Noah's Ark (1846), by the American folk painter Edward Hicks via Wikimedia
While acknowledging reports of an ancient flood present in many different cultures, Peterson, the Canadian clinical psychologist and author of the influential best-seller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, focuses on what the story of Noah means for us today.
In offering an interpretation that goes beyond the historical, Peterson follows in the footsteps of Jerome, Origen and Cyprian.
St. Augustine once said, “One does not read in the Gospel that the Lord said: ‘I will send you the Holy Spirit who will teach you about the course of the sun and moon.’ For he willed to make them Christians, not astronomers.”
The purpose of the story of Noah is not to make us historians of ancient rainfall patterns.
So, what can we learn from Noah and the Flood?
The story begins with a claim as fresh as this morning’s news — “the wickedness of man was great in the earth” (Genesis 6:5). In considering the Soviet gulags and the Nazi concentration camps, it is hard to deny the existence of human wickedness. Nor do we not have to look to Soviet communists or Nazi brownshirts to find deep depravity. Sooner or later, notes Peterson, “You’ll tangle with someone who’s malevolent right to the core, and maybe it’ll be you that is malevolent.”
The story continues, “And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them’” (Genesis 6:7-8).
God goes from delighting in creation earlier in Genesis to sorrowing over creation. Does God really change? Peterson does not take up this question, but let us consider it.
Classic Christian theology holds that God’s love is unchangingly faithful. The love of God is like the heat of the sun. The heat of the sun feels heavenly when we are beside the pool, sipping a 7-Up on the Fourth of July. The heat of the sun feels hellish when we have to walk 20 miles to the nearest gas station along an abandoned desert road. The heat of the sun does not change. But we do change, and therefore our relationship to the sun’s heat changes.
In a similar way, God’s love is unchangingly faithful. Our relationship with the God who is Truth feels heavenly or hellish depending on our spiritual condition. As Augustine noted, “They love Truth when it enlightens them. They hate Truth when it accuses them.” The unjust perceive God as an angry enemy.
Not everyone, however, viewed God as an enemy.
“Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). What does it mean to walk with God? Peterson describes Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as “the closest thing we have to a fully articulated description of what it would mean to walk with God, so that you’re in the ark when the flood comes.”
To be merciful, to be pure of heart, to be a peacemaker is to walk with God. To imitate Christ daily, according to Peterson, is to build an ark as to save ourselves, our family and the goodness of creation.
But whether we are like Noah or his corrupt contemporaries, Peterson highlights an undeniable reality — “There are floods coming. You can bloody well be sure of that.” The downpour of diseases, disasters and deaths will surely afflict us all. Our suffering is a certainty.
To obey conscience is to prepare for the flood. Peterson suggests, “This is a form of prayer. Sit on your bed one day and ask yourself, what remarkably stupid things am I doing on a regular basis to absolutely screw up my life?” When we honestly ask what we can do better, we quickly find out that we are not living according to our highest and best ideals.
“To build an ark” is to live in accordance with our highest and best ideals.
“Every day is judgment day,” in Peterson’s view. “The part of you that’s equivalent to the logos, the part of you that’s your own ideal, sits in eternal judgment on your iniquity.” In this, Peterson echoes the thought of John Henry Newman, who said, “Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”
The story continues, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘For in seven days I will send rain upon the earth 40 days and 40 nights’” (Genesis 7:4).
The chaos emerging from disharmony with the Creator is poetically represented by the primordial waters falling from the sky.
The story of the Flood, in other words, is not a tale of God becoming frustrated and lashing out at human beings.
The flood represents the consequences of disharmony with God. In acting out of harmony with Divine Love, we cause primordial chaos within ourselves. When we act against our ideals, we create within ourselves an inner schizophrenia. We pit the best of ourselves against the rest of ourselves.
This inner chaos spills out. As Eleonore Stump points out in her magisterial book Wandering in Darkness, self-alienation undermines our relationships with other people. When we are self-divided, we are double-minded and mixed in motive. We cannot wholeheartedly love others, since our heart is itself divided. Our inner division afflicts the ones we love, causing “floods” in their lives and ours. And even when our actions do not directly cause the flood, our actions (including our failure to prepare) can make the inevitable floods of life much worse.
According to Genesis, the rains and the flood do not last forever.
Fellow psychologist Martin Seligman’s work on learned helplessness develops Peterson’s interpretation. When encountering the floods of life, some people believe that their troubles will last forever, that the rains will ruin everything, and that there is nothing they can do about it.
A person with Christian hope has a remedy for learned helplessness. No rain lasts forever, since no earthly suffering continues after death. Nor can any flood undermine the hope of eternal life.
And finally, there is always something that we can do about the chaotic waters of life. God helps his people to build an ark, to make the best of the worst.
After 40 days, the rain stops, and the flood recedes. God says to Noah, “Go forth from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you” (Genesis 16:8).
By obeying conscience, by building an ark, Noah saves himself, his family and the created order. Peterson says, “If you walk properly, aim properly, act properly, and act with God in the manner that we’ve been discussing, perhaps that isn’t only for you. Perhaps it’s also the thing that will save your family. And then, by implication, perhaps it will also save society.”
The good that we do has ramifications beyond our calculations.
Christopher Kaczor is a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and the author of The Seven Big Myths about the Catholic Church, among other books. This article was first published by National Catholic Register and is republished here with permission of NCR.