I was impressed by Jordan Peter’s 12 Rules for Life and before that, his series Introduction to the Idea of God. I knew that Peterson considered his earlier work, Maps of Meaning, the best summary of his beliefs, and that both 12 Rules and Introduction were specific applications of it. I waited until it was available on unabridged audio, narrated by the author, and read the book in that manner.
This post covers the material in Maps of Meaning in roughly the same order as the book does. First, I describe the psychological foundations Peterson presents for his theory, and how it ties into mythic stories.
Maps of Meaning is composed roughly in fourths, starting with a foundation in cognitive psychology, then mythic stories, then Christianity in general, and finally alchemy. Next, I give a history of the allegorical approach of Biblical exegesis, comparing Peterson with St Augustine. Following this, I highlight the two most important aspects of Jesus Christ for Jordan Peterson, as Redeemer and Logos. I then describe two paths taken by Peterson for applying Christianity in everyday life: the path mentioned in this book (alchemy) and one he seems to have adopted later on (a focus on the Holy Spirit).
Peterson begins with a discussion of neuropsychology and cognitive psychology, emphasizing the biological foundations of thought. This is important because of Peterson basis his entire theory on the existence of a mental modular shared by not just humans but most animals: unknown-detection. Peterson argues that the the psychological process of habituation is not a simply a consequence of learning that a stimulus is neither harmful nor beneficial in the moment — rather, it is the primary result of a stimulus ceasing to be unknown and becoming known. Peterson inverts B.F. Skinner’s defense of behaviorism, noting that while establishing the full history of reinforcement schedules can be incredibly difficult, it is now easier to measure brain activity and detect the existence of mental maps of the known and unknown.
Carl Jung is heavily featured in Maps of Meaning. I had always considered the most controversial part of Jung’s psychology to be his theory of the “collective unconsciousness.” Peterson cleverly (and I think fairly) rehabilitates Jung by arguing he worked before the modern understanding of cognitive psychology. Peterson explicitly states that the “collective unconscious” is a term for “episodic memory,” a well-accepted theory of how narrative memory is formed. Specifically, because the human mind encodes events into its salient pieces, and the salience of those pieces has a biological foundation, the collective unconscious is simply those pieces which have been universally encoded by appropriately developed humans. Thus, the collective unconscious is part of our species cognitive extended phenotype.
If known and unknown are basic categories, in the way that pleasurable/hurtful and hot/cold are, then it makes sense that known and unknown act as characters in mythic literature. Peterson argues ‘known’ as a category is conceptually gendered as male or an old king, and ‘unknown’ as female or a monster, given the capacity of the known to inflict vertical rules and the capacity of the unknown to generate new things into being. Hence Peterson argues that stories involving a Great Father or Great Mother are in fact stories of the known and unknown.
Peterson then moves from experimental psychology to mythic literature. The central stories in religion and myth in human societies are part of the collective unconscious through their mapping to salient episodic memory:
- the temporary capture of the Father by the Mother
- a younger male, the hero, called to rescue the Father
- the murder of a younger male by a brother or co-equal
- the resurrection of the hero
- the hero’s possession of a virgin
- the hero’s kingship.
I don’t believe this specific series of events happens in any myth. But parts of it happen in stories. For instance, in the Ba’al Cycle the events occur out of order
- Ba’al (hero) wishes to build a house for himself
- God allows for a war between Ba’al on the monsters Yam (Sea) and Mot (Death)
- Ba’al splits Yam in half with a club
- Ba’al is killed by Death
- Ba’al defeats Death
- Ba’al builds his house
The same pattern can be seen in the Christian religion
- Creation falls
- The Son of God becomes a Creature
- The Son of God is born of a virgin
- The Son of God proclaims himself King
- The Son of God is murdered
- The Son of God returns from Hell
- The Son of God reigns at the right hand of God
Stories from Egypt, pre-modern Europe, and elsewhere are shown to be general instances of this pattern.
Peterson argues that one can deconstruct widely and deeply shared stories to understand the psychological constructs that generated them. That the stories, the structures, the archetypes, and their lessons are not merely a tax on human cognition but the method that it has operated in the social-political-moral for an extremely long period of time.
My son, hear the instruction of your father,
And do not forsake the law of your mother;
It is after all of this — the psychological foundations of memory, the comparative religion or mythology — that Peterson begins his most controversial and most ambiguous point. Peterson then provides an extended allegorical apologia for Christianity.
The allegorical approach — defending Christianity by asserting fundamental truths of the Bible without defending the Bible’s literal text — goes back at least to Augustine. As he wrote in Confessions:
Behold, Thou hast given unto us for food every herb bearing seed which is upon all the earth; and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed. And not to us alone, but also to all the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the earth, and to all creeping things; but unto the fishes and to the great whales, hast Thou not given them. Now we said that by these fruits of the earth were signified, and figured in an allegory, the works of mercy which are provided for the necessities of this life out of the fruitful earth.
