Summary – Jordan Peterson’s Biblical lecture I: “Introduction to the idea of God”
In the text below, we’ll summarise the first hour of the lecture “Introduction to the idea of God“, in which Peterson aims to formulate a psychological framework for the emergence and interpretation of the concept of god. Why? Well, because sometimes a fifteen-minute read to absorb and recap beats sitting through a two-hour lecture.
“Why bother doing this? Why bother with this strange old book at all?”
This is the question Peterson starts out with in this introduction to his lecture series on the “Psychological significance of the Bible stories”. It’s quite the question. The Bible is a document full of contradictions yet it outlasted many kings, castles and empires. It’s thousands of years old and yet it is still around: isn’t that kind of a mystery? Peterson goes on to explain:
“I am approaching the biblical stories as if they are a mystery, fundamentally, because they are, there is a lot we don’t understand about them. We don’t understand how they came about, we don’t really understand how they were put together, we don’t understand how they had such an unbelievable impact on civilization, we don’t understand how people could have believed them, we don’t understand what it means that we don’t believe them now, or even what it means if we did believe them.”
So to learn more about them and to try and make sense out of the biblical stories, Peterson starts by exploring some thinkers that have influential ideas on Christianity, starting with Nietzsche.
Nietzsche was a devastating critic of dogmatic Christianity, the Christianity as it existed in its institutions. But paradoxically enough he believed that science couldn’t exist without Catholicism, which had trained the European mind to interpret every single thing in one coherent system or framework. However, as Peterson explains:
“Nietzsche believed Christianity died at its own hand, it had spent a very long period of time trying to attune people to the necessity of the truth (…) and then the spirit of the truth that was developed by Christianity turned on the roots of Christianity. And everyone woke up and said; how is it that we came to believe any of this?”
Another thing Nietzsche points out is that Christianity played an important role in disciplining people, as a sort of form of self-imposed (philosophical) slavery. Nietzsche announces the death of God in the late 1800s and even though that sounded like a triumphant claim, to Nietzsche the issue was much more complicated. To him, the death of God was not necessarily a good thing, because he understood that there is a lot that we don’t know about reality and human experience.
Peterson explains what he means by that lack of knowledge about reality:
“There is an articulate representation of the world, articulate knowledge that we can discuss, and things we know nothing about. The known and the unknown. And there is an in-between space between those two. That buffer is like an emotional dream that we are embedded in. We know few things about that dreamlike space, and outside of it, we don’t know anything at all. The mystic and the artist live in the dream, in the in-between. They are the mediators between the things we know and the things we don’t know anything about.”
So what does this mean? It means that what we know, is embedded in something we don’t really understand. But if our articulated knowledge and the dream are out of sync, if they don’t match, we become disassociated internally. According to Peterson, this can lead to the following:
“We think things we don’t act out and we act out things we don’t dream and that produces a kind of sickness of the spirit.”
The cure to this sickness of the spirit, this unbalance, is an integrated system of belief and representation. However, this can lead to people turning to ideologies, which are parasites on the underlying religious substructure and try to solve this unbalance by organising our thinking.
This can lead to catastrophe and Nietzsche foresaw this. By destroying the foundations of Western civilization, religion and the idea of a God, we are prone to move back and forth from nihilism to extreme ideologies. People were replacing the underlying religious structures with purely rational systems, structured systems but deeply incorrect representations of reality. In a way, a modern Western person still has this problem to cope with.
The ruthless questioning mind of the West can pose a danger to the integrity of Western culture. It can lead to an extreme focus on the negative sides of reality. This is not an abstract notion: it has a real impact on peoples’ lives, it has an existential outcome and can add to the suffering and complexity of life. Peterson explains:
“These are the consequences of your rational intellect being divorced in some way from your being, divorced enough so that it questions the utility of your being. It is not a good thing. It manifests not only in individual psychopathology but also in social psychopathology.”
