The Sin of Certainty, with Peter Enns [MIPodcast #54]
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BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Perhaps you’ve experienced moments of doubt about your faith. Or maybe you’re one of the people who finds doubt to be more of a frequent companion in your spiritual life. Biblical scholar Peter Enns suggests that part of the problem is many Christians have come to prize certainty as a hallmark of true faith in God. His new book is called The Sin of Certainty. Drawing on history, scripture, and personal experiences, Enns argues that believers can handle the most difficult questions if they stop needing to be right all the time and instead focus more on trusting God. “Doubt,” he writes, “is only the enemy of faith when we equate faith with certainty.”
The book is The Sin of Certainty, the author is Peter Enns, on this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and don’t forget to rate the show in iTunes.
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HODGES: We’re here with Peter Enns. He’s the Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He’s a nationally recognized speaker. He’s written a number of books including Inspiration and Incarnation which recently had a ten-year anniversary and was published in a new edition. We’ve spoken with him before on the podcast about his book The Bible Tells Me So, but today we’re talking about his new book The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than our Correct Beliefs. Thanks for taking the time to do this, Pete.
PETER ENNS: Sure Blair, yeah. Have you told the good people where we are right now?
HODGES: We’re actually in the Guest House of Brigham Young University.
ENNS: I am on Brigham Young University’s Campus. Can you believe that?
HODGES: It’s called the Garden room—
ENNS: The Garden room, yeah. But never been to Utah before let alone—
ENNS: Yeah. Let alone Brigham Young. So here I am.
HODGES: You’re right in the heart of it.
ENNS: Heart of something…
HODGES: Alright. So. And we’ve talked before. Last time we talked The Bible Tells Me So had just come out.
HODGES: A lot of people really enjoy that episode. This book, seems to be—rather than talking as much about the Bible itself, it’s more about Christian faith. I wouldn’t call it a spiritual autobiography, but there are a lot of autobiographical moments in the book. It seems like a really personal book.
You started out, innocently enough, you’re on an airplane. You’re heading home from an academic conference and the flight offers various movies and so you choose a Disney movie, it’s got to be innocuous. You’re not expecting a severe spiritual “gut check” but nevertheless that’s what happens.
ENNS: [laughs] Yeah. It was a book turned into a movie, The Bridge to Terabithia. And there’s one scene—not to drag the whole scene out— but there was one scene where three kids are basically talking about hell [chuckles]. And one of the characters, she’s a 5th Grader, she didn’t grow up in religious home and her two friends are pretty much from fundamentalist homes.
And they’re talking about how Christianity is scary and God’s going to get you if you do something wrong, and you’ve got to read your Bible every day, and you gotta go to church, and she had never been at church before. She went to church with them this one time. And she actually loved it. She didn’t really care too much for the hellfire and brimstone but she actually liked the experience. But one of the characters said, “No! It’s scary. This is like—”
HODGES: It’s not supposed to be a fun time for you in church—
ENNS: No! God will damn you to hell if you don’t read your Bible. And the other character said, “Yeah. I don’t believe that God damns people to hell. He’s too busy running all of this.” And she looks up at the sky and it’s a beautiful day, and the trees and the wind and all that.
And everybody has a moment in their lives—and I’ve had many of these—but this is just a particular moment in an airplane where, I guess in the back on my mind I had been thinking to myself, “My goodness. Does God really do that to people? Is that what God is really like?” And she was articulating something for me that I wasn’t really at a place to articulate for myself and it sort of caught me unawares because she’s a 5th Grader in a Disney movie and having—
HODGES: [laughs] Right. You’re a Bible professor.
ENNS: I’m a professor. Yes. Oh, I write books and I have the PhD and all that, right. And that was just—it’s one of these moments that’s illustrative of something bigger which is like moments catch you off guard in life. And they sort of prick little holes in the balloons of our faith that we have, where we set up these ironclad systems that we’re certain of. I’m certain of my theology. I’m certain of what I believe.
But then life happens and it could be something like a movie on an airplane, you know, that you’re not expecting. And all of the sudden you’re not so sure anymore. And you start thinking and questioning which can be unsettling and even a little bit threatening.
HODGES: And you talk a little bit about some of the other types of “uh-oh” moments, you’ve met people describing moments they’ve had like this where they’ve read books or they’ve met someone in their life. What are some other examples of “uh-oh” moments that you’ve learned about?
ENNS: Yeah, a few years ago I took a survey on my website, on my blog, and I just asked people “give me one or two things that make it hard for you to stay Christian, like things that just whatever it is, it doesn’t matter.” And basically, a lot of the answers boiled down to something to do with the Bible but I got—I think at the end of the day it was probably around three hundred responses and I just collated them. And I came up with categories.
And a big one is the violence of God in the Old Testament especially, but there’s some in the New Testament as well. You know, “What kind of a God is this?” And people are dropping like flies for all sort of reasons.
HODGES: The flood story is an obvious one that comes to mind—
ENNS: The flood story, the sixth chapter of the Bible and already God’s had it! His patience has run out and everybody dies. And you have in Deuteronomy, a chapter of very long over-the-top punishments for disobedience, including “you’re going to eat your children” and things like that. And the conquest of Canaan, the extermination of the Canaanites which I talked about.
HODGES: Yeah. Don’t take anybody alive, yeah.
ENNS: Yeah. It’s things like that that just throw people. And another one is the Bible and Science, and how—We explain our reality pretty well in scientific terms, but the Bible explains reality very differently. There are storehouses in heaven that drop down hell and rain and—
HODGES: Sort of like a snow globe situation, right?
ENNS: Right, yeah. [chuckles]
HODGES: Except the water is outside [laughs].
ENNS: The water is outside, yeah. Obviously, it’s things like creation and the age of the universe versus how the Bible looks at it. But it’s also things like Neurobiology and how we can explain how the brain works a little bit better. We don’t know everything about the brain, certainly, but we seem to be able to recreate in laboratories the brain sensations of things like worship and love and things like that. Or people are depressed or anxious and they take some sort of medication that brings them back to reality where they able to pray again, things like that.
