Book Review: Peter Enns, The Sin of Certainty

enns-sin-of-certaintyThe Sin of Certainty is a confessional book about how biblical scholar Peter Enns came to understand “belief” and “faith” less in terms of facts and knowledge, and more in terms of trust and love. Many Christians, Enns says, place being “correct” about God at the center of faith, which sets them on a shaky foundation that sometimes results in crisis and loss of that very belief. Enns speaks from personal experience here. He’s encountered what he calls “uh-oh moments,” times when what he thought he knew no longer seemed viable in the least. Such moments may be God’s way of inviting us to a more nuanced, closer relationship, breaking down the barriers of certainty in order to let faith flourish within our messy human lives:

I feel it is part of the mystery of faith that things normally do not line up entirely, and so when they don’t, it is not a signal to me that the journey is at an end but that I am still on it” (154).

Like his previous book which I reviewed here, The Sin of Certainty is very conversational in tone. Its nine chapters are divided up into sections with pithy titles like “Thanks for Nothing, Walt Disney,” “Parts of the Bible We Don’t Read In Church (But Should),” and “Ever Have One of Those Decades?” The often meandering chapters exemplify the unsettled seeking many people undergo as they reevaluate their faith. But the book has an underlying structure that can be divided roughly into three parts (which tend to intermingle throughout): history, exegesis, and theology.

I.

First, history. Enns describes how Christians became preoccupied by correct thinking through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the rise of Darwinism and biblical criticism, things that rocked status quo ideas about Christianity. Enns describes but doesn’t debunk particular criticisms here, explaining that to offer quick answers risks rescuing our misplaced certainty with more misplaced certainty (150). He wants to help readers understand faith more in terms of trust, to “decouple our faith in God from our thoughts about God. That way faith doesn’t rest on correct thinking” (16). Not that the content of our faith is unimportant:

Let me say again that beliefs themselves are not the problem. Working out what we believe is worthy of serious time and effort in our lives of faith. But our pursuit of having the right beliefs and locking them up in a vault are not the center of faith. Trust in God is. When holding to correct thinking becomes the center, we have shrunk faith in God to an intellectual exercise” (22).

“Belief and faith always have content—a what. But a faith that looks like what the Bible describes is rooted deeply in trust in God (rather than ourselves) and in faithfulness to God by being humbly faithful to others (as the Father and Son have been faithful to us). That’s basically it—though it’s anything but easy” (115. See also the section on p. 187, “Honoring Your Head Without Living In It”).

When certainty is privileged, people become tense about their beliefs, over-protective, and some begin to rigidly police the beliefs of others. By contrast, Enns says strong faith is not faith free of uncertainty, but rather a resolved willingness to keep seeking, learning, and growing (25).

II.

Next, exegesis. Enns discovers in the Bible—especially the Hebrew Bible, his specialty—passages that model a faith that isn’t rooted in certainty or knowledge. The preacher in Ecclesiastes, many of the Psalms, Job, and other passages are highlighted where people express doubt and even anger toward God. The Bible, Enns argues, models a complex variety of approaches to faith. This takes pressure off today’s believers who otherwise feel they must be certain and dogmatic in order to justify their beliefs:

Feeling like God is far away, disinterested, or dead to you is part of our Bible and can’t be brushed aside. And that feeling—no matter how intense it may be, and even offensive as it may seem—is never judged, shamed, or criticized [in the Bible] by God” (60).

Enns’s exegesis helps him discover different voices in the Bible, making room for a variety of experiences—including frustration and doubt—within the life of faith, in the experiences of believers. “The Bible,” he writes, “is less an instruction manual and more an internal dialogue, even debate, among people of faith about just who this God is they are dealing with” (70). Enns says he didn’t hear nearly enough of this in his years at church.

III.

Finally, drawing on the New Testament Enns outlines a theology of faith patterned after the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul speaks of believers dying to themselves and being raised in Christ, of being “conformed to the image of God’s son” (Romans 8.29). Jesus speaks of taking up one’s cross and following him (a cross is something you die on, Enns says, it’s not just a weight exercise). Enns suggests that for many people, faith itself undergoes this transition of death and resurrection repeatedly: “Doubt signals that this process of dying and rising is underway.” For many, it happens naturally. People don’t need to seek it out; doubt isn’t “cool, hipster, or chic. Doubt isn’t a new source of pride…Doubt is sacred,” an instrument God may use to pull a believer away from their misconceptions, a way to teach Christians how to reach out to each other with greater love and support (164).

The book concludes with personal stories of Enns wrestling with family problems and work difficulties over the past decade or so, a period when in the midst of his own crushing doubt he discovered deeply rooted Christian thinking about God’s absence, about the “dark night of the soul.” The believer’s time of despair is like Christ crying out on the cross, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” Paul tells believers they’ll “share in Christ’s sufferings” (Philippians 3.10), and that in suffering with him “we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8.17). While Enns acknowledges there are greater and lesser degrees of suffering in the world and that doubts don’t take top billing, it provides an opportunity to commune with Jesus in a way that will ultimately turn our hearts outward to others who are in pain:

When we are in despair or fear and God is as far away from us as the most distant star in the universe, we are at that moment ‘with’ Christ more than we know—and perhaps more than we ever have been—because when we suffer, we share in and complete Christ’s sufferings” (200).

