A few thoughts on Peterson’s first rule

“12 rules for life” has been sitting on my bookshelf unopened for a few months. Last night, I finally decided it was time to delve into this international best seller that everyone has read! About time 🙂 I put down the book after reading through the first rule and pondered on a few troubling questions it raised for me. The first one relates to the theory of domination. I really appreciate Peterson’s in-depth examination of the lobster society. It is primitive, grounded, indicative. As expected it is somewhat surprising as well, all the more so because though the study of lobsters provides a fantastic illustration of domination theory, it doesn’t get to the root of the question, which is ‘where did it all come from’? And, perhaps its related question: is this hierarchy or domination pattern, though natural, good, right, or moral? Peterson’s first chapter doesn’t provide an answer to these metaphysical questions, though he will delve much deeper in subsequent ones. Nevertheless his first rule already raises these questions for me, because as I reflect on my potential ‘position’ in this world wide hierarchy, I find myself wondering where I’d show up and what this would mean for me.

The domination theory

The domination theory that Peterson describes in his first rule is more archaic than the lobster. It actually stems from what Christianity has named ‘the fall’. Peterson is well acquainted with the narrative of creation according to Genesis 1 to 3 (his interpretation of this ‘myth’ is interwoven all throughout the book). Strangely he doesn’t address it here, where it seems to be most connected.

Let me explain.

The series of events that set the stage for the domination theory to be born are well known, yet perhaps poorly understood. God creates man and woman in a perfect garden, giving them access to all things but one: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Transgression would incur death. Eve is tempted and deceived, she and Adam both transgress and the world is changed forever. How does this relate to domination? It relates to it in that the act of transgression was motivated by a desire to dominate, to become sicut deus, like God, to rule, to become the one to make the rules, to create order, to be God. In contrast to being made in the image of God (imago dei), Adam and Eve become sicut deus, like God. Yet, Adam and Eve are not God. And this changes everything, because for a creature to become sicut deus means death. In Creation and Fall, Bonhoeffer explains: ”

because the fall of humankind is both inconceivable and finally inexcusable in God’s creation, the word disobedience fails to describe the situation adequately. It is rebellion, the creature’s stepping outside of the creature’s only possible attitude, the creature’s becoming creator, the destruction of creatureliness, a defection, a falling away from being safely held as a creature. As such a defection it is a continual fall, a dropping into a bottomless abyss, a state of being let go, a process of moving further and further away, falling deeper and deeper (…) like a meteor that has torn itself away from the core to which it once belonged.”

Sound like the wounded lobster? In some way, maybe worse! As they leave the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are experiencing for the first time guilt, shame and the sentiment of rejection. They are no longer welcome in the presence of their maker, and are left to live in the new order they created, which is no order at all. Moreover, Adam and Eve are cursed by God, and the curse has to do precisely with the desire to dominate. The man will lord it over the woman, the woman will desire the man’s position in return. This is the new order of things, a struggle for power, for rule, for dominion. And so, the lobster society lives precisely according to this order of nature, the order of the fall, in a very primitive, hidden way, which we can learn from thanks to Jordan Peterson!

From theory to faith

Nature may be nature, but as Peterson points out nature isn’t romantic. It is fallen, and because of this, it isn’t always right about the behaviours it dictates. Bonhoeffer suggests that as creatures who live on the other side of the fall, we can only relate to this world as fallen. This makes it difficult for us to think of another way. Yet, in this fallen world entered Jesus Christ, the son of God, to mend and show the way back to imago dei, away from sicut deus. And it occurs to me that the domination theory crumbles a little bit when we look at Jesus. There are no losers and winners, no subordinates and dominates in the order Jesus comes to bring. Yes, we must learn to navigate our lives through this sicut deus world, with its monsters and its victims, but to uphold the domination order and theory as something true (because natural) and a rule we must live by is something of a lie, at least for followers of Christ. First, this order will pass, and those who hold power and dominion in our day will be leaving it in the grave eventually. Second, the true order that Jesus came to bring overturns the ‘natural’ (understand sicut deus) one. Even, and especially when it comes to leadership or those who hold a certain power or rule in this world! Cynthia Westfall explains that “the way Jesus and Paul defined leadership excludes the concept of rule; instead, true leadership embraces slavery and placing oneself last. God chooses the weak, the foolish, the powerless, and the despised to shame the advantaged, and there can be no disqualification of the disadvantaged because of real or imagined failings.” (Paul and Gender, P.259). And because Jesus led in this way, we are to follow accordingly, not living by the natural order as if we should live at the top of the hierarchy, but as humble people who live for the glory of one Lord.

This encourages me. I truly appreciate Peterson’s wisdom, though I think it’s worth thinking on a little further, particularly in light of grace and truth in Jesus Christ. That said, I have no problem standing up with my back straight and my shoulders back, not because Jordan Peterson has made it the first rule for life, but because Jesus is the one who sustains me, who has taken my shame and my guilt away, who sees me as righteous and precious, no matter where I come up in this world wide hierarchy of life.

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