Who Wants to Be (Most Like) Christ?

I am not the only one concerned about the way in which Jordan Peterson talks about Christianity, although not everyone goes so far as I did to call him a heretic.


To be liable to being considered a heretic, my Facebook friends insist, you need first to declare yourself a believer, and it is not clear whether Peterson thinks of himself in those terms or not. One interviewer calls him “a devout Christian,” to which implied question he is quoted as answering, “Yes.” But when another interviewer asked, “You call yourself a Christian?,” he responded, “I don’t; other people do.”

Certainly, it is possible that he does not know the answer himself; he would most likely reply, “It depends on what you mean by believe.” But to judge from the responses my blogposts about him have been getting, many of my friends have been drawn to his lectures on the psychological significance of the Biblical stories as much by the thought that he is making Christianity if not great, at least interesting again, as by the psychological interpretations he gives.

But is he talking about Christianity at all?

Consider what he says about Christ or, as he prefers, the Logos.
Christ has long been considered implicitly “contained” in the Old Testament.... What this means, at the most fundamental level of analysis, is that the pattern of action, imagination and thought that Christ represents is necessarily “there” in any narrative or mythology, sufficiently compelling to embed itself in memory. The reasons for this implicit existence are clear, in a sense: Christ embodies the hero, grounded in tradition, who is narrative depiction of the basis for successful individual and social adaptation. 
As the Word “made flesh” (John 1:14) there “in the beginning” (John 1:1), he represents, simultaneously, the power that divides order from chaos, and tradition rendered spiritual, abstract, declarative, semantic. His manner of being is that which moves morality itself from rule of law to rule of spirit—which means process. Spirit is process, simultaneously opposed to and responsible for generating static being....   
Christ’s life and words—as archetypal exemplars of the heroic manner of being—place explicit stress on the process of life rather than its products....  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.  —Maps of Meaning (385, 397, 398)
In the desert, Christ encounters Satan (see Luke 4:1-13 and Matthew 4:1-11). This story has a clear psychological meaning—a metaphorical meaning—in addition to whatever else material and metaphysical alike it might signify. It means that Christ is forever He who determines to take personal responsibility for the full depth of human depravity. It means that Christ is eternally He who is willing to confront and deeply consider and risk the temptations posed by the most malevolent elements of human nature. It means that Christ is always he who is willing to confront evil—consciously, fully and voluntarily—in the form that dwelt simultaneously within Him and in the world. This is nothing merely abstract (although it is abstract); nothing to be brushed over. It’s no merely intellectual matter...
Nietzsche believe that Paul, and later the Protestants following Luther, had removed moral responsibility from Christ’s followers. They had watered down the idea of the imitation of Christ. This imitation was the sacred duty of the believer not to adhere (or merely to mouth) a set of statements about abstract belief but instead to actually manifest the spirit of the Saviour in the particular, specific conditions of his or her life—to realize or incarnate the archetype, as Jung had it; to clothe the eternal pattern in flesh....
In the Christian tradition, Christ is identified with the Logos. The Logos is the Word of God. That Word transformed chaos into order at the beginning of time. In His human form, Christ sacrificed himself voluntarily to the truth, to the good, to God. In consequence, He died and was reborn. The Word that produces order from Chaos sacrifices everything, even itself, to God. That single sentence, wise beyond comprehension, sums up Christianity. — 12 Rules for Life (180, 189, 223)
So Christ is a pattern for action, the narrative depiction of the basis for successful individual and social interaction. His manner of being is process. His life and words are archetypal exemplars of the heroic manner of being. He is forever He who determines to take personal responsibility for the full depth of human depravity. To imitate him is, therefore, to incarnate the archetype, to clothe the eternal pattern in flesh.

What does it mean to call Christ a pattern for action or a narrative depiction?

What does it mean to say that Christians have a duty to incarnate the archetype, to clothe the eternal pattern in flesh?

Is this what Christians mean by “the imitation of Christ”?

Many of my friends would seem to say, “Yes, it is, or near enough as makes no difference.”

Let’s try a little test.