In Sum

The Sin of Certainty is a much-needed and striking critique of contemporary Christian culture. It has a lot to offer Mormons who similarly prize certainty, though not always about the same things as our Christian counterparts. (Patrick Mason’s Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt is a helpful LDS companion to Enns’s book. Full disclosure: I edited that one.) Enns’s book is an invitation to re-center one’s faith. If believers place trust in the image of God they have in their own minds, they risk creating an idol that overshadows the true and living God who is knowable in part, but who is ultimately beyond any human’s full comprehension. Remaining open to that living God requires an extraordinary amount of trust, but learning to exercise this kind of trust is the only way to stop committing the “sin of certainty.”

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P.S.— Listen to my MIPodcast interview with Enns about his previous book The Bible Tells Me So here. I’ll talk with him about The Sin of Certainty in an upcoming episode. 

Comments

  1. Sounds great. The description here sounds very much like the way I have personally come to see faith over the past several years.

    From the perspective of LDS scriptures, in particular, I would suggest that faith as a gospel principle is never just an abstract concept, it is always presented in the context of repentance and atonement. If your faith leads you to repentance, it’s good, whether it is ultimately correct or not, and the beautiful thing is that even if it’s not correct, if it leads you to repentance, than the result of that will be the Holy Ghost, which will eventually lead you to truth. On other other hand, if your faith doesn’t lead you to repentance, even if your concept of God is correct, it is no good.

    In that context, faith is about trusting Jesus–specifically, about trusting Jesus’ ability and willingness to reconcile us with God. Maybe it’s the medievalist in me talking, but I also think faith has a lot to do with loyalty. That is, it’s not about possessing faith in God, it’s about keeping faith with God.

  2. Clark Goble says:

    One thing to keep in mind is that this higher level discussion presupposes views at the epistemological level about evidence. Reformed epistemology, which has been popular the last few decades, has a focus on how one can be rational (typically in a Christian context) without evidence. That is the premise for a lot of Christian faiths presupposes there is no real empirical evidence. Those premises then have a huge impact on how one views faith.

    I’m not saying in the least there isn’t a lot to learn here. There is. And Alma 32 also makes a distinction between faith and knowledge. But Alma also adopts a strong position of evidence tied to faith and finally presupposes that knowledge is possible.

    While faith, as typically used, is trust without full knowledge, one has to be careful to unpack what we mean. (Not speaking about this book specifically since I’ve not read it)

  3. BHodges says:

    JKC: I like your framing of faith that way.

    Clark: Pete’s writing for a popular audience here, speaking to how people experience faith and how the ways we talk about faith influence our expectations about what faith needs to be in ways that can actually be detrimental to it. I don’t think he’s eschewing “evidence,” although he notes that evidence for the two most important claims of Christianity (the Incarnation and resurrection) isn’t what we might otherwise prefer. Enns’s evidence pertains to numinous experiences he has had and the fruits of living according to the gospel’s law of love. He warns that more rationally based evidences can become hammers with which we harm fellow Christians and they can become obstacles to our own personal growth in Christ.

  4. Thanks, Blair. Good stuff. We Mormons, perhaps even more than our Christian friends, are addicted to certainty. We claim to have a “testimony” about everything under the sun, but we talk very little about our beliefs and about our faith. In my ward, every young man or woman who advances in either the priesthood or Young Women is asked to take the mic for a minute to bear his or her testimony. If I’d been asked as a teenager to bear my testimony to a congregation, I wouldn’t have known what to say. I’m getting to that point again as I age. The older I get and the more I learn, the less I “know.” And don’t get me going on all the little kids who stand up and repeat mindlessly “I wanna bear my testimony and I know the Church is true.” They don’t even know what the word “know” means, or the word “testimony.” Do we adults?

  5. BHodges says:

    Wally, I’d love to see an institutional shift in the language of “bearing testimony.” A shift away from declaring a number of propositional truths, toward speaking of the ways that we bear our testimonies, that is, the ways our beliefs inform our actions, how faith and works go together, how living the gospel law of love begins to change us, and we bear it in our flesh, in our heart, in our mind. That is what it means to me to bear my testimony now.

  6. Clark Goble says:

    Bhodges, right. I’m just saying that in a Mormon context the discourse is quite different since fundamentally Mormonism is all about a certain kind of evidence. That is the project of Ennis is somewhat alien to the Mormon tradition. I’m definitely not saying there’s no overlap. Just that what one finds in most mainline Christianity is quite different. That has big implications for the meaning of faith (IMO).

  7. Great review! I read this book about a month ago and so much of it resonated with me, challenged me and filled me with hope. Thanks, again.

  8. “I’m just saying that in a Mormon context the discourse is quite different since fundamentally Mormonism is all about a certain kind of evidence.”

    To say Mormonism is fundamentally about a particular kind of evidence risks glossing over intrareligious differences. Yes, there are some differences between types of evidence, weights given to evidence, what have you, but at root, if Mormonism is about God then the advice Enns offers other Christians can be applied fairly equally by Mormons.

