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.

 

 

August 23, 2011

Students ‘Fess Up To Teacher 15 Years Later

Summer re-runs; what can I say? But a great link list tomorrow, I promise!

A decade and a half ago I was just finishing a one-year part-time contract at the local Christian school, teaching Bible, art, music, language and spelling.

Split grade seven and eight spelling to be precise. A weekly list. A weekly test. The one piece of the job I could farm out to my wife, whose spelling is dead-on accurate. (And proofreading, if you have anything that needs doing.)

This morning we visited the church where, at the time, half of the students in the Christian school attended; and one of them, who was not in my class, informed me that both my wife and I had been had.

Turns out, if they didn’t know how to spell a word, they would simply write down some other correctly spelled word. My wife would mark the word as correct, never suspecting that they were up to something. (And not noticing the variation in words, since she was doing two grades at once.)

Isn’t church like that. We give right answers, not so much to direct questions, but insofar as we say the right things and use the right words and phrases. Even if we’re giving the answer to a question that’s not being asked. (“It sure sounds like a “squirrel” but I think I’m supposed to say “Jesus.” *)

As long as we’re providing responses that are not stained by the messiness of misspellings, we’re given the proverbial red check mark by our church peers. Nobody ever suspects the possibility that they are being had.

We’ve lost the ability to say, “I’m not sure;” or “I don’t know;” or “That’s an issue I’m wrestling with in my own spiritual life.” We’re too proud to say, when we don’t know a particular ‘word,’ something like, “That’s a part of the Bible I’ve never studied;” or “That’s an area of theology I’ve never considered;” or “That’s a particular spiritual discipline that isn’t part of my personal experience.”

So we just give the so-called “right” answers that will get us by. Or we change the subject. Or we say something incredibly complex that has an air of depth to it.

Today I read an article in a newspaper, The Christian Courier which quotes Rob Bell as saying, in reference to his church and preaching style, “…We want to embrace mystery rather than conquer it.” In many churches they want the latter. And if someone does “conquer” all things spiritual, we give them some letters after their name which mean Master of Theology, or Master of Divinity.

Years ago, when our youngest son didn’t know the answer to a question I would ask at our family Bible study, he would just say, “Love?” It was a good guess. (One night it was the right answer.) He figured he couldn’t go wrong with “Love” as the possible answer, though he always raised his voice at the end admitting he wasn’t quite sure.

Well guess what? I haven’t mastered it. I’m working on it. I don’t know.

And I have one more thing to say to all of you: Love?

* One Sunday a pastor was using squirrels for an object lesson for the children. He started, “I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children nodded eagerly.

“This thing lives in trees (pause) and eats nuts (pause)…” No hands went up. “And it is gray (pause) and has a long bushy tail (pause)…” The children were looking at each other nervously, but still no hands raised. “It jumps from branch to branch (pause) and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited (pause)…”

Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The pastor quickly called on him. “Well,” said the boy, “I know the answer must be ‘Jesus’ … but it sure sounds like a squirrel!”


Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.