Maps of Meaning 04: Crisis & the World of Belief

After about a year and a half of neglect, I am finally returning to regular postings of my Maps of Meaning series. In the previous posts, I discussed Jordan Peterson's youthful experience with fundamentalist Christianity, his dalliance with socialism, and his quest for authenticity over ideology. If you have not read these posts, I would encourage you to do so now and then return. In this post, I will discuss Dr. Peterson's renewed appreciation for the religious and assess what this means for a Christian audience.


Jung and Restless

(I couldn't help myself)

As Peterson pursued authentic living by speaking and acting out of what he believed he had the right to identify with, he began to have recurrent horrid, apocalyptic dreams riddled with cultic imagery. He comments that these dreams were surely connected to his fascination with the Cold War, writing "I thought about the suicidal and murderous preparation of that war every minute of every day, from the moment I woke up until the second I went to bed. How could such a state of affairs come about? Who was responsible?" (xviii-xix). He recounts that, during this time, he was depressed, anxious, and vaguely suicidal. The possible global catastrophe that loomed over ever moment was rising through his subconscious as something intrinsic to his own being - likely because it was. More on this later.

With the recklessness associated with many college students, amplified by acute existential angst, Peterson frequented drinking parties. After leaving one such party, "self-disgusted and angry," the dreams manifested themselves through art.

"I took a canvas board and some paints. I sketched a harsh, crude picture of a crucified Christ – glaring and demonic – with a cobra wrapped around his naked waste, like a belt. The picture disturbed me – struck me, despite my agnosticism, as sacrilegious. I did not know what it meant, however, or why I had painted it" (xix).

Whatever this waking dream may have symbolized, it shook Peterson as he recognized that he did not understood himself, let alone any other selves. His dreams were real and revelatory, but he lacked a lens to understand in what sense they were real and what they were revealing. He read Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, but did not find Freud's wish fulfillment theory or sexual hermeneutic to be satisfying. To Peterson, his dreams were markedly religious in orientation, particularly as expressed in his painting. He then began to find some helpful answers in Carl Jung.

I started to provide and interact with an overview of Jung's dream theory, which I find to be both fascinating and compelling, but I decided to relegate that to a separate post that will not be directly tied to this series. For now, I'll limit Jung to one quote provided by Peterson:

“It must be admitted that the archetypal contents of the collective unconscious can often assume grotesque and horrible forms in dreams and fantasies, so that even the most hard-boiled rationalist is not immune from shattering nightmares and haunting fears" (xx).

Archetypes are the transcendent ideals, derived from the human psyche, that are dramatically played by pagan deities, literary figures, movie characters, etc. These characters are real in the sense that they portray something real about human existence. Their portrayals, manifested in the dream - whether waking or sleeping - reveal something about our unconscious desires, fears, and anticipations. The Olympian gods and goddesses, for example, were real and are real to this day. The Greeks worshiped Love and Fertility, War and Anger, Sea and Trade, and made sacrifices appropriate to appease these deities. When Olympus was depopulated, the pantheon did not cease to exist, but returned to its source - the human psyche - where it continues its tumultuous reign.


The World-that-is-Belief

I'll delve into these ideas further in my Jung post, but this at least provides a sense of what appealed to the distraught Peterson. His dreams meant something. His waking mind was not his true self, or at least not in its entirety. His deeper Olympus was presenting itself. His archetypal, apocalyptic dreams were communicating something about his capacity for evil and how that interplayed with the threat of totalitarianism. He recounts that these dreams finally stopped as he continued to study Jung and comparative mythology. Through this journey, he came to find that the world of action is an archetypal drama told with greater or lesser degrees of epistemic fidelity. The world in which we live is not fundamentally a world of matter, but of what matters.

“I discovered that beliefs make the world, in a very real way – that beliefs are the world, in a more than metaphysical sense. This discovery has not turned me into a moral relativist, however; quite the contrary. I have become convinced that the world-that-is-belief is orderly; that there are universal moral absolutes. I believe that individuals and societies who flout these absolutes – in ignorance or in willful opposition – are doomed to misery and eventual dissolution" (xx).

The world is made of beliefs, which are not to be confused with relativistic opinions. While a diverse range of human beliefs can certainly be of benefit, a range is by definition limited. True beliefs organize the world in harmony with human flourishing. True beliefs are in harmony with the divine Word, which is the fundamental organizer of good order. False beliefs, however, are destructive. False beliefs are lies told about the human psyche and, consequently, result in misery and death - both existentially and physically, for the spiritual, psychological, and somatic are all interconnected.

The world we inhabit is not fundamentally different than that of our ancient ancestors. They articulated what we would call ancient myths and we articulate modern myths, but the mythological structuring of the human drama is nonetheless the same. The moderns just tend to be more oblivious of their mythmaking.


Jordan Peterson & Christianity

So what, exactly, should the Christian make of Dr. Peterson? On one hand, he speaks favorably of Christianity, celebrates (worships?) the divine Word that brings order from chaos, emphasizes the importance of the individual living in imitation of the Word, fights against atheism, postmodern relativism, and collectivism and otherwise generally favors the Christian philosophical tradition. On the other hand, he seems to treat Christianity merely as a good myth, rich with psychological content that has proven to be of net historical benefit. When he seamlessly pulls from Genesis, the Enuma Elish, and the Bhagavad Gita, he implies a kind of pan-religiosity that is clearly in discord with Christianity's exclusivist claims.

I think it is always important to evaluate someone according to the domain that they claim. If Peterson claimed to be a Christian theologian or pastor, I'd feel comfortable calling him a heretic. However, he does not make this claim. Dr. Peterson is a clinical psychologist. Although he frequently identifies with the Christian tradition, and commends the imitation of Christ, he does not claim to be a Christian. In fact, as I noted in my first post of the series, he is careful not to do this. He is frequently asked if he believes in God, to which he responds that he acts as if God exists, but he does not feel qualified to make definitive metaphysical claims. Again and again, he protects himself from being labeled a theologian.

So how should the Christian evaluate Dr. Peterson? As a clinical psychologist. In this context, a Christian audience can derive great wealth from Peterson's books and lectures. In fact, I believe his lectures on Genesis are absolutely brilliant and provide more insights into divine revelation than many sermons I have heard. I highly recommend that you go to YouTube and get started on them right now. Sure, he sometimes makes claims that are not in tune with Christian orthodoxy or respectable biblical scholarship, but, again, he is a psychologist - not a theologian or biblical scholar.

Do not be afraid, Christian, of seeking truth wherever it may be found. However veiled He may seem, the Word operates beyond dogma.

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