Self-realization is perhaps the subtlest sin. More than any other, the impulse that drives us to make something of ourselves feels so natural, so right, so godly. It’s such a subtle sin that I think many Evangelical Christians can no longer distinguish between self-fulfillment and the worship of God as the goal of the Christian life. We’ve been wandering through our house of mirrors for so long that we’ve forgotten what lies beyond our endlessly distorted reflection.
Jordan Peterson is a brilliant and engaging author; a rare mix. He writes as someone who knows what he is saying, knows that it is complex, and has no intention of dumbing it down. He also intends for his readers to understand him, however, and so he is clear, and clearly endeavors to bring the reader with him. He avoids jargon, an increasingly rare virtue among academics. I like reading him.
In his overture to the book (I’m not sure why “preface” wasn’t good enough, but he also used a text emoticon in his writing, so clearly he’s not concerned with convention), Peterson explains why he wrote the book, both circumstantially and philosophically. It seems he’s been addressing public (internet) appeal all the way, which is probably the new normal.
He explains his decades-long fascination with Nazi Germany and the Cold War, springing from his desire to figure out how men could reach a point of willingness to destroy other and themselves over their beliefs. The struggle, as he sees it, is to find the “middle path,” the third option between the older tendency to cling so closely to our beliefs and values that we will go to war in order to defend them and the newer tendency to abandon all beliefs and values and therefore all meaning. Peterson says this about the problem and its solution:
It is possible to trancend slavish adherence to the group and its doctrines and, simultaneously, to avoid the pitfalls of its opposite extreme, nihilism. It is possible, instead, to find sufficient meaning in individual consciousness and experience. (xxxiii)
This is, of course, compelling. It appeals to the deepest part of me, and I suspect I’m not alone in that. We all long for meaning, and it isn’t difficult to see how ages of ideology and tribalism, in their violence and failure to provide meaning, gave rise to disillusionment with meaning itself. As a culture, we have vacillated between intellectual (and often literal) murder and intellectual (and often literal) suicide.
From what I’ve seen of Peterson, he’s brilliant, and not prone to thoughtless over-simplification. Because of this, I’m hesitant to accuse him of what I’m about to accuse him of. But is it possible that he is thinking of meaning in rather two-dimensional terms? He seems to think that we occupy a closed system when it comes to meaning, so to speak. We can find it in the community, in the self, or not at all. And his solution is so popular because it allows us to find meaning within ourselves without quitting the game entirely.
I believe it’s a lie, and a disturbingly clever one at that. The lie is that I can make myself anew, fix myself, satisfy myself. This lie of self-realization has previously manifested itself in our culture in hedonism, and here is where Peterson is so interesting. He won’t deny the reality of suffering and the need for some sort of moral backbone, and this makes the lie all the more desirable for Christians and those with some kind of moral compass.
See, there are qualities and capacities within us that give us a sense of value and meaning, but they are created qualities and capacities. We’re creatures of remarkable dignity and worth– I think of Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man” speech– but we must never forget that we are creatures, and our value and meaning, therefore, come from outside ourselves.
I’m looking forward to reading this book. I think that Peterson has real wisdom to dispense, and I’m eager to learn from him. I am afraid, however, that he will ultimately offer nothing more than a mirror house with a better quality mirror.