On the Death and Resurrection: A Psychological View in Five Parts by Dr. Jordan Peterson
Today, I want to present to you some of the things I have been thinking and writing about as Easter approached. I’m going to do this in five separate parts—which hopefully make up a coherent whole. I’m going to read this, because it’s complicated.
There are two ways of looking at the world: as a place of things, and as a forum for action. Because we are living beings, and must make our way, pragmatically, in the world, the second way of looking has to take precedence. This means that the world as a place of things is nested inside the world as a forum for action. This means that our conceptualization of the world as objective must remain subordinate to our conceptualize of the world as a place of Being.
This is from the first part of my book Maps of Meaning: "The world can be validly construed as forum for action, or as place of things. The former manner of interpretation—more primordial, and less clearly understood—finds its expression in the arts or humanities, in ritual, drama, literature, and mythology. The world as forum for action is a place of value, a place where all things have meaning. This meaning, which is shaped as a consequence of social interaction, is implication for action, or—at a higher level of analysis—implication for the configuration of the interpretive schema that produces or guides action.
The latter manner of interpretation—the world as place of things—finds its formal expression in the methods and theories of science. Science allows for increasingly precise determination of the consensually-validatable properties of things, and for efficient utilization of precisely-determined things as tools (once the direction such use is to take has been determined, through application of more fundamental narrative processes).
No complete world-picture can be generated, without use of both modes of construal. The fact that one mode is generally set at odds with the other means only that the nature of their respective domains remains insufficiently discriminated. Adherents of the mythological world-view tend to regard the statements of their creeds as indistinguishable from empirical "fact," even though such statements were generally formulated long before the notion of objective reality emerged. Those who, by contrast, accept the scientific perspective—who assume that it is, or might become, complete—forget that an impassable gulf currently divides what is from what should be."
I wrote this a little later: it’s also relevant: "The world can be validly construed as a forum for action, as well as a place of things. We describe the world as a place of things, using the formal methods of science. The techniques of narrative, however—myth, literature, and drama—portray the world as a forum for action. The two forms of representation have been unnecessarily set at odds, because we have not yet formed a clear picture of their respective domains. The domain of the former is the "objective world"—what is, from the perspective of intersubjective perception. The domain of the latter is "the world of value"—what is and what should be, from the perspective of emotion and action."
The world as a forum for action presents itself in two stories: the normal story (I was at point A, and was going to point B).
The revolutionary story: I was at point A and, while going to point B, something entirely unexpected and earth-shattering happened. This meant I had to abandon my story, question my assumptions, allow my old beliefs to die, and be reborn anew.
The second story, which is deeper, is essentially religious.
From my new book, 12 Rules for Life: Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient):
Every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost, as the old proverb has it. Why not simply take everything you can get, whenever the opportunity arises? Why not determine to live in that manner?
Or—Is there an alternative and, if so, why should we bother with it?
Our ancestors worked out very sophisticated answers to such questions, but we still don’t understand them very well. This is because they are in large part still implicit—manifest primarily in ritual and myth and, as of yet, incompletely articulated. We act them out and represent them in stories, but we’re not yet wise enough to formulate them explicitly. We’re still chimps in a troupe, or wolves in a pack. We know how to behave. We know who’s who, and why. We’ve learned that through experience. Our knowledge has been shaped by our interaction with others. We’ve established predictable routines and patterns of behavior—but we don’t really understand them, or know where they originated. They’ve evolved over great expanses of time. No one was formulating them explicitly (at least not in the dimmest reaches of the past), even though we’ve been telling each other how to act forever. One day, however, not so long ago, we woke up. We were already doing, but we started noticing what we were doing. We started using our bodies as devices to represent their own actions. We started imitating and dramatizing. We invented ritual. We started acting out our own experiences. Then we started to tell stories. We coded our observations of our own drama in these stories. In this manner, the information that was first only embedded in our behaviour became represented in our stories. But we didn’t and still don’t understand what it all meant.
The Biblical narrative of Paradise and the Fall is one such story, fabricated by our collective imagination, working over the centuries. It provides a profound account of the nature of Being, and points the way to a mode of conceptualization and action well-matched to that nature. In the Garden of Eden, prior to the dawn of self-consciousness—so goes the story—human beings were sinless. Our primordial parents, Adam and Eve, walked with God. Then, tempted by the snake, the first couple ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, discovered Death and vulnerability, and turned away from God.
