Redeeming masculinity: Peterson, Winton and Jesus

In my last two posts interacting with Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos I’ve suggested there are some areas where his misunderstanding of Jesus — and how the Jesus myth works —  that produce less than optimal results when it comes to charting a path for an appropriate ‘masculinity’, and then that his treatment of both Egyptian and Biblical wisdom requires some careful and significant re-framing, or re-casting, through the cross of Jesus for Christians in particular to adopt his rules as wise axioms for life… but all the while I’ve acknowledged (I hope clearly) that there are things about both the substance of his work and the popularity of his work that should invite us, as Christians, to think carefully about how the Gospel might better scratch the social itch he’s honed in on. If you’re sick of long things about Peterson, I’m hoping that these three posts will be a sort of background for two short things that follow.

Un-re-cast Peterson offers a view of God, the Jesus-story, and humanity that is false and yet he sees it revealing incredible truth about our humanity (and he reads the text of the Bible with an appreciation and sensitivity that gives many people hope that he is on a journey towards a fuller picture of Jesus). Without that altering, and without the completion of that journey, what 12 Rules offers is an idolatry similar to the idolatry of the Athenians (though because he engages so deeply with Jesus and appears to deny central parts of the Bible’s claims about Jesus there’s something more pernicious about his framework if it doesn’t ultimately represent such a journey towards truth). When Paul is in Athens he listens carefully to what the wise people of the culture are saying, he notices how their ‘worship’ and the culture’s narratives are seeking to answer deep questions about the human experience, and he responds by showing the Athenians how the true, fully realised, story of Jesus does offer a more complete picture of humanity. This, for me, is the ultimate example of plundering the gold of Egypt (or Athens) in the Bible — and it represents both an affirmation and a radical subversion of what the Athenians think a good human life looks like, and what part they see religious belief and ‘the gods’ playing in that life. Peterson does the opposite, he’s listened carefully to Christians (and the Bible) and found in them some universal truths apart from the real person and work of Jesus. He’s plundering Jesus to preach Adam.

Peterson does a reasonable job diagnosing some of the bad things in our culture, particularly for men (which is why he’s resonating so deeply with men). There’s something in his diagnosis about the problems of masculinity and a sense of disenfranchisement or disillusionment lots of blokes in the west feel simply because they’re blokes. Now. I’m not denying there are lots of things men also do as individuals and systemically that make life bad for women in the west. Lots of the feminist critique of western life is accurate — terms like ‘the patriarchy’ and ‘rape culture’ describe things that are true about how men abuse power (including the biological reality that men are typically bigger and stronger, and the psychological reality that men are (whether by conditioning or innately) more aggressive and have other psychometric traits identified as ‘masculine’). The problem of toxic masculinity hurts both men and women; but I also think much of the pushback against toxic masculinity from certain branches of the feminist movement is crippling for men. The solution to toxic masculinity is not denying differences between men and women (a sort of radical egalitarianism that tackles gender norms), but instead looks like men and women elevating, celebrating, and making space for difference and for one another.

Peterson is also right to suggest that part of the issue for men in the west is the loss of a ‘metanarrative’ because of some aggressive, over-reaching, forms of post-modernity (and again, I say this as somebody much more enthusiastic about post-modernity than Peterson, or your average Presbyterian minister).

It’s important to listen to the voices of women who have alarm bells set off not just by Peterson’s following amongst the Alt-Right, or the ‘Men’s Rights Movement’, but by the ambiguity or lack of clarity around some things he says, especially when it’s clear that his work is being appropriated to prop up some of the very things he opposes. What seems to be especially concerning, I think, is his use of technical terminology for masculine and feminine and the way these create naturalistic ‘oughts’ from what ‘is’ when it comes to how to be male or female, and the way this is propped up by his use of archetypes that also have ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ elements, and then what he does when applying these to what a good ‘male’ or ‘female’ life ought to look like (his coda where he writes about his desires for his children being an example — he wants his son to be like Jesus and his daughter to be like Mary (a mother) — and I’ll unpack the problems with this gendered archetype thing from a Christian perspective below).

Part of Peterson’s popularity with the harder-right man is analogous to Trump’s popularity with the same demographic; capturing the disillusionment of a collapse of masculinity (arguably because of a collapse of Christianity and its story in the west) and offering something to fill that void. It’s like a reverse Athens in some ways; Peterson has seen the itch created by the known God becoming unknown in our world, and he’s attempted to replace it with something like a synthesised version of Nietzsche, Jung, and Dostoyevsky’s Jesus. A Jesus who shows us what it looks like to save ourselves, to lift our own gaze to godlikeness, and seize the day in order to re-create and transform the world according to our individual vision and power.

When it comes to masculinity in Australia; we’ve got problems.

