I find Jordan Peterson’s philosophy of life to be like eating a garden salad for dinner. A salad is refreshing and healthy, I keep coming back for more, but ultimately it does not sate my hunger for long. I’ve consumed a fair bit of Jordan Peterson’s thought and found it, in many ways, to satisfy my intellectual and spiritual hunger, but never to fully satiate those longings. Peterson’s thought is frequently satisfying to me because I think he accurately diagnoses some of the deepest issues, not only with western civilization, but with the human experience. Yet, his answers, while very good in many ways, seem to have something lacking. In my estimation they do not address the ultimate need of the human soul: the experience of divine grace.
On one of Peterson’s recent podcast episodes he had a free flowing discussion with the Roman Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft. For me, Kreeft highlighted the missing component of Peterson’s thought when he drew a distinction between a philosophy and a religion. Philosophies, he argued, begin with man and strive to know and understand God. Philosophies tend to end with an abstraction, like Plato’s god, “the good”; or Kant’s exhortation to believe in the “idea” of God even if his existence is rationally unprovable. A religion, on the other hand, requires an initiating move from a God who is in some sense personal. Religion begins with the experience of divine grace, not with human striving. If Kreeft is right, and I think he is, this means that philosophies are inherently more comfortable than religions, because they allow us autonomy and authority over our lives. Religions are disorienting because they begin with an experience of the divine which cannot but challenge and change us. The very word conversion, used by many who have had this experience, conveys the idea of a full reversal of one’s trajectory. Conversion is a turn towards God, the source of goodness, beauty, and truth, and away from all that is evil, ugly, and false. Religion is not merely a turn towards transcendental values—the philosopher makes that journey out of Plato’s cave into the light of the sun. No, religion is a turn towards God who is in essence goodness, beauty, and truth, yet still is personal.
C. S. Lewis captures this aspect of religious experience in his famous sermon The Weight of Glory. He points out that when we encounter beauty, it arrests us. The painting, the music, the sunset; they stop us in our tracks. For a moment our soul is enraptured. What is this feeling? It’s hard to put words to it, but Lewis describes it well: it is longing. A longing for what? Again, it’s hard to say because just as we begin to grope our way towards an answer the experience fades. We are once again surrounded by the ordinary and mundane. Lewis described it like this: “Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance.” Philosophers may behold beauty, but unless beauty somehow responds, it leaves only a hollow ache and a sense that something infinite has slipped out of our grasp. This is the feeling I get when listening to Peterson talk. He holds up transcendental values for all to admire and be inspired by. This is why so many listen to him and are genuinely helped by him. Yet, his message leaves my deepest longing unfilled.
None of this is to imply that Peterson’s core message is totally untrue or incorrect. My contention is that his message is like an incomplete puzzle, one that almost allows us to see the whole image, but still needs a few more pieces. What are the pieces that Peterson has put together? He frequently highlights the fact that life is full of suffering and malevolence. When we come face to face with this reality, we must struggle to find meaning in the midst of chaos and disorder. If we cannot find meaning, we are in very real danger of being consumed by nihilistic despair. Peterson contends we should persevere and, as best we can, pursue the things that allow us to flourish. There are options for dealing with despair, like cynicism or hedonism, that can ameliorate the pain of suffering momentarily, but they won’t allow a person to flourish. Peterson offers another option to those searching for meaning: take personal responsibility for yourself and your life. Responsibility is Peterson’s cure for the ailments of despondency and despair that every human soul languishes under. It is his balm for the dark cloud of potential evil and tragedy that hangs ominously overhead at all times. He contends that by taking responsibility for our own life, by pursuing virtue and responsibly engaging with others, we can flourish and find meaning in our lives. If we just “live properly,” Peterson argues, “we would be able to tolerate the weight of our own self-consciousness… we could withstand the knowledge of our own fragility and mortality… we wouldn’t have to turn to totalitarian certainty to shield ourselves from the knowledge of our own insufficiency and ignorance… we could come to avoid those pathways to Hell.” Certainly he is right; if everyone lived properly we could have an Edenic paradise on this earth. Peterson paints a largely coherent picture, but I still find key pieces to the puzzle are missing. At the core of Peterson’s philosophy are rules. Follow the rules and a good, meaningful life is possible. Yet, we need something more than rules if we want to meet the deepest needs of our souls and avoid Hell.
Saint Augustine said to God, “our heart is restless, until it rests in you.” In other words, only an experience of divine grace can bring peace to the tumult of the human soul. Using rules to orient our lives to the transcendental does not and cannot sate the hunger of our soul. Peterson’s answer to nihilistic despair does not lead to a place of rest. His cure for the crisis of meaning—felt deeply by so many in our postmodern and post-Christian society—is a restless striving towards moral perfection. But, as Augustine points out, ultimate meaning can only come out of a place of rest found in God’s grace. This principle can be clearly derived from the way God is presented throughout the Bible. The God of the Bible is a relationship-initiating God. When Adam and Eve sin and hide, God goes to find them in the Garden of Eden. When God plans to judge the earth with a flood, he seeks out Noah, warns him, and shuts him in the ark with his own hand. God calls Abram out of Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan. He meets Moses deep in the wilderness and commissions him to lead the Israelites to freedom. Ultimately, according to Christian theology, God himself comes to earth in the incarnation. Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, come not to judge but to save sinners (John 3:16-17). All this is to say that the God of the Bible is not a God we must first pursue to find meaning, but a God who pursues us in grace and love. The God of the Bible knows that the suffering and malevolence in the world are ultimately self-inflicted by our rebellion against his goodness, truth, and beauty. Yet, according to the New Testament, he does not leave us to the consequences of our sin. He comes to us in the person of Christ to do the work necessary for our redemption. What is that work? It is to follow all the rules for life that we know we ought to follow but cannot seem to. It is to take the full brunt of the penalty for our disobedience to those rules. That is why Jesus’ death on the cross is necessary. The wrath of God against sin is poured out on Christ so that the grace of God can be freely poured out upon rule-breakers like you and me.
