First published on Christian Converser
Welcome to 2023 and a new year of blogging at CCNZ. Everyone must have heard of Jordan Peterson by now, as a psychologist, author and media commentator who is often quoted by evangelical Christians. At the same time, Peterson seems to court a great deal of public controversy, probably far more than any minister or pastor. So the question is how relevant Jordan Petersen’s beliefs are to Christians and whether they address a particular type of Christian belief or theology. The reason for writing this post is to try to nail down what relevance Jordan Peterson’s views that are specifically related to sexuality, one of the major platforms he speaks on, are especially relevant to Christian belief, and whether they have a particular theological slant or show any evidence of any understanding or depth of theological knowledge or understanding.
The issue for an author such as CCNZ to write on a subject like this is to be able to dig through Jordan Peterson’s beliefs and find Christian viewpoints especially on them and try to figure out how much weighting to apply to each viewpoint. It can’t necessarily be expected that CCNZ will have innate in depth knowledge of Jordan Peterson and his writings. The starting point for CCNZ is an article on a Substack blog called the Noosphere. The article essentially accuses Peterson of misogyny and various other things. Misogyny is well established and defended by a section of the Christian church. The real issue in addressing what Peterson believes and says is how much gravity Christians should give to his views if he is not actually a Christian himself. The reality is probably that conservative evangelical Christians have jumped on the coattails of Peterson’s high media profile or celebrity to defend his stated views that align with their own on subjects like sexuality and sexual identity. They need as much support as they can get for their views on these subjects. CCNZ does not intend to take a stance on these particular viewpoints except to say CCNZ generally does not support complementarian Christian views of female sexuality in general. There is nothing new in any Christians looking for support from outside their community for views on controversial social issues. CCNZ is just interested in figuring out where Peterson’s views should be classified in a theological context.
Jordan Peterson has made a number of commentaries on Christian subjects, an example cited on his Wikipedia biography is he did a series called “The Psychological Significance Of the Biblical Stories” about the Book of Genesis. This was followed by a series on the Book of Exodus and announcement of one for the Book of Proverbs. A Guardian article from five years ago on the 12 Rules book even cites Christianity and in fact the article URL (not the actual title) uses the phrase “12 steps”, a well known self help paradigm with allusions to a higher power some believe is the Christian God. The same article, however, makes it clear that Peterson cites a number of sources, all kinds of “great world stories” that he equates with Christianity such as Harry Potter and Pinnochio. This seems to make it fairly clear that Peterson is not innately attracted to the core of Christian belief, but to Christian principles. There is a fundamental enough difference in that, that Christians shouldn’t hold themselves to any kind of illusion that Peterson is any kind of professing believer himself. They certainly shouldn’t be fooled by the Guardian’s description of him as a “lay preacher” because a non Christian view of that term makes about as much sense as the seeming misappropriation of words like “pray” into the secular narrative or context of the present day (i.e. as in the words of Dictionary.com, an earnest petition to anyone, not necessarily God).
Going back to the Noosphere and Wikipedia, there does appear to be suggestions there that Jordan Peterson ascribes to some sort of Christian beliefs. There are also, however, strong views in those sources that suggest that he mostly appeals to just a segment of Christianity, the white male evangelical grouping of the church that also strongly affiliate with former US president Donald Trump. It would take a bit of work for CCNZ to feel able to accurately characterise Peterson’s views of Christian faith and their theological aspects and that work is not going to occur so CCNZ has to try to draw on a range of possible sources and form an opinion of Peterson in general, and that probably will only scratch the surface. One aspect that this blog will touch on is the “involuntary celibate” community of men, the moniker commonly abbreviated to “incel”. There are plenty of Christian incels around who don’t make a big fuss about their situation but accept it and move on with their lives. Indeed, this post is being authored by one. However given the level of diversity of thought and belief in the Christian community as a whole that mirrors the same aspects of secular society, there are undoubtedly some Christian incels and their non-incel supporters to whom someone like Peterson has a high degree of appeal because he appears to blame women (especially feminists) for this situation for purportedly pushing back on men and denying them their “right” to sex. This view of sexuality fits in really well with the Christian theology of complementarianism, referred to above briefly, which essentially teaches a traditional patriarchical view of sexuality in which a wife is completely subservient in all aspects of her life to her husband.
CCNZ has to find some Christian views of Jordan Peterson to bring a bit of balance into this post and fill out its substantive premise. There are, indeed, a range of these across the Internet, some of which look at Peterson’s beliefs that he propagates through his various platforms, and others which focus on their perception of his own personal journey walking in the light of Christian faith and beliefs. Here are some of them broken down into a bulleted list. Most of these sites would be identified as in a broad sense representing traditional views of Christianity. Progressives by and large seem to mostly ignore him outright:
- Conservative US Christian news site “The Christian Post” in an article in July 2022, basically current at the time of writing this post on CCNZ, quoted at some length a video message from Peterson labelled “Message To The Christian Churches”, in which he essentially criticised churches that pursue social justice causes. The message was critiqued in the same article by a commentator from Christian magazine Relevant who summarised it as “not why the Christian Church is here” and “certainly not the Gospel”. Social justice in the Christian context is by no means a new stream of thought; it has probably existed in all its various forms for hundreds if not thousands of years.
- Reasons To Believe, a patriarchical Christian apologist site in the US, comes out as a fan of Peterson’s contributions to conservative political causes and ideals, which tends to sum up Peterson’s broad appeal to the segment of the Church which is focused on achieving political power, using a March 2022 article to judge this (again, more or less current). The article regrettably is too short to provide more than a passing reference of the above mentioned viewpoint but it does notably take issue with some of Peterson’s contradictions of core Christian dogma. This is perhaps in one part a reflection that RTB does not appear to be focused particularly on Christian theology, and whilst its scholars are particularly leaned in their respective fields of scientific thought, few or none of them appear to have any theological qualifications.