So you ask yourself, “What does is it mean to be human?” And the Bible uses language of sin. And that’s a topic of long discussion on what sin even means in the Bible, but it uses the language of sin whereas therapists today may talk about dysfunction or not functioning well, not coping well and things like that. And that seems to help a lot of people. So, people have this feeling like, “the way the Bible talks about reality and the human experience it just doesn’t match with how I live every day.”
HODGES: There was also the part in that same survey—a cluster of the responses—you refer to it as “falling branches.” What was that section about?
ENNS: Yeah. God seems to be totally absent or disinterested in our problems. And this was another one of these moments that struck me. It might have been like ten or twenty years ago, but on the news a woman was jogging down a path and she was listening on her headphones and she had one of those portable CD players—that tells how long ago this was—but she was jogging and a branch broke off from the tree and fell down and hit her on the head and killed her instantly. And you think had she left five seconds earlier or later, that wouldn’t have happened. It seems like almost timed, like what are the chances of that happening? And I started Googling “branches falling on people” and it’s like it happens a lot, pretty, pretty often.
But I just remember thinking like, “Where’s God in this? Did he make this happen?” like some people think. Like “it’s for the good” that this happened? Or did he not make it happen, he just sort of lets it happen? Well that doesn’t help either, right?
HODGES: Yeah. Could he have intervened? Why didn’t he—
ENNS: Why not? Right. And we pray all the time that God gives us a parking space at the mall. How about this?
HODGES: —find your keys—
ENNS: Yeah [chuckles] exactly. So, it’s things like that that. I guess I put it another way, God’s apparent absence in human suffering which everybody experiences sooner or later. So, yeah.
HODGES: That’s the falling branches one. Another one you talked about is “when Christians eat their own.” This is something else that respondents to your survey talked about as an obstacle to their faith.
ENNS: It’s a big one. And it’s the only one that we can actually control. I’ve known over the years many Christians who have functionally left any sort of semblance of the Christian faith because of how they were treated by other Christians—especially Christians in power whether in churches or elsewhere. And yeah, I mean, that just reminds me of how community oriented the Christian faith is. It’s not individualistic. You actually need people, and you can see the face of God in others, when you love other people and they love you God’s presence is with you. But the other side of that is when there’s just plain old pettiness and meanness and politicking and slander and—I’m not exaggerating, really trying to ruin people’s lives in the name of Jesus. And that makes people say, they’re just, “I’m going to walk away from this.” Now, you might think that’s illogical because they don’t represent the Christian faith and I think that way too. Like I don’t want people like that to define what I think about the Christian faith.
But still, when you’re caught in the middle of those kinds of things, it’s a reminder to me of how powerful the notion of Christian community is. And it can make or break it. And that’s Paul’s big thing, in my opinion. Like in Romans, for example, it’s about the community of believers of Jews and Gentiles together as one, because if you don’t do that, if you can’t pull that off, you’re demonstrating that the gospel simply doesn’t work, right?
HODGES: Oh, yeah. And it seems like one of his driving—
ENNS: Absolutely. “The people of God.” Right.
HODGES: Yeah. In another [MIPodcast] episode with Elizabeth Drescher, she talked about a Christian woman who had been abused in a church situation. In fact, she had been put into a prayer circle and they physically hit her—sort of an exorcism type of thing. And she lost her faith subsequently. And she got to a place where she couldn’t pray because it would make her feel sick—
HODGES: —It would feel these feelings. But she still had this desire to pray. She wished that she could. And it reminded me of when you eat a meal and it makes you sick.
ENNS: Yes. You can’t eat that again.
HODGES: You can’t eat it. And that’s what I thought about it as I read that part of the book.
ENNS: Or also maybe like post-traumatic stress disorders, because it is, and actually undoes you and it’s hard to go back. You want to find a different kind of community at that point—and not a religious one, or maybe not a Christian one, so.
HODGES: Those are the unforced errors, right, of Christianity, where those are—like you said—the things that we can have a little bit more control over than a falling branch.
ENNS: Right. Right. It’s the only thing we can control. And that’s why I think it’s like it’s the worst one, in a sense, of those “Uh-oh” moments that people have with the Christian faith.
HODGES: And as you talk about in the book, people can have different “uh-oh” moments at different times in their lives.
HODGES: And back to that airplane where you had this one where you see this young girl talking about God in a way that you as a Christian and an educated Christian, caught you up short. And you talked about these “uh-oh” moments as something that “threatens familiar ways of believing and thinking about God.” And a lot of times when those moments happen, you might feel your stomach drop and people put up a wall. What kind of reactions do people have to these “uh-oh” moments?
ENNS: I mean, often when you feel like your familiar faith is slipping away, what you want to do is gather it back and stuff it back in the box. Because you want to get back to that way of having faith, that familiar way, which is “yeah I pretty much know what I believe and here’s what it is and I’m very confident about it and feel pretty certain about it.”
HODGES: Maybe in the past it’s got you through something difficult—
ENNS: It probably has. Exactly. And that’s why it’s not that the faith is bad or something, but right now it’s not working. And the reaction, the tendency is to want to fix it. It’s broken, let’s glue it back together. The wall has lost some bricks, let’s put those bricks back in and mortar it properly. Let’s get it back to the way it was before.
And, the theme of the book and probably the main point of it, the thesis of it, is that the deep desire to go backwards and to rebuild what you lost—that might not be the way to go. These moments might actually push us forward to a different kind of faith. And I would say a deeper faith. And I would also say maybe even a more mature faith. And these “uh-oh” moments are ones that actually push us maybe to go further in our journey.
People sometimes feel like, “Well I don’t want to leave God behind.” You might not be leaving God behind; you might be leaving how you think about God behind. And maybe now it’s time for another dimension, I guess, of faith where you’re not clinging to that idea of God—that notion of God that may very well have been important to you in an earlier time in life but now it might be time to move on to something else.
