Jordan Peterson, Gay Marriage, and the Terrifying Christ 

Jeff Shafer, Director of the Hale Institute at New Saint Andrews College, has provided insightful commentary on the recent Daily Wire interview between Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin on Gay Parenting. His analysis has sparked further thoughts in my own mind regarding both Jordan Peterson’s thinking and the worldview of many American Evangelicals. Both appear to be in need of an adjustment and hopefully the nature of that adjustment will be plain by the time this post wraps up.

I have read and listened to Jordan Peterson now for a good while and with much delight. I recall him saying that he lives as if God exists. And I have heard him say that if mankind ceased to exists, then he believes whatever “God” is would also cease to exist. This leads me to think he views God as a projection of man rather than the genuine Creator and Sustainer of all things. Perhaps this has changed in Peterson’s thinking. I’m simply noting key things I’ve heard him say in the past. 

Peterson sees the brokenness of the world and he also gives some credit to a “narrative world” which seems to be above the “objective world.” He says that the narrative world is the “world of morality, the world that tells us how to act.” His comments bring to mind Francis Schaeffer’s upper and lower story, and more about that in a moment. Peterson clearly sympathizes with the suffering of mankind, and in this in part is why he is such a compelling figure. He seems to know intuitively that without the “narrative” or “upper” world, then we are doomed to nihilism and anarchy in this “lower” or “objective” world. 

The trouble with Peterson’s thinking, best I can tell, is that he is not sure if the “upper” world is real. Now, perhaps he does believe it is real, and thus that upper world would have the right to form things down here in the lower world. But he seems to be unsure. In fact, when describing what he calls the narrative world, he once said, “It’s real, like we treat it like its’ real.” You might say this is the heart of the matter. There is, of course, a world of difference between something being real and man treating something like it is real. 

Now Peterson did an interview where he quoted C. S. Lewis and pondered whether Christ joins these two worlds to which Jordan often refers. Peterson said that he finds it plausible and terrifying to believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Man, joins these two worlds such that the narrative world and objective world can actually touch.

The Gay Parenting Interview

Peterson’s paradigm of upper and lower worlds (what he calls the narrative and objective world respectively) was at play in his Gay Parenting Interview with Rubin. At one point, Peterson said that the ideal is heterosexual monogamy and he posited that perhaps gay marriage could fit into a space around that ideal. Now Peterson may want to distinguish between what he calls the “ideal” in his interview with Rubin and what he calls “the narrative world” in his previous interview with another dialogue partner. But given that Peterson has said the “narrative world” is the moral world that tells us how to act, I assume Peterson would say the “ideal” comes from the narrative or upper world. 

The Hale Institute’s Jeff Shafer keenly picked up on a problem here when he wrote,

“Though emphasizing the ideal, [Peterson] calls it, of natural family, though not using that name for it, he ends up nonetheless making room for Rubin’s innovations, provided that Rubin and his partner work hard on role playing in ways that mimic the efficiencies of the natural configuration from which they both depart yet seek to mimic. Peterson counsels Rubin that someone in the home needs to be sure to act feminine towards the kids and so on. It seems that the ideal as Peterson speaks of it may not be after all a binding moral and anthropological anchor point that reveals human nature and created calling. Its virtues are instead, I suppose, resident in its premiere functionality.”

As I see it, Jeff Shafer has put his finger on the central problem in Peterson’s thought. Peterson’s ideal or upper world is not an genuine “binding moral and anthropological anchor point.” My heart goes out to Peterson. And I want to ask him, “Is that upper world indeed real?” And has Christ come down to us from that upper world, binding the two?” You see, Christ holds all things together. And if he has not come in the flesh, then Peterson is right that we have no hope in this fallen, broken, sin-sick world. But, “the word was made flesh and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Francis Schaeffer’s Upper and Lower Worlds

Speaking of perilous times, and the rampant wickedness of men in those times, the Apostle Paul says people will have “a form of godliness” but deny its power (2 Timothy 3:5). This “form of godliness,” gutted of substance, is precisely what is going on around us. 

This is not, however, the first time such a thing has occurred. Francis Shaffer’s book Escape From Reasonwith its detailed analysis of our upper and lower story problem, is a must read in our day. Think of these two stories or worlds along these lines: in the upper there is “God the Creator; heaven and heavenly things; the unseen and its influence on the earth; man’s soul; unity.”[1] And in the lower we have “the created; earth and earthly things; the visible and what nature and man do on earth; man’s body; diversity.”[2] Now the Apostle’s words from 2 Timothy 3:5 map on well enough to this paradigm. People, Paul says, will have the “form,” that is the structure or shape of godliness, but deny its power. In other words, in the lower world, they have the form of this godliness without the power of that godliness which comes down from the upper world. 

There is a likeness between this phenomenon and what Peterson and Rubin have done with marriage. For the Apostle, those in the lower world “approximate” godliness but the true power of godliness is denied by them. They are not anchored to the upper world. Along these lines, Peterson speaks of approximating the ideal of heterosexual marriage, without truly being anchored to that ideal. Thus they deny and attempt to demolish the true nature of marriage which they claim to approximate. 

