12 Rules for Life: A Book I Wanted to Like

12 Rules for Life: A Book I Wanted to Like
Dr. Jordan Peterson delivering a lecture at the University of Toronto in 2017. Author: Jacob Adams

Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is a book I wanted to like. I wanted so much to favor someone who proposes rules in our times of unrestraint. I see so clearly the need for an antidote to chaos. The fact that his book is on the top of many bestseller lists only made my desire greater. My expectations were high. I wanted to like this book. But I didn’t.

I will admit that the book has valid advice. Some might consider the book engaging and folksy. People like stories that illustrate points and the book is full of them. There are abundant Christian references. I was impressed by some commonsensical observations about childrearing and discipline drawing from his experience as both a parent and psychologist. So many things he said seemed to make sense.

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And yet, he failed to convince me. I became uneasy about the many favorable references to Freud, Jung and Nietzsche. There was too much Heidegger and no Saint Thomas Aquinas. There were too many strange formulations about Being (with a capital B) and yin-yang dualism. It was hard to pin him down on how he stands on Christ, truth … or even God.

A Modern Thinker Against Postmodernism

It took a while to figure the book out. But then it clicked.

Dr. Peterson is a modern thinker. He lives in the swirling existential world of thought patterns, narratives and archetypes. He is quite open about this. The book is full of passages that show how life is explained by personal and collective experiences. Everything is about Being with a capital B—whatever that means. He sees life as a Taoist interplay of order and chaos. He defends a Freudian, Darwinian world made in their image and likeness where his rules seem to make sense.

These rules even seem attractive because the Canadian professor’s message is directed against postmodernism and “cultural Marxism,” which challenge both his existential world and our own. Thus, he speaks with great passion and even brilliance against a politically correct world gone mad.

For this reason, many have praised the tell-it-like-it-is Dr. Peterson as a forceful voice in defense of order and even conservatism.

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Part of the Process Not the Opposition

However, it is one thing to rage against the madness; it is quite another to change the world. And this is where the book falls seriously short.

We cannot return to a Freudian, Darwinian world to find rules for life. That world is part of the problem. Indeed, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and Darwin (all favorably cited in 12 Rules for Life) are responsible for the more mystical side of our modernity. They banished the supernatural order from society and enthroned a naturalism that sought to explain all spiritual things based on experience and evolved thought patterns. The existential obsession with Being with a capital B and other such concepts sought to replace God and morals. Nietzsche’s famous declaration that God is dead also attempted to decree the death of dogmatic certainty.

Postmodernism is the next step in the process of the West’s intellectual and moral decay. Just as modernity undermined the Church’s supernatural order, so postmodernity denies the naturalistic positions defended by these modern thinkers. Hence, the politically correct denial of reality that Dr. Peterson attacks so well has its origins in much of the thinking he professes.

Bible Stories Fabricated by Our Collective Imagination

Thus, the rules are based on faulty and uninspiring premises that are depressingly post-Christian.

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We are told, for example, that our Biblical texts are not the inspired Word of God but merely allegorical narratives “coding our observations of our own drama” and embedded in shared stories.

Dr. Peterson continues: “The Biblical narrative of Paradise and the Fall is one such story, fabricated by our collective imagination, working over the centuries. It provides a profound account of the nature of Being, and points the way to a mode of conceptionalization and action well-matched to that nature.”

Indeed, even the notion of a personal God is part of a fiction. “Our ancestors acted out a drama, a fiction: they personified the force that governs fate as a spirit that can be bargained with, traded with, as if it were another human being. And the amazing thing is that it worked” (emphasis his).

Dr. Peterson’s abundant Christian references and citations are all made in this context, mixed with similar references to other religious “stories.” Religion is not about man’s relationship with God but it “is instead about proper behavior” (emphasis his).

Rules in Esoteric Trappings

Thus, the substrata of the 12 Rules for Life I tried to like is based on this existential framework of reality. The rules themselves are experience-based directives, not moral imperatives. We are asked to derive inspiration from rules like number one which says: Stand up straight with your shoulders back. Rule 5 says: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them. And what are we to make of Rule 11, which says: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding or rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street?

Even the advice found in these rules, which seems so practical, is enveloped in esoteric trappings. After telling his stories, Dr. Peterson inevitably enters into notions of Being with a capital B or other existential jargon highlighting the plight of the individual in an unfathomable universe without certainties. He invites us, for example, to have faith, which he calls an “irrational commitment to the essential goodness of Being.”

The bottom line is that “we must each adopt as much responsibility as possible” and thus “we can and must reduce the suffering that poisons the world.”

Such advice may feel good, but it is hardly an antidote to the chaos that is devouring the world.

A Missing Link with the One True God

Missing is the link to the one True God Who desires our salvation. This is the problem with the 12 Rules for Life book I tried to like. There is no link. We are on our own and can expect no help from beyond.

Our fallen nature is not a shared story but a tragic reality for which we need concrete and supernatural help from Heaven to help us fight the chaos that threatens to overwhelm us.

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Dr. Peterson and those who rave over his rules seem oblivious to the means of sanctification and salvation that the Church extends to us for this purpose. The power of prayer is immense to those who confide in God. The sacramental life nourishes and strengthens us in our daily journey. The grace of God allows us to do that which mere nature cannot do. These are truly antidotes to chaos.

What is needed is not abstract Being with a capital B but a personal, infinite, eternal, and transcendent God with a capital G.

As seen on Crisis Magazine.