HODGES: Yeah. You certainly invite people to re-frame “uh-oh” moments. So I think a lot of readers will recognize what you mean by “uh-oh” moment. Never heard it phrased that way but I instantly recognize the phenomenon of it. And you invite readers to re-frame it as a “God moment” instead. And not a God moment—as you said—as a return to Eden almost.
HODGES: You’ve stepped out of the garden to get that point in a way.
ENNS: Yeah [chuckles]. Yeah. So it’s not a return to the way things were. That’s what I mean by the title “The Sin of Certainty” because it’s not that feeling certain is wrong or sinful or anything. But it’s the need—it’s a pre-occupation, almost and a need to get that certainty back. That’s the sin part. And I don’t mean so much, you’re making God wrathful against you, but it’s not functional, it’s not the best way to live. That you might even be seeing in these moments God’s presence, but just in a different way, and leading you into something deeper and better.
HODGES: The title itself is pretty provocative especially for Christians—and I think within the Latter-day Saint tradition as well—there’s a great emphasis placed on knowledge and on certainty, frankly. This idea that you have the truth and you know to live according to it, and any difficulties you encounter are based on not living up to that truth—
HODGES: —And this framing it as sin—it’s provocative. So walk me through a little bit more about the reason for framing it in this provocative way of “The Sin of Certainty.”
ENNS: I mean, I think, as you just said, we tend to think of our faith as a body of truth that we hold to intellectually. And I think real faith is much deeper than that, actually. It’s about trusting God—which is the subtitle—trusting God more than holding on to correct beliefs. Because trusting is more difficult, I think, than having a set of beliefs. It’s easy to construct a system of thinking and you can keep that together for a very long time. Now, eventually, life happens, and then what happens with that faith system? You start questioning it or even worse, you ignore what’s happening to you and you just keep playing a game like it’s okay.
Like a boyfriend or girlfriend who really isn’t good for you and a jerk, but you keep making believe like the relationship is really working well.
ENNS: It’s like playing make believe and I don’t think God wants us to play make believe. So we move forward in an attitude of trust in God rather than feeling like we have to be certain about everything, because often times we’re not.
And “weak faith” is usually equated with doubting. And I simply don’t think that’s the case. I think doubt is part of the journey of faith. It’s part of what actually helps us grow, I think. Because I think it’s hard to have genuine faith in God and trust God when everything is always working smoothly. It’s the pain and the suffering, I think, that move us to a closer sense of feeling God’s presence in our lives.
HODGES: One of the hard things about that idea is it’s especially hard to communicate that to someone who’s right smack dab in the middle of an “uh-oh” moment, or in a moment of suffering. Because, for example let’s say someone is experiencing the death of a loved one—
HODGES: —And the last thing I’d want to do is to tell them, “Well, you know, this is an invitation to know God better.” Like I don’t want that invitation [laughs].
ENNS: I wouldn’t do that. Yeah [laughs]. That’s the kind of thing people have to come to a realization of on their own at some point. And I don’t say that lightly because terrible things happen to people that—including people who responded to my survey. Some things they said, I said “I can’t believe I’m reading this,” and they’re still Christian but they’re a different kind of Christian at this point because of those experiences.
So, it’s not like a cheap trick, like “Hey. Here’s how you get over the hump! Hey, God’s asking you to trust him more!”
HODGES: Yeah, yeah.
ENNS: No, you actually have to feel. That suffering has to be deep for some people. And that may take a long, long, long time. And again, I don’t say that lightly. This isn’t a how-to self-help book. It’s trying to describe a very common experience among Christians who—things happen to them. They don’t have the certainty they use to have and they feel like they’re broken, like they’re not “super Christian” anymore. They don’t have their acts together. They’ve been told their whole lives, “You gotta know what you believe.”
See, and that’s when things happen to people, if they’re raised in that mentality, they’re going to look at these “uh-oh” moments as almost entirely negative. But I think people who might have been raised differently as Christians—to just let it be and you don’t have to be have omniscient perfect knowledge to be a Christian. You can have doubts. I think they’re more set up, actually, to be more flexible maybe when these things happen. And actually at some point, maybe with the encouragement of good friends and family members, to—”where is God in all this?” and then to move forward with that.
HODGES: It seems to me this idea has to be baked deeper into the Christian story in general. I guess it’s gets to my earlier question about how you can’t drop this in somebody’s lap when they’re right in the middle of an “uh-oh” moment. But if you’re understanding of Christianity already has this mentality baked into it, then perhaps you’re ready to take that step, and instead of seeing doubt as a lack of faith, to see it as an invitation instead.
HODGES: If you’ve been set up to understand that that could happen, you’re going to be better off than if you expect faith to be certainty.
ENNS: Right. And then you can be with those people in their suffering.
And you know, I heard Rachel Held Evans—I’ve heard her speak a couple of times, she came to Eastern last year, and I think it was there or some other venue. But she relayed a story about anointing the sick, and how she always thought it was so you would be healed. No, it’s being anointed for taking a journey.
So, for example, if you’re raised, then, with a different kind of Christian faith that accepts ambiguity and understands that doubt is not the opposite of faith—certainty is the opposite of faith—if you’re raised with that and then you go through a very difficult experience that really tests and tries your faith, you can have people anoint you for that journey that you’re on. I mean, literally anoint you, and that’s a different way of looking at it than burying it and not talking about it because you’re going to feel embarrassed because—
HODGES: Or if like, “oh I received a blessing. I was anointed. I need to pocket this doubt now because that blessing needs to work, so I’m just gonna—
ENNS: Yeah [laughs]. I think the psychological games that happen with people when they don’t feel they can be honest about their experience of faith, I think it’s very debilitating. And that comes from, I think, the need to feel certain because you’ve been taught that a strong faith is a faith that doesn’t waver. That’s certain. Always certain.
