Discover more from Experimental Theology with Richard Beck
Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson
Part 30, Christ as Sisyphean Hero
Following on from last week, Peterson continues further in describing Christ as a hero archetype. Last week we discussed how, for Peterson, Christ represents moral progress and evolution as we move from rigid adherence to rules and social norms to stand as free individuals of principled heroic conscience.
Having made that contrast, Peterson goes further and links this heroic moral advancement to Christ's passion and crucifixion. He writes:
[Christ's teaching] "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" does not mean "live the life of the grasshopper instead of the ant, sing in the summer and starve in the winter," but concentrate on the task at hand. Respond to error, when committed. Pay attention, and when your behavior produces a consequence you find intolerable, modify it--no matter what it takes to produce such modification. Allow consciousness of your present insufficiency to maintain a constant presence, so that you do not commit the error of pride, and become unbending, rigid, and dead in spirit. Live in full recognition of your capacity for error--and your capacity to rectify such error. Advance in confidence and faith; do no shrink back, avoiding the inevitable contact with the terrible unknown, to live in a hole that grows smaller and darker.
The significance of the Christian passion is the transformation of the process by which the goal is to be attained into the goal itself: the making of the "imitation of Christ"--the duty of every Christian citizen--into the embodiment of courageous, truthful, individually unique existence...
Christ said, put truth and regard for the divine in humanity above all else, and everything you need will follow--not everything you think you need, as such thought is fallible, and cannot serve as an accurate guide, but everything actually necessary to render acutely (self)conscious life bearable, without protection of delusion and necessary recourse to deceit, avoidance or suppression, and violence...
As you know by now, I'm in two minds about passages like these in Maps of Meaning. Peterson's treatment of Christ has been my big, recurring criticism.
In Peterson's hands, Christ becomes a Sisyphean Hero. Recall that Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to roll a rock up a hill for all eternity. Albert Camus made Sisyphus the central figure in his existential treatise The Myth of Sisyphus. Existence is intolerable and facing the unknown is terrifying. We stand like Sisyphus at the foot of the hill, facing the boulder and the existential task confronting us. Christ is the heroic archetype because he courageously pushes the boulder of existence and consciousness up the hill. This is the Passion of the Christ.
Let me say first that I love existentialism. I do feel that, most days, life is a Sisyphean task. This is Viktor Frankl's point in Man's Search for Meaning. And so, I don't object much at all at Peterson's descriptions of the human predicament and its existential demands. I think it's clear why so many people, especially young men, have responded to Peterson's work as they face the existential void that is modern life. Young men are lost in fogs of video games and porn. Calling them to the Sisyphean task to make something of themselves is a good message.
And yet, as I hope Christian readers can see, making Christ a Sisyphean hero, especially in his Passion, radically misses the point of the gospel. To say that the imitation of Christ, as "the duty of every Christian citizen," is to embody "courageous, truthful, individually unique existence" is pretty cringe-worthy. It shows the limits of reading the gospels as therapeutic existentialism, as profound as therapeutic existentialism might be.
When we get right down to the main issue with how Peterson handles Christ and the gospels, it boils down to metaphysics. Peterson might fight with atheists and he might talk a lot about the Bible, but his metaphysics, so far as I can tell, is pretty materialistic. Outside of consciousness there's just nothing out there but matter. Consciousness recoils in horror looking out at that meaningless void. Consciousness trapped within this materialistic universe is terrifying and intolerable. That word--intolerable--comes up a lot with Jordan Peterson. Consequently, the heroic act is to carry this burden of consciousness, to bear the weight of intolerable existence. For Jordan Peterson, this is what it means to "follow Christ" in "carrying your cross." At the end of the day, the cross reduces to existential coping.
And while there is something inspiring about that vision, this is all Christ can ever be given Peterson's metaphysics. But Christian metaphysics says you're not in a Sisyphean situation. Christian metaphysics sets before us a different ontology. Rolling the rock of life up the hill might be Herculean, but it's not Sisyphean. You are not alone in facing the rock and the hill. Love accompanies you. Life is full of story, purpose, and worth. Hope is baked in.
Christ isn't an archetype. Christ is an ontological reality.
And that, it seems to me, makes all the difference.