Tim Winton and Australia’s toxic masculinity problem

There was a stunning interview with Aussie novelist Tim Winton in the Fairfax press recently, outlining his sense that there is a crisis of masculinity; and some sense of where he thinks the solution to a toxic sort of masculinity might be found. He makes a useful conversation partner with Peterson’s 12 Rules. Here’s an extended part of the conversation he had about the crisis of masculinity as he sees it manifest itself in Australia.

It was in the surf, for example, that he first began noticing something “less than lovely” about the local boys: a spiky nihilism, a contempt for gentleness and decency, and, most worryingly, a reflexive misogyny. It was mainly the things they said to one another. About women, and girls. About other races, too, and even about nature. “Some of these guys were the full Dickhead Package,” he says. “They were rednecks. But there was also a script there. It was almost as if they were rehearsing what they thought a real man should be like.”

That “script”, the abiding notion of men as invulnerable, flinty, emotionally distant, is as destructive as it is resilient, a kind of prison where the best parts of boys – the sensitive parts, the nurturing parts – go to die. “It’s so impoverishing,” Winton says, wincing. “It stops men from growing. They become emotional infants, little man-boys who despise women and lean on them in equal measure.”

He pauses. Nods. “Wow,” I say. “So how did we get here?”

“I dunno,” says Winton. He wriggles in his chair, stares out the window. It’s a murky area, this gender and culture stuff, and I get the feeling he’s thinking his way through it as we sit here. “Maybe it was the ’60s, you know? The whole Aquarius thing, everyone being encouraged to ‘follow their own bliss’. They were given this dud message that they were somehow absolved of responsibility.”

All the “self-actualising” was good news for women, since they had for so long been denied any “self”. But the benefits for men were less clear. Sure, all those tired old models, the traditional pathways to manhood, were swept away, but they weren’t replaced with anything, or at least nothing especially solid or coherent. “It’s a little bit like what has happened with the modern economy,” he adds. “Like neo-liberalism. It has reduced us all to players in the market. What is ‘the market’ anyway? Like, what the hell?

“These days nothing is expected of you, and nothing is given to you. But your journey to maturity is wrapped up in a sense of deeper culture, of spirituality even. Without that, all that’s left is sex, money and alcohol.”

Winton identifies our loss of compelling ‘grand narrative’; the reduction of our humanity to being pieces of an economic machine, and a corresponding loss of sense of meaning or direction; that’s what comes from having a ‘myth’ — a story that organises your life and tells you what you are living for. But the modern, or post-modern, Australia has no compelling centralised myth, and if all we’re left to do is write our own little individual stories, they become about small-minded stuff; the ‘things of this world’ — sex, money, and alcohol. And pursuing those things — worshipping those things — as the source of ultimate meaning has a tendency to turn a bloke into what Winton calls ‘the full Dickhead package’… there’s a nice echo of David Foster Wallace’s ‘everybody worships something, the only choice you get is what to worship’ here — in that he specifically talks about what the worship of sex and money will do to you.

Masculinity and the heart

The question is: what resources does Peterson offer to pull people out of ‘full Dickhead’ — out of the worship of sex, money, and alcohol — and into something more constructive. Like Winton, and Wallace, Peterson sees our lives (and so for men, our masculinity) shaped by the question of what we worship — what we hold as ultimate. This observation isn’t terribly new; it’s there in the Old Testament when the Psalms and prophets write about us ‘becoming what we worship’ and the deadly impact of worshipping something other than the living God. We’re ‘very religious’ as Paul put it in Athens. Peterson is the ‘reverse Paul’ at this point — or the Egyptian plundering gold from Israel. He talks about worship in terms of a ‘moral hierarchy’ and our ‘god’ as whatever we place on top.

“Jung observed that the construction of such a moral hierarchy was inevitable — although it could remain poorly arranged and internally self-contradictory. For Jung, whatever was at the top of an individual’s moral hierarchy was, for all intents and purposes, that person’s ultimate value, that person’s god. It was what that person acted out. It was what that person believed most deeply.” — page 198

And the start of the book (and what he does with the idea of the ‘divine logos’ later in the book) reveals that his moral hierarchy places the ‘responsibility bearing’ individual as the ultimate value. We become our own gods. We become the ‘hero’ who might change the world and bring heaven on earth (starting with our own rooms — there’s, I think, a problem with an emphasis on the individual that doesn’t also equally factor in the way that we are utterly dependent on the people around us both in what we think and ‘know’ and in how we live; our habitats (including our communities) shape our habits — our liturgies (the practice of worship) which shape us… surely we have to work on both ‘our patch’ and the broader environments we belong to (and to be fair to Peterson, there’s some of this in Rule 3 ‘Make friends with people who want the best for you’). Anyway. Here’s what’s on top of Peterson’s moral hierarchy:

“I came to a more complete personal realisation of what the great stories of the past continually insist upon: the centre is occupied by the individual. The centre is marked by the cross, as X marks the spot… How could the world be freed from the terrible dilemma of conflict, on one hand, and psychological and social dissolution, on the other? The answer was this: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of being and to take the heroic path. We must each adopt as much responsibility as possible for individual life, society, and the world”… — Page XXXIII

“Thousands of years ago, the aware ‘I’ was the all-seeing Horus… before that it was the creator-God Marduk… during the Christian epoch, the “I” transformed into the Logos, the word that speaks order into being at the beginning of time. It might be said that Descartes merely secularised the Logos, turning it, more explicitly, into “that which is aware and thinks.” That’s the modern self, simply put.” — Page 194

Until he puts Jesus on the cross at the centre of being, rather than the heroic individual archetypally following Jesus, I think it’s fair to say he’s not really understanding the Christian story… but more on that below.

Peterson is great and clear and fantastic when it comes to identifying the heart problem behind toxic masculinity and toxic femininity. Sin. The darkness in our hearts. He sees us playing out a pattern of curse — the dominance hierarchy thing is pretty much Genesis 3:16 — and rather than seeing this as something wrong with the world where the answer is to look at both Genesis 2 and Revelation 21-22 (the start and end of the story), he sees this as something like the natural rules of the game and seeks to help people play that game (whether men or women… I want to be clear that it seems clear to me that Peterson thinks that if success is going to be defined in these terms, if it is ‘a man’s world’ that women are able to adopt masculine traits, and should be encouraged to if that’s what they want). The really important bit isn’t at the start, but at the end of the Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn quote we both love:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Who indeed? (hint: it’s kinda what Jesus did).

Peterson readily acknowledges the darkness in each and every human heart. The question is, does his narrative — particularly his archetypal, G0d-haunted, but almost entirely natural rendering of the Jesus narrative — actually give us enough reason to put that bit to death and to atone for our own sins, and to embrace (for men) a masculinity that isn’t patterned on the dominance world  (like many of the evil regimes Peterson explicitly hates and repudiates) but on something else? Does he equip us with not just the power to change, but enough motivation to sacrifice darkness? He seems to think just knowing our capacity for darkness scares us into positive action.

“When the wakening occurs—when once-naïve people recognise in themselves the seeds of evil and monstrosity, and see themselves as dangerous (at least potentially) their fear decreases. They develop more self-respect. Then, perhaps, they begin to resist oppression. They see that they have the ability to withstand, because they are terrible too. They see they can and must stand up, because they begin to understand how genuinely monstrous they will become, otherwise, feeding on their resentment, transforming it into the most destructive of wishes. To say it again: There is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character. This is one of the most difficult lessons of life.” — 12 Rules, page 25

Is recognising our capacity for evil enough to stop us being evil? It certainly restrains us. Sometimes. But I’m not sure that this capacity for evil doesn’t also explain toxic masculinity and why it is so hard to reconfigure what a virtuous man looks like; so Peterson couples the pursuit of the ‘good’ side of our heart; the light, not just with altruism (though that’s there), but with the sense that life will be better for us if we stand up straight and grasp power… first because it sucks if we don’t:

“If you slump around, with the same bearing that characterises a defeated lobster, people will assign you a lower status, and the old counter that you share with crustaceans, sitting at the very base of your brain, will assign you a low dominance number. Then your brain will not produce as much serotonin. This will make you less happy, and more anxious and sad, and more likely to back down when you should stand up for yourself. It will also decrease the probability that you will get to live in a good neighbourhood, have access to the highest quality resources, and obtain a healthy, desirable mate.” — 12 Rules, Page 25

And it’s better for us if we do…

“You see the gold the dragon hoards, instead of shrinking in terror from the all-too-real fact of the dragon. You step forward to take your place in the dominance hierarchy, and occupy your territory, manifesting your willingness to defend, expand and transform it. That can all occur practically or symbolically, as a physical or as a conceptual restructuring.” — 12 Rules, Page 27

Peterson wants an altruism; the ‘light’ to triumph, he wants us to participate in bringing heaven on earth by aiming up. He wants us to sacrifice a part of ourselves for the greater good…

“You must discipline yourself carefully. You must keep the promises you make to yourself, and reward yourself, so that you can trust and motivate yourself. You need to determine how to act toward yourself so that you are most likely to become and to stay a good person. It would be good to make the world a better place. Heaven, after all, will not arrive of its own accord. We will have to work to bring it about, and strengthen ourselves, so that we can withstand the deadly angels and flaming sword of judgment that God used to bar its entrance.” — 12 Rules, page 63

What’s the difference between the successful and the unsuccessful? The successful sacrifice. Things get better, as the successful practise their sacrifices. The questions become increasingly precise and, simultaneously, broader: What is the greatest possible sacrifice? For the greatest possible good? — Page 169

Man up. Basically. Choose to be your best self — and reward and discipline yourself to make that happen…  And the rest of his 12 Rules expand on what that might look like (with, it must be said, some reasonably subversive ideas about responsibility).

