Jordan Peterson recently was invited, then disinvited, to hold a visiting fellowship in Cambridge University’s Faculty of Divinity. If you don’t know who Jordan Peterson is (what rock have you been hiding under lately?), he’s a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, author, speaker, and a controversial figure due to his ostensibly right-wing views.
I’ve been listening to Peterson’s lectures for a little while now, so this story interests me, and I have a rather strong opinion on it on various levels. In general, Peterson is certainly an interesting person to listen to, reflected by the polarizing effect he has had in our culture. I continue listening to him, even I don’t agree with a lot of his conclusions, especially about the Bible and religion, although his insights into psychology and human life are very interesting and some of them even helpful. I suppose my having a degree in psychology makes him especially intriguing for me. For Peterson, the historical accuracy of the Bible is irrelevant—its truthfulness is based on the universality of its teachings and stories (he calls them myths); in other words, the Bible is true because it reflects the human experience, not necessarily because the stories actually happened. I appreciate that he, as perhaps an agnostic (certainly not an evangelical Christian, but who knows what category he really belongs to), not only is interested in the Bible but encourages others to pay attention to it too. I can work with that.
In any case, in Peterson’s version of the story, he was initially in Cambridge in November 2018 during his book tour (12 Rules for Life). He had a chance to interact with a number of faculty members from the university and apparently had a positive experience with them. As he was preparing for a second series of lectures on the Bible (this time through Exodus, the first Genesis), he greatly anticipated learning from the great theological scholars at Cambridge (not sure who exactly they were) to enhance his preparation of these lectures, as they gave him an invitation to be a fellow there. I actually commend him on that, as many public figures tend to give the impression that they have nothing else to learn from others. Peterson, even if he seems to give off an air of pretense, displays great humility here. If Peterson were to give talks on the New Testament, I would be eager at an opportunity to potentially influence his thought. Apparently, the great folks at Cambridge didn’t believe they were quite up for it. What a lost opportunity…
Cambridge’s first notice of rescinding their invitation was apparently posted on Twitter (really… Twitter?). They wrote: “Jordan Peterson requested a visiting fellowship at the Faculty of Divinity, and an initial offer has been rescinded after a further review.” The student union, on their Facebook, then wrote, “His work and views are not representative of the student body and as such we do not see his visit as a valuable contribution to the university, but one that works in opposition to the principles of the university.” Really? What are the views of the “student body”? Let’s all get along and pretend we all agree with each other on every issue? Last time I checked, the student body of any university as a collective whole doesn’t have any singular view on anything. Ok, moving on…
The official response on Cambridge University’s website was posted a few days later:
Early last week, the Faculty became aware of a photograph of Professor Peterson posing with his arm around a man wearing a T-shirt that clearly bore the slogan ‘I’m a proud Islamophobe.’ The casual endorsement by association of this message was thought to be antithetical to the work of a Faculty that prides itself in the advancement of inter-faith understanding. As a consequence of this, the Faculty’s Research Committee reviewed its original decision to award a visiting fellowship and concluded that the offer should be rescinded. As is normal, neither the decision to invite Professor Peterson, nor to rescind the invitation, were [sic] brought to the attention of the senior leadership team until after they had been made.
I don’t know the context surrounding this picture, but let’s be real. The real reason why the folks at Cambridge rescinded their initial invitation was due to the protest of the student body. The students dictated the administration’s decision here. They caved. And it was a good thing they found that incriminating photo. Makes for a good scapegoat! But again, last time I checked, the administration of a school guided what goes on in the school, not the “student body,” whoever it’s actually composed of.
Cambridge’s decision to invite and then disinvite Peterson reminds me of what Princeton Seminary did with Tim Keller exactly two years ago. They gave Keller the Kuyper award for excellence in Reformed theology and public witness, and according to tradition Keller was scheduled to speak at the seminary. But due to popular protest, they rescinded his opportunity to speak there, although the prize was still awarded to him—probably mailed to him in a cardboard box. My question to Princeton then is essentially the same as to Cambridge now: when you invited Peterson, didn’t you know who he was and the controversy he would potentially incite as someone would with his reputation? To the Cambridge decision-makers (and to others in these types of decision-making capacities), I say, develop a spine. If you thought inviting Peterson was a great idea in the first place, stick with it. Peterson being a controversial figure is not new news!
But the bigger picture regarding this whole event really reflects the nature of education today—the more I’ve lived in higher education, the more I’ve become disillusioned with the direction it as a whole is going, especially in theological education. Heather MacDonald wrote a book recently called The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture (New York: St. Martin’s, 2018). Disregarding for the moment the issues of race and gender, she identifies the victimization mentality and culture that has become pervasive within the university (as well as the current culture at large). The original purpose and intent of the university was knowledge—for the student to gain a working and general knowledge about the world (general ed, at least in the US), as well as to particularize themselves in a specific area so they can contribute to this society as a productive human being; and for universities to encourage their professors to be on the cutting edge of research in their respective fields. But the university, unfortunately, has now become a place where safety and inclusion of all sorts of things, regardless of their inherent validity and contribution to society’s growth, is the purpose.
Leaders of these types of institutions have now become like parents who cater to their child’s every whim and desire, to befriend their child more than be their parent and to provide instruction and discipline for the child’s well-being and growth. Now, I realize a lot of factors contribute to this current state of the university, such as economics and the prolonging of adolescence, but the point is that the university has lost its original purpose. Students are not taught to think critically for themselves anymore or to interact with dissenting viewpoints in a rational, critical manner, but they are now encouraged to find ways in which they feel oppressed, attacked, victimized, and hurt—and even if they themselves have not experienced these things, they are made to identify with people who have, so it’s okay to associate yourself with them—and to use these experiences to achieve their personal goals rather than actually achieve their goals through hard work and perseverance. Don’t get me wrong—I am 100% against oppression, victimizing anyone, and intentionally hurting someone. I do follow Jesus. But it doesn’t help anyone to encourage victimization and blame-shifting, and what this current culture has produced is young people who complain about things (usually on social media) rather than taking action for themselves despite their obstacles or critically interacting with those with whom they disagree.
What Cambridge should have done, post-fellowship-offer to Peterson, is to reassure the student body that they are indeed safe and that they have the freedom to participate or not participate in whatever activities associated with Peterson’s fellowship there. And I would offer the best of the best biblical scholars to speak to Peterson in order to influence his thought on the Bible. But, apparently, accommodation to their student body is more of a priority than increase of knowledge, critical thinking, and (intellectual) empowerment.
— David I. Yoon