Mankind was exiled from Paradise, and began its effortful mortal existence. The idea of sacrifice enters soon afterward, beginning with the account of Cain and Abel, and developing through the Abrahamic adventures and the Exodus: After much contemplation, struggling humanity learns that God’s favour could be gained, and his wrath averted, through proper sacrifice—and, also, that bloody murder might be motivated among those unwilling or unable to succeed in this manner.
When engaging in sacrifice, our forefathers began to act out what would be considered a proposition, if it were stated in words—that something better might be attained in the future by giving up something of value in the present. Recall, if you will, that the necessity for work is one of the curses placed by God upon Adam and his descendants in consequence of Original Sin. Adam’s waking to the fundamental constraints of his Being—his vulnerability, his eventual death—is equivalent to his discovery of the future. The future: that’s where you go to die (hopefully, not too soon). Your demise might be staved off through work; through the sacrifice of the now to gain benefit later. It is for this reason—among others, no doubt—that the concept of sacrifice is introduced in the Biblical chapter immediately following the drama of the Fall. There is little difference between sacrifice and work. They are also both uniquely human. Sometimes, animals act as if they are working, but they are really only following the dictates of their nature. Beavers build dams. They do so because they are beavers, and beavers build dams. They don’t think, "Yeah, but I’d rather be on a beach in Mexico with my girlfriend," while they’re doing it.
Prosaically, such sacrifice—work—is delay of gratification, but that’s a very mundane phrase to describe something of soul-shattering significance. The discovery that gratification could be delayed was simultaneously the discovery of time and, with it, causality (at least the causal force of voluntary human action). Long ago, in the dim mists of time, we began to realize that reality was structured as if it could be bargained with. We learned that behaving properly now, in the present—regulating our impulses, considering the plight of others—could bring rewards in the future, in a time and place that did not yet exist. We began to inhibit, control and organize our immediate impulses, so that we could stop interfering with other people and our future selves. Doing so was indistinguishable from organizing society: the discovery of the causal relationship between our efforts today and the quality of tomorrow motivated the social contract—the organization that enables today’s work to be stored, reliably (mostly in the form of promises from others).
Understanding is often acted out before it can be articulated (just as a child acts out what it means to be "mother" or "father" before being able to give a spoken account of what those roles mean). The act of making a ritual sacrifice to God was an early and sophisticated enactment of the idea of the usefulness of delay. There is a long conceptual journey between merely feasting hungrily and learning to set aside some extra meat, smoked by the fire, for the end of the day, or for someone who isn’t present.
It takes a long time to learn to keep anything later for yourself, or to share it with someone else (and those are very much the same thing as, in the former case, you are sharing with your future self). It is much easier and far more likely to selfishly and immediately wolf down everything in sight. There are similar long journeys between every leap in sophistication with regard to delay and its conceptualization: short-term sharing, storing away for the future, representation of that storage in the form of records and, later, in the form of currency—and, ultimately, the saving of money in a bank or other social institution. Some conceptualizations had to serve as intermediaries, or the full range of our practices and ideas surrounding sacrifice and work and their representation could have never emerged.
Our ancestors acted out a drama, a fiction: they personified the force that governs fate as a spirit that can be bargained with, traded with, as if it were another human being. And the amazing thing is that it worked. This was in part because the future is largely composed of other human beings—often precisely those who have watched and evaluated and appraised the tiniest details of your past behavior. It’s not very far from that to God, sitting above on high, tracking your every move and writing it down for further reference in a big book. Here’s a productive symbolic idea: The future is a judgmental father. That’s a good start. But two additional, archetypal, foundational questions arose, because of the discovery of sacrifice, of work. Both have to do with the ultimate extension of the logic of work—which is sacrifice now, to gain later.
