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Jordan Peterson with atheist Sam Harris

Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson on the Bible 

January 18, 2024

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In a recent viral video released on Christmas Day 2023, Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris discussed a wide variety of topics. In contrast to some earlier combative conversations, this discussion explored their differences in a more collaborative way.

Among the most important of the differences between Peterson and Harris is a fundamental disagreement about the Bible. As stated in his forthcoming book We Who Wrestle with God, Peterson sees Scripture as pointing to deep wisdom about the value of sacrifice in making atonement with the highest good. 

But Harris sees the Bible as an enormous stumbling block: 

I’m effectively an atheist with respect to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Despite all of the other things . . . that make me a good candidate for being sympathetic to those traditions, [I reject] the claim about the books [as God’s word]. It’s so preposterous, given how easy it would be for an omniscient being to have proven his omniscience in those books. . . . It would be trivially easy for an omniscient being to put a page of text in there that would even now be confounding us with its depths of inspiration, scientifically, ethically in every other sense, right? 

Harris is in good company in reading the Bible and finding it deficient. In book 3 of his Confessions, St. Augustine of Hippo came to a similar negative evaluation of Scripture. If the Bible is really the Word of God, Augustine wondered, why is it not written with a greater eloquence than the works of Cicero? Augustine also worried about the problematic ethical elements, especially in the Old Testament. He learned from St. Ambrose more sophisticated ways of reading the Bible, which changed Augustine’s mind. 

But neither Augustine or Ambrose, as far as I know, directly addresses the issue raised by Sam Harris. If the Bible really is the Word of God, written by an omniscient Creator, then the Bible should contain scientifically advanced messages that show the intelligence of its divine author. The book of Genesis could have included the laws of motion articulated by Issac Newton or the theory of relativity put forward by Albert Einstein. But since the Bible does not reveal such scientific truths, but rather shows all the marks of being written by ancient authors utterly ignorant of contemporary science, the Bible must not be the Word of God. 

The Bible is the divine word in human words that reflect their human authors.

Harris seems to assume that, if God communicates, it would be in a way that overwhelms the human beings who receive the communication. After all, no ancient person possessed sufficient background information to understand Newton’s laws or Einstein’s theory of relativity so including such information could only baffle and be unintelligible to the original readers of Scripture. 

On the other hand, as Cardinal Baronius suggested, maybe the point of Scripture is not to teach us scientific knowledge about how the heavens go but spiritual knowledge about how to go to heaven. Indeed, maybe God communicates in a way that does not overwhelm but rather underwhelms. This possibility is expressed in the story of when God communicates to Elijah: “The Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still small voice.” (1 Kings 19:11-13). It is only in the still small voice (conscience?) that God manifests himself to Elijah. God underwhelms rather than overwhelms him. 

Someone taking Harris’ view might assume that if God becomes a human being, God would manifest himself as mighty, overwhelming, and powerful. If God became human, God would come down from the clouds as a giant with overpowering strength and weapons to destroy anyone who challenges him. Indeed, the Jews at the time of Jesus looked for a Messiah-conqueror who would violently overthrow Roman rule and establish an everlasting Jewish kingdom of this world.

But maybe God enters the world not as a giant with weapons of mass destruction but as an infant swaddled to immobility. According to the Christian story, God arrives not with overpowering strength but in utter vulnerability, weakness, and defenselessness. And when this baby grows to adulthood, he does not lead an army into battle, slaying thousands in his path like Napoleon or Attila the Hun. On the contrary, Jesus freely gives himself over to betrayal, to torture, and then to death. Not force of arms but free acceptance of suffering characterizes the kingdom of Jesus, which he says is not of this world. Not violence but vulnerability is his trademark.

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And maybe the Word of God reflects this gentle, humble approach. Unlike the Islamic view in which every word of the Quran is dictated syllable by syllable to Muhammad, the view of Catholic Christians is that the Bible is the divine word in human words that reflect their human authors. So what Sam Harris seems to be critiquing is a fundamentalist understanding of Scripture, which is itself rejected by the Catholic Church. As Pope Benedict XVI pointed out

The basic problem with fundamentalist interpretation is that, refusing to take into account the historical character of biblical revelation, it makes itself incapable of accepting the full truth of the incarnation itself. As regards relationships with God, fundamentalism seeks to escape any closeness of the divine and the human . . . for this reason, it tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit. It fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various periods. 

Harris’ critique may legitimately undermine Muslim or Protestant understandings of Scripture (they can speak for themselves), but it is a straw-man caricature of the Catholic approach to the Bible. This approach is summarized with brevity and clarity by Pope Benedict’s exhortation Verbum Domini (the Word of the Lord), sections 36-44. This Catholic understanding is more in harmony with Peterson’s multivalent method of reading Scripture, hence the fundamental disagreement of Peterson and Harris about the Bible. 

If this approach is right, God does not communicate via the wind of a hurricane, the ground shattering force of an earthquake, or the blaze of roaring fire, but rather through a gentle whisper. God does not become human as a gigantic UFC fighter who lives by the sword but as a swaddled infant and later as a man bound, scourged, and put to death. And, so too, God’s Word does not overwhelm with scientific insights utterly unintelligible to the first readers of Scripture. Maybe, the ways of God are not the ways of Sam.