HODGES: There’s this really striking quote in the book where you say, “Church is too often the most risky place to be spiritually honest.” Expand on that a little bit for people who aren’t just familiar with the type of congregations that you’ve participated in.
ENNS: It’s hard because it’s embarrassing. You lose face if you—In share time at church or in a small group meeting, you might say, “Yeah, I’m really struggling because I’m looking for a job.” or something, or “my neighbor is sick, we’ll be praying for them,” but you don’t always say, “None of this make sense to me no more”—
HODGES: Or like “I’m not sure there’s an afterlife,” or any sort of big question—
ENNS: Yeah exactly. Something really, really big. And it’s like “I’m not sure if there is a God,” Right? And—
HODGES: I don’t feel God and I’m—
ENNS: “I haven’t felt God for years.” I mean, I got many responses like that. “I’ve been praying; I haven’t felt God’s presence for twenty or thirty years.”
So, I mean and to be able to say that in church, ideally that’s exactly where you should be saying that. But if the church is oriented around, “Okay everybody has their notes about what to believe and what not to believe. We’re all ready to go. Let’s go out in to life and just follow these rules and everything will be fine.” That’s why it’s risky, because they’ll feel ostracized perhaps. People look at them sort of funny, like they crossed a line, they were too honest or something. And I just think that’s a shame.
HODGES: Or it’s almost an infected kind of a thing like—
ENNS: Yeah. “We don’t want you near us” [laughs].
HODGES: —when you say that, other people might start thinking stuff too.
ENNS: Right. “And now you’ve ruined everything.” No! You ruined it all by setting it up this way or—
HODGES: [laughs] Yeah we set it up wrong maybe. Yeah.
ENNS: I mean, the church is supposed to be more of a hospital than just a place, a country club where everybody has their acts together and everybody is successful in their faith.
HODGES: Have you experienced that personally? In the book—we’ll talk about a little bit more later on about some of the difficulties that you went through—and as you’re going through those things, did you sense a sense of loneliness or alienation?
ENNS: Um…No, not me as much, in terms of talking to people, I think, just because the church context was much more open and accepting about things. But I can certainly see where people might have felt alienated and alone. But yeah, and some of my stuff was related to work issues and was sort of public anyway so people knew about it [laughs], I couldn’t really hide it if I wanted to.
HODGES: Yeah. You published a book that caused controversy at the university that you were at. There were questions about your orthodoxy. You ended up actually over time leaving that university—
HODGES: —and it was a painful situation, so it already was public for you.
ENNS: Yeah. Yeah it was. It’s a different kind of thing.
HODGES: Yeah. That makes sense. That’s Pete Enns. We’re talking about his book The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our Correct Beliefs.
How did Christians come to see faith as correct thinking to begin with? What are some of the things that led to that sort of thinking?
ENNS: I think in a nutshell at least—I can’t talk about the whole history of the world here but—
HODGES: [laughs] Let’s start in Genesis 1. Yeah…
ENNS: [laughs] Right. “It all began—there was darkness and—” But I think looking at the contemporary Christian scene in America, let’s say the more conservative Evangelical or fundamentalist churches that really market certainty and surety and clarity about your faith, I think a lot of that stems from about the last couple hundred years in America, and especially the 19th century. There was a time at least in American Christianity where you didn’t have as many challenges to certainty. But then things like evolution or Biblical archaeology, or what they called “higher criticism” from European countries towards the Bible, that sort of—
HODGES: Shifting moral sensibilities too? Things like slavery for example?
ENNS: Exactly. Yeah. I mean, that’s a whole other dimension there too. Those are things that affected how people felt they could be sure about their faith. Because you see, certainty is really founded on one thing: what does the Bible say, right? And when the Bible starts getting complicated…like most people agree that the earth is millions of years old and the universe many more millions of years old, and that life evolved and that our planet evolved and the solar system and the universe evolved. And those are pretty compelling explanations for most people. The Bible doesn’t present it that way, right? So, things like that would sort of threaten people’s faith because it threatened their confidence that the Bible is giving them certain sure information they could hold on to.
When that gets threatened what you tend to do is you fight back. You want to hold on tightly to that. Again, that’s sort of an institutional manifestation of the sin of certainty. That’s why you have Bible colleges and Bible seminaries popping up in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, and that legacy is still very much with us today in the Evangelical institutions and churches.
HODGES: And an irony that you point out is these institutions often adopt the very assumptions that are causing the problems to begin with. There’s a “fundamentalism” and “modernism” as kind of two sides of the same coin in a sense.
ENNS: Right. They both assume that God should work a certain way, which is downloading information to us that we can hang on to and be certain about, specifically in the Bible. And when that seem to not be the case, the modernists—also called liberals—they said, “Well, I guess none of the stuff is really that true and forget about it.” But the fundamentalists made the same mistake, they just went a different direction. They said, “No. God has to be giving us this pure certain information and he would never lie to us.” And so, you spend your whole life fighting against—
HODGES: And you’ll work to make it fit, like, “no, this can fit.”
ENNS: You have to make it fit. Right, yeah. Despite, let’s say, information and evidence to the contrary from the outside. So, a lot of this, it really does come down to the Bible. It usually does for Protestants at least anyway; it comes down to the Bible. What does it mean to read it well? What kind of information is it giving us? And if you think of the Bible as God’s “field guide manual to life” where, everything in there, you take it as always and forever applicable and true and giving you pure certainty about life, that I think is what runs you into problems later on.
HODGES: Yeah. So what your book does after that is it goes through some of these—you identify “four punches” that were delivered to Christians. Three gut punches, one punch to the jaw. Darwinism, historical criticism, and these type of things. And if people want to hear more about that in our previous interview we went through those and it’s also discussed in The Bible Tells Me So as well as this new book, so we’ll let people check that out there.
HODGES: Instead, we’ll go right to this very fascinating part of this book, this is new, these are “Bible passages that we don’t read in church but we should.”
