Choose your friends and allies carefully (on the Jordan Peterson – Cathy Newman interview)

Jordan Peterson is getting a lot of loving at the moment, particularly from people who would identify as socially conservative and this means that a few evangelicals have picked up on him.

The reason for the attention is an interview he did with Cathy Newman from Channel 4.  Newman was the interviewer who took down Tim Farron during the General Election campaign with the question “Is Gay Sex sin?” She was also involved in investigating John Smyth and his links to Iwerne camps. This means that Newman has got history and a lot of people probably want to see her bettered.

Peterson is a clinical psychologist and he has attracted attention over views which are potentially controversial and certainly out of line with current politically correct thinking. These include an attack on the “authoritarian left” with reference to pressure to name/label transgender people in an agreed way and also because of views and advise which have been taken to support traditional stereotypes.

The interview has proved popular because it seems that Peterson gives a robust account of himself and that on a few occasions, Newman appears to tie herself up in knots.

However, before we jump on board the bandwagon and see Peterson as a hero and friend against authoritarian secular culture I want to make two observations

  1. Note that when Peterson is challenged about transgender people and how they should be addressed, he is very clear that he has no problem with addressing those who identify as female with female pronouns and those who identify as male with male pronouns. His issue is not with whether or not they are objectively male or female but rather with resisting what he sees as authoritarian pressure

 

  1. Newman takes issue with the offensiveness of his views. Peterson’s response is that it is okay to cause offense if it helps us get to the truth. He gives the example that what she is saying is offensive to him. He says that he is fine with that. Newman, does note that he has specifically come into the studio and made himself available for interview, but this is after she gets flustered and it looks like Peterson has scored a winning point. It is worth noting that Peterson is in effect sharing a subjective world-view about how we identify with Newman.  He does not challenge her to consider whether offense might be something objective and that we cheapen the concept by making it about how we feel.

So, onto some reflections.

  1. Be careful, just because someone is doing a good job of showing up or disagreeing with someone you happen to disagree with does not mean that they are your friend.

Hilary of Poiters is helpful on this.  He writes about a teacher called Phoinus. Phoinus opposes Sabellius (a modalist) and Arius.  It sounds like he is a friend to Hilary in defending Trinitarian orthodoxy but he isn’t. He is an Ebionite, believing that Jesus was just a man.  Hilary doesn’t welcome him as an ally but points out where he is seriously wrong.

“Again, how glorious a victory for our faith is that in which Ebion – in other words, Phoinus – both wins the day and loses it! He castigates Sabellius for denying that the Son of God is Man, and n his turn has to submit to the reproaches of Arian fanatics for failing to see that this Man is the Son of God. Against Sabellius he calls the Gospels to his aid, with their evidence concerning the Son of Mary; Arius deprives him of this ally by proving that the Gospels make Christ something more than the Son of Mary.”[1]

Conservative Evangelical and complementarian Christians will do well to examine closely the world-view and arguments of Peterson. If there is research that is truthful and helpful be sure to engage with it but also be careful to know where there is disagreement.

  1. Newman’s interviewing approach may be very annoying to many of us. Others have observed that her questions and claims don’t accurately represent Peterson’s position.   However, there seems to be an assumption that those watching the interview will see this as obvious.  I suspect that anyone pre-dispositioned against Peterson’s position won’t see the interview as a slam-dunk success for him.

We can look at Newman’s responses and see the intentional agenda of a secularist who wants to misrepresent her opponent. However, I suspect there is a lot of talking past each other happening here because she simply cannot come to comprehend what he is saying. There is something in it that is more than intellectually and because emotively, it doesn’t click, she doesn’t get it.

I suspect that those who watch will also feel the same way.

This means that if Petersons aim is to help her understand and those who share her outlook then he falls far short. Those who want to communicate God’s word effectively may do well to watch again and ask why he fails -and I don’t think the problem is solely with her.

Postscript

When I am talking about worldviews here, I am not talking about whether or not Peterson is himself a Christian or identifies as such. Further reading suggests that he does identify as a Christian.  The question is whether or not the worldview itself presented is a Christian one and something we align with.  Now, that’s where going and digging and reading is going to help. All I’m saying at the moment is don’t jump on this interview as proof of an ally.  For what it is worth, I would say that this interview alone doesn’t do the job and I don’t want to align with it.  As explained above, I think Peterson fails to get us near the root presuppositions that need to be challenged.  For the purpose of this interview alone he seems to accept a world view based on evolutionary biology, environmentalism and subjectivismsm

 

 

[1] Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate, 7.7.

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