How would you read this passage? Is it saying the same thing that Peterson does about what it means to incarnate the archetype, to clothe the eternal pattern in flesh?
On the last day of the novena of immediate preparation of the tabernacle (Psalm 45:5), which He was to sanctify by his coming, the Most High resolved to renew his wonders and multiply his tokens of love, repeating the favors and benefits which up to this day He had conferred upon the Princess Mary. But the Almighty chose to work in such a way, that in drawing forth from his infinite treasures his gifts of old, He always added thereto such as were new. All of these different kinds of wonders were appropriate to the end He had in view: lowering his Divinity to the human nature and raising a woman to the dignity of Mother of God. In descending to the lowliness of man’s estate, God neither could, nor needed to change his essence: for remaining immutable in Himself, He could unite his Person to our nature; but an earthly woman, in ascending to such an excellence that God should unite with Her and become man of her substance, apparently must traverse an infinite space and be raised so far above other creatures, as to approach God’s infinite being itself.
The day had arrived, in which most holy Mary was to reach the last stage and be placed so close to God, as to become his Mother. In that night, at the hour of greatest silence, She was again called by the same Lord as it had happened on the other days. The humble and prudent Queen responded: “My heart is prepared (Psalm 107:2), my Lord and exalted Sovereign: let thy divine pleasure be fulfilled in me.” Immediately She was, as on the preceding day, borne body and soul by the hands of her angels to the empyrean and placed in the presence of the royal throne of the Most High; and his divine Majesty raised Her up and seated Her at his side, assigning to Her the position and throne, which She was to occupy forever in his presence. Next to the one reserved for the incarnate Word, it was the highest and most proximate to God himself; for it excelled incomparably that of any of the other blessed, and that of all of them together....
In order to put the last touch to this prodigious work of preparing the most holy Mary, the Lord extended his powerful arm and expressly renewed the spirit and faculties of the great Lady, giving Her new inclinations, habits and qualities, the greatness and excellence of which are inexpressible in terrestrial terms. It was the finishing act and the final retouching of the living image of God, in order to form, in it and of it, the very shape, into which the eternal Word, the essential image of the eternal Father (II Corinthians 4:4) and the figure of his substance (Hebrew 1:3), was to be cast. Thus the whole temple of most holy Mary, more so than that of Solomon, was covered with the purest gold of the Divinity inside and out (III Kings 6:30), so that nowhere could be seen in Her any grossness of an earthly daughter of Adam. Her entire being was made to shine forth the Divinity; for since the divine Word was to issue from the bosom of the eternal Father to descend to that of Mary, He provided for the greatest possible similarity between the Mother and the Father. —Mystica Ciudad de Dios lib. 3, cap. 9, paragraphs 99-100, 105
Mary—according to the Spanish abbess Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda (d. 1665)—was the creature most perfectly made in the image and likeness of God, transformed inside and out to the essential image of the eternal Father so as to become the Mother of God. No other creature so perfectly reflected this likeness; no other creature so perfectly imitated the Word. And it was in her that the Word became incarnate, that is, took on flesh. Her body supplied the stuff of his body, even as her soul most perfectly reflected the divine image and likeness in which she had been made.

*

It has been interesting reading my friends’ reactions to my efforts to illustrate the way in which the long Christian tradition has incorporated the significance of the feminine through the devotion to Mary. While many have taken me to task for insisting that Professor Peterson’s take on Christianity is far from orthodox (they think I am being too picky), others have been busy explaining to me how we do not need Mary in order to come to God.

Is there a difference? Does it matter?

It seems to me that it does.

What Professor Peterson describes is, again, a pattern for action. He sees Christ as a character in a story, a hero, whose model Christians are bound not just to follow, but—in archetypal terms—themselves put on. Imitating Christ, Christians incarnate the pattern. Everyone who determines to take full responsibility for the full depth of human depravity incarnates the archetype. Everyone who manifests the spirit of the hero in the particular, specific conditions of his or her own life becomes Christ.

This is what I meant when I said that Peterson wants to be God. He wants to incarnate the pattern by which the hero takes responsibility for the suffering of the world. He wants to be willing to confront the evil in human nature and thereby embody courageous, truthful, individually unique existence. He wants to sacrifice himself to the truth in order to bring forth order from Chaos. He wants, through his truthful speech, to embody the archetypal Word.

As he explained to the interviewer who asked him about whether he was a “devout Christian”:
Yes. Which is a form of insanity. The ethical burden is ridiculous. God might swipe you down even though you’re doing the right thing. But it’s your best bet. There is a great level of reality out there which we don’t know and don’t understand. We can bargain with it, but it doesn’t guarantee you anything and God can turn on you. That is the thing about life. There’s no guarantee of success.
From Peterson’s perspective, it would seem, embodying the archetype—as he says Christians are duty-bound to do—is no joke. More likely than not, you are going to fail.

Mary’s imitation of Christ was somewhat different. First of all, as Sor María explains, she was a creature. She was not God herself; she was a human being. For God to become incarnate—which is not the same thing as for a human being to incarnate the archetype—He had to empty himself and take on the form of a servant, humbling himself even unto death (Philippians 2:7-8). But for Mary to become his Mother, in Sor María’s words, she had to be exalted above all other creatures in creation so as to become most like God. She had to be prepared body and soul to receive the Divinity, who was to go forth from her into the world in flesh he had taken from her.

Elsewhere, Sor María explained the mystery more succinctly:
Sometimes when we look into a mirror, we may observe something new. When we look at Mary—as into a mirror—we know the Most Holy Mother participated in our redemption by taking the flesh of the Son of God into her womb. We also know that God is said to have created man in his image and likeness. In partaking of man’s redemption, it seemed to me that the Most Holy Mary helped to restore man’s resemblance to God, and in doing so by virtue of her own immaculate purity, she acts as a mirror in producing the most genuine likeness of God.  
From Sor María’s perspective, to look on Mary is to look on God because it was Mary whom God made to most resemble Him.

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Which of the two would you say gives a better account of what it means to imitate Christ: Peterson, in his description of the meaning of Christ as a pattern for action and imitation of Christ as incarnating the archetype; or Sor María, in her description of Mary’s preparation to become the Mother of God?

Which of the two would you say is most Christian: Peterson, who says nothing of the divine emptying itself to become human; or Sor María, who describes Mary as the temple in which God took on flesh?

Which of the two would you say comes closest to your understanding of Christianity: Peterson, who seems to suggest that to be Christian is a “form of insanity” because the ethical burden is so great; or Sor María, who rejoiced that Mary helped restore in us our image and likeness to God by giving birth to the Word?

Archetype or mirror? Pattern or temple? Metaphor or wonder? Which do you choose?


Sources

Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (New York: Routledge, 1999).

Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2018).

Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda, Mystical City of God, trans. Fiscar Marison, 4 vols. (Chicago, 1912).

Marilyn Fedewa, María of Ágreda: Mystical Lady in Blue (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009).

Images:

Jordan Peterson with lobsters: Phil Fisk for The Observer

Agnolo Gaddi, The Coronation of the Virgin with Six Angels (c. 1390), National Gallery of Art

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