We unorthodox mystics and Christians pass through a great many gurus. Whether Alan Watts, Terence McKenna, or Joseph Campbell, one singular figure rises above the rest to impress upon us the conditions of the numinous. In high school, I had passed through the lectures of Terence McKenna, staggering four-hour poetic sermons on forgotten alchemical texts, rejecting a materialist worldview which asserted that all the world, even mind, was made of nothing but mute material, consciousness nothing but an accidental byproduct of the brain.
The goal of the mystic is to revive one’s latent faith in spirit. And by spirit, really, I mean the notion that human beings belong to an order higher than physics and chemistry. That we do not yet understand ourselves, and locked away in the realities of beauty, morality, art and ideals, there exist “archetypes” or “forms” that are passed down through myriad rays of light both physical and metaphorical. A “human being” is not just a meat machine. A “human being” is the masculine and feminine ideals made real in matter. There is, in the universe, a personalistic, human dimension. It can often be difficult to follow, but this is the main claim of Jungian psychology – that our understanding of the world is not primarily rational, but made up of primal psychic forms, called archetypes, patterns called “masculine”, “feminine”, “chaos”, “order”, “dragon”, “knight” – in other words, the world is made of stories, not rational propositions.
In many ways, it is a view aligning neatly with postmodern thought. Rene Girard, a postmodern Frenchman, analyzed Christian theology as a story told about a scapegoat. For Girard, all human community is based around the slaughter of a particular individual within a group which becomes blamed for all the group’s ills. Whether a sheep, or a Christ, a martyred black man in the Mississippi wilds, the story of humankind is the story of producing and slaughtering scapegoats. Except, so argues Girard, for Christianity. Unique among the world’s religions, Christianity is built around a mythology of the innocence of the scapegoat. The hero of Christianity is no “great man”, a conqueror, a beast, but one who is meant to sift in mud alongside the lowest of the low, and be stepped on.
My understanding of Christianity has always been such – it is the philosophy of those who have been stepped on. Friedrich Nietzsche captured this in his concept of slave morality. For Nietzsche, all Christianity was merely the profession of the resentment of the weak against the strong. Thus, a gospel of suffering was exalted, and suffering, pain, death and despair became Christian virtues. Rebelling against the philosophy of creatures so low, “a wretch like me”, Nietzsche put forth his alternative to the philosophy of slaves – the Ubermensch.
He failed to properly enact that idea into the world. His Nazi sister made it a Nazi idea. And today, the idea of the great man, rising above the mediocre masses, is a distinctly right-wing idea about history driven by singular greatness, rather than collective action or any form of social justice.
I suppose, at this point, it is becoming clear where Jordan Peterson fits into all this. Peterson, in many ways, has replaced Christianity with Nietzsche. In his philosophy of hierarchy, where outcries in the name of inequality are downplayed as virtue signaling, or even plain resentment against those at the top of society, the downtrodden nature of Christ might seem an insult. The Gospel’s invitation to invert all hierarchies and exalt the poor, the compassion of the Christ, is a missing piece. In his explorations of The Bible, Peterson has only ventured a few chapters into The Old Testament. And when asked about the Gospels, he notes that Jung characterized Christ as a figure of compassion, his severity emerging mainly in the Revelation, when he comes with sword and fire and lays waste to the world. Of course, Jung also thought the Book of Revelation was little more than the repressed shadow of the Apostle John leaping freely, the pious Christian finally realizing, and bleeding out his subconscious realization, that the thieves and scoundrels who had severed John the Baptist’s head would one day be punished by the LORD.
We know, from the history of Christianity, that it has often been a brutal and anti-Christian religion. A true gnostic might cite the instantiation of Christianity as the Roman religion as the moment of death, the selling out of the body of Christ to the machinations of Caesar, and the law of Pilate, Hammurabi, and all the mad titans who have warped and weathered the early world. Gnosticism, or the belief that the Old Testament is actually the chronicle of a monster, that Yahweh is not the “Father” but an imposter, a cruel bastard child of the Goddess Sophia, whose name means wisdom – well, these are not popular ideas. The gnostic sects of early Christianity were wiped out by Constantine’s Rome, and vanished into history. Only thinkers in the vein of Terence McKenna, who described himself as an “archaeologist of forgotten idea systems” cares to return to the ideas that history defeated.
And that’s the crux of the problem with Peterson, isn’t it? If history defeats an idea, then that idea deserved to be defeated. Pragmatism rules. If a particular ideology dominates thousands of years of history, for Peterson, then it isn’t ideology anymore. It’s just the truth. It’s just the natural expression of biological hierarchy and all opposed to that notion are fooling themselves. Since feudal times, there has always been a land-owning class, and a class that must work on the land owned by others. Today, it is right that Bezos runs Amazon and his employees subordinate themselves to the will of the great man. Capitalists of all stripes might object to the connection of feudalism to capitalism. But really, this discussion was settled in the twentieth century by John Rawls and Robert Nozick.
Nozick, the free market libertarian, and Rawls, the crusading social democrat, litigated perhaps the deepest debate in the history of political science. Rawls contended that hierarchies of merit and competence were not self-justifying, because competence and merit in themselves are out of the control of competing individuals. In essence, allowing individuals to choose their own fate just means that their innate qualities are left to liberate or condemn them. Liberation, controlled by the marketplace, is a technical affair.