What is going on here is that the lower realm is becoming autonomous; it is not truly anchored to the upper. And Francis Schaeffer details exactly what happens where we go to simply approximating down here rather than being genuinely tied to the upper story—”The point to be stressed is that, when nature is made autonomous, it is destructive. As soon as one allows an autonomous realm one finds that the lower element begins to eat up the higher.”[3] Schaeffer restates this point several times, “The simple fact is that this nature-grace division flowed over into the whole structure of Renaissance life, and the autonomous ‘lower story’ always ate up the ‘upper.'”[4]

Francis Schaeffer demonstrates the draining of Christian substance while maintaining a form of it in a string of paintings of the Virgin Mary with child from the 15th century. In 1435, Van Eyck painted the Madonna of the Chancellor Rolin, in which Chancellor Rolin sits facing Mary. Mary looks about how you’d expect she should. She has both the form of Mary and the substance of Mary. But, in Filippo Lippi’s painting of Mary some years later he made a change—he painted his mistress as Mary. In Lippi’s painting you have the form of Mary, but in substance, a scandal. Things unravel further with Jean Fouquet’s painting of Mary in c.1450 (Virgin and Child). He paints the king’s mistress, Agnes Sorel, as Mary. He paints her with one breast exposed (not feeding the Christ-child). The painting speaks for itself (I leave it to your discretion whether to look it up). It has moved far afield from Van Eyck and Lippi. Even secular analysis has marked it as “impious” with a flavor of blasphemy. The form barely remains; the Christian substance is dead. Schaeffer points to this string of paintings as an example of the lower world becoming autonomous and eventually destructive such that it attempts to devour the upper world.

Peterson Contrasted with American Evangelicalism

Here is where there is a striking parallel between American Evangelicals and Jordan Peterson. Both have unhitched the upper and lower stories, the upper and lower worlds. The result for both is that the lower world is worrisomely autonomous. Peterson appears to know that Francis Shaffer is right. If the lower story is not informed by the upper story, then the lower will devour the upper. Peterson longs for the reconciliation of these two worlds. That indeed has happened in Christ—”And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven” (Colossians 1:20). In Christ, then, you won’t end up perverting the Virgin Mary with child because he joins the upper and lower world. And in Christ, you cannot pervert the institution of marriage because in the beginning God made them male and female and for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife (Mark 10:2-9). Nevertheless, Peterson knows the lower world is real or objective, but he seems unsure as to whether the upper world is real and deeply troubled that the force which that upper world must have on the lower world may indeed be found wanting.

Likewise, American Evangelicals have unhitched the upper and lower worlds. But, these evangelicals differ with Peterson on the reality of the upper world. They are good and faithful Christians confessing that there is a God in heaven. The upper world is very much real for them. The lower world, however, taken as a whole is untethered from that upper world. The lower world is going to hell in a handbasket. This lower world with its physical bodies, earth, and earthly things, has come to have very little if any meaning or purpose. God appears to have no plan for this earth. It has become merely a staging area for heaven which constitutes the only sphere in which the Christian life is lived. 

It is worthy of note that many conservative evangelicals are not happy with the dissolving of decency in the lower world. Things are going nuts down here. That much is undeniable. But without the necessary paradigm shift, the Christian Church will not offer the right solutions to our present woes, and will likely end up being played by the earthly minded.

The Paradigm Shift Needed

The paradigm shift which is very much needed could be articulated in many ways. Francis Schaeffer, for example, says, “The biblical teaching, therefore, opposes the Platonic, which makes the soul (the ‘upper’) very important and leaves the body (the ‘lower’) with little importance at all. The biblical view also opposes the humanist position where the body and autonomous mind of man become important and grace becomes very unimportant.”[5] In a phrase, we must recover the truth that grace restores nature. The upper story is real and it really does inform the lower story. And that restoration occurs through Christ and his covenant.

So we do not live in a meaningless, shadow world. The church of God on earth, for instance, is not something approximating the church. It really is the church. The visible church is not a mirage. The kingdom of God in which the saints find themselves is not something approximating the kingdom of God. It really is the kingdom of God. The covenant in which the saints find themselves throughout the history of the world is not merely a shadow of God’s covenant of grace. It simply is God’s very real covenant of grace. 

So what must be said to Jordan Peterson is, “Gay marriage cannot approximate the ideal because that ideal (narrative world) is not only real, but genuinely defines and determines this objective world such that certain things are simply out of bounds.” Indeed, a King has come from that upper world and his name is Jesus Christ. To manipulate the institution of marriage, which comes down to us from the upper world, is to rebel against the divine who established that institution from the very beginning in creation. 

This same word is good for the evangelical who has unhitched the upper and lower worlds. Many Christians may be tempted to think that gay marriage, while immoral, may genuinely be marriage for they have forsaken the truth that God binds the upper and lower world by covenant. In other words, many Christians have lost a sense of the specific work God does in covenant marriage because they have long before lost a sense of how the God of heaven generally works upon the earth via covenant. They have forgotten that a divine hand truly binds through covenant, be that a marriage covenant or the covenant of grace itself that God makes with his people.

In a nutshell, the claim that gay marriage approximates the ideal of heterosexual marriage arises from a form of dualism that attempts to separate man from his sin without the broken body of Jesus Christ. This faulty dualism is no gospel at all and it leaves man in his sins. The good news we preach to our confused world is the good news of Jesus Christ born of woman, made under the law to redeem them that were under the law (Galatians 4:5). We don’t preach a mere man who approximates God. Neither do we preach a God who approximates man. We preach the Godman Jesus Christ and by him all things, be they visible or invisible, things in heaven or things on earth, consist. He is the terrifying Christ for those who will not bow to him. And he is peace to those who turn from sin and call him Lord. Without him, everything falls apart, including man himself. As the Apostle Peter said 2,000 years ago, there is salvation in no other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

[1] Schaeffer, Escape from Reason, 14

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 21.

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] Ibid.