When you grow up believing that your religious worldview contains the key to absolute truth and provides an answer to every question, you never really get over the disappointment of learning that it doesn’t. It’s a lonely, frightening journey and most of us are limping along as best we can.
Sooner or later we all find ourselves faced with some serious challenge to how we think about God. Don’t we all eventually come to a crossroads where familiar beliefs don’t work very well and we just don’t really know what we believe anymore? Even if we have never verbalized it to ourselves (let alone to others), don’t we all at some point have a nagging background noise of doubt, a deep undercurrent of cognitive dissonance, where what we were once certain about evaporates like a dream?
• Peter Enns
• • •
One reason I appreciate Pete Enns so much is because he is not only an outstanding Old Testament scholar but also an honest brother who is willing to talk about his life and matters of faith in down-to-earth terms. Pete has been on a journey from belief to trust, and he writes about it in his new book, The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs.
This is a “wilderness journey” that should ring true to many who read Internet Monk; I know I can relate to it intimately.
When I left congregational ministry eleven years ago, my familiar and comfortable world was turned upside down. The experience brought to the surface a host of nagging doubts that I had suppressed regarding many aspects of the evangelical world in which I had lived for decades. The social structures of that world, which had kept me upright and functioning for a long time, had been withdrawn. I was down and I was out. In the wilderness. In many ways I still am. I find myself less certain about any number of things; less willing to pronounce dogmatic “answers” or certitudes about God or life. I am also less impressed by the oh-so-serious guardians of the right who do express such surefire convictions, less willing to accept that their “truths” are as unambiguous and authoritative as they claim, more convinced that their bold assertions are rooted in something other than “the clear teaching of the Bible.” I’m much less patient with that attitude and approach than with those who hunger and thirst and are curious, open to mystery and discovery.
I also find I’m more at peace, more patient with and accepting of the dissonances of life, less frantic about having it all together in a neat package tied up with a bow. I can even laugh at myself a little bit. Perhaps that’s why I resonate with Pete’s book and the journey it describes.
The big idea of The Sin of Certainty is the difference between “belief” and “trust.”
Enns notes how Christians talk, using these terms. We discuss what we believe in. We say whether or not we believe that. We focus on what we believe.
“What” and “that.” Almost as a reflex, believing is a “thinking” word, a word to describe the content of our thoughts: I believe that God exists (and atheists don’t believe that), I believe that God created the world (not random chance), I believe that Jesus is God’s Son (and not just another Jewish carpenter), and so on. Church creeds and ten-point statements of faith emphasize content, thoughts about God to be listed and agreed with. (p. 93)
Trust is different. Trust is a “who” word, not a “what” word. We trust God. Trust is a covenant word, a relational word, a word about personal devotion, faithfulness and active loyalty.
Like God the Father and God the Son, we are also called to be faithful. On one level, we are faithful to God when we trust God. But faith — pistis — doesn’t stop there. It extends, as we’ve seen, to faithfulness toward each other — in humility and sacrificial love.
And here is the real kick in the pants. When we are faithful to each other like this, we are more than simply being nice and kind, though there’s that. Far more important, when we are faithful to each other, we are at that moment acting like the faithful God and the faithful Son.
Being like God. That’s the goal. And we are most like God not when we are certain we are right about God, or when we tell others how right we are, but when we are acting toward one another like the faithful Father and Son. (p. 101f)
Don’t mistake Peter Enns. He insists repeatedly throughout the book that he is not making an absolute divide between sound thinking and trusting God. Faith (believing, trusting) has real content, and after all Enns has devoted his professional life to learning about the Bible and about God. However:
What I’m after here is how faith [is] taught and modeled — as a preoccupation with correct thinking, which feeds on the mentality that knowing (especially the Bible) is central to faith. That message [has been] as clear as a bell. Knowing what you believe places faith on solid, unshifting ground. At least that was the plan. (p. 31f)
That background didn’t prepare Pete Enns for what he encountered — life. As he lived into his thirties and especially into his forties, life got messy. He discovered that simply “knowing what he believed” was not adequate for what life threw at him. “Sooner or later,” he writes, “that tank runs empty.” Enns found himself living in the Wisdom books of the Old Testament, especially Psalms, Job, and Ecclesiastes. The laments and sayings in these writings make the poignant point that “answers” for the vagaries of life are not enough; in fact, in most cases they are not available, even to those who are wisest and most certain in their beliefs. If there is a “what” to believe, humans are too limited to grasp it.
Furthermore, the fact that these books (and other such texts) are in the Bible should cause us to stop for a moment and ask something profound. Is it possible that it’s God himself who wants me to question, to wonder, to doubt, to accept uncertainty? Perhaps that’s the way of wisdom, the path of trust. Perhaps the way is made by walking, not through understanding, at least in the way we normally conceive it.
I was listening to one of Michael Spencer’s podcasts the other day that included his comments on the Gospel text in Matthew 11:1-6. This is the passage where John the Baptist, having been thrown in prison, sends messengers to Jesus and asks him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Here’s what Michael said:
At one time John was apparently very certain about Jesus. This is the person who baptized Jesus and the Spirit revealed to him, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” This is the one who said of Jesus to his own disciples, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
…So here’s a guy who was at one point very certain about Jesus, and now, under different circumstances, seems to develop some real doubts and questions. “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Those are questions of which John was quite certain at one point.
And I was reflecting on this as somewhat descriptive of that concept of our personal faith journey. Many of us come from traditions that say, well, the way it’s supposed to happen is that you are baptized as a child or you come into the church as a child, and you simply grow in your faith through different experiences, through Christian nurture, Christian education, and you grow into a mature Christian from that initial being brought into the faith as a child.
Those of us who are from more evangelical, revivalistic traditions have that whole “Damascus Road” experience thing — getting saved out of an experience of being lost. That is how we conceive of a faith journey (or at least we’re told we’re supposed to)….we’re supposed to experience a great turnaround and grow from there.
I think both of those models do a lot to describe an ideal that just hardly ever occurs. What you see there with John the Baptist I think is much more likely to be what many of us go through. That is, at one time in our lives we’re very sure of some things and at another time we’re not sure at all. The fact of being convinced doesn’t mean we’re always convinced.
So, what do we do when certainty flees like that? Well, John went to Jesus with his questions. In Peter Enns’s terms, when his “beliefs” got shaky, he exercised “trust.” When he couldn’t lean on his own understanding, he leaned on Another.
Trust is not marked by unflappable dogmatic certainty, but by embracing as a normal part of faith the steady line of mysteries and uncertainties that parade before our lives and seeing them as opportunities to trust more deeply. (p. 205)
One of my biggest complaints against the religious status quo is that it often leads us away from being fully human rather than helping us move toward a more realistic, fuller human experience of life in this world, with all its delights and all its debris.
I highly recommend this book as an antidote to the often undiagnosed spiritual malady of trusting our own thoughts about God rather than trusting God. Pete Enns will guide you through recent church history to explain why and how we came to intellectualize faith. You’ll swim in the mysteries of the biblical Wisdom books with him. You’ll hear his own personal stories of distress and doubt, and how they helped him on the journey from belief to trust. As always, his writing is conversational, breezy, often funny, and consistently honest and generous. You won’t feel alone anymore.
The Sin of Certainty deserves an honored place on my shelf of post-evangelical books. What Pete is really writing about here is the theology of the cross and how it opposes one aspect of the theology of glory — an insistence on the “winning” quality of dogmatic certainty as the mark of strong faith.
Blessed are those who can say, “I don’t know,” or better yet stay silent altogether, as they commit themselves into the care of a merciful God.
• • •
The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs
By Peter Enns