Signed with the Cross

What would Jesus do? Victorian pessimist and poet James Thomson (d. 1882) thought he knew.
This poor sexless Jew, with a noble feminine heart, and a magnificent though uncultivated and crazy brain, did no work to earn his bread; evaded all social and political responsibilities, took no wife and contemned his own family; lived [as] a vagabond, fed and housed by charity (if by miracle, it is clear that we cannot imitate him: would that we could!); uttered many beautiful and even sublime moral truths and more impracticable precepts; preached continually himself, and faith in himself alone as the one thing necessary; and died with the lamentable cry of womanish desperation, perhaps the most significant confession in history of a life of supreme self-illusion laid bare to itself at the point of death. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? He founded a sect which holds him up as the Great Exemplar of mankind, and scarcely one member of which even tries to tread in his footsteps. I have much love and reverence for him as a man; but am quite certain that if everyone really set about following his example, the world (which is surely mad enough already) would soon be one vast Bedlam broken loose.
Did I mention Thomson was a pessimist? Nothing in what Jesus did--according to Thomson--was remotely admirable. Jesus never worked for a living or “engaged in trade of any kind.” He never got married and had no children and “seems to have thought all sexual relations sinful, or at least inimical to holiness (Matthew 19:12).” He disowned his own mother and brothers (Matthew 12:46-50). He seems not to have understood that if the rich sell everything they have and give to the poor (Matthew 19:21), this would just make the poor newly-rich and therefore obliged to give everything they have to the formerly-rich newly poor. “It was of course easy for Jesus, who had nothing because he took care to earn nothing, to preach this absurd doctrine.”

According to Thomson, it gets worse. Jesus’ teaching “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s (Matthew 22:21)” would seem to render “all political striving, all patriotism, and championship of liberty” contrary to his message, while his insistence that his followers should do better than the scribes and Pharisees in practicing what they preached (Matthew 23:2, 3) would seem to suggest that they should “observe the whole Mosaic ceremonial law,” thus making “the Jews, in this respect,...the only orthodox Christians.” Much of his teaching was based on a delusion, that “the end of the world was close at hand.” “Cherishing this delusion, it is no wonder that Jesus and his immediate followers had no care for thought of the morrow, for marriage and posterity, for patriotism; the wonder is how modern professing Christians dare to pretend that the delusion is not to be read clearly in the Gospels and Epistles.”

Thomson concludes:
Had the biographies of Jesus shown that he worked hard, and got an honest livelihood as a carpenter; that he proved himself, under great difficulties, a good sweetheart, husband, father, citizen, patriot, making the best of the world as he found it; that he was modest and sensible while enthusiastic for the good of his fellows; that the sordid and wearing circumstances of a life of toil and trouble left his mind serene and his heart noble, so that he was ever preaching lofty and liberal truth; that he died bravely as he had lived; then he would indeed have been a Great Exemplar for millions of poor men and women struggling to be good and true in all the natural and common i.e. nations of life.
Instead, Jesus was a bum. Or, perhaps more accurately, a socialist.


It matters whom we take as our ideal. One of the things I like most about Jordan Peterson’s lecturing is the way he is able to take apart complex ideas and build them back up. On the downside, however, it makes it difficult to summarize his arguments, much like Jesus’ teaching.

You get aphorisms: “Speak the truth. Develop your inner monster. Rescue your father from the underworld. Ascend the set of all possible dominance hierarchies. Sort yourself out.

But unpacking them takes as much work as unpacking some of Jesus’ sayings.

“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5:17)

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3)

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)

“Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:4)

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Do you see what I just did there? 

Jesus said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me...  If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.” (John 14:6, 15-17)

Thomson was right: Christians take Christ as their Exemplar. Where he was wrong--as are many who try to use Jesus as their social and political model--was in understanding what that means.


I think Professor Peterson understands. We have to start with the fact that once we were apes, kin to the chimpanzees. And to the zebras. And to the lobsters, who like us live in dominance hierarchies. And would tell stories about what it means to be Top Lobster, if only they could speak.

Human beings, unique among the animal kingdom, speak. That is, we tell stories about the past and the future, not just utter cries of alarm about the present. We tell stories about what we imagine is going to happen not just today, but tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, and the last day, which we imagine coming soon. And we hypothesize about how best to act, given what we know about the past.

The more stories we tell, the more examples we have of how certain actions played out. Over the millennia since we developed consciousness and speech--in the Christian tradition called Logos--we have told story after story about heroes who were able to ascend not just this or that dominance hierarchy--the hierarchy of strength (Hercules) or the hierarchy of good looks (Apollo) or the hierarchy of singing (Orpheus)--but the set of all possible dominance hierarchies.

The first hero to do this was the Mesopotamian god Marduk. Marduk was not just strong and handsome and mellifluous. He was all eyes, with which he could see everything. When the flood-monster Tiamut threatened to destroy the world for killing her husband Apsu, the gods elected Marduk Head God to do battle with her. Anshar, Marduk’s grandfather, pled with him: “My son, who knowest all wisdom, quiet Tiamat with thy holy incantation.” That is, with thy magic words.

