“The Sin of Certainty” by Peter Enns
In search of onramps to spiritual sanity
reviewed by John Seel
Children of evangelical parents are at risk. Raised with the belief that the truth can be cornered, they live in a world that suggests quite the opposite. As cultural pressures increase, parents and pastors double down. The kids feel torn and are left without meaningful onramps to a more open and humane framing of faith.
The tripping point for them is the dogmatic religious certainty of their parents and childhood churches. For these young people, as for most millennials today, faith is a fusion of belief and doubt, coupled with skepticism that any one person or group has it all figured out. These children remain open to spiritual reality, but they choke on the way their parents’ transcendent beliefs are packaged. Because church is a risky place to be spiritually honest, their spiritual frustration often morphs into casual disregard or overt hostility once they go to college. While the majority continue to consider themselves Christians after college, they will typically become increasingly disassociated from the church and all forms of organized religion, and most will drift toward functional atheism over time.
A meaningful way to address these children’s doubts would be to give them a copy of Peter Enns’ new book, The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs (HarperOne). Enns is critical of the view that faith equals a prescribed set of beliefs; he finds it problematic when we are “trusting our beliefs rather than trusting God.” He argues, “We have misunderstood faith as a what word rather than a who word—as primarily beliefs about rather than as trust in.” He suggests that we need to relax about passing the proverbial multiple-choice theology exam and learn to trust God even in the midst of doubt, confusion, or anger. To do this requires a “journey of learning to let go.”
The stumbling block is “our Western rational mindset,” characterized by the evangelical church’s left-brain reliance on the assumptions of the Enlightenment. We are increasingly living in a post-Enlightenment world, and Enns suggests that the faster evangelicals catch on to this fact the better. It is unlikely that his book will convince anyone who is invested in Enlightenment views, but those who are existentially open to a better way and who are spiritually frustrated with the status quo will gravitate to the more mature, humble, and humane understanding of faith that Enns demonstrates.
The book provides a meaningful “third way” between unflappable dogmatic certainty and relativistic skepticism. In philosophical terms, it is a welcome depiction of critical realism discipleship that avoids the arrogance of foundationalism and the skepticism of postmodernism. It could be meaningfully read alongside James K.A. Smith’s Whose Afraid of Relativism: Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood (Brazos, 2014). The reason this book is so important for the children of evangelical parents is that it illustrates an ongoing trusting relationship with Jesus that is able to embrace the many problems that the Bible raises for modern readers while acknowledging that God’s ways are often beyond our comprehension.
But there are limits to the influence of such a book. The move from a confident, settled transcendent perspective to a humbler, exploratory transcendent perspective is a major frame shift. People do not normally shift frames based on rational arguments but rather on life experience and the compelling engagement of the imagination. Reason works within frames, and experience and imagination work between frames. This is a book for those who are at drift between frames or are experiencing fundamental doubts about mainstream evangelicalism.
The subtext of this book is the personal pain of Dr. Enns’ removal as a faculty member from Westminster Theological Seminary. This book provides a glimpse of the painful personal back-story in the life of a much loved, relationally sensitive theology professor. It is unlikely that the status-quo evangelical leader will be moved at all by this book. But there is legitimate value here for the status-quo evangelical leader’s disenfranchised children who are looking to find a path back to faith and the church through the example of one who has made the shift and survived to tell the tale.
“Doubt is divine tough love.”
Belief does not come easily to Enns. As he observes, “Some pilgrims live in February.” Every faith step Enns takes involves significant handwringing and angst. He knows that if you live long enough, the winds will blow and the water will rise. “Life’s challenges mock and then destroy a faith that rests on correct thinking and the preoccupation with defending it. And that is a good thing. Life’s challenges clear the clutter so we can see more clearly that faith calls for trust instead.” He adds later, “Doubt is divine tough love.”
Unpacking a long list of potential problems for him and others, Enns illustrates the difficulties of belief through Old Testament exemplars such as Ecclesiastes’ Qohelet and Job. What we don’t find here is simplistic pieties that try to paper over theological challenges with a Sunday-morning smile and a thoughtless appeal to “Jesus.” But while never sugarcoating the difficulties, Enns also never downplays the importance of trust.
The reader might suspect that such a commitment to radical trust is a soft version of existentialism—a leap in the dark without rational basis. But this would be to misread Enns. His charge that intellectual certainty is a sin is not a charge against the intellect, but only against the idolatry of the intellect and the pride that goes with needing to be right. Such an attitude fails to embrace our epistemic limits and our status as creatures. “Here is the temptation,” Enns explains, “we can forget that we are human and delude ourselves into thinking that we can transcend our tiny place in the human drama and see from on high, as God sees.” Acceptance of the transrational is not an acceptance of the irrational, but an embrace of epistemic humility.
“Believing is easy,” Enns writes. “It gives us wiggle room to think our way out of a tight spot. But trust doesn’t have any wiggle room. It explodes it. Trust is about being all in.”
And herein lies freedom. I don’t have to assume that I’m right about everything or that I can figure everything out. But in emphasizing trust over belief, this freedom also involves a weighty responsibility. “Believing is easy,” Enns writes. “It gives us wiggle room to think our way out of a tight spot. But trust doesn’t have any wiggle room. It explodes it. Trust is about being all in.” Faith in this sense is about our whole outlook on life and how we act in it. What we do demonstrates what we trust. We try to say, “I wish I followed what I believe.” In fact, we do—it’s just that believing is much less about talking and much more about walking. “Watch what they do, not what they say” is sage advice.
Affirming trust over belief will set us on an entirely new course, a new understanding of our life’s mission. Enns expands, “Maybe my purpose on earth isn’t to be the thought police first and love others after all their ideas line up as they should. Maybe my first order of business is to risk my own sense of certainty about God and love others where and how they are no matter how they do on my theology exam.” The spiritual life gains an entirely new metaphor: pilgrimage. Enns concludes, “Working on the lifelong habit of cultivating trust has meant learning to express my faith with words that rarely came to mind before, like journey, pilgrimage, and mystery.” This journey will make us a different kind of person, the kind of spiritual person that children of evangelical parents will once again find attractive: “A trust-centered faith will see the world with humble, open, and vulnerable eyes.”
Enns is a worthy exemplar for the coming generation. Out of the pain of his personal history has come a roadmap to a better, accepting, honest, and faithful evangelicalism. This book is an onramp to spiritual sanity.
The former director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation, John Seel is a millennial thought leader, cultural renewal change agent, speaker, author, and consultant.