree and predicated of God—if physical strength is considered a good among men, then this is the origin of divine omnipotence. The same goes for man’s weaknesses in an inverse direction. Whatever man needed, God was projected to meet that need—if man was plagued with a sense of guilt, then he needs a God who mercifully supplies a means of atonement. This is explains why Judaism gave way to Christianity, and likewise Roman Catholicism to the Reformation. Feuerbach explains:

“The various qualities of man first give difference, which is the ground of reality in God. The physical qualities of man make God a physical being—God the Father, who is the creator of Nature, i.e., the personified, anthropomorphized essence of Nature; the intellectual qualities of man make God an intellectual being, the moral, a moral being. Human misery is the triumph of divine compassion; sorrow for sin is the delight of the divine holiness. Life, fire, emotion comes into God only through man. With the stubborn sinner God is angry; over the repentant sinner he rejoices. Man is the revealed God: in man the divine essence first realises and unfolds itself.”[5]

Peterson likewise explains about God:

“It responds to sacrifice. It answers prayers. I’m not saying that any of this is true, by the way. I’m just saying what the cloud of ideas represents. It punishes and rewards. It judges and forgives. It’s not nature. One of the things weird about the Judeo-Christian tradition is that God and nature are not the same thing, at all.” You can enter into a covenant with it, so you can make a bargain with it.” And, while Feuerbach says that God is the anthropomorphized essence of nature, and Peterson says that God is the abstracted antithesis to nature, both are saying the same thing—the function of the God concept, psychologically speaking, is to solve the problem of natural human existence, which in its bare, material particularity doesn’t explicate anything about the meaning of life or ultimate reality, which is the ground of human value.

Peterson explains: “There’s a fatherly aspect … You can enter into a covenant with it, so you can make a bargain with it. … The son-like aspect. It speaks to chaos and order. It slays dragons and feeds people with the remains. … It is the body and blood of Christ. … The spirit-like aspect. It’s akin to the human soul. It’s the prophetic voice. … These are all … glimpses of the transcendent ideal, and all of them have a specific meaning.”

Rudolf Bultmann

With Hegel and Feuerbach under our wing, we can look at some of Peterson’s 20th century analogues. Basically, where does Peterson get this approach to the mythological world of the Bible that dignifies the psychological realities to which it points, while choosing to liberally discard any serious literal interpretation of the text. In other words, where does Peterson get the idea to look beneath the myth for deeper truths about human psychology and philosophy?

Whether he gets it from him or not, Peterson’s approach to biblical myth is almost identical to that of Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann was a 20th century New Testament scholar. Bultmann explains:  “it is impossible to repristinate a past world picture by sheer resolve, especially a mythical world picture, now that all of our thinking is irrevocably formed by science.”[6] He continues: “What sense does it make to confess today ‘he descended into hell’ or ‘he ascended into heaven,’ if the confessor no longer shares the underlying mythical world picture of a three-story world?”[7]


Peterson and Bultmann approach the bible in this same way—as having an indispensable mythological element that resonates with some universally basic psychological need for a metaphysical world.

For Bultmann, this concept of myth poses a problem to taking the bible seriously as a text. But he finds a way through this obstacle to dignify the message of the bible without subjecting itself to its cosmology:

“The real point of myth is not to give an objective world picture; what is expressed in it, rather, is how we human beings understand ourselves in our world. Thus, myth does not want to be interpreted in cosmological terms but in anthropological terms—or, better, in existentialist terms. … Therefore, the motive for criticizing myth, that is, its objectifying representations, is present in myth itself, insofar as its real intention to talk about a transcendent power to which both we and the world are subject is hampered and obscured by the objectifying character of its assertions.”[8]

Peterson says something very similar: “Myth is not primitive proto-science. It is a qualitatively different phenomenon. … The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive. Myth describes things in terms of their unique or shared affective valence, their value, their motivational significance. The Sky (An) and the Earth (Ki) of the Sumerians are not the sky and earth of modern man, therefore; they are the Great Father and Mother of all things.”[9]

Peterson regularly talks about myth this way—as the lost, yet indispensable genre with which humans hungry for meaning need to become more fluent. And he approaches the bible in this same way—as having an indispensable mythological element that resonates with some universally basic psychological need for a metaphysical world, and yet at the same time being constituted by recognizably absurd God-language with which we can dispense insofar as we conceive of them literally.

William James 

As a psychologist, Peterson has stated affinity for Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, and B. F. Skinner—he has also identified himself as a behaviorist. But as a philosopher-psychologist, he resonates most closely with early 20th century Harvard psychologist William Hames. James was both a philosopher and a psychologist, and invested much of his career in understanding the psychological experience of metaphysical realities such as religion.