In the story Marduk kills Tiamut, cuts her body into parts, and makes the world from it. Professor Peterson explains:
The mythic tale of Marduk and Tiamat refers to the capacity of the individual to explore, voluntarily, and to bring things into being as a consequence. The hero cuts the world of the unpredictable--unexplored territory, signified by Tiamat--into its distinguishable elements; weaves a net of determinate meaning, capable of encompassing the vast unknown; embodies the divine “masculine” essence, which has as its most significant feature the capacity to transform chaos into order. The killing of an all-embracing monster and the construction of the universe from its body parts is symbolic (metaphorical) representation of the central, adaptive process of heroic encounter with the undifferentiated unknown, and the construction or generation of differentiated order as a consequence.
Yahweh, the LORD of Israel, was another such hero.

“Canst thou draw out Leviathan with an hook?” the LORD asked Job, “or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down? Canst thou put a hook into his nose? Or bore his jaw through with a thorn?” Who was this Leviathan, and why should the LORD boast of drawing him out with a hook?
I will not conceal his parts, nor his power, nor his comely proportion... His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal... Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out. Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or cauldron. His breath kindleth coals, and a flame goeth out of his mouth... He esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood. The arrow cannot make him flee: clingstones are turned with him into stubble.... He maketh the deep to boil like a pot: he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment. He maketh a path to shine after him; one would think the deep to be hoary. Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear. He beholdeth all high things: he is a king over all the children of pride. (Job 41:1-2, 12, 15, 19-21, 27-28, 31-34)
In other words: he was a fire-breathing
dragon of the sea. And Yahweh killed him, broke him into pieces, and gave him to the people to eat. Thus the psalmist sang to him:
Yet God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth. Thou didst divide the sea by thy might; thou didst break the heads of the dragons on the waters. Thou didst crush the heads of Leviathan, thou didst give him as food for the creatures in the wilderness. Thou didst cleave open springs and brooks; thou didst dry up ever-flowing streams. Thine is the day, thine also the night; thou hast established the luminaries and the sun. Thou hast fixed all the bounds of the earth; thou hast made summer and winter. (Psalm 74:12-17)
When Jesus’ followers said he was God, this is who they meant. He was a monster-slayer who made the world.


The key is in the psalms. “What do you think of the Christ?,” Jesus asked the Pharisees. “Whose son is he?” They said to him: “The son of David.” And he replied:
How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying: “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, till I put thy enemies under thy feet” [Psalm 110:1]? If David calls him Lord, how is he his son? (Matthew 22:41-45)
Everything that was said of the LORD in the psalms, Christians read as pertaining to Jesus. At least, they used to, before the nineteenth century decided that only the Gospels and Epistles spoke directly of Christ. This was the Jesus whom medieval Christians like Thomas of Kempen thought they were called to imitate: not simply a man, but a hero who did battle with chaos in order to bring the world into being.
For to what angel did God ever say, “Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee”?[Psalm 2:7] Or again, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son”? [2 Samuel 7:14] And again, when he brings the first-born into the world, he says, “Let all God's angels worship him.” [Deuteronomy 32:43 LXX; Psalm 97:7] Of the angels he says, “Who makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.” [Psalm 104:4] But of the Son he says, “Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever, the righteous scepter is the scepter of thy kingdom. Thou hast loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; therefore God, thy God, has anointed thee with the oil of gladness beyond thy comrades.” [Psalm 45:6-7] And, “Thou, Lord, didst found the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of thy hands; they will perish, but thou remainest; they will all grow old like a garment, like a mantle thou wilt roll them up, and they will be changed. But thou art the same, and thy years will never end.” [Psalm 102:25-27] But to what angel has he ever said, “Sit at my right hand, till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet”? [Psalm 110:1] (Hebrews 1:5-13)
And how did he do battle with the dragon? By speaking the truth (“I am the way, the truth, and the life”), developing his inner monster (being wise as the Serpent), rescuing his father (Adam, the Law) from the underworld, ascending the set of all possible dominance hierarchies (he is seated at the right hand of the Father), and sorting himself out.


What would Jesus do? In Professor Peterson’s words: 
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
Morality is not much in fashion these days. We talk about rights and get offended when other people do not respect them. We demand that no one judge us while judging everyone else for the slightest misprision. We spend all of our time looking for the mote in our neighbor’s eye while neglecting the beam in our own. And we claim dominance on the basis of our being offended, humbling ourselves before no one and no God.

It is hard to be a hero. It is hard to live according to the Truth, to put on the armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-17) and stand not for the crowd calling for the crucifixion of the sinner, but for wisdom and virtue and love.

It means taking responsibility for ourselves and our own lives and orienting ourselves towards a goal.

It means being willing to make sacrifices of the present for the future.

It means understanding that it is we who make the world in which we live one word--and act--at a time.

It means fulfilling the law, not abandoning it; absorbing tradition so as to learn from it while not giving into nostalgia for something dead.

It means humbling ourselves before our own ignorance and being willing to learn from our mistakes, like a child.

It means being willing to speak and take the consequences for our speaking as well as being willing to listen when others speak so that we might learn from them.

It means loving each other as creatures of God, every human being made in the image and likeness of our creator, imbued with a spark of divinity revealed in our capacity for rational speech.

It means putting on Christ and “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

Which means, sometimes, saying things that others find difficult to hear because it forces them to confront the most dangerous dragon of all: ourselves.


Images: Jesus “Wanted”: Art Young, first published in The Masses (1917). Peterson meme found on Facebook. The Destruction of Leviathan by Gustave Doré (1865). Drawing out Leviathan with a hook: Herrad of Landsberg, Hortus deliciarum, fol. 84r.

References: Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 123-24 (Marduk), 385 (Christ).

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