Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Sin of Certainty, by Peter Enns

Peter Enns spent many years in a religious tradition that valued certainty, right beliefs, and a sense of defending the faith against those who believe differently.  Through a series of personal revelations, he came to let go of that attitude of certainty and toward an attitude of trust.  As the subtitle implies, his book The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our "Correct" Beliefs, Enns tells his story and encourages other Christians to trust in God, not in their carefully constructed theological systems.

I'm all for intellectual humility, so I felt an immediate connection with his position.  He also writes about being driven from the seminary where he was educated and taught for many years.  A new wave of "theological certainty" took hold at the seminary and didn't deem him certain enough, so he was shown the door.  I felt a further connection with him, as the seminary I attended went through a similar purge while I was there.  After a large number of professors were shown the door or fled on their own volition, I left the Ph.D. program.  So I can relate to his being on the wrong side of theological certainty.

Enns's large theme here is that God wants us to trust him, not our own dogmatism.  Our faith should be in God, not in denomination, biblical interpretation, or confessional statement.  He sums it up like this: "trust means letting go of the need to know, of the need to be certain."  He came to embrace the contemplative traditions in the church, concluding that "trust in God, not correct thinking about God, is the beginning and end of faith, the only true and abiding path."

So far, I'm on board with him.  We see through a glass darkly.  We can't know it all.  But my problem with Enns is his calling out Christians who do have certainty in their traditions.  Can such a tradition "sell God short by keeping the Creator captive to what we are able to comprehend"?  Can a set of beliefs become an idol?  Do some people trust their beliefs more than they trust God?  All of these may be true for some people, in some traditions.

Enns says he's "not against creeds," but his book, for the most part, says otherwise.  What I would like to have heard from him is whether there is anything for which he would claim certainty.  That Jesus is an historical figure?  That he lived and taught as the Bible says?  That he died and was resurrected on the third day?  I suspect Enns would say he's certain about these things.  Is that sinful certainty?  I am not certain.

He also touches on subjects like the problem of evil, the absurdity of believing in a literal creation as told in Genesis, and difficulties with the character of God in the Old Testament.  Unfortunately, he doesn't have very good answers for these questions.  He likes the fact that these questions lead to doubt, which "strips away distraction so we can more clearly see the inadequacies of whom we think God is and move us from the foolishness of thinking that our god is the God."  So whose god is the God?

As much as I felt an affinity for Enns and his perspective, ultimately I came down not liking what he had to say.  He has a very friendly, conversational, even jovial tone, but he's a smiling bomb thrower.  He creates straw men and brings them crashing down.  He has a high degree of tolerance for any theological perspective--except for those who have a low degree of tolerance.  He writes, "I value challenging older orthodoxies and gaining new insights.  That's neither good nor bad in and of itself."  Yet if you are one who values older orthodoxies, and value insights of those who lived many generations before, that's certainly bad.  Enns implies that you may be living in sin!  Certainly.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

2016 Reading Challenge: A book from a theological viewpoint you disagree with

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