It seems that the Catholic men in my life have become swept up in praise of Dr. Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor whose self-help book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, skyrocketed him to fame. Hardly a Bible study social has gone by without someone quoting Peterson, always with a tone of admiration and followed by a chorus of approving nods. In the course of amicably debating a point of theology or politics, fellow parishioners have encouraged me to check out what Peterson says about the topic at hand. When I finally picked up 12 Rules for Life, it was partly out of a desire to see what all the fuss was about. Who is this man, and what is his philosophy that captures the attention of my Catholic brothers so much?
I began the book with an open mind and finished it with a persistent question: Do the men touting Peterson agree with his negative view of women, or do they just not notice his denigrating comments? I’m not sure which one is worse, but I find it alarming to see men in the Church praising Peterson so strongly without disavowing his stance on women.
A Different View of Christianity
I am not alone in noticing the Peterson phenomenon. Earlier this year, Bishop Barron held up Jordan Peterson as an example of how to reach a new generation of young people, highlighting Peterson’s ability to reach “beleaguered young men” and saying it’s a sign of hope when young men watch Peterson talk about the Bible. In March 2019, Bishop Barron even appeared on Peterson’s podcast to discuss issues of faith.
Peterson has clearly tapped into something that appeals to countless men through his ability to present some aspects of the Bible in a compelling way. This ability aside, there is a great deal in Peterson’s body of work that should give Catholic readers serious pause. Even Bishop Barron, amid all his praise for Peterson, advises caution, saying that Peterson’s reading of Scripture is “inadequate” and neglects to treat God as more than a principle or abstraction. Peterson, after all, is neither a theologian nor a Christian.
Peterson has clearly tapped into something that appeals to countless men.
Often, Peterson’s work removes God from the equation entirely, reducing Biblical heroes to men who could “stand up straight” rather than individuals who relied on God to lead and empower them (Peterson 26). He indirectly invokes Noah, Moses, and the prophets, triumphantly declaring that following the first of his “twelve rules” means “building the ark ... guiding your people through the desert ... [and] speaking the prophetic word” (Peterson 27). Absent in this list of achievements is any indication that these biblical figures were successful not because of their own power but because of God’s abundant grace. In his analysis, he reduces biblical stories to mere myths from which he deduces his “Twelve Rules for Life.”
The version of Christianity that Peterson offers is a heretical one dating back to the 5th century. Pelagius, a heretic decried by St. Augustine, believed that human beings were capable of willing themselves to become righteous and choose good over evil without God’s grace. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger noticed this heresy reemerge in the 1980s, writing in Guardare Cristo:
The other face of the same vice is the Pelagianism of the pious. They do not wish to receive any forgiveness and in general any real gift from God. They just want to be in order: no forgiveness, but rightful reward. They would like certainty, not hope. By means of a harsh and rigorous religious practice, through prayers and actions, they seek to acquire their right to salvation. They lack the humility that is essential to any form of love, the humility to receive gifts that are not commensurate with the way we act or deserve them. (66, translated by Camilla Tassi, emphasis added).
We cannot employ “rugged individualism” to self-help our way out of vice, but this approach is precisely what Peterson preaches with his “rules for life”: stand up straight, tell the truth, and you can overcome chaos and achieve perfect order — no sanctifying grace required.
We cannot employ “rugged individualism” to self-help our way out of vice
Dominance Hierarchies: The Problem of the Lobster
Most worrisome of all? Peterson’s emphasis on “dominance hierarchies.” In Peterson’s view, human beings exist within a naturally occuring “pecking order,” where the “strongest, and healthiest” enjoy prime territory (Peterson 3). Might, in other words, makes right. Peterson encourages his readers to strive to be like the “dominate lobsters” who fight vicious battles over land and mating partners (Peterson 9). Men should strive to be like the winning lobsters, otherwise they risk ending up with the brain of a “subordinate,” occupying the “lowly” positions within society (Peterson 6). As Peterson explains,
“If you’re a number one, you’re an overwhelming success. If you’re male, you have preferential access to the best places to live and the highest quality food. People compete to do you favors. You have limitless opportunity for romantic and sexual contact. You are a successful lobster, and the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention.” (15)
This treatise on lobsters and dominance is one of the central tenets of Peterson’s work; so popular, in fact, that his fans sport t-shirts and tattoos bearing the crustacean mascot and even refer to fellow Peterson devotees as “lobster brothers.” This chapter ends by encouraging readers to look at the “victorious lobster” for inspiration (Peterson 28). Peterson’s work not only describes, but actually endorses these systems of dominance, neglecting the fact that Christ swallowed up those kinds of hierarchies, making the first last and the last first, inverting and subverting the sinful way that men and women have sought to remake the world through power and violence.
Christ swallowed up hierarchies, making the first last and the last first, inverting and subverting the sinful way that men and women have sought to remake the world through power and violence.
A Frank Conversation
It is unsurprising that Peterson fails to understand Jesus’ radical reorientation of the worldly fight for power; a reading of Scripture will always fall short when it does not allow space for God and grace. What is surprising is how few Catholic thinkers have paused their praise of Peterson long enough to unpack the heretical conclusions that result when you follow the psychologist’s philosophy to its logical end.
A reading of Scripture will always fall short when it does not allow space for God and grace.
Bishop Barron alludes to these problems — namely, his concern about “the Gnosticizing tendency to read Biblical religion purely psychologically and philosophically and not at all historically.” He suggests that it would take several articles to fully explore the holes in Peterson’s exegesis, but he has presently chosen to focus on the positive qualities of Peterson’s book.Fair enough. I see the benefits of engaging with modern thinkers and beginning conversations from a place of agreement rather than discord. That said, it’s time to have a frank conversation about the dangers of putting too much stock in Peterson’s thinking, especially in his misguided ideas about gender. In the next part, we’ll dive into that conversation.