12 Rules for Life: A Book I Wanted to Like
Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is a book I wanted to like. I wanted so much to favor someone who proposes rules in our times of unrestraint. I see so clearly the need for an antidote to chaos. The fact that his book is on the top of many bestseller lists only made my desire greater. My expectations were high. I wanted to like this book. But I didn’t.
I will admit that the book has valid advice. Some might consider the book engaging and folksy. People like stories that illustrate points and the book is full of them. There are abundant Christian references. I was impressed by some commonsensical observations about childrearing and discipline drawing from his experience as both a parent and psychologist. So many things he said seemed to make sense.
And yet, he failed to convince me. I became uneasy about the many favorable references to Freud, Jung and Nietzsche. There was too much Heidegger and no Saint Thomas Aquinas. There were too many strange formulations about Being (with a capital B) and yin-yang dualism. It was hard to pin him down on how he stands on Christ, truth … or even God.
A Modern Thinker Against Postmodernism
It took a while to figure the book out. But then it clicked.
Dr. Peterson is a modern thinker. He lives in the swirling existential world of thought patterns, narratives and archetypes. He is quite open about this. The book is full of passages that show how life is explained by personal and collective experiences. Everything is about Being with a capital B—whatever that means. He sees life as a Taoist interplay of order and chaos. He defends a Freudian, Darwinian world made in their image and likeness where his rules seem to make sense.
These rules even seem attractive because the Canadian professor’s message is directed against postmodernism and “cultural Marxism,” which challenge both his existential world and our own. Thus, he speaks with great passion and even brilliance against a politically correct world gone mad.
For this reason, many have praised the tell-it-like-it-is Dr. Peterson as a forceful voice in defense of order and even conservatism.
Part of the Process Not the Opposition
However, it is one thing to rage against the madness; it is quite another to change the world. And this is where the book falls seriously short.
We cannot return to a Freudian, Darwinian world to find rules for life. That world is part of the problem. Indeed, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and Darwin (all favorably cited in 12 Rules for Life) are responsible for the more mystical side of our modernity. They banished the supernatural order from society and enthroned a naturalism that sought to explain all spiritual things based on experience and evolved thought patterns. The existential obsession with Being with a capital B and other such concepts sought to replace God and morals. Nietzsche’s famous declaration that God is dead also attempted to decree the death of dogmatic certainty.
Postmodernism is the next step in the process of the West’s intellectual and moral decay. Just as modernity undermined the Church’s supernatural order, so postmodernity denies the naturalistic positions defended by these modern thinkers. Hence, the politically correct denial of reality that Dr. Peterson attacks so well has its origins in much of the thinking he professes.
We are told, for example, that our Biblical texts are not the inspired Word of God but merely allegorical narratives “coding our observations of our own drama” and embedded in shared stories.
Dr. Peterson continues: “The Biblical narrative of Paradise and the Fall is one such story, fabricated by our collective imagination, working over the centuries. It provides a profound account of the nature of Being, and points the way to a mode of conceptionalization and action well-matched to that nature.”
Indeed, even the notion of a personal God is part of a fiction. “Our ancestors acted out a drama, a fiction: they personified the force that governs fate as a spirit that can be bargained with, traded with, as if it were another human being. And the amazing thing is that it worked” (emphasis his).
Dr. Peterson’s abundant Christian references and citations are all made in this context, mixed with similar references to other religious “stories.” Religion is not about man’s relationship with God but it “is instead about proper behavior” (emphasis his).
Rules in Esoteric Trappings
Thus, the substrata of the 12 Rules for Life I tried to like is based on this existential framework of reality. The rules themselves are experience-based directives, not moral imperatives. We are asked to derive inspiration from rules like number one which says: Stand up straight with your shoulders back. Rule 5 says: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them. And what are we to make of Rule 11, which says: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding or rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street?
Even the advice found in these rules, which seems so practical, is enveloped in esoteric trappings. After telling his stories, Dr. Peterson inevitably enters into notions of Being with a capital B or other existential jargon highlighting the plight of the individual in an unfathomable universe without certainties. He invites us, for example, to have faith, which he calls an “irrational commitment to the essential goodness of Being.”
The bottom line is that “we must each adopt as much responsibility as possible” and thus “we can and must reduce the suffering that poisons the world.”
Such advice may feel good, but it is hardly an antidote to the chaos that is devouring the world.
A Missing Link with the One True God
Missing is the link to the one True God Who desires our salvation. This is the problem with the 12 Rules for Life book I tried to like. There is no link. We are on our own and can expect no help from beyond.
Our fallen nature is not a shared story but a tragic reality for which we need concrete and supernatural help from Heaven to help us fight the chaos that threatens to overwhelm us.
Dr. Peterson and those who rave over his rules seem oblivious to the means of sanctification and salvation that the Church extends to us for this purpose. The power of prayer is immense to those who confide in God. The sacramental life nourishes and strengthens us in our daily journey. The grace of God allows us to do that which mere nature cannot do. These are truly antidotes to chaos.
