Famed clinical psychologist and two-time author Dr. Jordan Peterson warned the graduates of Hillsdale College in Michigan on Saturday about the “devil at the crossroads” during his countercultural commencement address.
After a thunderous and sustained applause, Peterson told the graduating class they are at “a crossroads” in life.
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“A crossroads — the metaphor works because you make a decision,” he said. “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.”
It’s milestones like graduation, the 59-year-old mused, where people are forced to “examine” their consciences.
“Why do you meet the devil at the crossroads?” he asked rhetorically. “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.”
Peterson then turned to Scripture to explain how sin — which he defined as “missing the mark” — factors into the crossroads that punctuate peoples lives.
To paint a word picture of aiming down, he referenced the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s sacrifices, he said, were “not everything that they could be” and “not in the service of the highest good.” He added that, when people make insufficient sacrifices, “we believe in the deepest part of ourselves that we’ve pulled one over God.”
Peterson noted the English word “sin” found throughout the Old and New Testaments of the Bible comes from the Hebrew word “khata,” which is roughly translated as “to fail” or “to miss the goal.”
“It implies that it has something to do with aim or the lack thereof,” explained Peterson. “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.”
Run From Pridefulness
One of the biggest obstacles that causes people to “miss the mark” repeatedly, he said, is pride.
Again, Peterson turned to Scripture, this time referencing the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, when, after the Flood, Noah’s descendants were overcome with pride and sought to build a structure to reach the heavens, failing to follow the Lord’s commandment to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28).
“It’s a continual temptation for human beings to build complex organizations that get too high,” said Peterson. “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. 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,” he continued. “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.”
Rather than allowing arrogance to disturb one’s aim, Peterson told the graduates they should see the pursuit of what is right and good as “practical.”
“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,” he told them. “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.”
The truth of Jesus, he added “might be … more true than anything else.”
Faith Is Courageous
In what is certainly a countercultural message, Peterson — a great intellect in his own right — esteemed the graduates to disabuse themselves of the secular suggestion that having faith means abandoning logic and reason.
The world will tell people faith is a form of weakness because it implies an unwillingness to contend with that which cannot be explained, the difficult and dark corners of life. Peterson, however, told the Hillsdale students he doesn’t believe that is the case.
“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,” he said. “[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,” the psychologist continued. “[A]nd I think part of what helps you through that is faith. 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 one faces trials, Peterson said he or she ought not to give into despair. Instead, those staring down a difficult crossroads should “rise up in courage and see if you can resist” going down the wrong path.
“It’s better for you, and it’s better for the people around you,” he said.
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