St. Augustine, Confessions
Augustine is a forerunner to Peterson’s approach. The ending of Confessions is almost incomprehensible, as it is an extended description of the Christian religion and then a treatise on the Roman science of psychology. This did not make sense to me until I read Peterson and watched his series Introduction to the Idea of God, which combines contemporary psychological and the Christian religion.
What Peterson seems to do far better than Augustine, though, is to integrate the Semitic worldview into both Christianity and philosophy. Consider for instance their takes on the very beginning of the Bible:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
The earth was without form, and void; and darkness [a]was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.
Augustine presents a wordy (not surprising) exegesis on the view that the waters were uncreated matter:
For should any attempt to dispute against these two last opinions, thus,
“If you will not allow, that this formlessness of matter seems to be called by the name of heaven and earth;
Ergo, there was something which God had not made, out of which to make heaven and earth;
for neither hath Scripture told us, that God made this matter, unless we understand it to be signified by the name of heaven and earth, or of earth alone, when it is said,
‘In the Beginning God made the heaven and earth; that so in what follows, and the earth was invisible and without form (although it pleased Him so to call the formless matter)’,
we are to understand no other matter, but that which God made, whereof is written above, God made heaven and earth.”
St. Augustine, Confessions
Augustine emphasizes the unconditional nature of God, but ignores the near-eastern view of ordering as Creation that inspires the passage. (To their credit, Mormon theologians pick up this theme). Peterson tackles the same passage as Augustine, but I think derives a deeper meaning:
It is primordial separation of light from darkness — engendered by Logos, the Word, equivalent to the process of consciousness — that initiates human experience and historical activity, which is reality itself, for all intents and purposes. This initial division provides the prototypic structure, and the fundamental precondition, for the elaboration and description of more differentiated attracting and repulsing pairs of opposites:
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 228-229
It is his words immediately following the passage, however, that present a soteriology (theory of salvation) different than any I had heard before:
Light and darkness constitute mythic totality; order and chaos, in paradoxical union, provide primordial elements of the entire experiential universe. Light is illumination, inspiration; darkness, ignorance, and degeneration. Light is the newly risen sun, the eternal victor of the endless cyclical battle with the serpent of the night; is the savior, the mythic hero, the deliverer of humanity. Light is gold, the king of metals, pure, and incorruptible, a symbol for civilized value itself. Light is Apollo, the sun-king, god of enlightenment, clarity and focus; spirit, opposed to black matter; bright masculinity, opposed to the dark and unconscious feminine. Light is Marduk, the Babylonian hero, god of the morning and spring day, who struggles against Tiamat, monstrous goddess of death and the night; is Horus, who fights against evil, and redeems the father; is Christ, who transcends the past, and extends to all individuals identity with the divine Logos. To exist in the light means to be born, to live, to be redeemed, while to depart from the light means to choose the path of evil — to choose spiritual death — or to perish bodily altogether.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 229
In what manner was Christ redeemed by the Father?
God the Son
Christ’s genealogy explicitly includes our Father-in-Faith, Abraham, as well as the biological father of the human race, Adam, and the father of all surviving humans, Noah.
Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, the son of Heli, … the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalalel, the son of Cainan, the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.
Jesus, the perfect man, literally redeemed his fathers. He redeemed his-step father, Joseph. His redeemed his fathers, and in His image we will live:
The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.
1 Corinthians 15:47-49
It was men…
who nailed perfection to the cross:
And He, bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha, where they crucified Him, and two others with Him, one on either side, and Jesus in the center.,.
Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His garments and made four parts, to each soldier a part, and also the tunic. Now the tunic was without seam, woven from the top in one piece.
And God the Father…
who nailed sin to the Cross…
And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.
… and now is our Father.
And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this:
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Not that God the Father is missing anything, or lacks anything. But Christ restores our relationship with God the Father, getting us back to a place where God the Father can be called our Father.
In the Roman liturgy, the Eucharistic assembly is invited to pray to our heavenly Father with filial boldness; the Eastern liturgies develop and use similar expressions: “dare in all confidence,” “make us worthy of. . . . ” From the burning bush Moses heard a voice saying to him, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Only Jesus could cross that threshold of the divine holiness, for “when he had made purification for sins,” he brought us into the Father’s presence: “Here am I, and the children God has given me.”