What is needed is not abstract Being with a capital B but a personal, infinite, eternal, and transcendent God with a capital G.
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Jordan Peterson: An Antidote to the Dissolution of the West
For the past year and a half, Professor Jordan Peterson has become an unlikely hero to millions and a fierce critic of the radical left’s ideological agenda. Peterson’s impact cannot be overstated. His book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, has topped many sales charts including Amazon in the anglosphere (despite a deliberate exclusion from the New York Times bestsellers list). He has over a million subscribers on YouTube and close to 600K followers on Twitter. Through such a wide reach, he is literally rescuing a generation of young men who have been emasculated by a decadent society hostile to male virtues. Western societal elites are strangely bent on denigrating them and subverting the traditional sociobiological roles of both males and females. Women are feeling the brunt of this as well since they, for the most part, desire strong, faithful, and competent men with which to build a family. Given the aftermath of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, there have been unprecedented rates of sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, widespread abortion, absentee fathers (including those pushed aside), broken homes, and acrimonious custody battles. Due in large measure to these trends and the feminist ideology that justifies them, distrust between men and women is at unacceptably high levels.
In Canada, Peterson has been in a dogfight against the destructive effects of identity politics that stifles free speech. He has opposed the compelled use of made-up gender-neutral pronouns advocated by Bill c-16, which became federal law last June. I have dealt with this issue at length in two articles, which can be found here and here. The destruction of the traditional family has made it harder to resist threats to common law rights and that loss of liberty has put the future of Western civilization at risk.
A Christian Ally
12 Rules for Life is geared at offering a cure to these great malaises of modernity. Unlike, his first book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, which stands as a very dense academic treatise of various complex subjects, 12 Rules for Life is a more accessible read. Peterson demonstrates over 20 years of experience as a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology. He aims to help people transcend their pain and suffering through bearing the burden of life by taking up their own “cross,” as he states:
How could the world be freed from the terrible dilemma of conflict, on the one hand, and psychological and social dissolution, on the other? The answer was this: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of Being and to take the heroic path.
He offers sound and motivating advice to help avoid many of life’s common pitfalls such as addiction, depression, lack of meaning, resentment, etc. Overall, the book is a strong refutation of the nihilistic tendencies found in our contemporary culture. It is also offers an accurate outlook on the harsh realities of existence while simultaneously offering a viable path forward to combat evil and suffering. His emphasis on personal responsibility over instant gratification answers a deep need for meaning in every human heart that too often is left unsatisfied.
The book’s 12 rules are not mean to offer an in-depth theological reflection, nor an erudite exegesis of biblical texts, but rather, practical advice through the lens of a clinical psychologist who is extremely well equipped to provide antidotes to both individual and collective pathologies. It is not surprising, therefore, that a practitioner of a modern discipline would employ modern philosophical language. For example, when Peterson uses the term “Being” he does so in a Heideggerian sense. In brief, Being encompasses the totality of human experience—what we experience at the individual level and in relation to others. It refers to the phenomenological experience of reality or what philosopher David Chalmers has dubbed “the theater of experience” (with all five senses). Our capacity to exercise free will in the world allows us to experience Being, to know reality.
One of the strengths of Peterson’s book lies in his use of Carl Jung’s archetypal psychology to interpret biblical texts. This is done in a masterful way that has captivated the secular mind. Nonreligious truth seekers are increasingly willing to learn about the wisdom contained in sacred scripture due to Peterson’s ability to package his message it in a non-threatening way. Because of the way he uses scripture, nonbelievers are rethinking their secular views and are returning to the Church. Peterson is a friend of Christian belief, not an enemy. He is doing more for Christ than many Christian ministers, theologians, and philosophers (I can attest to this first hand). But don’t take my word for it. One of the greatest Christian apologists of our time (in my humble opinion) has stated recently on his podcast and in his discussion with Peterson that he didn’t have to evangelize because Peterson was doing a good job preaching the Gospel!
Another reason why Peterson is an ally to Catholics is his opposition to the postmodernist and neo-Marxist infiltration of Catholic institutions. The “philosophies” of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan and Francois Lyotard have penetrated deeply into the psyche of both Catholic philosophy and theology. The influence is made unabashedly explicit. The associated Frankfurt School and critical theory are taught at reputable Catholic universities. Peterson’s public challenge to cultural Marxism makes him an ally to Catholic theology and a critic of theological dissenters.
It is undeniably true that Peterson’s tendency to focus on God as an abstraction of the collective unconscious, rather than a God who affects our personal lives is inadequate because it does not convey the whole Christian message. Having said that, Peterson is refreshing in how seriously he takes Christian texts and the role they played in the formation of Western civilization. He has chastised atheists like Sam Harris who believe we can develop our own morality without reference to God. In other words, Peterson acknowledges that we cannot design our morality because right moral conduct is built into the structure of “Being.” In theological language, morality that works conforms to the natural law. Furthermore, without the transcendent there is no grounding for objective morality and what is left is relativistic and subjective. Apologist Frank Turek has critiqued this atheist delusion in his book Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case.