Religion is, for James, “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider divine.”[10] James seems to equate the psychology of religion merely with its emotionality.[11] But Peterson sees the value of religion as carrying more philosophical credibility. Both James and Peterson identify professionally and methodologically as psychologists.[12] James and Peterson proceed on inductive footing to descriptively unify the religious experience of humanity collectively. James defines religion as that which man explicitly sees as God, whereas Peterson wants to give religion more philosophical credibility—he sees all of man’s psychological actions as at some level religious insofar as he has values:

 “We have not yet found God above, nor the devil below, because we do not yet understand where ‘above’ and ‘below’ might be found.”[13] Moreover, “Myth, and the drama that is part of myth, provide answers in image to the following question: ‘how can the current state of experience be conceptualized in abstraction, with regards to its meaning?’ … Meaning means implication for behavioral output; logically, therefore, myth represents information relevant to the most fundamental of moral problems: ‘what should be? (what should be done?)’. … This imagined future constitutes a vision of perfection … This vision of perfection is the promised land, mythologically speaking—conceptualized as a spiritual domain (a psychological state), a political utopia (a state, literally speaking), or both, simultaneously.”[14]

Paul Tillich 

Finally, we come to a systematic theologian with which Peterson most deeply resonates. That theologian is unquestionably Paul Tillich. Tillich writes:

 “What in the idea of God constitutes divinity? The answer is: It is the element of the unconditional and of ultimacy. This carries the quality of divinity. If this is seen, one can understand why almost every thing ‘in heaven and on earth’ has received ultimacy in the history of human religion. But we can also understand that a critical principle was and is at work in man’s religious consciousness, namely, that which is really ultimate over against what claims to be ultimate but is only preliminary, transitory, finite. The term ‘ultimate concern’ unites the subjective and the objective side of the act of faith—the fides qua creditur (the faith through which one believes) and the fides quae creditur (the faith which is believed). The first is the classical term for the centered act of the personality, the ultimate concern. The second is the classical term for that toward which this act is directed, the ultimate itself, expressed in symbols of the divine.”[15]

Peterson likewise writes:

“The idea of the formulation of the image of God is an abstraction. That’s how we’re going to handle it, to begin with. I want to say—because I said I wasn’t going to be any more reductionist than necessary—that I know the evidence for genuine religious experience is incontrovertible, but it’s not explicable, and so I don’t want to explain it away. I want to just leave it as a fact, and then I want to pull back from that and say, ok, we’ll leave that as a fact and mystery. We’re going to look at this from a rational perspective and say that the initial formulation of the idea of God was an attempt to abstract out an ideal, and to consider it as an abstraction outside of its instantiation. That’s good enough. That’s an amazing thing, if it’s true. But I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.”[16]

Here we see that Peterson and Tillich both identify “God,” as whatever is up there, so to speak. But they do so with an obvious regard for the gravity of precisely what is the transcendent, or the ultimate, or the ideal. Peterson and Tillich share an unapologetic ambiguity about God which serves their ecumenical purpose—both for Peterson as a psychologist and for Tillich as a liberal, drawing theological lines is neither entailed by their systems nor appropriate for their audiences. But both exhibit an intentional lack of specificity about divine identity, while at the same time insisting on the importance of an identifiable divinity.

Historicism (Religionsgeschichte)

Peterson isn’t a German liberal critic. It would be tempting to say that he is based on his utilization of the parallel between Hermann Gunkel’s Chaoskampf theory, or Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis about the construction of the Pentateuch.[17] But we should be careful to note his own qualifications about these ideas. Peterson is simply treating the Old Testament texts as human texts.


When someone asks Peterson: ‘Do you believe in God?’ — ‘(a) I don’t like to be boxed in, and (b) I don’t know what the person means by ‘believe’ or ‘God,’ and they think they know,  and the probability that the way they construe ‘belief’ and construe ‘God’ the way I do is virtually zero.’
— Jordan Peterson

This approach will feel off-putting to evangelicals in his audience insofar as they assume that God inspired the Bible by means of dictation, which is falsifiable especially in the Pentateuch text. But when Peterson speaks about the Bible as the historical product of an unfolding abstraction through human conflict—as a Hegelian production—this shouldn’t be a surprise, since he is always speaking as a psychologist, rather than as a theologian. By taking issue with the irreverence with which it feels as if Peterson is speaking about the biblical text, all this proves is the rigidity of theological discourse, which regularly expresses distaste for the human variable in speech about God.  

Conclusion

Religious thinkers are quick to identify Peterson as a closet atheist, and atheists are quick to identify Peterson as a religious sentimentalist. But he is neither. He has consistently delimited his professional expertise as a psychologist, and any time he seems to be speaking metaphysically, he should rather be interpreted as speaking about the psychology of metaphysics. Some would take this to mean that Peterson doesn’t believe in metaphysics—that is, in God per se, or moral realities. But I think that it is more truthful to say two different things instead:

First, Peterson clearly believes in the belief in metaphysical realities. For Peterson, everybody operates, phenomenologically, on metaphysical preconditions—and the more explicitly one can articulate those preconditions, the better.

 Second, Peterson seems reluctant to stake theological claims because of an expressed suspicion toward the corruption of claims through their ideological bastardization in religious institutions. In other words, Peterson has expressed in many places a distaste for the church, and a sympathy with Nietzsche’s criticism of the church’s constraints upon religious reflection.

