Within the past few months I stumbled upon Jordan Peterson. And by “stumbled” I mean, I was binge watching his videos for pretty much all of November and December last year once I was introduced to him. Some of you may know exactly who I am referring to and I’m sure many of you have no idea who he is as well.
Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist from Canada, who is known for his contributions to conversations on psychology, philosophy, politics, and religion. His videos with Joe Rogan and a contentious and laughable TV interview with Channel 4 News are a couple of the videos that gained him a significant following. Also his highly publicized book entitled “12 Rules for Life” has sold over 3 million copies so far.
His personal YouTube channel has nearly 2 million subscribers and one of his most popular lecture series on the stories of Genesis consists of two-hour-long videos each with hundreds of thousands of views and in some cases millions. He captured the attention of so many people, who never would have ever considered listening to approximately 40 hours of lectures on the Bible, and presented the stories in a more sophisticated manner than many of us experienced in Sunday school. I found them to be incredibly fascinating (especially the one on Cain and Abel) and I linked one of my favorite excerpts from his lectures below to give you a quick peek into who he is.
He never claims to be a theologian but sought to demonstrate the value in these older texts and the lessons that could be learned from reading them. He never even claims to be a theist, atheist, or agnostic during his conversations. The result of his lecture series though, among his many other interviews and lectures, is that people have been reconsidering their own personal beliefs and worldviews. And not just that, there are many cases of people being lifted out of depression and nihilism. So what the heck is going on with this guy and the people who are listening to his lectures?
At the end of each lecture, he would have a time for attendees to ask questions. And one of the most common questions he gets presented with is “Do you believe in God?” It’s a personal question. It is a question so often asked to determine which group are you in. Do you belong to the Christian, agnostic, or atheist communities or a different faith group all together? We like to delineate ourselves and see if we’re rooting for the same teams. Especially with all of the success and publicity he has received recently, there are many people clamoring to hear him identify with their group.
I’m sure at some point in our lives we have all been asked this exact question. Sometimes we’re prepared to give an emphatic “yes” or “no”, or maybe we cringe a bit at the question and evade an answer out of fear of how our answer will be received. Many have felt pressured into saying they believe something that inside they really don’t believe. Or maybe among friends and family, there is a pressure to say we do or don’t believe in a God, because the alternative answer would be unpopular or shameful.
Jordan Peterson, put into a similarly awkward position, however gives quite an interesting response. He most often replies to this question with the response “It depends what you mean by ‘God’ and it depends what you mean by ‘believe’?”
His response initially seems like a cop out. “C’mon man… just answer the question!” But I think as you listen to his lectures you realize the genuineness with which he says it and the deeper reasoning behind the response.
The word “God” can mean so many different things to so many different people. Do you mean the old white dude up in the clouds standing behind the pearly gates? Do you mean white Jesus with the dashing brown hair and those spiffy brown sandals who’s everybody’s best friend? Do you mean that judgmental God who is willing to let people burn in hell because they didn’t obey the rules? Do you mean the Jesus who would be taking part in social justice parades today or rocking a MAGA hat? Or a different God from a different religion all together?
And what about the question of “What do you mean by belief?” Is it just a verbal proclamation? Is it mostly an intellectual posture? Is it a matter of how we act? Is belief a one-time occurrence in our lives where we say the magical prayer so we get an out-of-jail free card to go to heaven?
To answer “Do you believe in God?” with a simple “yes” or “no” requires so many assumptions that we may be completely misunderstanding each other when discussing the topic. I think that is why Jordan Peterson responds the way he does. And I think it’s for this reason that he has gained so much popularity. Jordan Peterson elaborates in over 40 hours worth of these lectures that God and belief, among many other topics, are not so simplistic, that there is more nuance to the conversation, and he allows his listeners to explore their own ideas.
The Bible is full of stories of people’s understanding and knowledge of God changing as they experienced him. Even the disciples, those closest to Jesus, had their understanding of who God was completely changed within the last week of his life. Jordan Peterson, though not a self-proclaimed Christian, is wrestling in front of everyone with who he thinks God is and it has been changing people in incredible ways, myself included.
And dare I say that we can look elsewhere than the Bible to gain an understanding and knowledge of God? I think Jordan Peterson’s contention with the tragedies of the 20th century and watching his own daughter struggle with debilitating health issues that has shaped his understanding the way it has.
Jordan Peterson in one of his interviews said that he avoids answering this question with a simple “yes” or “no” because he isn’t even scratching the surface in his forty hours of biblical lectures. That takes humility to admit that honestly. And I think it’s his authenticity that really makes people gravitate to his messages. He doesn’t provide an exhaustive explanation of who God is or what it means to believe because he can’t, and if we’re being honest, none of us can.
I agree with so much of what he says but not everything. But that’s not really the point. He’s clearly struck a chord with so many that were longing for this type of long-form conversation on God and meaning within our lives. It’s been absent for so many of us and I think there’s been a longing for it. I would highly recommend watching his videos, especially if you’re within the church, because I think there are many things to be learned from him from how he has conversations, the insight he can give into the psychology of the human mind, and a fresh outsiders view on the value of these stories.
Maybe we can all revel a little more in the mystery surrounding who God is. Maybe it’s okay for us to admit just how little we know and be willing to ask tough questions. Maybe it’s in the seeking out of who God is that we will find the deepest and most profound answers. Maybe Jordan Peterson just might be helping this younger generation take a step back and really assess what we all believe in and what “belief” really means.