PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Outside the marquee at the Providence Performing Arts Center, a handful of grinning young men paused to take selfies, their faces positioned next to the image of the man they have come here to see.
But there is no rock star inside, rather a Canadian psychologist in his sixth decade who will, when he takes the stage 45 minutes after show time, deliver a rambling lecture that touches on Fyodor Dostoevsky, David Hume, Richard Dawkins, post-modernism, privilege, victimhood and, most importantly, “the biblical corpus” of the Jewish and Christian traditions, which the lecturer believes offers the deepest and most relevant stories for the questions of human existence.
Welcome to Jordan Peterson’s “We Who Wrestle With God” tour, which kicked off at 7:30 Sunday night in a sold-out auditorium in downtown Providence. (Peterson comes to the Delta Center in Salt Lake City March 5.) Part concert, part lecture, part family banter, the evening is not easily classified.
In Providence, the event started with 20 minutes of music by classical guitarist David Cotter (who also toured with Peterson last year), then moved to a monologue by Peterson’s wife about family conflict and pain caused by the recent death of her father. Tammy Peterson herself has been in the news lately, because of publicity about her conversion to Roman Catholicism.
It was 8:15 before Jordan Peterson strode in, wearing gray slacks and a multi-colored dreamcoat that would have made Joseph and his brothers envious. The crowd, many of whom had paid up to $100 for tickets, gave Peterson a standing ovation before he said anything.
Peterson talked without notes for nearly an hour and a half, never directly addressing any of the topics, such as gender identity, that have made him a lightning rod for controversy on social media and so angered his peers in Canada that they want to strip him of his professional license.
In fact, there was no evidence of controversy at all, save for the security officers stationed in front of the stage.
What does Jordan Peterson say in his new show?
Peterson has said the tour would be a discussion of ideas coming in a forthcoming book, entitled “We Who Wrestle With God,” for which a publication date has not been announced. But Sunday’s presentation seemed more a brainstorming session than an outline, with Peterson meandering from biblical discourse (an overhead screen projected passages from the first chapter of Genesis) to reflections on why human beings are so connected with movies. (They are not mere entertainment, as most people say, but expressions of a “hierarchy of values” that we relate to on deeper levels. And he only made it halfway through “Barbie,” he said, to laughter.)
Continuing with Genesis, Peterson described the story of Cain and Abel as “20 of the most tightly written sentences ever penned” that comprise the template for every modern story in the “eternal battle of good versus evil.”
“That’s your story, whether you know it or not,” Peterson said.
The story of Cain and Abel hinges on the question of what sacrifice most pleased God, or “to what end should sacrifice be devoted,” he said. Sacrifice in the context is a synonym for work, he added. “You will wrestle with this your whole life.”
Evoking themes from his popular books “Twelve Rules for Life” and “Beyond Order,” Peterson asked the audience, “What confronts you when you wake up?”and argued that our task is to manage the chaos, seeking “adventure infused with love” while knowing there is no adventure without trouble. Every well-ordered life should be marked by “constant turns for the better,” he said; a life continually marked by such turns will eventually resemble something like heaven.
Is Jordan Peterson a Christian?
Despite his wife’s decision to join the Roman Catholic Church, Peterson is not affiliated with any particular faith. He has said he supported Tammy Peterson’s decision, which he has called a “logical, appropriate and inspired next step” in her spiritual journey. He often speaks of biblical stories in terms of myth, which he calls “a form of truth that surpasses the merely literal.” But pacing the stage in Providence, he at times sounded like a believer, quoting scripture and mocking atheists who “don’t believe in angels or devils” but seem just fine with aliens.
“There is no one who thinks of God more than a committed atheist,” he later said.
The audience was invited to submit questions to Peterson, but in a Q&A session (after his second standing ovation), he only answered three:
What does he think is behind antisemitism seen on university campuses after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel? (“Well, Satan, obviously,” he began.)
How do you know if you’re wrestling with God or with yourself? (If you’re thinking about yourself and being miserable, you’re wrestling with yourself, he said.)
And, given that so much of his work involves the “ideal masculine” what does he see as the “ideal feminine”?
For that question, Peterson referenced Michelangelo’s “Pietà.” the sculpture of Mary holding the body of Christ that is in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. For women, Peterson said, that image represents a woman’s “highest offering to God” — child and self.
“The woman who offers her child to God receives her child back. ... And every mother worth her salt knows that,” he said.