Vicar's letter for February Fowey News

Dear Friends

Jordan Peterson, 55, is a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. His book ‘12 rules for life’ has been in the news following a sold out associated lecture tour and a controversial Channel 4 News interview with Cathy Newman watched by over 3 million people. He is renowned for his blazing, outspoken opposition of political correctness, which he characterises as totalitarian, intolerant and a growing threat to the primacy of the individual – which is his core value and, he asserts, the foundation of western culture. His primary concern is the defence of the individual against ‘groupthink’.

Peterson’s worldview is essentially this: “Life is tragic. You are tiny and flawed and ignorant and weak and everything else is huge, complex and overwhelming. Once, we had Christianity as a bulwark against that terrifying reality. But God died. Since then the defence has either been ideology – most notably Marxism or fascism – or nihilism. These lead, and have led in the 20th century, to catastrophe.” In particular he highlights an unpopular but perhaps vital realisation: that we are creating a generation of men who (especially if they don’t belong to any ‘minority’ group) are without hope, foundation or purpose.

In all this, the thing that resonated with me is that Peterson is very realistic about the essential darkness of humanity. He points to the flood of hatred, abuse and rage that is now clearly visible on anonymous Twitter feeds and that historically it was “so-called normal people”, not sociopaths, who were responsible for the atrocities of nazism, Stalinism and Maoism. We must not forget, says Peterson, that we are corrupt and pathetic, and capable of great malevolence.

At the same time Peterson believes that everyone is born with an instinct for ethics and meaning and so we have a responsibility to pursue those. He suggests this is what the biblical stories tell us. The great world stories have a moral purpose – they teach us how to pursue meaning over narrow self-interest. 

What ever you make of Peterson as a strange mixture of theologian, psychologist, conservative, liberal, wit and lay preacher, he is asking penetrating questions and exposing the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ in much of our cultural assumptions and discourse.  For what it’s worth, I think he’s right about humanity - both our essential flaws and our amazing capacity which is part of the bedrock of a Christian worldview and why, for the Christian, Jesus is such good news.

with every blessing

Philip de Grey-Warter, Vicar