The hallmark of Peterson’s worldview is nature over nurture. Political belief, he argues, is largely downstream from personality. And personality is heritable, downstream from genetics. So if a person’s conscientiousness is heritable from their parents and out of their control, but also dictates how diligent a person is, that person is completely crucified by biology and at the whims of the world as to how well-suited they are to generate an income. Knowing this, how can we be libertarians, and insist that the market selection of worthy individuals is fundamentally just?
Inequality as a fact of nature meets a puzzling response, a response puzzling in its madness – “We will change nature”. Human beings, through the unique evolutionary gifts that make us human, can change and overcome aspects of our own innate nature. We can choose to give women equal standing in our society, even though we could easily replicate ape hierarchies millions of years old. We can refuse to kill our aggressors, and even forgive them, when our amygdala throbs and our ape hands wish to wring another’s throat. Most exceptionally, we can die in sacrifice for complete strangers, neglecting our own true purpose in dead material life – to bear offspring, and to raise them in the name of economic liberation.
Jesus Christ died childless at thirty. This example flies in the face of biological expectation. Jung and Peterson both place Christ as the ultimate human being. He is the ideal to which all people could aspire. And yet he died childless at thirty. He was, all told, a victim of the unjust power structures of the world, who came to complete the incomplete philosophy of the Father, the brutality of Yahweh in the Old Testament.
Christ came to complete a hierarchy that was devoid of empathy, devoid of feeling for human suffering. God alone at the top did not know what it was to be a human being. And here, Jung, Peterson, and all Christians, are to some degree or another heretical against Yahweh. At the beginning of time, God was incomplete. He was not perfect. This is obvious, because his angels fell. A serpent lingered in his garden. God was flawed. And he created us, because we are made to complete him.
In his oddest book, Answer to Job, Carl Jung argues that The Book of Job was a precursor to the coming of Christ. The brute, animal, inhumane actions of Yahweh, unconscious, a beast comparable to the very “Leviathan” he had slain, boasting of his might as reason for his righteousness, was not the true face of God. How could it be? In taking the wounds inflicted by a cruel and unconscionable God, Job demonstrated that human beings, God’s creation, had in certain ways surpassed him. God was surpassed by the meek and humble creature which received the pain he inflicted without violent reaction and devastating malevolence. God was made low by his own actions, and a mortal man was made high by refusing to lash out against the world in response. And this event, the treatment of Job at the hands of God, revealed the truth – that God was obviously incomplete, and that he did not know what it was to be a human being. Arrogant, he had no conception of suffering. He bullied Job like a conscious machine might torment a child.
Christ incarnated as man to show his Father what being human is like. And in doing so, he changed the very nature of the Father. He made God more complete, so Jung argues. Christ came from God, so Christ came from within the totality of the Father’s being, but this particular aspect of the Godhead, named the Son, could not be expressed save for through the suffering of man, his creation. To complete God, his own creation had to teach him what it means to suffer on Earth as an ape. God had to learn from human beings.
If God learns from us, then we have the obligation to show him new things. Rather than subservience, the proper position of a human being in relationship to God is the Hermetic one, it is the mystical one, it is the creation of a more perfect cosmos with God and humankind side-by-side, co-creators of the cosmos, Hermes Trismegistus’ famous declaration that “man is the brother of God”. Not a “wretch like me”.
If we accept that the fall from grace itself was essential in order for God to create autonomous beings who could not only disobey him, but also teach him, then we understand that religion was never finished, that Jung was right to explore, that the Holy Trinity itself is incomplete – in need of Holy Mother, Daughter and Holy Soul, and that no archetypal or mystical form is ever eternal, ever set in stone. The function of the material world, as we in the twenty-first century well know, is evolution. The entire cosmos is a “Wonder Dynamo”, an engine with the capacity to produce novelty, to evolve, to teach God, just as Job once did, just as the experience of Christ on the cross once taught him what it means to suffer.
God’s creation is still experienced through human faces, through human hands. The experience of being a human being did not conclude two-thousand years ago in Christ. And we suffer, and to live is to suffer, and in our own Christian nations not a hundred years ago, black bodies were found suspended from crosses not unlike their own savior, and the Christians of the time had turned their backs upon them.
Maybe nothing has changed since Rome. Maybe we are still little Constantines, all of us. The sublime nature of Christianity defies all its dogmas. The madness of Christ, the Innocent One who is killed, is as far from straightforward as logically possible. The crucifixion is beyond reason, because it says that those who are right and true will be destroyed. There is no greater knot at the core of the world, in the core of both Christianity and the hero’s journey – that suffering, death and dismay always befall the mythological champion.
This is no strongman philosophy. This is no defense of what is old. It is a call to evolution and triumph over what has always been. That, to me, is the essence of the Christian story. The hero’s journey and the fall from grace are both calls for the prodigal son to return to the Father with new things to teach him, not just a knee to bend. And insofar as the bio-mystical politics of Jordan Peterson reject the possibility of those new things, as long as fundamental questions about the structure of our modern Rome are dismissed for fears of creating a new gulag, I must reject Jordan Peterson’s philosophy.
The corporate structures of the United States are deeply compromised and are mired in irrational, self-destructive, elitist practices. If you have seventeen minutes, Ralph Nader (whom Nassim Taleb dedicated Skin in the Game to) breaks it down better than I ever could. Competence hierarchies, in my opinion, are often just as mythical as equality in Venezuela.