Now. There’s a lot there that’s good for broken men, but I wouldn’t say there’s a great corrective for the dark hearted part of broken men, or the ‘toxic masculinity’ thing. It doesn’t deal with sin; though as I mentioned in post one, Peterson’s solution is that we make atonement for ourselves as we ‘take up our cross’ and ‘bear the weight of being’ — but why would I want to do that if I can pass on part of that weight to others by dominating them. Discipline. Self-denial. Sacrifice… and again, there’s lots of David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water echoing here — where he describes freedom as “attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” As an aside, reading Peterson and watching his popularity soar well beyond the strength of his writing makes me shed tears at the loss of Wallace’s voice in our society as we stare into the void left by the collapse of Christianity’s influence and try to figure out how to be people together.

Discipline. Sacrifice.

Why would I do that if it’s such hard work?

I think this advice will be effective for some — because there’s a certain part of us that just wants rules… but if I’m told that the way to get ahead in life, naturally, is to be ‘top lobster’, that this will make me get even more of what I want… that success starts with the individual taking responsibility for themselves and claiming what is ours by right, but I’m then encouraged not to do claim what isn’t mine even if I can… then why would I stop?

If the monster lies within, why not embrace it? Feed it? Relish in it?

What is there to restrain my becoming the chaotic monster Peterson is so keen to keep me from? The spectre of Hitler looms large in Peterson’s work as an example of totalitarian ‘order’ (of the sort that should be hurled back into chaos); but what does he really offer that stops my dark heart going that way given the tools to ‘stand up straight’ and be powerful? Why shouldn’t I harness his insights as some form of ‘self-help’ (the genre the book is categorised in) and simply help myself? What is it that will cause me to pick light over dark? Why not just embrace my desires to be strong enough to claim any woman I desire as my mate.

What if Winton is right about today’s ‘full dickhead package’ masculinity? That because we’ve lost a bigger journey or something spiritual we’re left worshiping, or idolising, sex, money, and alcohol? If our hearts are shot through with evil and we see those things as the ultimate ‘good’, what hope do we have? By some accounts, David Foster Wallace spoke about the danger of worshipping the wrong stuff from personal experience — there are people who’ve claimed that he was both the embodiment of toxic masculinity and a particular prescient critic of the dynamics that got him there… awareness of the destructive potential of these objects of worship isn’t enough if they stay there and we’re just told to pursue them from the ‘light’ part of our hearts not the dark bits.

Here’s where Peterson is right that we actually need a story, not just rules.

But I suspect even that is naive and limited. Self discipline, sacrifice, and a grand narrative might be enough to keep some of the darkness in our hearts at bay… we might even put some of that darkness to death as we restrain it… but not even being God’s chosen king stopped David claiming Bathsheba for himself, with an army (and no opportunity for consent). Give even the best man power, and opportunity, and what stops him giving in to temptation for darkness (it’s worth noting that the Bathsheba scene echoes Eve in the garden — they both ‘see’, ‘desire’ and ‘take’ what they know to be wrong, this dynamic is not just ‘toxic masculinity’ but ‘toxic humanity’ — it does seem that both Genesis 3:16 and our observations of life in the world since — mean that men are typically more able to exert physical power, and society conditions us men to do that cursed ways (which some call ‘the patriarchy’, or Winton calls ‘toxic masculinity’) that are bad for both women and men.  Would these 12 Rules have been enough to limit that form of toxic masculinity? Or might they simply have spoken to the darker bits of his heart and enabled them? David certainly still had a grand narrative he was living in and by…

Embodied masculinity: Peterson, Winton, ‘subtraction stories’, and a ‘Christianity with its sleeves rolled up’

There’s lots in the life of Jesus that is exemplary for humanity, not just for masculinity. Peterson seems to think women should be getting their marching orders from the archetype of Mary, not Jesus, which loses something of the Christian idea that Jesus is the image of the invisible God in a way that fulfils the Genesis 1 dynamic of ‘male and female’ being made in the image of God together (more on Christlikeness as a pattern for Christian femininity here, and here). But if we’re going to talk about antidotes for the sort of toxic masculinity identified by Tim Winton, and how Peterson might or might not be a helpful nod in this direction with his exaltation of the Jesus story and application of it to the self, then let’s talk about how Jesus provides a better guide to masculinity not just humanity (caveat, again, I think Jesus sees himself as an example for everybody when he calls all his followers to take up their cross and follow him (Luke 9:23), and Luke is explicit that Jesus’ followers include women (Luke 8:1-3), I think Paul sees Jesus’ crucifixion as an ethical example for everybody, see Philippians 2, but also that he applies it particularly to how men are to use their strength as they relate to women in the particular context of church (1 Corinthians 11), and marriage (Ephesians 5:21ff). I don’t think it is wrong to address a crisis in masculinity with particular implications for men with the particular (typical) reality that men are physically stronger and biologically predisposed to certain traits we might call masculine (for more on this see my ‘third way on gender’ post from a while back). I’m suggesting that in a world where toxic masculinity exists, where ‘neutral masculinity’ might not actually exist (because of our evil hearts) might actually need redeemed masculinity to exist, and that Peterson’s picture of redemption, his use of the cross, is a useful critique of the church, but half baked. I want to suggest that Tim Winton’s picture of a Jesus-shaped masculinity is also a critique of the church… and that both of them look to Jesus in an exemplary way that we probably should too (but that particularly in the case of Peterson, we need to re-cast the Jesus story substantially back towards its own terms).