  9. I don’t think understand what it means to say that Mormonism is all about a certain kind of evidence. Does this mean that Mormonism is all about personal revelation, while other churches are all about biblical evidence? Something else?

  10. Clark Goble says:

    Well it’s hard to discuss that in this context without having read the book. I’ll simply say that there’s a huge difference between a discussion of God for whom there’s no evidence and a discussion where the focus is in God manifesting himself in an evidentiary way to individuals so they can know. The fact both are about God kind of misses the nature of how God is discussed.

    JKC, I don’t think Mormons are unique in the least in seeing there being personal revelation, continuing miracles or the like. A lot of Evangelicals, even though we may disagree on other things, agree upon those. Indeed a lot of that connection goes back to the nature of Joseph Smith’s environment which led him to believe God does answer prayers. As historians have noted Joseph is hardly the only one to believe he had a vision.

    My point is just that how most (not all) mainline faiths view it tends to be rather different. (Even forms of mainline Christianity that in Joseph’s time were much more open to more direct evidence) This leads to a very different way of conceiving and discussing God.

    The question of how one interprets such experiences presupposes that such experiences are even possible. That’s really all I’m saying.

    With regards to Enns’ thesis I can’t say too much. Most of what I’ve read by him relates to Biblical hermeneutics issues rather than more fundamental epistemological questions. I recognize to talk hermeneutics is to talk about a kind of epistemological questioning – but in the book BHodges is reviewing it seems more focused on religious knowing in broader terms.

    I should note that Enns’ hermeneutic notion of scripture as incarnation is quite powerful. Various Mormons have made similar points. (Think Faulconer’s “Scripture as Incarnation” for instance) Likewise I think a mature faith has to acknowledge missing pieces and hypothesis that don’t quite line up. We may know something is wrong but not which part is wrong. Likewise I fully agree with Enns that a kind of scriptural naive hermeneutics compounded with illegitimate certainty in ones readings can lead to a slew of problems. Finally I think dealing with the theology of an absent or silent God must be engaged with. I’ve written on that often.

    All that said, particularly with that last point, there’s a big difference between the concerns of someone coming to God only via tradition and the Biblical text and a belief in active revelation and divine intervention in an active way. Again that’s all I’m really saying. That difference is quite important.

  11. Brother Sky says:

    Agree with Wally’s and others’ comments about the “certain” language of testimony. When someone says “I know the church is true,” I always want to ask: “How?” Not in a flippant way, but in a genuine, curious way, because I don’t know the church is true. I don’t even know what it means to say “the church is true.” I just try to stumble along the best I can, hoping that things work out for the best. That’s it. For a group of people who say they can have faith in something that isn’t able to be proven empirically, we use the words “know” and “knowledge” a lot. To our detriment, I think. And of course, it’s this kind of black and white approach (“knowing” the church is true means either you know it or you don’t, making it about certainty, thus taking faith out of the equation) that leads to the black and white thinking responsible for so much damage done both to the church itself and to a lot of members who have either already left or are on the fence. We just need to stop with this “knowing” stuff.

  12. FarSide says:

    “He warns that more rationally based evidences can become hammers with which we harm fellow Christians and they can become obstacles to our own personal growth in Christ.”

    Gee, that sounds awfully familiar.

  13. Lots of keepers in this one, BHodges–both in the book and the review. “If believers place trust in the image of God they have in their own minds, they risk creating an idol that overshadows the true and living God who is knowable in part, but who is ultimately beyond any human’s full comprehension.” I’m trying to figure out how to work that one into my next Sunday School lesson.

  14. BHodges says:

    Thanks, Lisa T

  15. Angela C says:

    Blair, you keep increasing my reading list. I appreciate the overview. This one looks like a great read.

  16. Clark Goble says:

    FarSide, that’s the line that bothers me a great deal I confess. There’s no doubt that “facts” (which often aren’t) can be used to bludgeon others. I don’t think that means they don’t matter. Think of some of the debates where politics and science meet. Lots of the science side unfortunately preach to those already convinced and bludgeon non-believers. (Think say alternative medicine and other types of pseudoscience like anti-vaccines) That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a great deal of value in truth and facts to improve life. Just that how humans deal with facts can be counterproductive.

  17. I agree, Clark, though I think the problem is particularly acute where religion is concerned since what a devout believer often asserts to be factual (e.g., the historicity of the Book of Mormon) lacks a strong evidentiary foundation and, in many instances, is without factual basis at all. Rather, it is frequently based on a spiritual manifestation that was either experienced by the proponent or one of the leaders of his faith—something that cannot be empirically confirmed by a third party.

    I, for one, do not believe that the Book of Mormon is historically accurate nor do I believe that the First Vision account that appears in the P of GP is what Joseph actually experienced. And yet I do believe they are both inspired writings containing many valuable truths. Sadly, many of my fellow saints are not content to accept me on those terms and will brand me a heretic if I publicly voice these views.

  18. Melanie` says:

    Thank you. I just ordered it and am excited to read it. I also look forward to your upcoming interview!