ENNS: Yeah. I think one of the nicest things for people to hear who are actually struggling with their faith is that the Bible is full of examples [laughs] of people struggling with their faith.
HODGES: People are surprised to hear that.
ENNS: It’s in the Bible!
HODGES: Right? [laughs]
ENNS: I know! It’s amazing. So I give a couple of examples. One is Psalm 88, which is the most negative Psalm. I mean, there’s a whole classification of Psalms called “Lament Psalms” because they’re lamenting, because they’re sad, they’re frustrated. “Where are you God when we need you? You’re absent. You’re nowhere to be found.” And Psalm 88 is one of those two.
It’s like, “I’m on my knees praying to you day and night. You’re not listening. I don’t know what to do. My friends are against me. You set my friends against me. And I’m praying anyway but still you don’t answer.” And the Psalm ends with, “my companions are darkness”…Which is a really moving thing. Like the only friends he has left, the only comrades he has around him is the darkness that he finds himself in. And unlike most other Psalms it doesn’t have a pick-me-up after. It just ends that way. And I think it’s just brilliant that the Bible has these honest expressions.
And, I mean, the book of Psalms—also called “the Psalter”—was compiled at some point in time, and there’s a lot of fluidity and different kinds of—even around the time of Jesus, the Psalms weren’t completely settled yet. But somebody picked these Psalms to stay—
ENNS: —And I think because they actually reflect Israel’s experience with God. And I think Psalm 89 is even better, the one right after that, because here the Psalmist is taking God to task for not following through on a very specific promise, which—
HODGES: It’s an indictment here.
ENNS: —It’s an indictment. He’s actually calling God a liar, saying, “You said this. Now look what happened.” And what God said was that David would always have one of his descendants sitting on the throne in Jerusalem. And this Psalm was written either during or after the Exile when there was no Davidic King. There was no ancestor. There was no Jerusalem. There was no throne to put him on. So they’re in exile. And, how could this be? I mean, God said he would do something.
The thing is that—and they don’t get this idea from nowhere because this is something in 2 Samuel chapter 7, it this prophecy through Nathan to David that, “listen, you’re my guy, David, and your throne will last forever,” and all that kind of stuff.
HODGES: It’s still in there. They didn’t take it out after they [laughs]—
ENNS: They didn’t take it out and they have Psalm 89 that says, “yeah that didn’t happen.” And there’s this moment in there where—he’s been going and on for the first half of the Psalm saying, “Oh God, your faithfulness and your trustworthiness is just…no one can top it. You’re the best. You’re God. You’re almighty. You created the cosmos. And boy, you’re faithful and you’re trustworthy” and all kind of stuff and “your faithfulness lasts forever. Your trustworthiness lasts forever.”
But then he launches to this David thing and he says, “How long, oh Lord…will your faithlessness last forever?” So I forget the exact language—
HODGES: How long? How long?
ENNS: How long. And the thing is that if your faithfulness won’t last forever, maybe your absence will. It sort of a sarcastic moment there where it’s like “thanks for nothing. Clearly you’re not faithful forever but maybe you’ll be absent forever because look what you’re doing here.” And it’s just this really honest moment of getting angry with God even.
And I think the author of Ecclesiastes is angry with God as well and—
HODGES: Yeah. This is “one of the two miserable people worth looking to,” is what you call…
ENNS: Yeah. Qoheleth in the book of Ecclesiastes, and Job. And again here is the author of Ecclesiastes and the main character called Qoheleth who’s pretty much blaming God for the fact that life is just horrible. It makes no sense. We work all the time—
HODGES: It’s vanity—
ENNS: — and then we just—it’s all meaningless.
HODGES: Meaningless, yeah.
ENNS: It’s absurd. It’s just ridiculous. And God set it up that way. So the best that we can do in our lives is just eat and drink and enjoy our days, enjoy our families. Don’t think about it too much. Just go through life sort of numb. Because the way God set up the world, if you think about it, it’s pretty lousy. You just live and then you die and then people forget you. It’s really the most depressing book in the entire Bible and they left it in there!
HODGES: [laughs] Yes.
ENNS: And you know it’s just another one of these honest expressions of how difficult it is sometimes to have a sure certain faith. And those are just a couple of examples. We could talk about the book of Lamentations, some of the prophetic laments, it’s part of Israel’s experience, this struggle with God. In fact, in Genesis the name “Israel” is said to mean “struggle with God.” It’s part of what it means—
HODGES: And he wrestles the angel—
ENNS: Right. Exactly. And he wins, but he doesn’t win [laughs]—
HODGES: Right. The separated the hip or whatever—
ENNS: There’s an injury involved in struggling with God. And it’s part of the Israelite experience. And I think that’s something that Christians can really look at and say, “they’re like me and I’m like them.” The Bible’s not sanitized. It’s very, very raw. Much more raw and honest than we can sometimes be in church.
HODGES: Yeah. There’s these great passage that I underlined where you say “One of the greatest comforts of Israel’s epic is that it contains raw expressions of fierce doubt and lack of trust in God embraced by the ancient Israelites as part of their faith.”
ENNS: Right, right.
HODGES: So faith can’t exclude those things by definition.
ENNS: By definition, right. Yeah. To have faith means you’re going to have periods of struggling and doubting.
Now you don’t want them to last forever—
ENNS: —and that’s why you don’t revel in them. “Look how cool I am because I’m doubting.” It’s not like that at all. Truly doubting is very painful. It’s a form of suffering. But the main thing is that it’s not unusual though, right? It’s a normal part of the journey. “Oh no, you don’t understand. I’m really… I’m at the end of my rope.” I know that. That’s a normal part of the journey of faith. “No, you’re really not listening to me. I’m about to give up on everything.”
And I say go read some Psalms. Go read Psalm 88 and Psalm 89. They’re about ready to give up on everything. Psalm 73. Ecclesiastes, Job, they’re about ready to give up. You’re actually smack dab in the middle of what is a normal experience of faith.