The problem of a divorce between rationality and being can manifest not only in the individual but in societies too. According to Peterson, ideology provides a false answer to this problem and it parasites on our religious substructures. This creates a real problem and to understand this problem we have to look at the role belief systems play in individual and sociological health.
Belief systems can be completely irrational, while people see them as fundamental truths and they do not want to move beyond the confines of their ideology or beliefs. The question is: why? It doesn’t seem obvious at all. Peterson goes on explaining Nietzsche’s views to explore this matter.
For Nietzsche, human beings have to create their own values. He knew that our capacity to think was not a floating soul or spirit, but embedded in our physiology, in our body, and thereby constrained by our emotions and shaped by our motivations and our body. He believed that the only possible way to solve this problem, the loss of Christianity as a guiding principle for our action, is to become akin to God and to create our own values. Nietzsche calls the person who would succeed the overman, the superman, übermensch, the superior man.
Peterson goes on to add Carl Jung’s views: our articulated systems of thought are embedded in a dream, the place in between what we know and what we don’t know, and that dream is informed by the way we act. We do act out things we don’t understand all the time, otherwise, we would be completely transparent and we wouldn’t need any psychology or sociology and the likes.
“We are much more complicated than we understand, there is more information about us than we know. [We know some things,] and part of that articulated knowledge is extracted by looking at ourselves and others, watching each other behave and telling stories about it, for thousands and thousands of years, extracting out patterns of behaviour that characterises humanity, and pass them on through imitation but also through mythology, art, drama, et cetera to represent what we are like and who we are. And that process is unfolding in the biblical stories.”
The Bible articulates humanity’s struggle to rise above its animal roots and to become conscious of what it means to be human, and that is very difficult because we don’t know who we are, what we are and where we come from. However, our consciousness and the contents of our lives have been passed through for millions of years. The story about this has been told for three thousand years, and so one could infer that it must have something to offer.
This is why Peterson looks at the Bible with a beginners mind, as a mystery. And it is, because how did it happen to motivate an entire civilisation for thousands of years?
These questions have to be taken seriously, especially considering that we still have a religious capacity and we still have a religious longing.
Peterson continues with Carl Jung, who was a student and critic of both Freud and Nietzsche. Freud popularised the idea of living in a dream, the idea of the unconscious mind. Sometimes these days we don’t realise how revolutionary this idea was, we tend to look at Freud and only point out the things we disagree with him on, without realising that some of his ideas have been incorporated into mainstream thought. One of these ideas is:
“The idea that your perceptions and your actions and your thoughts are all informed and shaped by unconscious motivations that are not part of your voluntary control.”
Peterson goes on to explain how this realisation is a very unsettling thing:
“You are a living collection of subpersonalities each with its own motivations and perceptions and emotions and rationals. (…) You have limited control over that, you are like a plurality of internal personalities that is loosely linked into a unity.”
Ancient people regarded these personalities as gods. Enraged people, for example, would have been possessed by the god of rage. These are forever, unchanging human realities or conditions. We know this, because we cannot control ourselves very well, and that is one of Jung’s fundamental objections to Nietzsche’s idea that we can and have to create our own values. Jung did not believe that, because we are deeply affected by things that are beyond our control, we do just wouldn’t have the capacities.
Peterson continues to explain Jung, who had begun to understand that there is a relationship between myths and dreams, and that the dream is the birthplace of the myth, of the story, of storytelling. We can understand the dream as the “in between knowing and not-knowing” that we explored earlier.
However, we could ask ourselves: where do thoughts and awareness of consciousness come from? Saying they just appeared like that is hardly a satisfying answer. They come from everywhere, motivations, emotion, our (animal) ancestors et cetera, and they all come together in the dream. Nobody knows how long exactly these conscious thoughts have been around. Our voyage of millions of years to becoming aware of our condition is captured in some sense by ancient stories like the biblical ones, especially in Genesis. Peterson explains:
“Some of the archaic nature of humans is captured in those stories, and they are very instructive.”