Confronting Evil with Good – a Mode of Transcendence
The section “Vengeance or Transformation” in chapter 6 is the most powerful passage of the book. Peterson’s deep reflection here suggests that he is moving toward “the way, the truth and the life.” It is here that Peterson confronts evil in its most radical manifestations. He also understands that if evil exists, so must goodness. Implicitly he recognizes that there is a way of discerning between the two. Despite showing much openness, for the time being he is hesitant to identify a metaphysical source for goodness. Nevertheless, he did tweet a link to Gary Habermas’s “minimal facts” concerning the death and resurrection of Christ. By recommending the work of someone who specializes in the historical evidence for the resurrection, Peterson appears willing to consider the historicity of the gospels.
Peterson juxtaposes those who repay evil with evil from those who transcend this vicious cycle. For the former, he draws on the example of a brutal rapist and serial killer, Carl Panzram, who brutalized his victims to compensate for the suffering he endured due to the malevolence of others. His crimes were a desecration of the image of God, not only in himself but in other humans he wrought his vengeance upon. Ultimately, writes Peterson, they are an attack on God. In this category you can take your pick of other serial killers, mass murderers, and ruthless demagogues who have inflicted unspeakable suffering and injustice on others. Because nihilistic materialism denies both good and evil, it inevitably leads to unrestrained suffering. Peterson appeals to Nietzsche as a prophetic voice who foresaw the totalitarian mass murder of the twentieth century due to modern man’s “murder” of God.
Peterson contrasts Panzram’s evil with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s personal transformation. Solzhenitsyn suffered at the hands of both Hitler and Stalin. He had been imprisoned in 1945 for distributing anti-Soviet propaganda. During his time within the gulags he had the opportunity to reflect deeply upon his life. Solzhenitsyn endured tremendous amounts of psychological, physical, and spiritual torment. But, instead of allowing his resentfulness and bitterness to consume him, as it did Panzram, he underwent a radical transformation. He took inventory of the things he had done wrong and found ways to repair the failures of his past life. Inspired by this experience, he wrote the 3-volume Gulag Archipelago that served as an intellectual death knell to the pernicious ideology of communism.
This intense introspection into the deep and terrifying caverns of our own moral consciousness, is where the fundamental message of his book lies: we must turn our own personal suffering into goodness so as to transform the world beginning with ourselves. In other words, stop complaining and bear your cross. In line with this is the notion that, if we take seriously Christ’s words from the Sermon on the Mount, we would begin to usher in God’s Kingdom today (Matt. 5:43-48).
Peterson: The Well-Tempered Antidote to Modern Chaos
Despite my significant disagreements with Peterson, which are laid out here and here, his book offers a message that we surely need in our desperate times. I recommend it to anyone who dares embark on the adventure of regenerating themselves through first acknowledging and then confronting the true evil that lurks in their hearts. In order to transcend our broken selves, we must let parts of ourselves die, to bring order out of chaos, as Peterson states:
In the Christian tradition, Christ is identified with the Logos. The Logos is the Word of God. That Word transformed chaos into order at the beginning of time. In His human form, Christ sacrificed Himself voluntarily to truth, to the good, to God. In consequence, He died and was reborn. The Word that produces order from Chaos sacrifices everything, even itself to God. That single sentence, wise beyond comprehension, sums up Christianity. Every bit of learning is a little death. Every bit of new information challenges a pervious conception, forcing it to dissolve into chaos before it can be reborn as something better. Sometimes such deaths virtually destroy us.
There is an interesting similarity with Peterson’s antidote to chaos (restoration of order) and the late philosopher and literary critic, René Girard’s mimetic theory. In this theory, Girard argues that the best way to transcend chaos, groupthink (ideological possession), violence, and evil is through Christ’s words and ultimate salvific act through the cross. Girard, like Peterson, was a skeptic and a great admirer of Dostoyevsky. His conversion was influenced by reading Dostoyevsky and had consequently become a committed Catholic. Whether Peterson will follow suit remains to be seen. But, whether he acknowledges it or not, the ultimate antidote to chaos lies with the One who relies on no-one; the only One capable of restoring the most hardened of hearts. We must surrender ourselves to the one uncreated Being, who gives being and potentiality to all of creation, without which there would be no order, no chaos, but pure nothingness.
In February of 2017 in Ottawa, I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Peterson. I had mentioned to him that I was working on an article that began as a conference paper where I pit him (defender of truth) against Jacques Derrida (wishful mortician of the absolute). He asked me to send it to him. One thing that struck me about Peterson, aside from his intellectual capacities and his ability to captivate audiences, was his patience and his humility. He is doing his part to rescue a troubled civilization; will we do ours? Peterson has flung down the gauntlet; who is willing to take up his challenge?