Now that doesn’t mean when you’re not doubting, when you’re feeling like you have more clarity, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you then.
ENNS: But we have these periods in our lives, and we have to accept the ups and the downs.
HODGES: I like that you mentioned in the book, there’s a section that talks about “is doubt cool? Is there a danger that doubt itself can become a desired end? Something to be sought out?” Maybe respond a little bit more to that here. You touched on it, but maybe a little bit more on that question.
ENNS: Yeah. I mean doubt is not something that we seek after. It’s something that just happens to us. And in the same way that people who have like the sense of like “hey, I know what I believe and I’m better than you because I know and you don’t.” The opposite works too. You could have people for whom doubt can be like a sexy kind of trendy hipster thing. “Hey, I’m so cool because I doubt, I don’t believe anything. I just doubt—”
HODGES: No offense to actual hipsters [laughing]
ENNS: No. Hipsters are cool people. Except the bad ones who are arrogant, but anyway…
HODGES: Except the bad hipsters, yeah—
ENNS: And that’s just as bad, to look down on people who feel like “I have some clarity about some things.” And just because you don’t, doesn’t put you on a higher plane than anybody else. Doubt comes when it comes. You don’t invite it. You don’t invent it. It will come. You will have periods in your life, as somebody of faith—unless you’ve been a Christian for like five minutes and then you die—it will happen eventually. And the question is, how are you going to look at that? Are you going to look at that as the enemy to be defeated to get back to quote “normal’?
HODGES: You will if your prize certainty.
ENNS: Yes. Or, are you going to look at this as a normal part of the journey of faith. Which is why I like the journey metaphor. I don’t like the building a fortress or building a wall metaphor. And that’s even used. Like your wall is crumbling, and we have to get it back up again. I’d rather think of it as a journey that we take. And I know it’s a worn metaphor and some people think that’s trendy. I don’t mean it that way at all. It actually is a journey where sometimes—
HODGES: John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress type of a thing—
ENNS: Exactly. Yeah. But I mean sometimes, it’s a beautiful journey and it’s a cool breeze, no humidity, not a cloudless sky. It’s about 68 degrees and it’s just fantastic. But around the corner, you don’t know what’s there. You can fall into a pit and have to climb out. It can be dark and rainy. It can be hail coming down, and that can last for days and days and days.
But the thing is that what you don’t do is turn around and go back. You actually have to keep going. There is no going back. You can’t get back —there is no “good old days.” Even Ecclesiastes says something like, “do not ask why were the former days better than this. It is not wise to ask questions like that.” The former days aren’t better. You always keep moving forward.
HODGES: Yeah. The Sin of Certainty to me can be connected closely to the mistake of romantic nostalgia and this idea of sort of returning to this perfect earlier time, and it’s a mirage. It can prevent you from confronting the next step of your faith, leaning into it—
ENNS: Right. And what compounds that, it’s nostalgia and that’s bad enough. But it’s also thinking that God’s standing over you with a paddle because you’re getting some answers wrong on the theology exam. “No, no. That’s the right answer. Don’t you see it?” My faith is placed in a God who’s not like that, so—
HODGES: This is where you continue to return to the book to the idea of trust. You’re trying to say “look, despite the certainty or the level of certainty you have about any particular fact or claim, if you have trust in God and if you at least want to continue engaging with God—if you have that much of a desire—
ENNS: Right, right—
HODGES: —That’s what God needs. And that will sustain you through that time of uncertainty. Which will probably—few people return to a place of certainty, I think, once they’ve had these uh-oh moments. Instead, they develop a new type of relationship with God.
ENNS: Right. I remember having moments, years ago, of taking these kinds of steps forward and feeling very, very—Like I would read a book or something that would describe a life of faith very different than what I’ve been used to but I knew I needed to do something else, and it was a little bit scary actually. This summer I’ve gone back and I’ve re-read four or five of those books. I’m like “what’s the big deal?” Because I’m in a different place now than I was five or ten or fifteen years ago. I looked at that and I was disappointed. I wanted to get the old feeling back. That old feeling of—that initial movement towards something different. But it wasn’t there at all. It was gone. But I was like, okay, well, actually that’s good, because I’ve accepted—I’m actually different now than I was.
HODGES: And you’ve digested that as well—
ENNS: Yeah. And other people haven’t. You see, that’s why I can’t go to somebody and say “well you’re feeling certain, you shouldn’t.” That’s not my job. I mean they have their own life they have to live. But when they get to the point—not if—when they get to the point, when they have reasons to struggle, there are people out there that are using language in describing their faith that might help them.
HODGES: We’re talking to Peter Enns about The Sin of Certainty. it’s his latest book. The subtitle is Why God Deserves Our Trust More Than Our Correct Beliefs.
So we’ve talked about some of these Bible passages that people tend to overlook. These ones that depict this anger, doubt, lack of trust, and this type of thing. What about Biblical passages that are used to affirm certainty? I’m thinking about, for example, <href=”#49″>Luke 8, where the Lord says “Do not fear, only believe and she will be saved.” You look at where James says that “we should ask in faith, never doubting or never wavering.” And <href=”#14″>[Peter] says “to always be ready to make a defense or give an answer to anybody who wants to know the reason for your hope.” And these type of passages Christians turn to as encouraging that type of certainty.
ENNS: Mhmm. I mean I think that’s a misunderstanding of those passages.
HODGES: Are you certain about that? [laughs]
ENNS: I’m absolutely certain, yeah. The first one you mentioned, Luke 8? I mean “only believe.” The word believe in the New Testament is the same word that’s used for faith in the New Testament.
HODGES: Is this pistis?
ENNS: Pistis, yeah. And a much better way—I’d say a default way of looking at those words. When you see the word believe or faith, put trust in there and see what it does because that’s pretty typically what that word means. It’s like, “Abraham believed in God and God credited it to him His righteousness.” This is in <href=”#5″>Genesis chapter 15. “Abraham believed.” Well the Hebrew word there is the word we get “amen” from. And you say it at the end of a prayer. It’s a last statement of trust. Like “amen,” like you’re entrusting this to God. And the Bible talks an awful lot more about trusting God, using words like believing or having faith or things like that.
