Thinking Out Loud

November 17, 2016

When Certainty is Sinful

One of the university courses I took was a bit of a tossed salad consisting of music history, the philosophy of music aesthetics, and music appreciation. I learned that in both art and music  every period is somewhat of a reaction to the period that it immediately followed.

The post-war Evangelical era (in North America at least) was marked by the dogmatic fervor of its practitioners; a dogma which is still seen in many fundamentalist quarters. In that world, all is black and white. There is no gray. As my keyboarding teacher made us type, “We must know and know that we know.” Any deviation from the script smacked of liberalism, and the dominant teaching was that liberals were all going to hell.

But then the Evangelical world changed, and moved toward a progressive Evangelicalism for which many were not prepared. Blame was placed on the missional churches (which has Christian, incarnational values as traditional as you can imagine) or the emergent churches (which were simply adopting a mix of traditional and modern forms) when in fact the revolution was more theological. Suddenly it was okay to say we’re not sure about things, and needless to say, this attitude can be upsetting in a world of dogma.

So a few years ago, we had Greg Boyd releasing Benefit of the Doubt which wasn’t surprising (for it to be him that authored it) given that Boyd is a proponent of Open Theology which suggests even God isn’t 100% sure if you’re going to propose to the girl or end the relationship with tonight’s dinner date at Denny’s (but he has every possible sequence in his mind no matter what you do). We had authors suggesting you can still hold on to your faith and believe in evolution. We encountered writers on line who possessed a deep Christian faith in terms of both doctrine and service, but were comfortable identifying as gay or lesbian.

The Christian world was now full of gray.

sin-of-certainty-peter-ennsIt’s into that environment that Peter Enns steps with the release of The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires our Trust More Than our Correct Beliefs (HarperOne). With great irony, the book released a few months ago just as Andy Stanley upset some critics with his The Bible Tells Me So sermon, which is also the title of one of Enns’ other books. While others have defended Stanley online (and I for one feel that if anyone has been paying attention Stanley needs no defence) he pointed out clearly that the skeptic or new believer doesn’t need to sign on to everything in order to believe something; and that by starting with trust in the resurrection of Jesus we can then allow for exposure to a variety of doctrinal positions (or scientific revelations) without the whole of Christianity needing to collapse like a house of cards.

So a book like The Sin of Certainty is very timely. Peter Enns basically catalogs some of the various less-certain elements one might find in the sphere of Christianity, and rather than resolve all of these necessarily, creates a climate where the reader can say, ‘Oh yeah! That’s me! At last someone who gets it.’ Some of the book draws from his personal experiences of dealing with the doubt/certainty continuum, either internally or in his family or academic life.

All this to say the book will resonate with many readers. There were sections I found myself going back and re-reading just to absorb the manner in which the various subjects were presented.

Organizationally however, the book presented four distinct challenges. First, there was the fact that each subsection of each chapter was given a fresh page, which confused me at first as to where the chapters themselves began and ended. I was three chapters in (of nine chapters) before I caught on to the book’s layout and design and gratuitous use of partially blank pages.

Second, the constant references to his 2014 title The Bible Tells Me So made me wish I was reading that book instead, or at least first. The Sin of Certainty is obviously intended as a sequel; the former’s subtitle being, Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.

Third, as I discovered too late, there was a wealth of ideas to consider in the end-notes. An explanation is provided as to why (to keep the flow of the book) these were not page footnotes, but as someone perfectly capable of rabbit-trail distraction, I would like to have considered some of those thoughts in context, rather than catching up later.

Finally, some readers will want to find the page and paragraph where Enns explains why certainty is a sin (or how to obtain forgiveness.) In some ways, this is to miss to whole point of faith-based trust; the book’s title must be seen as hyperbole in some measure. The certainty of the dogmatists must bring them some comfort, but it’s not reality for the average Christian.

That is echoed in the title of Peter Enns’ blog, The Bible for Normal People. As a longtime reader of his online writing, this was the first time I’d enjoyed him in print and I am richer for having read this.


Hardcover; 230 pages. Thanks to Mark at HarperCollins Christian Publishing (Canada) for an opportunity to read the book. More information at HarperOne, also home to writers such has Henri Nouwen, Shane Claiborne, Dallas Willard, Rob Bell, N.T. Wright, and other authors the dogmatists are not particularly fond of. Publisher webpage for this book.

 

 

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