This is what Peter Kreeft meant by his distinction between a philosophy and a religion. Christianity is a religion because its core contention is that God has condescended to mankind in order to restore us to a life of meaning and purpose that cannot be found apart from him. On the cross, God, in the flesh, allowed his body to be broken and his blood to be shed so that we could experience the grace of God. Without this sacrifice we cannot be reconciled to God—our unrighteousness will continue to separate us from him. All this to say, while Peterson certainly respects the Bible, Christianity and Christ, he has not yet grasped the core message of Christianity: the gospel. As a philosopher he diagnoses our ailment rightly, but the cure he prescribes falls flat because it begins with humanity. As Blaise Pascal pointed out, “Men, it is in vain that you seek within yourselves the cure for your miseries. All your intelligence can only bring you to realize that it is not within yourselves that you will find either truth or good… if we are united to God, it is by grace, and not by nature.” We must first be discovered by the gracious God if we are to find rest and true meaning.
Christians might be tempted to write Peterson off. If he’s not preaching the gospel, then behind all the Christian, Jungian, and scientific jargon isn’t he just another self-help guru? Apart from this being an oversimplification, Christians would be foolish not to learn from Peterson. Despite the critique I’ve made in this essay, it seems to me we ignore Peterson and the cure he has proposed at great peril. Why? Because he has put his finger on the questions people are really asking. People are not asking how they, as sinners, can stand before the judgment throne of a holy God. That is what the old evangelistic approaches assume and it’s why they are no longer effective. The questions are different for the new generations. The question that plagues the hearts of many is that of meaning. Peterson has put his finger on the questions that countless people are actually asking. The question that haunts many is that of meaning. Does my life—with all of its mundane regularity, rote consumerism, and unadventurous safety—have any purpose? Peterson’s response is, for all its biblical language, a philosophical program not a religious answer. The Christian answer, on the other hand, is a person. Christian theology asserts that the truly biblical answer to the meaning crisis is found in being seen and loved by the living God. It is not found in climbing our way up into heaven. No, to find meaning, heaven must look down on us and smile, affirming our value and worth, no matter how weak, small, or insignificant we are. The Christian claim is that our feeblest and most imperfect efforts, when done in light of God’s grace, give God pleasure. That imbues all reality with meaning, better yet, with telos. There is an ultimate purpose to all that we do because there is an all-powerful God—transcendent yet immanent—overseeing, sustaining, and ruling all of the universe. God invites us not to swim across an ocean of nihilistic despair to discover him, but to be enveloped in the current of his love and carried into his presence. To be sure, the Christian life is not passive, we are to swim with the current. However, without God first graciously welcoming us into the flow of his love, we shall never flourish in this life nor enter into God’s presence in the next. What a beautiful answer the church has to offer those who are struggling to find meaning in their lives! As evangelists we have the privilege to invite others into the experience of God’s grace through Christ. We call them into the adventure of following our King, till death brings us into his presence, where we will hear those long-awaited words, words that will give ultimate meaning and purpose to all that we have done and experienced: “well done, good and faithful servant.” Until the day we are called home to be with Christ, the Holy Spirit must empower us to follow God’s rules for life. It is only when they are followed in light of the experience of God’s grace that God’s rules can give us meaning and purpose. Only when we rest in the knowledge that Christ kept God’s rules for us can we experience true freedom from shame and guilt. In short, when we follow God’s rules because we have known his grace, rather than in hopes of somehow meeting him through our efforts, his rules are transformed. They change from a garden salad which we know is good for us but never fills us up, to meat, potatoes, and strong beer: true food for the weary and wayward soul.
Andrew Menkis holds a B.A. from the University of Maryland in Philosophy and Classics and an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary California. He is a high school Bible teacher whose passion is for teaching the deep things of God in ways that are understandable and accessible to all followers of Christ.
Peterson, Jordan. “How to Combat Hedonism: Peter Kreeft.” The Jordan B. Peterson Podcast. 9, 2022. Podcast, 01:52, https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9mZWVkcy5zaW1wbGVjYXN0LmNvbS92c3kxbTVMVg/episode/ZTM1YjVkYzMtOGZmMS00NGE1LWJiYzEtNzRiMWM3ZWZmZjI4?hl=en&ved=2ahUKEwjPip6UzPL6AhWEEFkFHdFhA64QjrkEegQIChAL&ep=6
 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 1976), 40.
 Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Canada: Penguin Random House, 2018), xxxiv.
 Augustine, Confessions, 1.1.
 Blaise Pascal, Pensees, 149.