Both Peterson and Winton have personal versions of what philosopher Charles Taylor calls a ‘subtraction story’ when it comes to their view of Jesus, while simultaneously calling out the ‘secularism’ of the west for having a bigger ‘subtraction story’. In A Secular Age, Taylor describes these subtraction stories as stories of ‘modernity’ and our sense, or narrative, that we don’t need ‘big stories’ to explain the world, and certainly not stories that require something ‘divine’ or ‘supernatural’:

I mean by this stories of modernity in general, and secularity in particular, which explain them by human beings having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge. What emerges from this process–modernity or secularity–is to be understood in terms of underlying features of human nature which were there all along, but had been impeded by what is now set aside. Against this kind of story, I will steadily be arguing that Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life. — Charles Taylor, A Secular Age

This is something Winton recognised in those boys at the beach… whose lives are now seen in terms of an economic story, or personal pursuit of sex, money, or alcohol when instead we should have our masculinity shaped and defined in narrative terms, or a “journey to maturity”  that is “wrapped up in a sense of deeper culture, of spirituality”… but at the same time Winton’s subtraction story is one of leaving the hardline evangelical faith of his parents, because:

“At one point I reached the limits of the educational and cultural experience of the people around me,” he says. “I just wasn’t getting any answers, no real feedback. And sometimes the feedback was negative because they felt threatened.” — Winton interview, Less than Lovely, SMH

In an interview about this ‘subtraction’ with Simon Smart from the Centre for Public Christianity he said:

TIM WINTON: I was part of that tradition, and part of the weakness of our tradition is the obsession with orthodoxy, thinking the right thing. And I was probably only liberated from that in my late 20s, when I just realised that thinking the right thing was just kind of nice if you had the energy for it, but it wasn’t the game; it was allowing yourself the space and the danger to perhaps do the right thing, or at least do something. What you did was essentially an expression of who you were and what you believed.

SIMON SMART: I once interviewed a Salvation Army woman who was a saint, spent her life caring for people, and she talked about her dad getting some help from the Salvos when he was really sick, and he described it as Christianity with its sleeves rolled up, and he said the only kind that’s worth anything. That sort of resonates a little bit with what you’re describing.

TIM WINTON: Yes, totally. I mean if you’re not interested in someone’s body and their health, you’re just not interested in them. The rest of their person somehow is supposed to be…we’ve almost got this idea that people’s bodies or their…or their, their health, their levels of poverty their…

SIMON SMART: Sort of a side issue?

TIM WINTON: Their physical… Yes, we are these disembodied spirits first and foremost and our bodies are just some sort of inconvenience. Yes, if it’s not Christianity with your sleeves rolled up, then what species of faith is it? What is that? And I’m not interested in that.

Subtraction stories often carry with them an air of ‘liberation’ or enlightenment… but in Winton’s case it was more a pursuit of authentic embodiment… it was, perhaps, the evangelical church he departed that was living out a secularised, modernist, ‘subtraction story’… a story that saw us not as embodied spiritual creatures but simply as spiritual creatures. What’s interesting here, I think, if we throw David Foster Wallace into the mix, is that Wallace recognises the culture’s subtraction story (“the gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing”) and seemed to spend his life trying to escape it by trying to add the right thing.

Peterson’s is more dramatically secularised (though still ‘haunted’ in Taylor’s terms), while Winton still seems enchanted. Part of my optimism about Peterson’s journey is that I think he’s really zeroed in on a type of hopefulness caught up in the Jesus story… Both Winton and Peterson zero in on a lack of embodiment of the life of Jesus, in the evangelical church, as part of their dissatisfaction with the church; as part of their ‘subtraction’ story. Peterson had his own ‘subtraction’ story which he saw in parallel terms with the subtraction story of the West — the death of the Christian God (as conceived by an institutional church more interested in doctrine or spiritual salvation than the embodied reality of imitating Jesus. Here’s his account of both his own ‘subtraction story’ and the ‘subtraction story’ of the west:

I was truly plagued with doubt. I had outgrown the shallow Christianity of my youth by the time I could understand the fundamentals of Darwinian theory. After that, I could not distinguish the basic elements of Christian belief from wishful thinking…

