12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. By Jordan B. Peterson. Random House Canada, 2018. 409 pp.
Many young men are adrift. It’s a phenomenon both inside the church and outside it. By adrift, I mean disillusioned, unemployed, underemployed, and/or visionless. There’s something about the twenty-first century and Western culture that has caused this phenomenon. Blame it on technology and iPhones. Blame it on the disintegration of communities. On relativism. On perfectionism. On college debt. It’s probably a combination of many things forming a cultural fog that is hard for the average young adult to see through, much less escape. Dr. Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, has hit a chord with this demographic and others. He has gained more than one million followers on YouTube, and his interview with Cathy Newman is perhaps his most viral video. His newest book, 12 Rules for Life, at one point became the best-selling book on Amazon. Peterson has written a lot about meaning in his previous publications, and in his newest book, Peterson uses the stories of Western civilization to give people some stepping stones to make their lives meaningful. The title, 12 Rules for Life, sounds like a self-help book for a reason. But it’s tongue-in-cheek. This isn’t Your Best Life Now. This isn’t How to Win Friends and Influence People. The book could be alternatively titled Life Is Suffering: How to Deal with It.
Peterson tells how he himself found meaning. He had a sort of existential crisis. He describes how the Cold War used to keep him up at night. How was it that two superpowers could aim their weapons at each other in mutually assured destruction? How was it that so many died in the twentieth century? Are we crazy?
No one had answered those questions, as far as I could tell. Like Descartes, I was plagued with doubt. I searched for one thing—anything—I could regard as indisputable. I wanted a rock upon which to build my house. It was doubt that led me to it.
What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief. (p. 197)
12 Rules for Life flows out of this moral vision. To summarize Peterson’s vision in my own words: “We know evil exists because suffering is evil. Therefore, choose to stop needless suffering.” To be sure, it’s a moral vision grounded in a negative. But he shines this dim light of a moral vision into some dark corners of our culture.
What Does He Talk About?
The book revolves around twelve rules, which are the twelve chapters of his book. Each rule, like the book’s title, is tongue-in-cheek. For example, rule 11 is “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.” The chapter draws you in because, first, you want to know what the title actually means, and second, Peterson gets to life application quickly. The chapter begins with Peterson talking about skateboarding children. But soon after, he describes the fact that life is risky. Risk cannot be eliminated, and the goal of life isn’t simply to minimize risk, it’s to “optimize it” (p. 287). The chapter connects our culture’s obsession with minimizing risk to a great danger—that of taking our obsession too far and destroying ourselves. By the end of the chapter, Peterson has run the gamut discussing such topics as danger, risk, resentment, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Aldous Huxley, misanthropy, the Soviet Union, marriage, patriarchy, identity politics, Disney, and growing up. He then repeats the title of the chapter at the end: “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.” You get the impression that you’ve been on a wild intellectual ride only to end where you began. In this chapter and in others, Peterson tends to back up what he’s saying at key points with hard science, personal stories, and examples from history. It gives you the feeling that Peterson is saying, “This is reality; deal with it.” You feel like he’s cutting through all of the noise and getting to the way things are, whether they’re encouraging or not. This is why Peterson appeals to people—especially young people. Millennials have often been lambasted for being entitled. They expected life to be rosy. Many have figured out by now that it’s not. They have college debt. They’re living at home. They can’t find a job. They’re lonely. Life seems pretty terrible. Jordan Peterson’s response? “It is. Here are 12 Rules for Life.”
What Does Peterson Get Right?
Peterson has discovered some hard truths we learn from general revelation, and he’s dwelled on these truths for years. There are some tremendous insights that come out of such study. He’s also experienced a fair amount of suffering himself, such as in the chronic illness of his daughter (p. 340). Peterson often quotes the Bible, and as a psychologist, he often goes deeper from an emotional perspective than many people are capable of going. Perhaps the best example of Peterson’s ability to meditate on a particular truth is rule 8: “Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie.” Peterson begins the chapter by describing an experience he had as a student at McGill University in Canada. His class was touring a mental hospital, and a schizophrenic patient asked to join their group. Peterson thought about telling her that their class could only accept eight people (a lie). He thought about telling her they were just getting ready to leave (a lie). Instead, he told her that they were new psychology students touring the facility, and therefore she couldn’t join the group. He made clear the difference between his class and her without being overly critical. He says she looked crestfallen and hurt, but “then she understood, and it was all right” (pp. 204–5). Peterson uses this as a launching point to explain how the truth is always better than lying, because words have meaning, and words manipulate reality. Eventually, lies twist and distort others and ourselves. He explains, scientifically, the neurological effects of hiding yourself, concealing yourself, and lying to yourself (p. 212). There is something about lying that you can feel in your gut:
If you pay attention to what you do and say, you can learn to feel a state of internal division and weakness when you are misbehaving and misspeaking. It’s an embodied sensation, not a thought. I experience an internal sensation of sinking and division, rather than solidity and strength, when I am incautious with my acts and words. It seems to be centered in my solar plexus, where a large knot of nervous tissue resides. I learned to recognize when I was lying, in fact, by noticing this sinking and division, and then inferring the presence of a lie. It often took me a long time to ferret out the deception. Sometimes I was using words for appearance. Sometimes I was trying to disguise my own true ignorance of the topic at hand. Sometimes I was using the words of others to avoid the responsibility of thinking for myself. (p. 224)
It is rare to run across such a deep meditation on the sensation of lying. But we have all experienced this internal division, haven’t we? If we could all learn to recognize this bodily sensation, name it, and choose to tell the truth, the world would be a better place. Many of Peterson’s rules offer these kinds of insights—little anecdotes here and there that offer a thoughtful and realistic perspective. And, given Peterson’s dictum that life is suffering, Peterson offers an antidote to much of the fuzzy, warm, nigh-untruthful thinking that so many books purvey in our culture.
