Jordan Peterson’s Biblical Series I
In May 2017 Dr. Jordan B. Peterson began his 12-part lecture series on the Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories. With this lecture series he aims to try to better understand and learn about the stories, and the continual impact they have had on civilization.
You can view the transcript of his video here
Introduction to the Idea of God
The debut lecture for the Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories was held at the Isabel Theatre in Toronto, Canada on May 16. Dr. Jordan Peterson begins his speech by asking the same question many people would ask when approaching such a complicated, and controversial subject. “Why bother?” Why bother with such old, and familiar stories? Stories that have been circulating among mankind for at least 2700 years, and that have outlived kingdoms and empires. “It’s very interesting,” Peterson remarks towards the beginning of his lecture, “it turns out that a book is more durable than stone.” And it very interesting to say the least. Peterson says he aims to try to look at the Biblical stories with a beginner’s mind to try to understand the mystery of them better. To try to understand why it was made, why it was preserved, how it managed to motivate an entire culture for so long and transform the world. Although they are not the only stories out there that have been able to withstand the test of time, they are among some of the oldest, and most influential stories throughout history. One example he uses to explain further the magnitude of the biblical stories influence is that of Moses and the ten commandments. Noting that Moses acted as judge among disagreeing parties and set the groundwork for written, coded law. A structure in which is still implicated today.
“that dream is informed, in a complex way, by the way, we act” and that “we act out things we don’t understand all the time.”
Peterson cites German philosopher Nietzsche’s beliefs that over a thousand years the European mind, with the help of Christianity’s emphasis on the importance of the truth, molded itself to interpret everything that is known and experienced through a single, limited, framework of thinking. It seems, however, that the main principle of Christianity may have also been its downfall. By putting such a great emphasis on, and spending so much time attuning people to the necessity of truth, it paved the way for that very truth to one day turn on the roots of Christianity, and for people to eventually begin to look at the stories with skepticism and doubt in regards to their legitimacy and utility. Despite this shift in belief among society, many people still cling to the legitimacy of the stories because, as Peterson notes “the ritual lasts long after the reasons have been forgotten.”
In the 1800 Nietzsche announced that God was dead. Unlike how you often hear the phrase proclaimed today, he did not say this with any degree of triumphantly or joy. These were instead, originally the dreadful utterances of a man who understood that there is a great deal about reality and experience that we do not know anything about, and then there are things that we know on an instinctual and subconscious level, but that we can’t articulate. It is within this vast sea of the scarcely known and understood that we have the known and experienced reality in which we can articulate and connect with the rest of the world. Just because it is not consciously known to us does not mean it does not affect us, what it means is that our articulated knowledge is based on something we don’t entirely understand, something akin to a dream. When that dream and your articulated knowledge are out of sync, it can lead to what Peterson describes as ‘dissociated internally,’ or a ‘sickness of the spirit.’ The cure for this sickness is, according to Peterson, an integrated system of belief, and representation. This leads people to turn to ideologies to help organize and structure their thinking, which Peterson says is “catastrophe,” and is what Nietzsche foresaw. Nietzsche understood that by destroying the “God Ideal” and its representation that we would be destabilized, and sway between nihilism and extreme ideologies. The replacement of the ‘God ideal’ and the mystical representation of the unknown, with what Peterson describes as a “rational but deeply incorrect” representation of the unknown leaves people, and society as a whole, struggling to find some sort of system or ideology to give them direction. Peterson says he thinks of ideologies like “crippled religions,” and that “it provides a certain amount of security and group identity” but he feels they are “a parasite on something underlying that’s rich and true,” and that it is a significant problem which needs to be addressed. He goes on to say he believed this since he began looking at how belief systems regulated social and psychological health in the eighties.
Circling back to the ‘dream,’ which Jung believed contained more knowledge than was yet consciously known to us, but that our articulated understanding is embedded within. Peterson explains that “that dream is informed, in a complex way, by the way, we act” and that “we act out things we don’t understand all the time.” If we were transparent to one another, we would not need psychology, sociology or anthropology, but that is not the case. “We’re much more complicated than we understand,” he remarks, “which means that the way that we behave contains way more information than we know.” How we attempt to learn about our motivations and intentions, as well as that of those around us, is by watching each other. In turn, parts of that ‘dream’ have been extracted over thousands of years, as “a consequence of us watching each other behave, and telling stories about it for thousands and thousands and thousands of years.” It’s human nature to watch each other and to tell stories. Over time, we have extracted patterns and behaviors that characterize humanity, and we’ve used these observations and extractions to “represent what we’re like so we can understand what was like.” That is the process in which Peterson says he sees unfolding in the Biblical stories. It’s been over the course of the seven million years since humankind split from the chimpanzee that we have figured out, through trial and error, how to get to where we are now. That process has been captured and represented, partly, within the ancient stories, particularly Genesis.