HODGES: That’s really interesting because some people think of “amen” as saying “I agree,” which would line up with an idea of faith as certainty, like “I ascent to that.” But you’re saying amen is more of like “give your trust to God,” which is trust. It even comes down in that type of language.
ENNS: Right. Exactly. Yeah. That’s why I think we have lost the sense of how much—”Trust in the Lord with all of your heart. Don’t lean on your own understanding.”
HODGES: I think that’s one of the epigraphs of the book.
ENNS: It is. Yeah. Now that’s a different Hebrew word than the one in Genesis chapter 15, but that’s fine. The idea of trust—it really permeates both testaments, as opposed to believing in the sense that we sometimes use it—at least in our modern context, which is a thinking word. In the book I say “believe is a ‘what’ word” rather than a “that” word. Like “I believe that God exists. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God.” It’s almost like a list of beliefs.
HODGES: Yes. It’s like factual claims.
ENNS: Right. And that’s almost certainly not what it means in the Bible, at least almost all the time. There might be one or two places where it sort of hints at that. But that idea of having a belief system is not the focus of the Bible. It’s trusting in God.
Now trusting in God—it always has content involved with it. It’s not just willy-nilly whatever. But the primary focus is on trusting God and not yourself. Dying to yourself, losing your life so you can find it. Being crucified with Christ so you no longer live; Christ lives in you. Your lives are hidden with Christ in God. All those kinds of things. Those are losing yourself, losing your ego kinds of words which are trust moments.
In the book I talk about people taking a “trust fall” and what that’s like. And there’s a reason why they don’t call it a “belief fall.” You can say “okay, if you fall backwards, is that person going to catch you?” I believe that he is. I mean I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t. It would make a mess on the floor. You might get sued. So I believe that he will. That means nothing. The only thing that matters is when you cross your arms in front of you so you can’t put them down and brace yourself and you fall backwards, you have that moment of absolute panic where you realize “I’m totally helpless. I have to trust this person’s going to catch me.” That’s the kind of radical trust the Bible talks about.
Believing in God—that sometimes has wiggle room for us. Trusting God—there’s no wiggle room involved at all. And that’s why I think the Bible talks about it so much. So having beliefs isn’t wrong. But what God cares more about is trusting God and not having these beliefs that we line up that we play games with.
HODGES: And this is where some people might push back on this entire idea because there’s a sense in which there’s a level of vulnerability that you set yourself up for. People don’t want to be taken in. And with belief right now—you’ve probably read some of Charles Taylor stuff, about the secular age we live in. It’s not a given anymore that there’s a God, as it used to be. And so there’s a sense in which we don’t want to be taken in. And now we’re reading a book by Pete Enns that says “just trust.” And some people will say, “Well, Pete’s just asking you to turn off your brain,” right?
HODGES: Because if you use your mind, you’re going to start seeing all these difficulties and all these holes. So how do you respond to that idea in terms of like, “Oh, well, Pete just wants you to trust because he knows there’s nothing there.” If it’s fact-based, you’re not going to be able to make it.
ENNS: Yeah. Boy, we could go—How much time do we have here?
HODGES: Yeah [Laughs]
ENNS: I think part of the problem there is a very modern notion that faith in God works on the basis of, let’s say, analysis or logic or evidence or data. Things you can test or see or smell or touch.
HODGES: —As Christians, we kind of set ourselves up that way—
ENNS: —We have set ourselves up for that, I know—
HODGES: —You know, here’s the proofs of God and something.
ENNS: I mean all that stuff is fine on one level. But one of my sort of “faith claims,” I’d say, is that I don’t think that exhausts the nature of reality. And I think if God exists, there is mystery involved that is something that our little minds simply cannot grasp as a starting point. I do believe it’s—
HODGES: So why think about anything then?
ENNS: What do you mean?
HODGES: I mean, I like how you’re introducing this idea of mystery, right?
HODGES: In fact, one of the big themes of the book is, one of the reasons we shouldn’t rely on certainty is precisely because of our limited ability to understand things.
HODGES: But some people want to turn that into—”you don’t need to study stuff. You don’t need to think about stuff.” And that runs counter to your entire career and your whole kind of process.
ENNS: Yeah. I mean ironically it’s this studying stuff and thinking about the stuff that has led me to this point of view [chuckles]. It’s listening and reading voices through the ages who have thought about this too and have come to certain conclusions about “what does it mean to have faith in God?”
And remember too, the book is written for people who are in some context of faith. I mean if somebody comes to me and says, “Well, you have to give me a reason to believe in anything.” I say, “Well, okay. Maybe I haven’t.” That’s another book, that’s another idea, that’s another conversation entirely—
HODGES: That’s a different book, yeah.
ENNS: This is for people who are struggling with faith—which is frankly most Christians that I know—and saying “it’s okay.” [laughs]
HODGES: You want to make room.
ENNS: I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m saying it’s okay. You’re not broken, you don’t need to be fixed. You’re not a sub-Christian. You’re not a tier below “super Christians” who have their act together, because they don’t. And if they think they do, they’re not as honest with themselves as you are. And you had a point—
HODGES: Or they haven’t had that uh-oh moment that would take them to—
ENNS: They haven’t really had those or they deny them. You see, they sort of like—
HODGES: —Put the wall up.
ENNS: —put the wall up, push them away. And the people who are experiencing some sort of pain or doubt or struggle, I think they might actually know themselves better than those people who seem like they have their acts together. They may be in a more hone…Their honesty might have them closer to the heart of God at that moment than keeping the game together and giving off the impression that things are all okay.
