Suffering and Existence: A response to Jordan Peterson

In a previous post I addressed how Jordan Peterson is delving into philosophy and theology, and how he clearly isn’t an expert in either of those fields. To put it mildly, when it comes to metaphysical discussions, Peterson is out of his depth. Continuing in that vein, I’d like to address what Peterson has said about existence and suffering, mainly that existence is suffering.

On numerous occasions, in his book 12 Rules and in some interviews and lectures, Peterson asserts that we must simply embrace the fact that “existence is suffering.” Peterson’s solution to the problem of suffering is to live in such a way as to find meaning through it all. The suffering of existence can essentially be made tolerable (sometimes it seems Peterson is giving a way to simply avoid committing suicide) if one takes responsibility for one’s self and for the well-being of others, and so this gives them meaning. This is hardly a good case against something like euthanasia, since if someone feels that, in being chronically or terminally ill, they are more of a burden than a burden carrier, suicide or assisted suicide seems fairly attractive under Peterson’s approach to meaning. So what Peterson is offering really isn’t an antidote to suffering, or to chaos, as his book suggests. He does offer some tidbits that can help one get organized, and taking responsibility for one’s own actions and circumstances is in most cases admirable and advisable. Yet if the only way to find meaning is through Peterson’s prescribed methods, there are a number of situations where by those standards seem meaningless, or at least in the grand scale of meaning and meaninglessness, meaning seems to be outweighed on a regular basis.

The reason Peterson’s concept of meaning won’t work is because his idea of meaning is merely a sense of purpose, not one of actual meaning. Peterson’s continued denial of an actual transcendent existence is the reason why his concept of meaning must stop at the psychological sense, rather than a conviction of meanings actual existence in reality. Peterson likes to play word games with what he says he believes. It’s a good ploy for keeping atheists and theists alike interested in his program, but for anyone paying attention, its more than frustrating, and is easy to see through. For one, he plays psychological games with his belief in “God.” According to Peterson, God does exist, except God doesn’t exist. What he means by this is that in the psychological sense, God does exist, simply because God must exist, not as a recognition of the source of all being, but as a psychological necessity for bringing order to the inner and outer man. In other words, Peterson is glad to believe in fairytales, which he acknowledges as fairytales, simply because the health of human psychology necessitates a good mythology. Peterson is not only a psychologist, he is apparently a damned good magician, since he can wave theism in front of a crowd and make it disappear without anybody noticing.

Let’s address Peterson’s ideas about existence and suffering. The idea that “existence is suffering” has manifold errors. The most obvious being that only that which has existence can suffer. The linguistic differences between the ideas are clear; a particular existence, let’s say, a golden retriever, can experience pain, but that isn’t synonymous with the golden retriever’s existence. Peterson could of course respond to this that he didn’t quite mean it that way, but at any rate, the difference between a things existence and its particular experiences of suffering are clear, and so the two should not be equated. Besides the obvious issues (and there are more), I’d like to address two issues that might be less obvious to some. The first is, the nature of existence as such, and the second, what are the implications of that for our view of existence.

The concept of “Existence” is one that presents with obvious truths and frustratingly unanswerable questions. Existence can be spoken of in terms of the particular (the existence of our golden retriever), and existence can also be spoken of in terms of the absolute. Existence simply is, independent of those things which have particular existences. Asking the questions of “what exists?” and “how did they come to be?” are coherent questions, but asking “where did existence come from?” is an absurd question. Existence could not have come from anywhere, since that would mean that existence preceded itself, which is an obviously ridiculous notion.

The logical necessity that existence be distinguished from those things which have particular existences I think is clear. The nature of existence is infinite. All things that have particular existences by definition participate in the infinite reality that is existence itself. We can also call this “being.” In classical theism, this infinite reality, in which all things participate, is God. God is not some strong being somewhere in the universe. God is not another thing that has a particular existence. God does not exist in the sense that finite things exist. Finite things have particular existences, God does not have a particular existence, God is existence. Outside of God, there is not a concept of existence in which God participates. God is Existence, or absolute Being, and we have existences, or we are particular “beings.”

In the classical notion of theism (of which Peterson does not seem to be well informed), the notion that “existence is suffering” is immediately seen as absurd. Existence is the infinite reality from which all things have their existence. Existence is the first and ultimate good, it is the giving of life, it is the self-donation of being in an omnipotent act of creation. Existence is charity, it is generosity, and one could even say, existence is sacrifice, but sacrifice is not the same thing as suffering.

In the Christian faith, Christ is the revelation of the Father, he was and is the full disclosure of God to man in the form of man. Christ did suffer, but Christ’s suffering did not disclose that God “is” suffering. Hebrews makes clear that Christ despised the suffering, but it was the joy set before him for which he endured. Christ made known the full glory of God in his work, in the entirety of his ministry to his death, resurrection and ascension. Even still, he sent the Spirit and formed the church, and thus as the body of Christ the Church is still revealing the Father. The sacrifice of Christ disclosed the self-giving nature of God. God in his essence is an infinite self-donation of the infinite. God has always given himself in the Trinity. The Father gives himself to the Son, and the Spirit illuminates the Son to return to the Father as an infinite reflection of his own fullness. In the ministry of Christ, this self-giving which is of the nature of God did entail the suffering of the cross, but the suffering was not the point. The suffering simply demonstrated the immutability of God’s nature, that nothing could cause God to take back his offering of himself.

In the Christian worldview, what then is meaning? What should be our understanding of existence? For one, we should think of our every breath as one of participation in God who is absolute Existence. This means that if our existence is one that comes from God, then it also must be to God. God is infinite, which means nothing that God “does” can have a final end that is the antithesis of its Source. Nothing can start from infinite light and end in utter darkness. Nothing can be an act of infinite self-donation, and end in absolute emptiness. The end for which all things are made is their beginning, and that is God. We are beings, yet we can also be aptly described as “becomings.” We have not quite arrived. We are becoming what we were made to be, we are moving upstream back to the infinite source from which we come. That is meaning. To be in God’s likeness, to become what we were made to be, that is the meaning of life. No matter what comes our way, whether it be the everyday chaos of life, or the more daunting chaos of extreme suffering, the meaning of life is to be like God in every situation. To be like Christ when he sat for dinner with friends, and when he drank sour wine hanging from a cross; to be immutable in our resolve to give ourselves to the cause of imaging the God in whose image we are made. That is meaning that no circumstance can threaten. In fact, every circumstance is simply another opportunity to make meaning manifest. The antidote to chaos is to conform to the image of the source of all order, and that is to give one’s life both to and for the love of Existence, which is our first and final good.

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