I was plagued with doubt. I searched for one thing—anything—I could regard as indisputable. I wanted a rock upon which to build my house. It was doubt that led me to it.— Page 196, 197

Carl Jung hypothesized that the European mind found itself motivated to develop the cognitive technologies of science—to investigate the material world—after implicitly concluding that Christianity, with its laser-like emphasis on spiritual salvation, had failed to sufficiently address the problem of suffering in the here-and-now. This realization became unbearably acute in the three or four centuries before the Renaissance. In consequence, a strange, profound, compensatory fantasy began to emerge, deep in the collective Western psyche, manifesting itself first in the strange musings of alchemy, and developing only after many centuries into the fully articulated form of science. It was the alchemists who first seriously began to examine the transformations of matter, hoping to discover the secrets of health, wealth and longevity. These great dreamers (Newton foremost among them) intuited and then imagined that the material world, damned by the Church, held secrets the revelation of which could free humanity from its earthly pain and limitations. It was that vision, driven by doubt, that provided the tremendous collective and individual motivational power necessary for the development of science, with its extreme demands on individual thinkers for concentration and delay of gratification. This is not to say that Christianity, even in its incompletely realized form, was a failure. Quite the contrary: Christianity achieved the well-nigh impossible. The Christian doctrine elevated the individual soul, placing slave and master and commoner and nobleman alike on the same metaphysical footing, rendering them equal before God and the law. Christianity insisted that even the king was only one among many. For something so contrary to all apparent evidence to find its footing, the idea that that worldly power and prominence were indicators of God’s particular favor had to be radically de-emphasized. This was partly accomplished through the strange Christian insistence that salvation could not be obtained through effort or worth—through “works”… — Pages 185-186

Here we see Peterson’s appreciation for Christianity, his sense that science or natural accounts of reality made belief implausible, but also how he begins to start over-correcting against the flattening of a paradox by the church. Our own Christian subtraction story. His subtraction story is not simply that science killed God, but that Christianity’s insistence on a spiritual reality instead of a material or embodied reality let that happen. The subtraction story that allowed this is a Christian one — it was the subtraction of the body and what we do with it from being an important part of Christian belief and practice. The theological reality is that we’re both spiritual and embodied creatures who live as part of God’s kingdom in this world when we are saved by Jesus, but saved by the embodied actions of Jesus, not our embodied actions imitating him. Peterson is correcting something wrong with how the church has imagined faithfulness to Jesus too — the same thing that saw Winton leave his particular tradition. ‘The strange Christian insistence that salvation could not be obtained through works’ is actually the Christian insistence that only Jesus is able to triumph over sin and Satan — that only Jesus was prepared to put sin to death, to refuse temptation, and to be righteous enough to be saved by works. We rely on that; and the new hearts the Bible promises to those who trust in Jesus; the supernatural reality of the Holy Spirit rewiring our hearts (Romans 7-8). But. These new hearts should produce new lives in the body… they should produce a new masculinity. That they don’t or we haven’t demonstrated this enough is a failing of the church that is part of the subtraction story of the west and the way our culture produces toxic masculinity. A world without the church carving out the kingdom of God is going to be a world where the cursed pattern of male-female relationships, or patterns of life shaped by the worship of sex, money, alcohol, and other idols, are more prevalent. The kingdom of God is the antidote to the curse; even if it will only be fully realised when Jesus returns. Peterson reads the Bible better than Nietzsche, but his understanding of how Christians should read the Bible is shaped by how a particular tradition demolished by Nietzsche did read the Bible… and in doing so he misunderstands the tradition of Paul, Luther, and the Protestant church and offers his own reading (shaped by Jung, Dostoyevsky, and Solzenhitsyn, and an archetypal, secularised, ‘myth-alone’ approach to the Christian story) as a corrective:

The central dogmas of the Western faith were no longer credible, according to Nietzsche, given what the Western mind now considered truth. But it was his second attack—on the removal of the true moral burden of Christianity during the development of the Church—that was most devastating. The hammer-wielding philosopher mounted an assault on an early-established and then highly influential line of Christian thinking: that Christianity meant accepting the proposition that Christ’s sacrifice, and only that sacrifice, had redeemed humanity. This did not mean, absolutely, that a Christian who believed that Christ died on the cross for the salvation of mankind was thereby freed from any and all personal moral obligation. But it did strongly imply that the primary responsibility for redemption had already been borne by the Saviour, and that nothing too important to do remained for all-too-fallen human individuals. Nietzsche believed that Paul, and later the Protestants following Luther, had removed moral responsibility from Christ’s followers. They had watered down the idea of the imitation of Christ. This imitation was the sacred duty of the believer not to adhere (or merely to mouth) a set of statements about abstract belief but instead to actually manifest the spirit of the Saviour in the particular, specific conditions of his or her life—to realize or incarnate the archetype, as Jung had it; to clothe the eternal pattern in flesh.

