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What I Saw at the We Who Wrestle with God Tour

February 26th, 2024 | 7 min read

By Jake Meador

As we were leaving the "We Who Wrestle with God" tour last Thursday night in Omaha, my friends and I were talking about the lecture when one of them said, "I don't think they actually wrestled with God. They just wrestled with themselves."

It's an insightful comment, and a true one. But I don't think it captures the entirety of Peterson's lecture. We'll say more about that in a minute.

Why did I go to the lecture tour? I'm not much of a Peterson fan, though I thought his second book far superior to his first. But with regard to his first and far more popular book, I agree almost entirely with this review. That said, I've long been intrigued by Peterson's popularity and by the apparent trajectory of many of his listeners.

One friend of mine came back to Christianity through a process that began with Peterson's Genesis lectures. That friend in particular ended up Eastern Orthodox, a not uncommon path I'm told. I even heard one Orthodox friend refer to a "Peterson-Pageau Pipeline." (Jonathan Pageau is an Orthodox Christian and YouTuber who sometimes does events with Peterson.) Another friend remarked, after attending a previous tour, that he had never seen a crowd as still and captivated as the crowd at that lecture.

I think I can understand why: You can't help but get the feeling that ideas bleed for Peterson. And you also can't help but feel that Peterson himself is quite sincere; he strikes me as the scrupulous sort who would torture himself if he actually thought he was making a living telling lies or performing a part. That seriousness is quite attractive to people.

At one point during the question and answer time following the lecture, Peterson was asked if he had any advice for a husband and wife in their early 30s. He thought for a second, looked at his wife (who was on stage with him), and then recalled how they were living in Boston in their thirties. He was teaching at Harvard and their time was basically spent working, enjoying Boston, and raising their two children. It concluded with him saying something like "my best advice is to have kids and enjoy them. Those years go by too fast." There was something undeniably genuine about the clear delight he took in recalling those years. For someone who routinely seems as anxious and tortured as Peterson, it was actually quite striking to see him so obviously content and happy as he recalled those earlier days.

And yet something about the night fell flat for me.

It isn't that I wanted Peterson to be Christian and he isn't Christian, although both of those things are true. (Though I was intrigued to learn that his wife is apparently being received into the Roman church this Easter.) But to explain my discontent purely in those terms is somewhat tautological and inaccurate. It's the underlying ideas behind both Christianity and Peterson's conservative Jungianism that are the concern for me. Sure, I reject the Jungianism because I'm a Christian. But I think before that I reject it because I don't find it terribly humane or life-giving. The right-coded Jungianism I heard Peterson present actually struck me as ultimately being rather cruel, or at least not having any mechanism to avoid ultimately cruel outcomes.

Briefly, Peterson's lecture is organized around a 30,000 foot overview of Genesis 1-11, with the most time spent on the tower of Babel narrative in chapter 11. The care and seriousness with which Peterson treats the biblical text is admirable; I think he is a better and more careful reader of the Bible than some pastors I've known. And, no doubt, this is a large part of how he ends up directing young men back toward the faith: He shows them that there is more to the Bible than they first thought. In any event, Peterson spends more time in Genesis 4 than he does any other chapter prior to chapter 11. His treatment of that chapter is what lingers unpleasantly in my mind and makes me think that Charlie Clark's review of Peterson is still quite correct.

For Peterson, the Genesis 4 narrative is about how there is something in the universe, some sort of Jungian archetype I would imagine, that demands excellence of us. It calls us to bring forth our best. And when we fail to do that, the consequences are painful. This is the problem with Cain, Peterson said. He did not bring his best. And then instead of learning from that, Cain and his descendants chose to keep resisting this call, instead exalting themselves and lifting themselves up. "Arrogant presumptuousness" is the cardinal sin of Babel, he thinks, and he sees it traced all the way back to Cain and his descendants in Genesis 4. They don't think they owe anything to anyone. They live only for themselves. And they so overvalue their own abilities that they presume to almost become like gods themselves. (He also sketched out the characteristics of a culture of arrogant presumption in such a way that one could easily see the parallels between how Peterson saw these ancient peoples and how he would see contemporary America and Canada.)

All of this was sitting badly with me even as he spoke, and then he came to a question that drew it all into sharp relief for me: "When are you most proud of your sons?" he asked us. "Isn't it when you see them exemplifying excellence?" (I don't recall if that is the exact question he asked, but that was the gist of it.) And though I was never listening as placidly as the children in The Silver Chair, that remark had the effect of Puddleglum putting his foot in the fire. The question reeked of burnt marshwiggle.

