I recently, and rather unexpectedly, found myself attending the final night of Jordan Peterson’s 2022 Australian tour. Over the years, I’ve listened to the odd podcast interview or two with Peterson. I’ve read a couple of articles that interacted with his thoughts. But when my relative offered me her spare ticket, I had to confess to her that my knowledge of the man and his work was really very limited. 

In one sense, my lack of familiarity with Peterson’s extended corpus might suggest I’m not well-placed to author this particular article. Sure, I paid close attention and took lots of notes in that lecture. But it was just one lecture. But on the other hand, my lack of familiarity might actually mean I’m ideally placed to write this particular article. You see, I’m neither a devoted Peterson apologist nor an avid Peterson critic. I’m just a Christian woman who listened to him give one lecture and was left with thoughts about it. And I’d like to share some of them.

Peterson is a man for whom the human endeavour takes centre stage.

Let me start out by saying that I was somewhat awed by Peterson’s performance. He spoke for over an hour, without notes, and kept 9000 people in the palm of his hand for that entire time. It’s almost impossible to believe that he managed to keep us all travelling with him through the many turns and twists that his lecture took. But he did manage it, and it was an extraordinary thing to participate in.

I also very much appreciated the way that Peterson treats serious topics seriously. He spoke extensively about the importance of relationship and community for the individual. He insisted on the centrality and vitality of love within the human experience. He is clearly fascinated by the concept of what it looks like for people to grow in their humanity. Peterson is a man for whom the human endeavour takes centre stage.

The Human Story

But therein lies the problem. You see, it became clear to me that for Peterson, the human story is indeed the human story. Or, to be more precise, it’s the story about the “optimisation” of each individual human in this life. He argues that the foundational human task is the consistent moving of our lives—of our very selves—upward. Not upward towards God; upward towards self-improvement and betterment. Peterson emphasised this visually, placing his arm diagonally across his body to evoke an uphill journey. We are each to take responsibility to become more than we currently are. The human task is to spend their life optimising.

But this can be very, very difficult indeed. The world can be a brutal and painful place. It tempts us to give in to decline rather than commit to optimisation. So, Peterson wondered, what will get us through those “times of challenge in which we are pushed to the edge of our ability to adapt and transform”? 

The biblical narrative Peterson presented was, by and large, a narrative that I simply didn’t recognise.

His answer? A story. But not just any story. What we need is the story (or, alternatively, the pattern or the archetype) that will facilitate our optimisation in the midst of complexity and suffering. And so, the fundamental question we need to ask is, “What is the proper or best story?”.

This is where Peterson’s lecture started intersecting with the content of his upcoming book—a book focused on the “spiritual and theological striving” of humanity. He suggested that seeking an answer to the question of what story is best has always been the quest of religion. In his own words, “the pattern behind human optimisation, is the fundamental task of the religious enterprise.” The uphill journey of self-betterment is what all religions, all religious texts, all religious teachers, all religious practices everywhere have always been preoccupied with. But the religious goal is not only to give humanity a story that provides a pattern for optimisation, but one that also provides the resources necessary for us to make good on that potential. 

This led Peterson to speak about the Bible as a meta-story, sequenced in a very specific and highly particular way for the sake of communicating its narrative. However, the biblical narrative Peterson presented was, by and large, a narrative that I simply didn’t recognise. Let me explain by way of an example he featured in this lecture—the biblical story of Abraham.

The Adventure of Abraham

For Christians, the Abrahamic narrative reveals God’s covenantal love towards fallen humanity (Gen 12:1-3; 15:1-6). It’s the story of God’s proactive commitment to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation—a people for his own— and to bless the whole earth through them. So it is that we Christians know it is not actually Abraham who is at the centre of the story. Rather, it’s a story about God. It’s about his divine plans and purposes. It’s about what he set out to do in and for this world, ultimately in the person of Jesus Christ (Rom 4). 

For Peterson, however, the story of Abraham is the story of one man’s commitment to optimise himself by embarking “on an adventure”. It’s the story of a man who had everything he needed for a comfortable and contented life. But actually, this meant he didn’t have everything he needed, because what Abraham really needed was not to stay where he was. Abraham needed to go on that uphill journey. So, according to Peterson, this is a story of human optimisation through adventure. It’s an archetype that speaks of the need to leave what is known and comfortable so that one might become more than one currently is. What is the place of God in that story? He was quite simply the necessary tool by which that call of adventure came to Abraham. 

Or consider Peterson’s reference to the storing up of treasures in heaven rather than on earth (Mat 6:19-21). The Christian reads this passage within the context of the Sermon on the Mount—Jesus’ prolonged teaching about kingdom-based living here on earth. We understand Jesus to be exhorting us to throw ourselves into investing in the coming kingdom of God. Our treasure and our hearts belong to (and with and in) Jesus who even now reigns over that heavenly kingdom.

But for Peterson, Jesus’ exhortation is an “abstraction of where your sustenance is at […] What or who you will have onside in the sufferings and misfortune of life”. 

There is nothing kingdom-focused in Peterson’s interpretation. Rather, Jesus’ words simply provide us with the necessary blueprint for investing in the kind of “treasures” that will give us the best chances of optimisation in this life.

For Peterson, the Bible is one “manifestation of the highest transcendent pattern”—the necessary framework for human optimisation. Love is absolutely essential to optimisation, but not because God is love and he has made us in his image. Rather, it’s because without love, we would have no chance of successfully optimising ourselves. 

For Peterson, love is ultimately self-serving. We don’t love our neighbours as ourselves. We love them for ourselves

Similarly, Peterson considers the optimisation of other people to be essential, but not because we genuinely care just as much about their optimisation as our own. Rather, it’s because if we don’t invest in their optimisation, they’ll notice. They won’t be as interested in being around us and this will ultimately threaten our optimisation. For Peterson, love is ultimately self-serving. We don’t love our neighbours as ourselves. We love them for ourselves

Peterson’s attitude to God is similarly pragmatic. God is the (necessary) protagonist written in so as to provide structure and impetus for the story’s goal of human optimisation. God is the medium by which we are called to adventure upward into the unknown or to invest in the “treasures” most beneficial for our optimisation. God is the construct necessary to explain the creation of Eve as a “beneficial adversary” who keeps Adam on his toes and so striving to become more. God is the device by which we might grasp a glimpse of the Promised Land (the metaphorical goal of our uphill journey).

This is a different deity from the holy, righteous, loving, personal being of Scripture whose actual existence is fundamental to the veracity of the story he has told both in Scripture and human history. 

I’m aware that many Christians find aspects of Peterson’s broader work important and insightful. Perhaps they are right to do so. I am not in a position to evaluate that. But what I am in a position to evaluate is what I heard him teach in that one lecture, on that one night. And what he taught was a biblical narrative I did not recognise, a picture of what it is to be human I did not recognise, and a God I did not recognise. 

Contra Peterson, the story of Scripture was not written in philosophical abstracted metaphor, but in real time, space and blood. It is not ultimately concerned with the earthly “optimisation” of created man, but the eternal glorification of the Son of Man. 

Peterson is right: stories matter. This is why we, as disciples of Christ, must ensure God’s story continues to matter as God’s story, rather than one of our own making.