“Everybody acts out a myth, but very few people know what that myth is. And you should know what your myth is, because it might be a tragedy, and you may not want it to be.”
“The dream is the birthplace of the fully articulated idea.” Despite their ability to spontaneously pop up out of nowhere on occasion, thoughts and ideas have an origin and developmental process which is generally unknown to us and could be extensively lengthy. “Where does the information in the dreams come from?” Peterson thinks that the information comes from people watching each other throughout the course of time and history. It’s from watching each other that we’ve managed to extract patterns and representations of humanity and embed them in stories and cultural history. Repeatedly throughout history, we’ve witnessed these stories and great dramas being played out over the whole of humanity. This causes something like “waves of behavioral patterns that manifest themselves in the crowd across time” The artists see this, and they get an inclination of what it is, and they retell it to us so that we understand just a little bit more. That is, in part, what Peterson believes the Biblical stories are. Although they may be considered fiction, they tell true stories of human behavior which have been extracted over time but can be applied to many people. They are also stories in which we have representations of how to behave in the world. Part of the reason for watching each other throughout history is to learn how to act with one another, and some of that knowledge is ingrained in our bodies, like when you learn to dance with someone. Another part of the reason for studying each other over time is to learn primarily what it is that we’re up to. “What should we be up to?’ Peterson asks, “That’s an even more fundamental question.” Everyone needs to know how to live in the world “properly.” “What is properly?” That is yet another part of the question that humankind has sought to answer by watching on another. Everyone needs to know how to live in the world in a way that is harmonious enough for them to survive. “How to live in the world? Not what is the world made of? It’s not the same question.” Peterson remarks that we’re the only species that asks that question, other animals go and do.
The Bible exists somewhere in between the dream and articulated knowledge and acts as a sort of guide, or light into the unknown of human behavior. Understanding these stories, according to Peterson, can aid in our self-understanding, without which we would be lost. Contrary to what many anti-religious thinkers might believe, the abandonment of the underlying dream structure would not make everyone in the world a rationalist. In fact, Peterson thinks that people would become wildly irrational. Peterson paraphrases a quote from Jung, “Everybody acts out a myth, but very few people know what that myth is. And you should know what your myth is, because it might be a tragedy, and you may not want it to be.” Everyone has a pattern of behavior and a way in which they react to and handle life. These patterns are shaped by numerous things, including your subconscious, your environment, your upbringing and the philosophy of the society around you, and they’re aiming you somewhere. Part of self-realization is asking whether or not these patterns are seeking you somewhere you want to be going.
“There are principles that guide our behavior, but what are those principles?” Imagine any dominant figure at the pinnacle of a society, that standing represents power, and there is a principle that the dominant person manifests. Often those principles can be attributed to multiple people who are dominant, and from there you can divorce the concept from the individuals, and extract out what dominance and power mean. That is, according to Peterson, essentially what God is. “It’s an abstracted ideal. And it manifests itself in personified form.” This is so that we have, in a sense, a representation of how to be a properly functioning and competent individual. Peterson goes over some of the attributes of this abstracted ‘God-ideal.’ In his first hypothesis, he states that “a philosophical or moral ideal manifests itself first as a concrete pattern of behavior that’s characteristic of a single individual, and then its a set of individuals, and from there you have the abstraction.” An example Peterson uses is one of the many debates between the Late Roman Empire and Early Christianity, over whether or not an Emperor could literally be God. The Christian’s response to that was, “never confuse the specific sovereign with the principle of sovereignty itself.” This made it so that even the person who has power, is still subordinate to a more important principle.
Often, deities are an amalgamation of multiple deities from other cultures, composed to help cover the different representations of the beliefs of separate cultures. Peterson uses the story of Marduk as an example of this process. Marduk has several different names, many of which are the names of the subordinate gods which he came to cover in times. Marduk was a Mesopotamian deity, who had eyes around his head, and he spoke magic words. He was elected king god by all of the other gods, so long as he defeated Tiamat, which is chaos making its comeback in the form of a flood. In ancient Mesopotamia, the Emperor was expected to be a good representation of Marduk. He considered a good emperor so long as he had eyes everywhere, and could speak persuasively and adequately, and could keep chaos at bay. Those attributes are still sought after in most leaders to this day. It also serves to remind us that, when confronted with the threat of chaos and the unknown, the best thing to do is to open your eyes, organize your speech, and face the problem head-on. An exciting note Peterson makes is that the word ‘Tiamat’ is associated with the word ‘Tehom,’ which it is the chaos that God makes order out of at the beginning of Genesis. Much like the story in Genesis, Marduk makes the world out of the pieces of Tiamat after he defeats it.