Our awareness of our status as slaves would make us sink into the ground and our earthly condition would dissolve into dust, if the authority of our Father himself and the Spirit of his Son had not impelled us to this cry . . . ‘Abba, Father!’ . . . When would a mortal dare call God ‘Father,’ if man’s innermost being were not animated by power from on high?”
Man and God, the Suffering of Sin and Glory of Perfection, meet in our Lord Jesus Christ. But Peterson presents Christ as the mediator between order and chaos, as the line between Yin and Yang, the One in whom all things may hope, and the One without which there is no hope
Peterson’s preferred term for Christ is logos, the Word:
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is the Logos — the word of God — that creates order from chaos — and it is in the image of the Logos that man [“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26)] is created. This idea has clear additional precedents in early and late Egyptian cosmology (as we shall see). In the Far East — similarly — the cosmos is imagined as composed of the interplay between yang and yin, chaos and order — that is to say, unknown or unexplored territory, and known or explored territory. Tao, from the Eastern perspective, is the pattern of behavior that mediates between them (analogous to En-lil, Marduk, and the Logos) — that constantly generates, and regenerates, the “universe.” For the Eastern man, life in Tao is the highest good, the “way” and “meaning”; the goal towards which all other goals must remain subordinate.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 87
Peterson emphasizes this point, emphasizing the use of The Way to identify both the Logos and the Tao. All things outside the Logos are harmful. Order inside the Logos is the protective ruler, while Order outside the Logos is the tyrannical father. Likewise, Chaos outside the Logos is the Dragon, while Chaos inside the Logos is the virgin.
The hero is a pattern of action, designed to make sense of the unknown; he emerges, necessarily, wherever human beings are successful. Adherence to this central pattern insures that respect for the process of exploration (and the necessary reconfiguration of belief, attendant upon that process) always remains superordinate to all other considerations — including that of the maintenance of stable belief. This is why Christ, the defining hero of the Western ethical tradition, is able to say “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6); why adherence to the Eastern way (Tao) — extant on the border between chaos (yin) and order (yang) — ensures that the “cosmos” will continue to endure.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 152
Paul the Apostle argues that all things, both life and death, are beneficial in Christ:
“But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.
This centralization of Christ, relative to Order and Chaos, may be visualized as showing the divine or redeemed nature of Order and Chaos within Christ, and that without Christ, which will be destroyed
The Spirit of Truth
The False Dawn of Alchemy
Peterson spends an extended part of the conclusion of the book on alchemy, which initially appears inexplicable (or a misguided defense of Jung), but the analogies become clear. Gold is to rocks what Christ is to man, the ideal toward which we strive
Gold was, furthermore, the ideal end towards which all ores progressed — was “the target of progression.” As it “ripened” in the womb of the earth, lead — for example, base and promiscuous [willing to “mate” (combine) with many other substances] — aimed at the state characterized by gold, perfect and inviolable. This made the “gold state” the goal of the Mercurial “spirit of the unknown,” embedded in matter
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 322
The alchemist was a sort of priest, working on beings without souls:
The alchemist viewed himself as midwife to Nature — as bringing to fruition what Nature endeavored slowly to produce — and therefore as aid to a transformation aimed at producing something ideal. “Gold” is that ideal.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 322
Peterson had a shaky grasp of the Catholicism that imbued the medieval work while writing Maps of Meaning. His assertion that alchemy was a belief that sacrifice if not priesthood was still needed after the Crucifixion might be shocking to the college protestants he may encounter teaching…
The alchemical procedure was based on the attempt to redeem “matter,” to transform it into an ideal. This procedure operated on the assumption that matter was originally corrupted — like man, in the story of Genesis. The study of the transformations of corruption and limitation activated a mythological sequence in the mind of the alchemist. This sequence followed the pattern of the way, upon which all religions have developed. Formal Christianity adopted the position that the sacrifice of Christ brought history to a close, and that “belief” in that sacrifice guaranteed redemption. Alchemy rejected that position, in its pursuit of what remained unknown.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 344
This is unintelligible from a Catholic perspective
Grace is first and foremost the gift of the Spirit who justifies and sanctifies us. But grace also includes the gifts that the Spirit grants us to associate us with his work, to enable us to collaborate in the salvation of others and in the growth of the Body of Christ, the Church. There are sacramental graces, gifts proper to the different sacraments. There are furthermore special graces, also called charisms after the Greek term used by St. Paul and meaning “favor,” “gratuitous gift,” “benefit.” Whatever their character – sometimes it is extraordinary, such as the gift of miracles or of tongues – charisms are oriented toward sanctifying grace and are intended for the common good of the Church. They are at the service of charity which builds up the Church.