- Premier Unbelievable, a branch of the grandiosely named UK Christian site Premier Christianity, posted an August 2022 article titled “Is Jordan B Peterson the saviour of Christianity?”. The article does a good job of presenting the background to its titular premise. It points out that a comparison between complementarian American pastor Mark Driscoll and Peterson is nonsensical as Peterson is “neither an academic version of Driscoll nor is he a conventional Christian by most accounts”. The article goes on to explain that Peterson refused to be nailed down on some evident contradictions between his professed fervency for Christianity and his personal adherence to core Christian beliefs (dogmas).
- The Gospel Coalition Australia’s website carries an article from late 2022 (therefore again current) by Dani Treweek, sometime theologian and former minister who heads singleminded.community, an organisation that is focused on developing a parachurch ministry focus on singleness within the greater Church of Jesus Christ. TGC is positioned as a fellowship of Reformed churches and it seems interesting for them to have carried an article, given their conservative complementarianism, from an author such as Treweek. Her post titled “Jordan Peterson’s Useful God” sums up a public speaking engagement conducted by Peterson in Australia, in respect of which she essentially asserts that Peterson’s interpretations of scripture are not kingdom-focused and not specifically exhorting Christian beliefs above general religious beliefs (or beliefs that are common across many religions about humanity). Hence, Treweek concludes that “we as disciples of Christ must ensure God’s story continues to matter as God’s story, rather than one of our own making”.
- Blogger Matthew Graham covered this subject in January 2023, which is about as current as it can get – hot off the presses, on the Patheos site. Like some of the other commentators quoted in this CCNZ blog, he zeroes in on Peterson’s studious avoidance of questions about his personal adherence to the Christian faith. As in nearly all of the most committed theological viewpoints on Peterson, he cautions against adopting Peterson’s word as “gospel truth”.
- Finally after a lot of effort it was possible to find a viewpoint from a less conservative theological perspective on Peterson – this one from MC Cranmer on Medium, which is from 2018 so not as current as all the rest. Surely they would be different from all the other more conservatively focused outlooks on Peterson’s position? Funnily enough, no. Cranmer, from whatever their real theological position actually is (that CCNZ is yet to discern, since this is the sole post on their Medium site) has pretty much followed the same viewpoint as every other cited commentator: Peterson’s views of Christianity are “bizarre”, and “Christians all across the spectrum [progressive to conservative] accept the Bible has a special value… however low a bar this may sound to some, Peterson doesn’t even reach it”.
So let’s try and pull this post back towards the question of Jordan Peterson’s views on Christian sexuality. The range of viewpoints about Peterson’s view of Christianity as a whole suggests he should not be taken as authoritative on the Christian message as a whole. Can we start, then, to arrive at a viewpoint of whether Peterson’s views of sexuality can be considered relevant in light of Christian tenets as a whole, particularly sexuality in a Christian context. In one sense it can, and that is in relevance to common views of sexuality that are also held by Christianity. The main problem with Peterson’s views on sexuality that relate to a Christian viewpoint is that Peterson essentially feeds into only one view of sexuality, that which is most closely aligned to Christian complementarianism, and does not appear to acknowledge a diversity of Christian thought and belief in this area. This is not so much Peterson’s fault as it is the fault of those who champion Peterson’s viewpoints; we can already see that Peterson’s views on Christianity should not be taken as authoritative. It seems, then, that our more conservative members have been guilty of riding on Peterson’s coattails to gain publicity for their own causes – theological or political – without acknowledging the potential damage this will risk across the wider Church. CCNZ has written extensively already about the division in the Church caused by adherence to and support of Donald Trump. Whilst Peterson is not quite held in the same degree of reverence as Trump was, conservative evangelicals should be wary of championing supporters of their specific cause where there exists a risk of creating polarisation across the evangelical church as a whole.
Back to the Noosphere where this all started off – and bringing in a bit of the American Conservative as well. The viewpoint of the latter is highly instructive to the perspective of Christian sexuality being explored here: it says simply and bluntly that Jordan Peterson has no business telling the Church that it should exist first and foremost for young men; the Church is not meant to be a giant matchmaking service. Whilst sexuality is an issue for Christians, therefore, AC suggests it is very questionable that at least some of Peterson’s teaching has been championed by evangelicals who believe that the church has alienated this group. This is also an aspect that Noosphere focuses on, although from a secular outlook, and therefore perhaps not with particular reference to the Church at all. And it’s the aspect that CCNZ will focus on today. Involuntary celibacy is a very complex thing, and it’s not the church’s fault it exists in any way at all. The vast majority of “incels” would not have the social skills needed to form meaningful intimate relationships with women. For example, neurodiverse people (e.g. those with autistic spectrum disorders) would be in this category. Incel is not something new, it has existed forever. The difference was that in the past, society was that much more willing to tolerate sexual violence against women who were being compelled by incellous males to accede to their demands. It was much harder for women to get a divorce and many felt they had to stay in bad marriages. It is certainly true that the rise of feminism and gender equality has changed the landscape for incels – and that actually is a good thing if it results in better outcomes for women. Fundamentally the problem is that society is still dominated by men – and that parts of the Christian Church still champion patriarchy through viewpoints like complementarianism. Peterson is not contributing anything worthwhile to Christian sexuality with his views on sexuality in general. They are only of great appeal to a segment of Christianity that is locked into past traditions, especially those which have become reactionary against feminist viewpoints – as complementarianism is.