It seems that everyone’s talking about Jordan Peterson, including Jordan Peterson.
Jordan Peterson was apparently invited (or, according to some accounts, invited himself) for a visiting fellowship with the Cambridge University Faculty of Divinity, and the invitation was subsequently withdrawn by the university, leading Peterson to get into a snit and invoke a biblical curse on the Cambridge Divinity Faculty, wishing it the obscurity it so richly deserved. In that article he comes across as petulant child having a temper tantrum.
I first heard of Jordan Peterson at our monthly literary coffee klatsch a year ago, and have been debating with myself whether it would be worth the effort to find and read any of his books, and have discovered huge debates about him. It seems that he is a secular guru who is widely (and controversially) discussed in Christian circles, Some seem to regard him as a kind of prophet for our age, while others seem to regard him as a false prophet to be denounced. It seems, from what I’ve heard, that the Cambridge Divinity Faculty are about equally divided on this point.
So I am like Topol in the film Fiddler on the Roof, saying “on the one hand” and “on the other hand”, and being unable to decide.
One thing that prejudices me against Jordan Peterson is that he and another secular guru, Jonathan Haidt, appear to have overlapping fan groups, Saying that they have overlapping fan groups does not necessarily mean that they know each other, or agree with each other, or that they are in cahoots with each other, though since both are engaged in the same discipline (psychology) it is quite possible that they have met. I’m not even sure about their overlapping fan groups — that could be a misperception on my part. What I do know, however, is that Jonathan Haidt promotes a set of values that are very different from Christian values. And I do wonder about the wisdom of Christians running after fashionable Western secular gurus, particularly psychologists.
So I’m still thinking “on the one hand” and “on the other hand”.
On the one hand, why would a Faculty of Divinity invite someone from a different discipline, psychology, as a visiting fellow? Of course one can have interdisciplinary studies, but interdisciplinary studies should surely be founded on something more than celebrity. I am reminded of what another blogger once wrote:
Rational debate about the existence/ non-existence of God, and the ethical implications thereof, is good. It belongs to human dignity to seek to discern what is true.
There is an academic discipline which studies questions such as what constitutes a warranted belief, what religious language ‘means’, whether it has a possible reference and what it means for our conceptions of the good life. That discipline is philosophy. There is also an academic discipline whose remit of study includes the atrocities committed in the name of religion. That discipline is history.
So why, when Channel Four want to air a programme about these issues do they give air-time to a biologist with no training whatsoever in either discipline? Moreover one whose previous pronouncements in this area have only been published because he has piggy-backed on his (justified) scientific reputation and which, considered in their own right, are unworthy of a moderately bright A-level student..
Yet another example of the ignoring of the humanities in mainstream culture and, in spite of the irrationalism of our age, the persistence of the Victorian cult of the polymath scientist. Boo, hiss.
In both cases it seems to have been the celebrity of Peterson and Dawkins that led to the invitation.
On the other hand there is a sense in which theology is too important to be left to the professional academic theologians. Of all academic disciplines, theology should be most open to hearing from those from outside, because theology claims to be the Queen of the Sciences, the one that makes sense of all the others, That gives people like Dawkins and Peterson as much right to make pronouncements on theology as anybody else.
There is another aspect of this particular incident, however, which also seems to be ambivalent, and that is the reasons given for withdrawing the Fellowship at Cambridge — that Peterson’s views were not representative of the student body. That seems to go against the liberal ideal of a university as a place where different views can be vigorously debated, and seems to reflect a growing authoritarian tendency in many universities.
When I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (now UKZN) in the 1960s it was regarded as a liberal institution in a very conservative society. It was, many would say, only comparatively liberal. But even that minimal liberalism seems more liberal than Cambridge University today. Students were open to hearing different views, at least to the extent that the government allowed them to. Every year the local committee of the National Union of South African Students (Nusas) arranged a Reality Week, at which representatives of different political parties were invited to debate on campus. The National Party debated with the Liberal Party. The United Party was too afraid to appear on the same platform as the Progressive Party, so they spoke at separate meetings. The Communist Party, the ANC and the PAC were banned by the government, and so could not appear, but if they had been able to the students would have given them a hearing, as they gave to the others. Even though there was vigorous disagreement, the differing views were heard. At the root of that lay the liberal concept of academic freedom.
Of course there are limits to academic freedom, limits which quacks and loonies sometimes try to push by promoting bogus academic disciplines (one that did a lot of damage in South Africa, whose effects are still felt today, was Fundamental Pedagogics). But Jordan Peterson is not one of those. He’s a professor in a recognised department of a recognised Canadian university. So why is a British university apparently purging people whose views seem to differ from the official party line? Ought a university to have an official party line?
But though I think it bad that people should try to suppress the views of people like Jordan Peterson, I’m still not convinced that I should lash out money on any of his books, Not a good excuse, I suppose, because I did read Dan Brown’s The da Vinci code even though I knew beforehand that it was probably rubbish, and reading it only confirmed that. But mass-market paperbacks are cheaper than academic books. And lest anyone say that a lot of Peterson’s stuff is on YouTube, let me say that I don’t do YouTube because (a) it’s also expensive, like books, (b) it usually tells me my browser doesn’t recognise any of the formats available, and (c) even if it does recognise the format, it’s usually so broken up that I can’t hear it,
Since writing all that stuff above I’ve come across a review that reminds me of the reservations I had about Jordan Peterson when I first heard of him. I had forgotten the lobster factor, which Duncan Reyburn had mentioned at our literary coffee klatch. But this review reminded me of it again: Review: 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson | Kate Manne:
Rule One is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”, to avoid seeming like a “loser lobster”, who shrinks from conflict and grows sad, sickly and loveless – and is prone to keep on losing, which is portrayed as a disaster.
And I recall that that was what made Jordan Peterson’s stuff incompatible with, and indeed contrary to Christian values — it espouses worldly values, like being a winner. It is diametrically opposed to the Beatitudes, which tell us “Blessed are the meek”, but if we follow Peterson’s advice, that is all wrong, because in this world, Blessed are the pushy, for they shall get what they want.