Nietzsche writes, “The Christians have never practiced the actions Jesus prescribed them; and the impudent garrulous talk about the ‘justification by faith’ and its supreme and sole significance is only the consequence of the Church’s lack of courage and will to profess the works Jesus demanded.” Nietzsche was, indeed, a critic without parallel. Dogmatic belief in the central axioms of Christianity (that Christ’s crucifixion redeemed the world; that salvation was reserved for the hereafter; that salvation could not be achieved through works) had three mutually reinforcing consequences: First, devaluation of the significance of earthly life, as only the hereafter mattered. This also meant that it had become acceptable to overlook and shirk responsibility for the suffering that existed in the here-and-now; Second, passive acceptance of the status quo, because salvation could not be earned in any case through effort in this life (a consequence that Marx also derided, with his proposition that religion was the opiate of the masses); and, finally, third, the right of the believer to reject any real moral burden (outside of the stated belief in salvation through Christ), because the Son of God had already done all the important work.

Peterson left a Christianity that looked a lot like it was practicing these three consequences… he left searching for meaning and plagued with doubt. But he thinks he has found a better story with the recipe for a better life, and better masculinity. This is where Peterson draws his moral conclusions — the ‘rock on which he builds his house’ — this is where he derives his picture of humanity and masculinity from…that we should be imitating Jesus in standing against suffering, but we should ‘build our house’ on the idea of being heroic individuals… This is his critique of the church. This is his object of worship… and his life aims to flesh out these beliefs:

“What can I not doubt? The reality of suffering. It brooks no arguments. Nihilists cannot undermine it with skepticism. Totalitarians cannot banish it. Cynics cannot escape from its reality. Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief. Searching through the lowest reaches of human thought and action, understanding my own capacity to act like a Nazi prison guard or a gulag archipelago trustee or a torturer of children in a dungeon, I grasped what it meant to “take the sins of the world onto oneself.” Each human being has an immense capacity for evil.

It was from this that I drew my fundamental moral conclusions. Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency—your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you. You’ve failed to make the mark. You’ve missed the target. You’ve fallen short of the glory of God. You’ve sinned. And all of that is your contribution to the insufficiency and evil of the world.”— page 196-198

For Peterson, the meaning of the Christian story, of Jesus ‘taking the sins upon the world of himself’ is that we’re meant to be Jesus. We’re meant to be ‘the rock’ on which we build our own lives, the ‘cornerstone’ we’re meant to build our lives on is the realisation that we are capable of bringing suffering on others… we’re meant to create heaven on our own steam. To choose light over dark.

The Bible is not optimistic about our ability to do this without re-birth from above. Consider John’s Gospel, which uses light and darkness as interesting themes to talk about how our hearts respond to God as the ‘source of light and life’.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. — John 1:9-11

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. — John 3:19-21

The problem is not that ‘God is dead’ metaphorically because of science, or some sort of modern subtraction story where we no longer need superstition or the supernatural… the problem is that God died because our hearts are dark and when we had the opportunity, we humans killed him because our hearts are dark and we like it better that way. This same passage, John 3, where Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the dark of night, is where Jesus says that in order to live in the light we need to be born from above. We need the new hearts promised in the Old Testament. We need the Spirit to re-birth our bodies… and this isn’t just a metaphor but a spiritual reality (of the sort our western subtraction story struggles to grasp).

Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again [literally ‘born from above’]…
Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” — John 3:3, 6

The claim of the Christian story — the claims of Jesus himself — are that if we’re going to deal with our hearts, and the world and what we inflict on the world — we can’t build our lives on our messed up hearts. We have to build them on him. He is the rock. He is the cornerstone. You can’t just take that language or symbolism and then try to imitate Jesus. You have to build your life in and on Jesus. We can’t build ‘heaven’ on earth without rebirth. We can’t move from hearts of darkness into the light without this.

Both Peterson and the sort of church he rejected (and the one that Winton rejected, and the one Nietzsche rejected, and the Christianity that the west rejected) are wrong about the imitation of Jesus in the Christian life; and the picture of masculinity we get from Jesus. He’s wrong about the theology behind ‘justification by faith’ because he is wrong about what Christians call sanctification. Sanctification is about ‘being transformed into the image of Jesus’ — it’s an embodied reality — it happens not because we decide to kill the dark parts of our heart apart from faith, to save ourselves, but because God gives us the means to kill those parts — to ‘put to death our sinful nature’ by giving us the Spirit. By performing heart surgery on us.