He goes on by giving an example: the idea of sacrifice in the Old Testament is a pretty barbaric one. Why would a reasonable God ask for sacrifice? These paradoxical dimensions bring the biblical stories to life. To understand these stories we first have to explore their place in human reality, and this brings us to Jung.
According to Jung, the stories are embedded in a dream, a dream-like state of thought, and this dream is the birthplace of thought. These dreams can be interpreted and can give us useful information that we didn’t really know before. This is true for stories and myths as well and there is a relationship between myths, stories and dreams.
So dreams will tell you things you don’t know, but how? Does it make sense, that when you are asleep a crazy complicated world manifests and tells you things? Dreams are not merely random, they have very structured and complex narratives. There seems to be a relevance and importance to them. People sometimes want to act out their dreams and tendencies can be very powerful, especially when acted out as a collective, as Peterson explains:
“Whole nations can get caught up in collective dreams, that is what happened to Nazi-Germany in the 1930s, a horrible spectacle, and the same thing happened in the Soviet Union, and in China. We have to take these things seriously and try to understand what is going on.”
So we have to try to understand what these dreams are, what this dream-like state is. Jung argues that dreams contain more information than we have in our body of articulated knowledge. This new information just seems to appear, as if it were a revelation.
Artists, for example, do this, they show us new information about us. They observe other people and through their art, they transmit a message of what they see about us and teach us something about ourselves, just like stories and movies tell us something about ourselves.
Nobody asks why we do this. Why do we like art? Why do we like music?
Peterson explains where this tendency comes from: we watch the patterns of behaviour others act out. We have watched this forever, and the representations of those patterns that are part of our cultural history, our stories. Stories about good and evil or romance are good examples: they represent something of how we act in the world. This collection of behavioural patterns across time is like a great drama being played out: the great drama of human existence. Artists look at this, at the patterns, and turn it into something that makes us understand a little clearer what we as humans are up to.
And even though these stories are fiction, and in some ways abstractions, it is not obvious that abstractions are less real than concrete reality, as Peterson explains:
“Take a work of fiction, like Hamlet, it is not true because it is fiction, but then you think, wait a minute, what kind of explanation is that? Maybe it is more true than non fiction, (…) because it is tells a key part of human experience as such, and people see it and it affects them because it tells something about a behavioural pattern of human life.”
These ancient stories are distilled from watching human patterns for thousands of years. Some fairy tales have been traced back 10.000 years in relatively unchanged form, and the oldest stories in the Bible are most likely just as old. This is how people stay largely the same: we pass on knowledge by tradition and rituals that contain knowledge gained by looking at human patterns of behaviour for thousands of years. Maybe even as long as we have been creatures with nervous systems.
We watch these patterns to learn something about how to live properly. This is an eternal question. How does one live properly? What does that mean? The ancient stories like the biblical ones contain age-old wisdom, answers or views on this fundamental question. This knowledge is articulated but could have come from the dream-realm, the space between the known and the unknown, and from the dream articulated knowledge can be gained by portraying the information in small narratives. Peterson says about the Bible:
“And so the Bible I would say exists in the space that is half into the dream and half into the articulated knowledge, and going into it to find out what the stories are about can aid our self-understanding.”
The stories can help our self-understanding and that is key according to Nietzsche, Jung and Dostoevsky: without a cornerstone for self-understanding, we are lost and susceptible to psychological pathology. Peterson claims that there is no evidence our natural path inevitably leads us towards rationalists like Descartes or Bacon.
Learning from these ancient stories can help your self-realisation: everybody acts out their own myth and you can learn from these old patterns of human behaviour to figure out whether you’re on a good path or not, whether your myth is a heroic one or a tragedy.
These are the stages of how those stories work in relation to knowledge. We act things out. Then we imagine ourselves and everybody else acting things out, which generates a tremendous amount of information, and this information is represented in dreams, stories, myths, and some of that is translated into articulated thought and knowledge.
