The peculiar opacity of Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson is definitely peculiar, but he is only opaque to those who can’t follow him. Which includes, necessarily, the entirety of his fan base:

Peterson’s definition of God is a sprawling, book-length collection of abstractions, some of which are grounded in narratives about the human condition, while others are mere descriptions of psychological and temporal realities (“…the future to which we make sacrifices”). In other words, it’s a definition that’s so elastic and subjective as to be almost meaningless. As Harris put it, “That’s not how most people most of the time are using the word, and there’s something misleading about that.”

To which Peterson responded, “I never made the claim that what I’m talking about is like what other people are talking about.” That’s true, and he often says he doesn’t define ‘belief’ or ‘God’ in the same way as anyone else. Even when he’s asked a more specific question—about, say, his belief (or lack thereof) in the divinity of Christ—he says the answer depends on the interviewer’s definitions of ‘Christ’ and ‘divine.’ But Peterson still uses words like ‘divine’ all the time. He’s happy to describe consciousness as divine, which he considers to be an “axiomatic statement.” He’s more than willing to tell you “magical things happen as the logos manifests itself” before announcing his firm belief that the logos is divine, too. But only if, by ‘divine,’ you mean “Of ultimate transcendent value.”

But then, what does Peterson mean by ‘transcendent’? Or ‘value’? And what will he mean by all the words he uses to answer those questions? Communication becomes extremely difficult if we allow ourselves repeatedly to be drawn into a labyrinth of semantic distinctions. That is precisely why there has to be some fundamental agreement about what words actually mean at the beginning of any conversation. This is something Peterson can be particularly bad at doing, when the mood takes him—just listen to his excruciating two-hour conversation with Harris that never managed to get past the disputed meaning of the word ‘truth.’

As I call it, bafflegarble. It’s nonsense that baffles the insufficiently comprehending.

When it comes to telling us where our morality comes from, Peterson’s equivocal, opaque language suddenly falls away and he leaves us in no doubt about what he’s trying to say. He’s making yet another simplistic, monocausal argument that ignores all the elements of our philosophical and cultural tradition that contradict it.

So what about the rationalist critiques of religion written by Enlightenment atheists like Hume and Spinoza? Or the withering attacks on Christianity by Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine? What about all the aspects of our Christian heritage that Peterson doesn’t emphasize, like the virulent anti-Semitism that infected the Third Reich, the scriptural warrants for slavery and genocide, and the savage religious wars that preceded the Enlightenment? Why has moral progress so often required our civilization to renounce the dogmas and dictates of the Judeo-Christian tradition Peterson reveres?

Peterson knows he doesn’t have to answer these questions because, despite all his declarations to the contrary, he isn’t bound by this tradition. In one breath, he tells the audience they live in a society that would collapse without the immovable foundation of Judeo-Christian values. In the next, he reminds them that his God is a modern God, unsullied by the barbarism of ancient texts and unencumbered by the immense weight of history. There’s just one problem: Jordan Peterson’s God is nobody else’s God.

Of course not. Because the Judeo-Christian tradition he reveres does not exist and Jordan Peterson couldn’t believe he is the messiah who will save humanity from destruction by war if he believed in either a) the Christian god or b) any other god that humanity has ever worshiped throughout history. Forget him not being a Christian, he’s not even a noble pagan.