In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson raises important questions about postmodern society and provides much-needed notions about responsibility and religion, but can he take you any further?
Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is not an ordinary book. You like the fact that it attacks the prevailing politically-correct society and challenges people to take responsibility for their actions. There is merit in proposing such a goal.
You also like the idea of rules because everyone knows there should be rules for life. Rules usually clarify and define. They give purpose and meaning to what you do. They are much needed today.
However, these twelve rules seem to leave much in the air. You don’t know what to make of them or the explanations of the author since they are so unconventional.
You suddenly realize that the rule-maker follows no set rules; he makes them up as he goes. It is something he admits in his book. Thus, the scope of his 12 Rules of Life is very limited.
Cluttered and Esoteric
The first indication of limitation is that the book seems cluttered and esoteric. The author has the habit of making simple things complicated. He takes great pains to cite the thinkers he thinks are important—Darwin, Freud, Jung, Nietzsche, or Heidegger. All these authors come with complex and even anti-Christian ideas that try to explain reality.
Dr. Peterson uses these overwhelmingly philosophical and psychological systems to make his rules without rules. Behind the esoteric jargon is a confusing mixture of existential doctrines, psycho-analytical concepts, and oriental Taoist thought that bear little resemblance to anything Christian. Things that should be so simple become complicated since he insists that there are no simple answers to fundamental questions. By refusing to be boxed in or labeled, his explanations tend to dance around the issues.
Thus, you wish that he would just come out and say what needs to be said without all the existential argot or, above all, his obsession with “Being,” with a capital B. If he could just say what he means by God and stay away from the vague abstractions that leave you uneasy; if he could define himself on morality and human behavior rather than leave it to tens of millions of years of evolution….
An Underwhelming Ordinariness
Besides making simple things complicated, Dr. Peterson also suffers from a contrary limitation of trying to make truly complex things simple. He strives too hard to be trendy, folksy, and “accessible.” Perhaps he assumes you are not a regular person living in the real world and that you need something from pop culture to understand reality—a cell phone, a skateboard or a movie reference, anything to prove you are up-to-date. He fills his books with stories, examples, and references meant to impress you with their underwhelming ordinariness.
For example, you are asked to stop and pet a cat you encounter on the road (Rule #12). Another rule calls for standing up straight with shoulders back (Rule #1). Do not stop children who are skateboarding (Rule #11) is another everyday reference that is not one for many people. He will tell the tragic stories of childhood friends or the psychological problems of his clinical patients.
You want rules that reflect certainty and a universal and moral law. Instead, you get experience-based directives reflecting the “process of Being” that follow no set rules and in which nothing is certain.
Dr. Peterson writes: “Proper Being is a process, not a state; a journey, not a destination. It’s the continual transformation of what you know, through encounter with what you don’t know, rather than the desperate clinging to the certainty that is eternally insufficient in any case.”
The Non-Christian Approach
This leads to the final problem with Dr. Peterson’s Rules for Life. They are limited in their ability to change lives. You hear many things about what he has done. Those who praise the author’s works and videos love to point out how he manages to present Christian ideas in modern non-Christian ways. Young people relate to his lectures. They get excited by these very traditional ideas without realizing just how conservative they are. They say many young men are converting back to religion.
Many are now saying that his non-Christian approach is one of the best ways to present Christianity to the youth and those who are skeptical. However, his concept of Christianity as a mythologized story “fabricated by the collective imagination” does not address the fundamental truths of the Christian Faith.
Thus, he cannot lead someone to the Church or a belief in God because he does not belong to the Church or hold these beliefs. He has no intention (for now) of doing this, and he will honestly be the first to admit it.
Those who become interested in the Church and convert because of his anti-postmodern ideas are exceptions to the rule. The rule is that Dr. Peterson will lead people to Darwin, Freud, Jung, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, whom he admires and teaches. That is where he wants to lead you because that is where he is. Again, he will be the first to admit this.
Dr. Peterson does raise important questions about postmodern society, and he will try to save you from its politically-correct devastations. He might provide much-needed notions about responsibility and religion (which he defines as merely “proper behavior”), but he cannot take you any further.
Updating the Message
Alas, there is nothing more unoriginal than the constant effort to present old ideas in new and novel ways. Throughout the history of Church, there have always been those who have tried to “attract the youth” or “update the message” by adapting to the culture. Indeed, the twentieth century represented one massive, failed attempt by the Church to embrace the world.
That is why there is the tendency on the part of many to read far too much into Dr. Peterson’s works or lectures. The world is full of people looking for those who can present a “non-Christian Christianity” in the hope that it will be something more attractive and friendly to the world. They grab onto Dr. Peterson despite his avowed limitations.
The result is always a great illusion. Such presentations of the Faith tend to change Christian ideas to the point that they are no longer Christian. Christian ideas only make sense inside the context of Christ’s message. While God can work in mysterious ways, these limited methods generally do not convert people.
The Nature of Truth
Truth is always simple and unobscured. You are attracted by its simplicity and internal logic. It must be well presented, but it does not need to be dressed up in fancy language or confusing concepts.
This especially applies to the truths of the Faith. They are attractive to all since they accord with human nature, which longs for all that is sublime and divine. The Truth should not be hidden, but shown in its entirety, thereby becoming ever more desirable.
However, the Truth does demand loyalty, integrity, and sacrifice, which makes it difficult for those attached to the world. To free yourself from the tyranny of the passions and attachment, you need universal rules not only for life but eternity.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image by Gage Skidmore is Jordan Peterson speaking with attendees at the 2018 Young Women’s Leadership Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Hyatt Regency DFW Hotel in Dallas, Texas, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.