First question. What must be sacrificed? Small sacrifices may be sufficient to solve small, singular problems. But it is possible that larger, more comprehensive sacrifices might an array of large and complex problems, all at the same time. That’s harder, but it might be better. Adapting to the necessary discipline of medical school will, for example, fatally interfere with the licentious lifestyle of a hardcore undergraduate party animal. Giving that up is a sacrifice. But a physician can—to quote George W.—really "put food on his family." That’s a lot of trouble dispensed with, over a very long period of time. So, sacrifices are necessary, to improve the future, and larger sacrifices can be better.
Second question (set of related questions, really): We’ve already established the basic principle—sacrifice will improve the future. But a principle, once established, has to be fleshed out. Its full extension or significance has to be understood. What is implied by the idea that sacrifice will improve the future, in the most extreme and final of cases? Where does that basic principle find its limits? We must ask, to begin, "What would be the largest, most effective—most pleasing—of all possible sacrifices?" and then "How good might the best possible future be, if the most effective sacrifice could be made?"
The Biblical story of Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve’s sons, immediately follows the story of the expulsion from Paradise, as mentioned previously. Cain and Abel are really the first humans, since their parents were made directly by God, and not born in the standard manner. Cain and Abel live in history, not in Eden. They must work. They must make sacrifices, to please God, and they do so, with altar and proper ritual. But things get complicated. Abel’s offerings please God, but Cain’s do not. Abel is rewarded, many times over, but Cain is not. It’s not precisely clear why (although the text strongly hints that Cain’s heart is just not in it). Maybe the quality of what Cain put forward was low. Maybe his spirit was begrudging. Or maybe God was vexed, for some secret reasons of His own. And all of this is realistic, including the text’s vagueness of explanation. Not all sacrifices are of equal quality. Furthermore, it often appears that sacrifices of apparently high quality are not rewarded with a better future—and it’s not clear why. Why isn’t God happy? What would have to change to make Him so? Those are difficult questions—and everyone asks them, all the time, even if they don’t notice.
Asking such questions is indistinguishable from thinking.
The realization that pleasure could be usefully forestalled dawned on us with great difficulty. It runs absolutely contrary to our ancient, fundamental animal instincts, which demand immediate satisfaction (particularly under conditions of deprivation, which are both inevitable and commonplace). And, to complicate the matter, such delay only becomes useful when civilization has stabilized itself enough to guarantee the existence of the delayed reward, in the future. If everything you save will be destroyed or, worse, stolen, there is no point in saving. It is for this reason that a wolf will down twenty pounds of raw meat in a single meal. He isn’t thinking, "Man, I hate it when I binge. I should save some of this for next week."
So how was it that those two impossible and necessarily simultaneous accomplishments (delay and the stabilization of society into the future) could possibly have manifested themselves?
Here is a developmental progression, from animal to human. It’s wrong, no doubt, in the details. But it’s sufficiently correct, for our purposes, in theme: First, there is excess food. Large carcasses, mammoths or other massive herbivores, might provide that. (We ate a lot of mammoths. Maybe all of them.) With a large animal, there is some left for later after a kill. That’s accidental, at first—but, eventually, the utility of "for later" starts to be appreciated. Some provisional notion of sacrifice develops at the same time: "If I leave some, even if I want it now, I won’t have to be hungry later." That provisional notion develops, to the next level ("If I leave some for later, I won’t have to go hungry, and neither will those I care for") and then to the next ("I can’t possibly eat all of this mammoth, but I can’t store the rest for too long, either. Maybe I should feed some to other people. Maybe they’ll remember, and feed me some of their mammoth, when they have some and I have none. Then I’ll get some mammoth now, and some mammoth later. That’s a good deal. And maybe those I’m sharing with will come to trust me, more generally. Maybe then we could trade forever"). In such a manner, "mammoth" becomes "future mammoth," and "future mammoth" becomes "personal reputation." That’s the emergence of the social contract.
To share does not mean to give away something you value, and get nothing back. That is instead only what every child who refuses to share fears it means. To share means, properly, to initiate the process of trade. A child who can’t share—who can’t trade—can’t have any friends, because having friends is a form of trade. Benjamin Franklin once suggested that a newcomer to a neighbourhood ask a new neighbour to do him or her a favour, citing an old maxim: He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged. In Franklin’s opinion, asking someone for something (not too extreme, obviously) was the most useful and immediate invitation to social interaction. Such asking on the part of the newcomer provided the neighbour with an opportunity to show him- or herself as a good person, at first encounter. It also meant that the latter could now ask the former for a favour, in return, because of the debt incurred, increasingly their mutual familiarity and trust. In that manner both parties could overcome their natural hesitancy and mutual fear of the stranger.
