by Bob Wheeler
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
Jordan B. Peterson
Random House Canada, 2018
409 pp., h.c.
Dr. Jordan B. Peterson is being hailed in some quarters as an influential conservative thinker who is values-centered and an advocate for freedom of thought and speech. He is a clinical psychologist and a professor at the University of Toronto. In his best-selling book 12 Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos, he lays out some basic principles on how to achieve happiness and fulfillment in life. In so doing he often calls us back the traditional cultural values of Western Civilization.
In the book Dr. Peterson challenges many of the assumptions of the contemporary intellectual world. He argues that in order for society to function there has to be a shared cultural system and a hierarchy of values. Our values, in turn, are often rooted in religious tradition. But to avoid the dilemma of slavish adherence to the group on the one hand, and outright nihilism on the other, it is necessary for the individual to take responsibility for his own actions. “We must each accept as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society and the world. We must each tell the truth and repair what is in disorder and break down and recreate what is old and outdated. It is in this manner that we can and must reduce the suffering that poisons the world” (p. xxxiii).
What follows are the “12 rules for life” that he proposes. Much of it is good, common-sense advice such as “Make friends with people who want the best for you” (Rule 3), “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them” (Rule 5), and “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)” (Rule 7).
Much of what Peterson has to say is based on common sense and everyday experience. For him much of it simply means coming to terms with reality. This would include, among other things, gender roles, which are rooted in psychological differences between the sexes. He argues that to some degree, at least, these gender differences are desirable. “It is to women’s clear advantage that men do not happily put up with dependency among themselves . . . a woman should not look after a man, because she must look after children, and a man should not be a child” (pp. 329-330). “Men have to toughen up. Men demand it, and women want it . . .” (p. 331).
While Peterson comes across as an outspoken defender of traditional Western culture, his approach, however, is not really Christian. He accepts the idea that human beings are the products of evolution. He also accepts modern critical theories about the Bible, and says at one point that “The Bible has been thrown up, out of the deep, by the collective human imagination, which itself is a product of unimaginable forces operating over unfathomable spans of time” (p. 104).
This, in turn, raises a serious question about the nature of morality itself. While Peterson has a great deal to say about human experience, he has practically nothing to say about God himself. The result is a more or less relativistic view of morality. “You can use your own standard of judgment. You can rely on yourself for guidance. You don’t have to adhere to some external, arbitrary code of behaviour . . .” (p. 158); although he then adds parenthetically, “although you should not overlook the guidelines of your culture. Life is short, and you don’t have time to figure everything out on your own. The wisdom of the past was hard-earned, and your dead ancestors may have something useful to tell you.”
Peterson will sometimes quote Scripture to support his conclusions, but he will often twist the meaning of the text to fit his own humanistic philosophy. A good example is his handling of the Sermon on the Mount. Under Rule 4 he has been discussing the importance of setting realistic goals for oneself. He states that the proper aim of mankind is to “concentrate on the day, so that you can live in the present, and attend completely and properly to what is in front of you . . .” (pp. 109-110). He then quotes Matthew 6:19-34 and then concludes by saying, “You are discovering who you are, and what you want, and what you are willing to do. You are finding that the solutions to your particular problems have to be tailored to you, personally and precisely” (p. 110). But it was hardly Jesus’ intention to have people “concentrate on the day, so that you can live in the present.” Rather, what He told His listeners was, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth . . .” (Matt. 6:19), and He went on to say “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink . . .” (v. 25). And whereas Peterson wants to let the individual decide for himself what is in his own best interests, Jesus says “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness . . .” (v. 33). God is the kind and He is the One who decides what righteousness is.
In short, for Peterson morality is all about achieving happiness and success in this life. What is missing is any sense of accountability to God as Creator and Lord. In that sense Peterson is typical of the great philosophers of the past. He tries to probe the meaning of existence, but he tries to do it without reference to God.
For the Christian therein lies the whole problem with human civilization. As human beings we can see the advantages of sharing a settled existence together. We create governments, we pass laws, and we build infrastructure. But we do it all out of a sense of self-interest. What is missing is any due regard for God or for the well-being of our fellow humans. No sooner do we create the government and laws (ostensibly to promote justice), than we look for ways to circumvent the system we just created. Our sense of right and wrong is little more than what we can get away with. Peterson is seeking to revive the cultural values of Western civilization, but he comes short of what our Creator expects from us in the way of moral and ethical behavior.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness . . . because, although they know God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools . . .” (Rom. 1:18,21,22; NKJV).
Our values must be grounded in reality. But the ultimate reality is God himself, our Creator and Lord; and in the end we will all have to stand before Him and give an account. It is God, then, who determines what is right and what is wrong, and our lives must conform to His will. Only then will we find the peace and happiness we all long to enjoy.