A great example of this is when Moses got the ten commandments: those were behavioural patterns that ensured an amount of peace and stability and they were codified into laws after Moses got them through revelation. The story of Moses is one of a historical process condensed into a single story that tells us something about how our thinking developed into having written laws.
We can abstract principles from stories and structures. We have been living in hierarchies forever and we have been trying to figure out what the guiding principle is, trying to extract out the core of the guiding principle and we turn that into a representation of the pattern of being. This pattern of being, according to Peterson, is:
“Something like that, that is God, it is an abstracted ideal. And it is put in personified form, it manifests itself into personified form, but that is okay. Because what we are trying to get at, is the essence of what it means to be a properly functioning, properly social and properly competent individual and trying to figure out what that means. You need an embodiment, an ideal that is abstracted that you can act out that would enable you to understand what that means, and that is what we have been driving at.”
So a philosophical or moral ideal manifests itself first as a concrete pattern of behaviour, that is characteristic for a single individual, then for a set of individuals, then it becomes an abstraction, out of the set of individuals. Then you have the abstraction, and in the Bible, the totality of this abstracted ideal is called God.
This has political implications too: even the sovereign, the king is subordinate to the guiding principle, to a divine principle. Having a leader that does not identify as divine seems necessary for a civilised society. We must never confuse the sovereign with the guiding principle and the truth itself.
Then the question arises: what is this principle?
We have been trying to figure this out for some time now. The Mesopotamians had their own ideas about this, about leadership, portrayed in the Marduk myth. Marduk was a god who fought and defeated the dragon godess of chaos Tiamat, and created order from chaos by using magic (truthful) words. To this day, that is still the principle of good leadership: using language and speaking the truth to create order from the chaos that a group of people, a society, can be.
The same principles from the Marduk myth apply to chaos on a personal level as well, as Peterson explains:
“Chaos is a very strange thing, it is what God (or the divine power) wrestled with at the beginning of time. Chaos is half psychological and half real. Chaos is what you encounter when you are thrown into deep confusion. When your world falls to pieces, when your dreams die. It is the chaos that emerges, it is too much for you, and pulls you down into the underworld, that is where the dragons are, and all you have got at that point is your capacity to keep your eyes open, and to speak as carefully and clearly as you can to your capacity.
And maybe if you’re lucky you’ll get through it and end up at the other side. It has taken people a very long time to figure that out and it looks to me that the idea is erected on the platform of our ancient ancestors maybe tens of millions of years ago, because it seems to represent that which disturbs us deeply, using the same system that we used to represent serpentine or other carnivorous predators.”
As we are biological creatures, even when we formulate abstract principles, we still have those underlying systems from when we were only animals. They are part of our emotional understanding and thinking. Part of the reason why we can demonise our enemies, the ones that attack our axioms, is because we can see them as if they are carnivorous predators. This experience is that of chaos itself, that what always threatens us, like the threat of the snake that came hunting us down in the trees that we lived in 60 million years ago.
Back to the Marduk story and what it means to us. It is partly about using attention and language to confront those things that most threaten us, some of those things are real-world threats, but some of them are psychological. They are just as profound but more abstract, and we use the same systems to represent them. It is why you freeze when you are frightened, like a prey animal, you turn into stone, like those who gazed upon Medusa.
That ancient system is what responds when we confront chaos and the Marduk story sheds a light on this aspect of our being. The idea that when there are chaotic, terrible things that upset you and monstrous underworld things that threaten you, the best thing to do is to open your eyes, speak clearly and confront it, and make the world out of it. Create order from chaos. It is quite staggering how profound this idea is. We see proof of this in psychotherapy where one confronts their fears, breaks their fears into small pieces and masters them, to master the strange and chaotic world around us.
This is the context in which Peterson understands the biblical stories: they are embedded in a space between truth and dreams, and give us knowledge based on behavioural patterns that have been passed on for thousands of years. When approaching these stories rationally there might be something in them that teaches us something about ourselves, about how to properly live our lives, and how to make sense of the chaotic world around us.