Consequently, Peterson is sensitive to the possibility of his own statements being turned into a dogmatic cult, or being appropriated by existing denominations to fortify their own psychological credibility. Peterson comments, for example, that he doesn’t like answering the question “Does God exist?” because “(a) I don’t like to be boxed in, and (b) I don’t know what the person means by ‘believe’ or ‘God,’ and they think they know,  and the probability that the way they construe ‘belief’ and construe ‘God’ the way I do is virtually zero.”

 Peterson seems to want to remain sufficiently uncommitted in the public domain so that his ideas could not be used as the foundation or accreditation of an ideological institution.

Peterson is a psychologist who is looking for a theologian willing to step into the ring with him and go toe-to-toe with him who is (1) willing to accept enough methodological common ground with Peterson that he is willing to dignify the psychological aspect of belief, (2) admit the phenomenological barriers to speaking dogmatically about God, and (3) admit the plausibility of fallibility. Virtually no theologians who would care enough about the truthfulness of Christian doctrines are willing to accept such methodological terms, necessary as they may be. Peterson is looking for a theologian to answer certain question with him, yet most theologians are satisfied merely to criticize his theology, rather than accept Peterson’s ideas as an offering across the disciplinary aisle.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Jordan B. Peterson, “Biblical Series I: Introduction to the Idea of God.” https://jordanbpeterson.com/transcripts/biblical-series-i/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of the Mind, tr. J. B. Baillie, 2nd rev. ed. (London: George Allen, 1964), 789.

[4] Jordan B. Peterson, “Biblical Series I: Introduction to the Idea of God.” https://jordanbpeterson.com/transcripts/biblical-series-i/.

[5] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot (New York: Cosimo, 2008), 228. Marx Wartofsky explains, “The essence of religion is the projection of human essence as other. The essence of theology is the ‘absolutization,’ the metaphysical hypostatization of this other, as real, or as the only essentially real Being. Imagination … is the real reflect of real existence—of that existence which constitutes the distinctly human. It is the expression of human needs, human desires, human feelings. What makes this distinctively human is that it is the consciousness of an object of feeling. But this ‘unhappy’ consciousness is the veiled, unconscious or unknowing form of the consciousness of one’s own feeling, that is, it is selbstfühlende Gefühl” —“self-inflating dependence” (a twist on Schleiermacher). Marx W. Wartofsky, Feuerbach (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 217.

[6] Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament & Mythology: And Other Basic Writings, ed. Schubert M. Ogden (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1984), 3.

[7] Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament & Mythology: And Other Basic Writings, ed. Schubert M. Ogden (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1984), 4.

[8] Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament & Mythology: And Other Basic Writings, ed. Schubert M. Ogden (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1984), 8, 9.

[9] Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (New York: Routledge, 1999), 9.

[10] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Penguin, 1985; orig., 1902), 31.

[11] Ibid., 485-486.

[12] James: “As regards the manner in which I shall have to administer this lectureship, I am neither a theologian, nor a scholar learned in the history of religions, nor an anthropologist. Psychology is the only branch of learning in which I am particularly versed.” Ibid., 2.

[13] Peterson, Maps of Meaning, 8.

[14] Ibid., 13.

[15] Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957) 11-12.

[16] Jordan B. Peterson, “Biblical Series I: Introduction to the Idea of God.” https://jordanbpeterson.com/transcripts/biblical-series-i/.

[17] See Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel: With a Reprint of the Article ‘Israel’ from the Encyclopedia Britannica (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013; orig., 1885); Hermann Gunkel, Creation and Chaos in the Primeval Era and the Eschaton: A Religio-Historical Study of Genesis 1 and Revelation 12 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006). For modern criticisms of these views, read JoAnn Scurlock and Richard H. Beal, eds., Creation and Chaos: A Reconsideration of Hermann Gunkel’s Chaoskampf Hypothesis (Warsaw, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013); Thomas B. Dozeman and Konrad Schmid, eds., Farewell to the Yahwist?: Composition of the Pentateuch in Recent European Interpretation (SSS 34; Atlanta: SBL, 2006); Konrad Schmid, Genesis and the Moses Story: Israel’s Dual Origins in the Hebrew Bible (trans. James Nogalski; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2010). However, Schmid provides a helpful conceptual addition to this conversation, which is that the Pentateuch was clearly redacted at some level, and whichever way we slice the pie of textual history does have an effect upon the meaning of the text. Therefore, Wellhausenism still has a legacy insofar as we treat the Pentateuchal text as a document which took over a millennium to compose. Konrad Schmid, “Has European Scholarship Abandoned the Documentary Hypothesis? Some Reminders on Its History and Remarks on Its Current Status,” in The Pentateuch: International Perspectives on Current Research (eds. Thomas Dozeman et al.; FAT 78; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011).

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Paul Maxwell

Paul Maxwell (Ph.D.) is founder of MyTrauma.org. After publishing over 12 articles in peer-reviewed journals on theology and psychology, Paul wrote his doctoral dissertation on the relationship between trauma and religious belief. Paul writes on masculinity, faith, and trauma. You can follow him on twitter, or email him at paulcmaxwell@gmail.com.

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