What Does Peterson Get Wrong?
Peterson relies heavily on Jungian psychology to underpin many of his thoughts. Some of Peterson’s conclusions that result from his Jungian influence run directly counter to the Christian faith. For instance, Peterson tends to see the Western tradition (under which he includes the Bible) as the accumulated memory of our species. There is a sort of ongoing consciousness to the world. This is especially apparent in his chapter on rule 2: “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.” He describes the concepts of order and chaos, and how these concepts are given form in the stories of Christianity, Hinduism, ancient Egyptian religion, and elsewhere (pp. 41–42). He mentions how the Bible, in Genesis 1, describes order being created out of chaos. He goes on to describe how the serpent represents chaos entering order once again, and how it appears that even God cannot keep a certain amount of chaos from entering things (p. 46). Part of the struggle with Peterson, as is apparent in that description, is that he mentions biblical concepts and quotations and then offers interesting insights about them. For many readers, these will be insights they’ve never heard before. But the insights are often misguided from the perspective of a careful biblical hermeneutic. They’re a psychologist’s fancies, nothing more. Other examples abound. In the chapter “Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie,” Peterson states: “Life is suffering. The Buddha stated that, explicitly. Christians portray the same sentiment imagistically, with the divine crucifix” (p. 227). This is a Peterson insight, not a Christian insight. Yes, Christians would agree somewhat with the sentiment in light of the fall. But we certainly don’t mean it in the same way as the Buddha. And, more specifically, the crucifix doesn’t portray a general truth that life is suffering. The crucifix is “Christ suffering for us,” not “life is suffering.” Peterson also reinterprets the creation narrative in terms of a psychological “coming of age” rather than as true history: “We remain eternally nostalgic for the innocence of childhood, the divine, unconscious Being of the animal, and the untouched cathedral-like old-growth forest” (p. 56). He goes on to describe that the Bible is the story of man post-fall. It’s the story of “remedy for that Fall, a way out of evil” (p. 57). Yet, his assumption is that man will find this remedy himself. Even the Messiah is “humanity’s attempt, God willing, to set itself right.” He concludes that we must embody the image of God out of our free choice to set the world aright (p. 57).
What Should We Make of It?
12 Rules for Life is liberal theology and cultural moralism made palatable for a general audience. Yet at the same time, we can’t simply dismiss Peterson and his twelve rules. The book—and Peterson himself—is very popular. Many people are reading him, not just in our culture, but in our churches. Young people especially are reading him. He’s enjoyable to read. Why? He puts his finger on problems, anxieties, and concerns that exist in the hearts of many people, especially young men, because of the spirit of our age. This is often half the battle for a psychologist’s clientele (“The first step is admitting you have a problem”). Peterson responds to these problems in a straightforward way (“You have a problem drinking? Get sober. Stop buying alcohol”). He recognizes reality, diagnoses problems, and offers straightforward guidance. And, he does it from a posture of humility and experience. He’s the dad, the mentor, the source of sage advice that many folks have never had. Peterson is “discipling,” in a secular way, where discipling has never occurred. We, as Christians, can recognize this need. Jesus calls us to be discipled and to disciple others. Peterson, unfortunately, formulates his version of discipleship from a conglomeration of human traditions. Much of it can be helpful, admittedly. The way he describes the benefits of not lying, of taking on risk, and of doing good in the world are broadly applicable and relevant to daily life. But for all of the insights, fascinating stories, and general helpful advice for encountering suffering in this world, Peterson’s advice falls short. All he can say is, “We know evil exists, because suffering is evil. Therefore, choose to stop needless suffering.” A powerful moral vision, to be sure, but a vision that’s incapable of saving us. There is no special revelation here. The true Jesus Christ is obscured, and so 12 Rules for Life offers guidance without redemption. We, as Christians, know that suffering is meant to lead us to the cross, where meaningful suffering occurred. From the cross, we draw the insight that suffering isn’t meaningless in our own lives.