Because the church has its own ‘subtraction story’, where we’ve subtracted embodiment and life in the world from our rendering of the Gospel (our own ‘myth’) we’ve both enabled the subtraction story of the west, and of Peterson (and Winton is a helpful example of diagnosing this problem, and identifying that what has been removed needs to be re-added). Peterson replaces that subtraction story with a mythic take on Christianity which somehow places the individual in the place that should be occupied by Jesus — and in the theology of Paul and Luther — Jesus occupying this place at the centre of existence, as the hero, is part of how we are united with him, and given the Spirit in a way that enables the transformation of our embodied lives. Paul’s guide to Christian living can be summed up as “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1), his witness to the Gospel required his taking up his cross and suffering for it so that his body was shaped by it (2 Corinthians 4-5, 10-11, Galatians 6), the Christian life for Paul is one of embodied transformation  as we live the story of Jesus because it is now our story (eg Colossians 3, Romans 6, 8, 12).

Redeemed masculinity of the sort that is going to both overcome our dark hearts and start to provide a better ‘journey’ and spirituality than bad churches or Jordan Peterson is masculinity patterned on Jesus but also relying on Jesus and his death and resurrection being more than just a nice picture of heroism. They have to have a spiritual reality that is capable of re-wiring our hearts so that the choice to not be evil is not just one we make for ourselves as we follow Jesus, but one that God makes possible.

Redeemed masculinity is the masculinity of Paul, who didn’t keep climbing the ‘dominance hierarchy’ of the Pharisees when he met Jesus, but started imitating Jesus, seeing himself as the scum of the earth or a spectacle in the arena (images of someone gladly being dominated for the sake of others). His vision of masculinity, imitating Jesus is:

To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. — 1 Corinthians 4:11-13

And this is because he understands how God’s power works in the world through those imitating Jesus in weakness… in not taking up one’s strength and power for one’s self, but in laying it down or using it for others.

He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. — 2 Corinthians 10:9-10

This is redeemed masculinity. Before Paul met Jesus he was a murderer — bent on making life on earth hellish for Christians, he was a pharisee caught up in darkness, displaying a pretty toxic masculinity while dominating others… his conversion was literally a case of being ‘blinded by the light,’ he wasn’t just confronted with the darkness of his heart but with the light of the world; Jesus.

Redeemed masculinity is a Christianity with its sleeves rolled up. A Christianity imitating Jesus because God is re-casting us in the image of Jesus; transforming us away from the pattern of this world as we practice and live in the story of Jesus. It requires the sort of life marinated in the Gospel story depicted in Colossians 3… but it has to be embodied, deliberately and counter-culturally.

That ‘sleeves rolled up’ picture is extra powerful when paired with the example of Len Thomas, the guy who taught Tim Winton (and his dad) something about Jesus-shaped masculinity. Winton’s dad had an awful bike accident…

 “When he returned home, he was a physical and emotional wreck. He’d gone from being the family’s sole breadwinner to being bedridden, unable to move or shower himself. It was up to his wife, Bev, to manage the house and cope with the kids: Tim and his three younger siblings, Andrew, Michael and Sharyn.

A week or so after John came home, a stranger showed up on the doorstep. His name was Len Thomas. Thomas said he’d heard about the accident, and that Bev was having a tough time, and that he wanted to help. “It was so weird,” Winton says, when we meet in Fremantle, Perth’s port city. “We had never met this guy before, and here he was, turning up, unannounced and uninvited, offering to give us a hand.”

Almost every day for the next few weeks, Thomas came to the house, where he carried Winton’s father from his bedroom to the bathroom and gently washed him. Tim didn’t know what to make of it: a stranger, in the bathroom, with his father? Now all he could do was sit outside the door, listening to the tap water running, and the two men talking in low, soft voices. As it soon became apparent, Thomas was an evangelical Christian: apart from washing John, he’d been laying hands on him, and anointing him with olive oil.

Thomas’s intercession, what Winton now calls “an act of grace”, changed the family forever. Soon after his father’s recovery, Winton’s parents became devout and lifelong Christians. Every Sunday morning, and in the evening too, the family went to church, where they would listen to sermons on degradation and redemption…

“Len showed me that there is another way of being a man, that you didn’t have to get a double century at the MCG or mow down a machine-gun post and get a Victoria Cross. You could be just decent and gentle and kind. For me, that was incredibly revelatory.”

Len Thomas was, in this story, a Christian with his sleeves rolled up. Maybe Jordan Peterson needs to meet him too. Maybe the guys in the surf and others who are the ‘full dickhead package’ need to meet Len Thomas too… because in doing so they’re seeing something of the face of Jesus. Maybe if more Aussies met more Len Thomas types we wouldn’t have subtraction stories for individuals, or our culture, but addition stories. People might start to get an inkling that the supernatural stuff we Christians claim are true — about salvation and eternal kingdoms and the ‘Spirit’ reshaping us — are more than just inspirational myths that help us ‘worship our way’ to a better world by enabling our sacrifice… but that they’re true and inspirational myths that help us worship our way to a better world now and into the future, enabled by Jesus’ sacrifice.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

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