Taking a step back from the stories themselves, Peterson takes some time to explain some of his motivations. He remarks that the purpose of this twelve part lecture series isn’t for him to stand on a stage and tell us what he knows, but instead it is to talk through the mysteries together, and aloud, in order to try to “figure things out”, and to leave knowing more than we did when we started. With his approach, Peterson strives to examine the stories from multiple different angles, which include; evolutionary, psychoanalytically, literary, morally, practically, rationally, and phenomenologically.
Peterson explains that he generally thinks in evolutionary terms, keeping in mind the belief that the cosmos is fifteen billion years old, the world four and a half billion years old, that there’s been life for three and a half billion years and that we split from chimpanzees some seven million years ago. It is his goal to look at this evolutionary process, as it has been recorded in the biblical stories.
The psychoanalytic theory is the belief that you are a collection of living sub-personalities, and each personality has its own set of motivations, perceptions, emotions, and rational in which you have little control over. Peterson compares them to “low-representations of you when you get angry.” What he is saying is that it is still you, but it’s you with tunnel vision, so to speak, and with all of your efforts and attention pointed in a specific direction. So, by keeping in mind the psychoanalytic theory while considering the biblical stories, we have to accept the fact that there are factors beyond our control and understanding, which influence and shape us. Peterson compares it to driving a complex vehicle, which you don’t entirely understand, and which has its own motivations and objectives. This is something that is often made apparent in psychotherapy when psychologists are called to help someone unwind a negative pattern of behavior that they’ve manifested. The first step in this process is having them describe the behavior, then they become aware of it, and possibly of its root cause. This is an indication that frequently our conscious thoughts and actions are controlled more by our subconscious, instead of the other way around.
Peterson begins going over his intended literary approach by discussing interpretations. Interpretations are unique, and they are shaped by you as much as you can be formed by them. They are generally influenced by the world around you, how educated you are, and cultured you are. Because there are so many factors which go into make interpretations, there is no shortage of interpretations made on literature, and on the world. The Postmodern critique of interpretations is that because there is such a vast number of interpretations, how can you be sure anyone is more valid than the other? And if you can’t be sure which interpretations of great literary works are correct, how do you know they are great works, and what constitutes being great? This critique has been extended to worldly interpretations. If there is an infinite way in which you can interpret a text, then there is an endless way that you can interpret the world. And if there is an endless number of ways in which you can look at the world, how do you know which way is better. The Postmodern belief is that we can’t, and according to Peterson that’s not a good enough answer.
Without that sense of direction, we’re lost, and unable to make sense of things, and being so completely out of control of everything around you can be devastating you’re physical and psychological health. The flaw with the Postmodern critique, however, is that with each interpretation there needs to be “sufficient order and direction.” In other words, you want to suffer as little as possible throughout your life, even though pain and suffering are fundamental elements of reality. The key to avoiding suffering as much as possible is to consider your future self, much like you would consider another person. And learning how to conduct yourself in coordinates with your future self is much like learning how to conduct yourself in relationship with other people. It’s more than that though, and your interpretations have to not only protect you from suffering but has to give you an aim. And it has to do so in a way that is constant and uninterrupted, and in a way that works in the presence of other people so that you can cooperate and compete with them. You can interpret people, and their actions, much like you can understand the world, and people are continually giving you direction in how to interpret the world so that they can tolerate being around you. And you need people around you, because, as Peterson puts it “socially isolated you’re insane, and then you’re dead.” So, our interpretations help guide us in how to act in the world, and those interpretations are constrained, as Peterson puts it, by the reality of the world, by the reality of other people, and by your reality across time. That narrows down the number of interpretations that fit within those requirements and contradicts the postmodern beliefs.
“Think about it this way,” Peterson opens with when discussing the moral viewpoint, “You’re standing in front of a field. And you can see the field. But the field doesn’t tell you how to walk through it. There’s an infinite number of ways you could walk through it. And so you can’t extract out an inviolable guide to how you should act from the array of facts that are in front of you.” But that’s not good enough, because we need to know how not to suffer and what your aim is. “And so you have to overlay that objective reality with some interpretive structure.” And that interpretive structure is what he aims to look at with these lectures.