Catechism of the Catholic Church 2033
While certainly there were alchemists who wrote in a metaphysical way, it was at the time considered to be a physical science. St. Thomas Aquinas defended alchemical processes that actually work:
Many clerics were alchemists. To Albertus Magnus, a prominent Dominican and Bishop of Ratisbon, is attributed the work “De Alchimia”, though this is of doubtful authenticity. Several treatises on alchemy are attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas. He investigated theologically the question of whether gold produced by alchemy could be sold as real gold, and decided that it could, if it really possess the properties of gold (Summa Theologiae II-II.77.2). A treatise on the subject is attributed to Pope John XXII, who is also the author of a Bull “Spondent quas non exhibent” (1317) against dishonest alchemists. It cannot be too strongly insisted on that there were many honest alchemists.
“Alchemy,” Catholic Encyclopedia
If Peterson was more aware of the Christian tradition when he wrote this work, his concern might have been that the externalizing features of Protestantism (which deny man agency in the ongoing work of salvation) and Catholicism (which seemingly deny man the teaching authority, as that is possessed by the Church) both deny him agency.
Alchemy was a living myth: the myth of the individual man, as redeemer. Organized Christianity had “sterilized itself,” so to speak, by insisting on the worship of something external as the means to salvation. The alchemists (re)discovered the error of this presumption, and came to realize that identification with the redeemer was in fact necessary, not his “worship” — came to realize that that myths of redemption had true power when they were “incorporated,” and acted out, rather than “believed,” in some abstract sense. This meant: to say that Christ was “the greatest man in history” — a combination of the divine and mortal — was not sufficient “expression of faith.” Sufficient expression meant, alternatively, the attempt to live out the myth of the hero within the confines of individual personality — to voluntarily shoulder the cross of existence, to “unite the opposites” within a single breast, and to serve as active conscious mediator between the eternal generative forces of known and unknown.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 346
Which is to say, for Peterson, alchemy and not “Organized” (read: evangelical) Christianity took seriously the commandment
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.
There is no good King without a cross.
The Age of The Holy Spirit
Paul, immediately before describing living and crucifixion in Christ, talks about the importance of justification by faith in Christ. “Faith” is not an abstract mental idea or an emotional state. It refers to allegiance in Christ, of imitating Christ.
We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.
Peterson comes to the same conclusion: the Spirit of the Law is not a watered down or easier Law, but a harder one: one that involves creatively combining the order of the Law with new events coming out of Chaos:
Denial of unique individuality turns the wise traditions of the past into the blind ruts of the present. Application of the letter of the law when the spirit of the law is necessary makes a mockery of culture. Following in the footsteps of others seems safe, and requires no thought — but it is useless to follow a well-trodden trail when the terrain itself has changed. The individual who fails to modify his habits and presumptions as a consequence of change is deluding himself — is denying the world — is trying to replace reality itself with his own feeble wish. By pretending things are other than they are, he undermines his own stability, destabilizes his future — transforms the past from shelter to prison.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 258
In the years since Maps of Meaning came out, Peterson seems to have talked about alchemy less and the Holy Spirit more.
Peterson’s later adaptation of the Blessed Joachim of Fiore’s understanding of Catholicism crosses the Catholic-Protestant divide in a very clever way. Emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit:
I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”
and the “everlasting gospel”
And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people,
Joachim theorized that:
There are three states of the world, corresponding to the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. In the first age the Father ruled, representing power and inspiring fear, to which the Old Testament dispensation corresponds; then the wisdom hidden through the ages was revealed in the Son, and we have the Catholic Church of the New Testament; a third period will come, the Kingdom of the Holy Spirit, a new dispensation of universal love, which will proceed from the Gospel of Christ, but transcend the letter of it, and in which there will be no need for disciplinary institutions.
“Joachim of Fiore,” Catholic Encyclopedia
It is easy to see how such a view, of progressive revelation and a direct experience with the Holy Spirit, complements Peterson’s view of the centrality of the imitation of Christ in the life of every believer.
The truth seems painfully simple — so simple that it is a miracle, of sorts, that it can every be forgotten. Love God, with all thy mind, and all thy acts, and all thy heart. This means, serve truth above all else, and treat your fellow man as if he were yourself — not with the pity that undermines his self-respect, and not with the justice that elevates yourself above him — but as a divinity, heavily burdened, who could yet see the light.
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 353
The Kingdom of Heaven includes the parts of material Christian within Christ. The Kingdom of Heaven is not just within heaven
Christ said, the kingdom of Heaven is spread out upon the earth, but men do not see it. What if it was nothing but our self-deceit, our cowardice, hatred and fear, that pollutes our experience and turns the world into Hell? This is a hypothesis, at least — as good as any other, admirable and capable of generating hope — why can’t we make the experiment, and find out if it is true?
Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning, pg. 353