Peterson wants us to live as if there is a God because he understands well the disastrous consequences of living as if there is not a God. But what good is the recovery of transcendence if it is only an evolutionarily useful figment of imagination? As a high priest of traditional Western values, Peterson’s temple is no less empty than the secularists against whom he prophesies.
An article in The Spectator recently described Jordan Peterson as “one of the most important thinkers to emerge on the world stage for many years”—and they have a point. Peterson went from being virtually unknown in 2012 to perhaps the most famous public intellectual in the world in 2018.
He has more than 2 million followers on YouTube and more than a million followers on Twitter, and his 12 Rules for Life has sold approximately 3 million copies in less than a year. The book tour is reaching stadium crowds of up to 100,000 people.
Many reasons can be given for Peterson’s rapid ascent and expansive influence. But most important, I think, are his social status as a clinical psychologist and his unique ability to respond to a certain set of conditions inherent to our secular age.
Recently, I wrote a chapter for an upcoming book about Peterson (Lexham Press). My assignment was to evaluate the reason for his meteoric rise. In this article, I’ll briefly summarize some of the main lines of argument.
Mapping Our Secular Age
By the middle of the 20th century, the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of a “world come of age,” by which he meant a European civilization that had learned to manage life without reference to God. During ensuing decades, a number of cultural commentators explored and mapped out this same phenomenon. Taken together, these maps help explain Peterson’s intuitive and powerful appeal for many young people in the West today.
The sociologist Philip Rieff (1922–2006)—see my previous article, “The Jewish Intellectual Who Predicted America’s Social Collapse“—provided a cultural map in his Sacred Order/Social Order trilogy, and especially in the first volume, My Life among the Deathworks. In it, Rieff argued that the West is in the midst of a historically unprecedented attempt to sever sacred order from social order. Historically, all civilizations have understood that sacred order (religious and moral norms) shapes social order (society) by shaping cultural institutions. In other words, a society’s religion(s) shapes its cultural institutions and cultural products, which in turn shape its people.
But in the contemporary West, elite power-players have colluded to rip sacred order out from underneath social order, leaving social order to float on its own. Rieff noted the disastrous social, cultural, and political effects of Christianity’s displacement and warned that the worst was yet to come. Most significantly, Western cultural institutions, left unshaped by the Judeo-Christian moral framework, will become “deathworks,” causing social death and decay.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (b. 1931) provides an existential mapping that complements Rieff’s cultural map. In Malaise of Modernity, A Secular Age, and other writings, Taylor explores the existential “feel” of living in the type of world Rieff described. In our era, people both imagine life and also manage life from within the “immanent frame,” with no real reference to the transcendent. Locked within this immanent frame, historic Christian orthodoxy seems implausible, unimaginable, even reprehensible.
Our age is not secular in the sense that most Westerners are avowed atheists or agnostics. Nor in the sense that people hide their religious beliefs in public. Instead, it’s secular in the sense that Christianity has not only been displaced from the default position, but it’s also now contested by myriad religions, ideologies, and “takes” on life—attempts to force the facts of life through one’s restricted notions of what could and could not possibly be true. And yet, even though Christianity seems implausible and even unimaginable to many Westerners, these same Westerners have serious doubts about their own belief systems.
Taken together with other cultural analysts, such as literary critic George Steiner (b. 1929) and Italian political philosopher Auguste Del Noce (1910–1989), Rieff and Taylor repudiate modernity’s move to unseat metaphysics and theology—a move that removes them from the West’s matrix of meaning and morality and thus induces a state of chaos. As a result of this devolution, Westerners feel alone in this world, their lives shorn of God-given meaning or transcendent norms. And with Christianity thus displaced from the default position, secular ideologies and “takes” rush in to fill the void.
Explaining Peterson’s Appeal
It’s against this backdrop that Jordan Peterson enters the stage, taking up the challenge articulated by thinkers such as Reiff and Taylor, helping disaffected people regain a matrix of transcendent meaning and morality within which they can bring order to chaos and find meaning for their lives.