It is better to have something than nothing. It’s better yet to share generously the something you have. It’s even better than that, however, to become widely known for generous sharing. That’s something that lasts. That’s something that’s reliable. And, at this point of abstraction, we can observe how the groundwork for the conceptions reliable, honest and generous has been laid. The basis for an articulated morality has been put in place. The productive, truthful sharer is the prototype for the good citizen, and the good man. We can see in this manner how from the simple notion that "leftovers are a good idea" the highest moral principles might emerge.
It’s as if something like the following happened as humanity developed. First were the endless tens or hundreds of thousands of years prior to the emergence of written history and drama. During this time, the twin practices of delay and exchange begin to emerge, slowly and painfully. Then they become represented, in metaphorical abstraction, as rituals and tales of sacrifice, told in a manner such as this: "It’s as if there is a powerful Figure in the Sky, who sees all, and is judging you. Giving up something you value seems to make Him happy—and you want to make Him happy, because all Hell breaks loose if you don’t. So, practise sacrificing, and sharing, until you become expert at it, and things will go well for you." No one said any of this, at least not so plainly and directly. But it was implicit in the practice and then in the stories.
Action came first (as it had to, as the animals we once were could act but could not think). Implicit, unrecognized value came first (as the actions that preceded thought embodied value, but did not make that value explicit). People watched the successful succeed and the unsuccessful fail for thousands and thousands of years. We thought it over, and drew a conclusion: The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future. A great idea begins to emerge, taking ever-more-clearly-articulated form, in ever more-clearly-articulated stories: What’s the difference between the successful and the unsuccessful? The successful sacrifice. Things get better, as the successful practise their sacrifices. The questions become increasingly precise and, simultaneously, broader: What is the greatest possible sacrifice? For the greatest possible good? And the answers become increasingly deeper and profound.
The God of Western tradition, like so many gods, requires sacrifice. We have already examined why. But sometimes He goes even further. He demands not only sacrifice, but the sacrifice of precisely what is loved best. This is most starkly portrayed (and most confusingly evident) in the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham, beloved of God, long wanted a son—and God promised him exactly that, after many delays, and under the apparently impossible conditions of old age and a long-barren wife. But not so long afterward, when the miraculously-borne Isaac is still a child, He turns around and in unreasonable and apparently barbaric fashion demands that His faithful servant offers his son as a sacrifice. The story ends happily: God sends an angel to stay Abraham’s obedient hand and accepts a ram in Isaac’s stead. That’s a good thing, but it doesn’t really address the issue at hand: Why is God’s going further necessary? Why does He—why does life—impose such demands?
We’ll start our analysis with a truism, stark, self-evident and understated: Sometimes things do not go well. That seems to have much to do with the terrible nature of the world, with its plagues and famines and tyrannies and betrayals. But here’s the rub: sometimes, when things are not going well, it’s not the world that’s the cause. The cause is instead that which is currently most valued, subjectively and personally. Why? Because the world is revealed, to an indeterminate degree, through the template of your values (much more on this in Rule 10). If the world you are seeing is not the world you want, therefore, it’s time to examine your values. It’s time to rid yourself of your current presuppositions. It’s time to let go. It might even be time to sacrifice what you love best, so that you can become who you might become, instead of staying who you are.
There’s an old and possibly apocryphal story about how to catch a monkey that illustrates this set of ideas very well. First, you must find a large, narrow-necked jar, just barely wide enough in diameter at the top for a monkey to put its hand inside. Then you must fill the jar part way with rocks, so it is too heavy for a monkey to carry. Then you must to scatter some treats, attractive to monkeys, near the jar, to attract one, and put some more inside the jar. A monkey will come along, reach into the narrow opening, and grab while the grabbing’s good. But now he won’t be able to extract his fist, now full of treats, from the jar. Not without unclenching his hand. Not without relinquishing what he already has. And that’s just what he won’t do. The monkey-catcher can just walk over to the jar and pick up the monkey. The animal will not sacrifice the part to preserve the whole.