When am I most proud of my children? I think it is when I see them persevering through something challenging and difficult. Or it is when I see them recognizing their own sin and, without prompting, repenting of it and seeking to reconcile with whoever they wronged. Or it might be when I see them, unprompted, reaching out with kindness and care to someone who is hurting. That isn't to say that I don't care about the quality of their work, obviously. I think doing excellent work is good. But would I say that observing them doing excellent work is when I am most proud of them? Not at all.

This point pressed home a deeper question I had: Peterson often reads the Bible quite well and in rather interesting ways. Yet he is severely limited by how he reads it: as a Jungian psychiatrist rather than a Christian. For Peterson, the Bible is interesting as a repository of archetypes. But what is missing in that imagined universe is anything like an incarnation. Peterson's god, at least as he was presented at the lecture, sounded more to me like Tillich's "ground of being" than it did the Christian God who disclosed himself to mankind by taking on flesh in actual space-time history.

But what happens if you do not have the incarnation? Well, I think you also lose atonement, for the atonement is accomplished through the incarnation. And if you lack atonement, what do you do when a wrong is committed and fellowship between persons is broken? Is there any path back toward restoration? There are times where Peterson seems to think so. But on the logic of his system, I'm not sure what that path is. At most, Peterson's "restoration" seems like a regained self-respect and sense of agency, which is not nothing but also is not the reconciliation of broken relationships or the making right of wrongs done to another.

That, perhaps, is a good point at which to return to my friend's comment about wrestling with God versus wrestling with one's self. When he said that I protested. "I think God meets us where we are and where most of us are now is a deep sense of lostness, alienation, and mental distress. We don't actually know who we are. So maybe the way some people have to wrestle with God is by seeming to wrestle with themselves." That, of course, is what I said after some Christians criticized Ayaan Hirsi Ali's conversion last year.

But I think wrestling with the self can go two ways. It can go toward a realization of one's weakness and inadequacy and need for divine intervention. Or, if one can be successful enough, it can lead to an over-valuing of one's strength. It can lead, somewhat ironically, to precisely the sort of arrogant presumptuousness Peterson wants to condemn. He sees the arrogance of the one who refuses to present their best to the universe. But what of the arrogance of the one who presents their best and draws from that the lesson that they are a higher sort of being than others?

Yet I think there is still some contradiction here, some inconsistency. Peterson seems to want there to be something more beyond our individual selves and their striving after excellence. He opened the evening with an account of a passage in Tolstoy where that great Russian imagined himself in a dream suspended over an infinite abyss. But then, Tolstoy continued, he looked up: and he saw that stretching above him was a rope, holding him over the abyss and supporting him so that he would not fall. From this Peterson took the lesson that the strength of our support is as great as the danger of our pit.

I think that's true. But I think it's true because the "rope" is a person. And not only do I think the rope that supports is a specific person, I think that person is even capable of rescuing us out of the abyss after we have fallen. "There is no pit so deep that God's love is not deeper still," as one great Christian put it.

The question I left with last Thursday is this: I know Peterson thinks there is a rope. But what is that rope? Where does it come from? Who or what is securing it? And why should we trust it?

We might come to the same point through another route: It seems to me that we are now witnessing a return to careful thought about "nature" amongst many conservatives of various stripes. But what is the "nature" being recovered? Is it a nature designed by God and governed by love and care? Or is it a Darwinian nature that rewards those who pursue excellence and (justly?) punishes those who fail to achieve excellence? And what, I fear to ask, of those who are unable through no fault of their own to realize conventionally western ideas of excellence? I know how I would answer those questions as a Christian. I'm not sure, on the merits of his stated belief system, Peterson can answer them. Or, perhaps more alarming still, I don't think Peterson himself would much like the answers his own belief system tends toward.

It's been a number of years now since Matt first made his case for mercy being one of the most essential virtues for our day. But can mercy be regarded as a virtue in a world that demands excellence from us and punishes those who fail to attain it? Or is mercy, in such a world, actually a choice to act against nature? Does mercy, in such a world, subvert nature by protecting those who fail to attain excellence from the natural consequences of their failure? And if so, does that make mercy a vice?

That, I think, is the question I would like to ask Jordan Peterson.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).