The ultimate goal, as is with everything, is to extract out something useful and of value. Most everyone can agree that knowledge is the most valuable tool in the world, and Peterson aims for you to be able to walk away from the lecture with things immediately put together and applicable.
The goal is to be able to have everything laid in a way that makes sense and doesn’t require a leap a faith. The problem with stories like the Biblical stories is that they require you to believe things that realistically unbelievable. And you can’t have that because the main principle is about truth, and if you’re required to start the pursuit of truth by accepting a bunch of lies then you’re not going to get anywhere.
Modern people think of the world as objective, but that isn’t how we experience reality. For a phenomenologist, everything you experience is real, and there are commonalities among the collective subjective experiences. These commonalities are what allow us to understand and interact with the people and the world around you without infinite explanation. So, you could say that phenomenology is the study of what matters, rather than matter. The Bible itself is phenomenological because it concentrates on the nature of the human experience rather than the objective world. If you’re able to realize that the biblical stories are stories about the structure of lived experiences of individuals, that opens up the possibility for a whole other level of understanding and eliminates the contradicting interpretations between the objective world and religious stories.
The conceptual framework of the Bible
When looking at the structure of the book itself, the first thing Peterson notes is that it has the structure of a comedy, with a happy ending. It is ironic that the bible has a story; however because it wasn’t written as a book, it’s an amalgamation of a whole bunch of books with different authors and editors. And it was woven together by someone who was trying to include the traditions of tribes who had been brought together under a common leadership or organization.
Starting with Genesis 1, Peterson begins to take a closer look at the layout of the first stories within the Bible.
The Old Testament, or the Hebrew Bible, has for sources, stories which we know came together. The first of these stories was called ‘Priestly,’ and used the name Elohim, or El Shaddai, for God. It is newer than Genesis 2 and the Jahwist version, which contain the story of Adam and Eve. Peterson says he thinks this is because these particular stories deal with more ‘fundamental abstractions,’ like how the universe was created.
The Jahwist version, which begins with Genesis 2:4, uses the name YHWH (Yahwa) and has a ‘strongly anthropomorphic God, that takes human form.” It contains the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, the Tower of Babel, Exodus, and the Ten Commandments.
The Elohist source contains the stories of Abraham and Isaac. It tells of the heavenly hierarchy and the departure from Egypt. This is also where the Ten Commandments are expanded on by a sequence of rules which God has laid out.
The Final source is the Deuteronomist Code, which contains the bulk of the law, and what is referred to as the Deuteronomic History, which is the theory that the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua, Judges, Samuels and Kings stem from a single literary work. It is independent of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.
Next, turning to something that is part of the New Testament, Peterson attempts to ‘unpack’ what it is that John said about Christ, “in the beginning was the word, and that word was with God, and that word was God.” Now, if you’re anything like myself, that made essentially no sense at all. But according to Peterson, that is, in fact, the logos, or the principle of divine reason and creative order. And as far as he can tell, the logos represent something like what we refer to as consciousness, coupled with the capacity to be aware and to communicate. Peterson then raises the question, “without consciousness what is there? Is there anything, when no one experiences anything?” essentially, is there reality without experience? But by asking these questions, you open up for debate just what it is realized means. In this particular case, however, the reality that is being referred to is an amalgamation of subjective experience and the world. What is happening, in part at least, in the Old Testament, is that the consciousness is being associated with the divine, because experiences are reliant on consciousness.
Since running short on time, Peterson was forced to crop his lecture slightly and touch on the first lines of the story which he intends to revisit in the next lecture. Giving just a few examples of the ideas associated with the concept of divinity, he brings up the Christian image of God as a Trinity. This, according to Peterson, is a representation of the element of the son, father, and spirit of tradition. With the fatherly aspect representing something akin to God in terms of power and sacrifice. The son, which speaks chaos into order and is the spirit of the law, while the spiritual aspect is a reflection of the human soul, with its prophetic voice of consciousness. Wrapping up the constructional framework of the biblical stories, Peterson ends his debut lecture poised to begin the sequel with the first lines of Genesis 1.
Read more about Jordan Petersons Biblical series below.
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Cachet is an early 20’s freelance writer out of the US Midwest. Along with a longstanding passion for writing, she has a great interest in the psychedelics, states of consciousness and the human psyche. Her main interests are in the different dream states, and their influences on the mind, as well as alternative pharmaceutical uses for certain psychedelics.
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