Something valuable, given up, ensures future prosperity. Something valuable, sacrificed, pleases the Lord. What is most valuable, and best sacrificed?—or, what is at least emblematic of that? A choice cut of meat. The best animal in a flock. A most valued possession. What’s above even that? Something intensely personal and painful to give up. That’s symbolized, perhaps, in God’s insistence on circumcision as part of Abraham’s sacrificial routine, where the part is offered, symbolically, to redeem the whole. What’s beyond that? What pertains more closely to the whole person, rather than the part? What constitutes the ultimate sacrifice—for the gain of the ultimate prize?
It’s a close race between child and self. The sacrifice of the mother, offering her child to the world, is exemplified profoundly by Michelangelo’s great sculpture, the Pietà. Michelangelo crafted Mary cradling the nearly naked body of her adult Son, crucified and ruined. It’s her fault. It was through her that He entered the world and its great drama of Being. Is it right to bring a baby into this terrible world? Every woman asks herself that question. Some say no, and they have their reasons. Mary answers yes, voluntarily, knowing full well what’s to come—as do all mothers, if they allow themselves to see. It’s an act of supreme courage, when its undertaken voluntarily.
In turn, Mary’s son, Christ, offers Himself to God and the world, to betrayal, torture and death—to the very point of despair on the cross, where he cries out those terrible words: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46, KJV). That is the archetypal story of the man who gives his all for the sake of the better—who offers up his life for the advancement of Being—who allows God’s will to become manifest fully within the confines of a single, mortal life. That is the model for the honourable man. In Christ’s case, however—as He sacrifices Himself—God, His Father, is simultaneously sacrificing His son. It is for this reason that the Christian sacrificial drama of Son and Self is archetypal. It’s a story at the limit, where nothing more extreme—nothing greater—can be imagined. That’s the very definition of "archetypal." That’s the core of what constitutes "religious."
Pain and suffering define the world. Of that, there can be no doubt. Sacrifice can hold pain and suffering in abeyance, to a greater or lesser degree—and greater sacrifices can do that more effectively than lesser. Of that, there can be no doubt.
Everyone holds this knowledge in their souls. Thus, the person who wishes to alleviate suffering—who wishes to rectify the flaws in Being; who wants to bring about the best of all possible futures; who wants to create Heaven on Earth—will make the greatest of sacrifices, of self and child, of everything that is loved, to live a life aimed at the Good. He will forego expediency. He will pursue the path of ultimate meaning. And he will in that manner bring salvation to the ever-desperate world.
Abridged, from Wikipedia: "The Ark of the Covenant was a lidded, gold-leafed wooden chest containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. According to various texts within the Hebrew Bible, it also contained Aaron's rod and a pot of manna. God was said to have spoken with Moses "from between the two cherubim" on the Ark's cover. The biblical account states that the Ark was created a year after the Israelites exodus from Egypt, according to a pattern given to Moses by God at the foot of Mount Sinai. Thereafter, the gold-plated acacia chest was carried by its staves while en route by the Levites in advance of the people (when on the march toward the Promised Land) or at the head of the Israelite army. In transport, the Ark was concealed under a large veil made of skins and blue cloth—carefully hidden even from the eyes of the priests and the Levites who carried it. When at rest, a portable building, the tabernacle ("residence" or "dwelling place"), was set up to house the Ark. It was build of woven layers of curtains, along with 48 boards clad with polished gold standing like vertical blinds. Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem superseded it as the dwelling-place of God some 300 years later."
There has to be a bridge between the finite and the infinite.
There has to be a place where the ephemeral meets the eternal.
There has to be a bridge between the knowable and the unknowable.
There has to be bedrock at the foundation.
The ark, which is the portal to God, is to be carried on the shoulders of those who are Holy. It is not to be touched. To touch the ark is to risk death. There are holy things that cannot be touched except at mortal risk. Those things that cannot be touched are at the very foundation of the community.
The ark must be placed at the center of the temple. The temple must be placed at the center of the community. The community must be arranged around what is untouchable and unshakeable. The untouchable and un