‘The Devil At The Crossroads’: Jordan Peterson On Christianity, Suffering, And Temptation At Hillsdale College Commencement Address

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Esteemed author and clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson discussed the reality of the “devil in the crossroads” in his Saturday commencement speech at Hillsdale College.

“You’re at a pinnacle of sorts,” Peterson told the graduating seniors at the conservative Michigan school. “You’re at a crossroads. You’re entering a new phase of your life. You’re someone different than you were four years ago, and hopefully someone better. Likely someone better.”

“A crossroads — the metaphor works because you make a decision. You go one direction or another. There’s an old ‘blues’ idea that you meet the devil at the crossroads. I always wondered why that was — I found it true. It’s a really compelling idea. It’s an image that has a good narrative fit, and it sticks in your memory once you hear it.”

“Maybe that’s when you examine your conscience,” Peterson suggested. “Or it examines you.”

“Why do you meet the devil at the crossroads? And the answer is, most fundamentally, because when you come to a place in your life where you have to make a choice … you aim up or down. And there is always an agent of temptation at every choice point, enticing you to aim down.”

As one example of “aiming down,” Peterson referred the graduates to the biblical account of Cain and Abel. The former brother made sacrifices to God that were “not everything that they could be” and “not in the service of the highest good” — and also “arrogant,” because “when we make improper sacrifices, we believe in the deepest part of ourselves that we’ve pulled one over God.”

Peterson continued by noting that the Bible — being “unbelievably sophisticated from a literary perspective, philosophical perspective, theological perspective, existential perspective” — next offers the narrative of the Flood, which points to “nihilistic chaos.” He also dove into the meaning of the term “sin” — which in its Greek and Hebrew iterations, according to Peterson, is “to miss the mark.”

“It implies that it has something to do with aim or the lack thereof. I love that. … There’s a variety of ways you can miss the mark, right? Don’t aim at all — that’s a good one. Assume there is no such thing as aim. Assume all aims are equal.”

On the other hand, Peterson said faith is a “form of courage.”

“One of the things I’ve thought a lot about in relationship to faith — we have this idea, and it’s not a good idea, and it’s certainly an idea for which religious people are often pilloried — that faith means the sacrifice of reason and the willingness to believe things that are patently not true … I don’t think that’s what faith is at all in some fundamental sense. I think faith is a form of courage.”

“If you’re hurt by life — and you will be — it’s understandable that you might react in a nihilistic and hopeless fashion … and I think part of what helps you through that is faith,” Peterson described. “And part of that faith is that it’s incumbent on you … to maintain faith in the fundamental goodness of existence, including your own, despite the evidence to the contrary.”

“When you’re at the crossroads and you’re counseled to despair — rise up in courage and see if you can resist it,” Peterson advised. “It’s better for you, and it’s better for the people around you.”

Peterson noted that the Tower of Babel follows the Flood in the biblical narrative.

“It’s a continual temptation for human beings to build complex organizations that get too high. So what does that mean? How about too many layers? Not local enough, not distributed enough, right? Too separate from the people that they serve,” Peterson argued. “It’s also a Luciferian story. Lucifer is this spirit of intellect — the light-bringer who’s flown too high and challenges God Himself, and falls. … It’s a symbol of prideful intellect. And it is the prideful intellect that raises itself up against what is most properly placed at the highest place — which is what God is.”

“I’m very opposed to the idea that the fundamental human motivation is power — which is pretty much what every student is taught at every level of their education, in every educational institution except a handful across your country,” Peterson added. “It’s such a dismal philosophy. … You could not formulate a more pathological philosophy. It obliterates your faith in society, and it eradicates the notion of the individual. It removes the notion of good faith and goodwill, and it makes communication impossible.”

To Peterson, such a self-aggrandizing mindset represents another temptation. “The construction of your own empire for your own narrow purposes — part of the reason you shouldn’t do that even though it’s tempting … is because, do you want to rule over hell?”

In terms of aiming higher, Peterson said that the pursuit of good is “practical.”

“You learn to optimize an aim, and then you see once you’ve learned to optimize an aim across a set of goods, you start to aim at what unites those goods … by practicing any good in any rigorous sense, and making the proper sacrifices in that direction, you simultaneously learn to approach the good that is the sum or the essence of all those proximal goods.”

“The essential insistence in Christianity is that the good that unites all those goods is the same good that’s reflected in the image of Christ, which is an image of acceptance of the suffering of life, and the necessity of serving the lowest as the highest calling.”

“That’s something that might be true — like really, actually, 100% true — more true than anything else.”

“It’s kind of earth-shattering, in some sense, to take this with real seriousness,” Peterson said. “It’s all very frightening if you’re not afraid of that vision and what it implies for you and your soul … but it’s also … an endlessly promising vision of what your life could be.”

In response to inevitable suffering, Peterson concluded that “the attempt alone” to move in the direction exemplified by Christ “is of sufficient value.”

“So that’s the choice you make at the crossroads.”