HODGES: One of the things I mentioned earlier is this idea that the book seems to be a way to intervene into the very understanding of the Christian story in a way that prepares people for these “uh-oh” moments. And I think one of the most novel parts of the book is later on in chapter seven, “God Wants you Dead.” You actually lay out a theology of faith that’s patterned on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Is that original to you? And I want you to describe that a little bit.
ENNS: No. I mean I’m trying to think. I’ve picked up things from so many people over the years.
HODGES: And people who read the book will see you often referred to writers that you’ve read.
ENNS: Exactly. People like Richard Rohr is a name that pops up a lot, and Thomas Keating, and a few others. But no, that’s really not an idea that’s original to me. Actually, I’ve pondered that for a while by reading other people, and I think it’s absolutely true that suffering and exaltation, death and resurrection, are patterns of the Christian life. And the way to experience resurrection—and using Paul’s language Romans, “you’ve been raised to newness of life.” The way for that to happen is you have to die first. And you can think of that as sort of a conversion thing, which is fine. You can also think of it as everyday decision you make.
And I remember a good friend of mine, a wise person many years ago said, “Pete, every day you wake up you have to make a choice. Will you trust or will you fear?” And another way of saying that is, “everyday are you going to lay down your ego and die and trust God? Or are you going to be afraid cause you’re trying to hold on to reality in your brain?” And to me, that’s exactly what these other guys are talking about where the Christian life is a daily “dying to self” and rising to…a fuller expression of what it means to be a healthy human being, as we’re created God’s image and all that kind of stuff, right?
HODGES: And I see Paul kind of laying that out. And you can find it in the Gospels, the idea of the kingdom already being here in a sense but also being on the way.
ENNS: Exactly right. Yeah.
HODGES: And faith is kind of that way, where you have faith but it’s also faith that’s still in process—in the sense of what you understand and how close you can feel God at any given point.
HODGES: It’s a moving target. It’s not the same every day.
ENNS: Yeah. Exactly. And that’s why, again, I keep coming back to the journey metaphor. It isn’t the same every day. But what’s expected of you is to submit yourself and trust to God. And that’s not easy! “Oh, is that all?” Yeah, try it.
HODGES: Yeah. You make it clear in the book, too, that you’re not offering—this isn’t a simple solution. It’s just a possibility—
ENNS: No. It’s a painful solution. Because you don’t get to be in charge anymore. You know? And I sort of like that at my age, you know, I’m tired of always feeling like I have to be in charge. But it can be an intimidating idea, too. I mean, just, “pick up your cross and follow me.”
HODGES: I love this part. You say, “yeah, you don’t pick up a cross to carry it. This is an instrument of death. This is a signal that a change is coming for you.”
ENNS: And a humiliating death. An unsettling, rip-you-apart-kind of death.
HODGES: It’s not a sweet death bed situation.
ENNS: No. It’s excruciatingly difficult because dying to yourself is a difficult thing to do.
HODGES: And you put faith in that framework—That sometimes these “uh-oh” moments are that moment of carrying the cross, and you know what’s going to happen with that cross. And if you engage it in faith, you may cry out like Christ on the cross did, “My God why have you forsaken me?” It’s really a nice parallel, a really useful parallel which says then your faith can be reborn. So there’s that resurrection.
ENNS: Yeah. And you might even just catch glimpses of glory, so to speak. But that’s enough. See, that’s nice for people that those are “God moments,” where they can look back on those and say “I know this will pass.” And you trust God in the midst of that. And even if you have no idea how or why or what’s next, you don’t have that kind of certainty or clarity, but you’re just living with God at that moment.
HODGES: That’s Pete Enns. We’re talking with him about a book called The Sin of Certainty. When we come back from the break, we’ll talk to him about some of the things in the book that are a little bit more personal before we leave tonight. I wanted to touch on some of these things, Pete. So we’ll come right back after this.
[BREAK: Hello again. This is Blair Hodges, host of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. The Institute’s next issue of Studies in the Bible and Antiquity will feature a paper by this episode’s guest, Peter Enns. He recently visited Brigham Young University, along with Hebrew Bible scholar James Kugel and New Testament scholar Candida Moss. Each of them presented papers on Biblical scholarship and religious faith representing Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish backgrounds. Latter-day Saints scholars Philip Barlow, David Seely and Jill Kirby were also there presenting on the same theme. Is it possible to approach the Bible critically and religiously? Check out volume 8 of Studies in the Bible and Antiquity coming up this November. A digital subscription to all the Maxwell Institute periodicals costs $10. You can get your digital pass at mi.byu.edu/subscribe.
HODGES: We’re speaking today with Pete Enns on the Maxwell Institute Podcast. Pete is the Abram S. Clemens Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University. That’s in Pennsylvania. He’s a nationally recognized speaker. He’s written a number of books including The Bible Tells Me So, The Evolution of Adam. His most recent book is called The Sin of Certainty.
Pete, over the past decade or so, you write in the book, you went through some especially difficult times in your family and also in your career. So I wanted to talk a little bit about that, and your decision to bring these more personal elements into the book. You mentioned about how your career was a bit more public—there was public discussion about it. But in terms of your family life, you bring up some really personal things.
ENNS: Yeah. Just at the outset I can just say that, I mean, I’ve hardly known a family that hasn’t gone through very difficult periods. But with us—we have three children. One of my children, my daughter Elizabeth, who gave me permission to talk about some of these things and how they affected me, but long story short, she had a very long battle with anxiety and depression starting when she was eight years old. And my wife Sue and I, we didn’t know what to do. We were beside ourselves. Especially somebody like me who wants to fix everything and control people and make them feel better immediately because I’m a guy, and I’m German on top of this, so I’m basically screwed [laughs]. You know, my inability to help her would just increase and escalate my anxiety.
HODGES: It eats you.
ENNS: Yeah. It does. It eats you. And it becomes a part of you then. Like you’re constantly anxious about stuff. And the long and short of it is that we wound up having to send Liz away for about fourteen months when she was 16, which was a really life-transforming experience for her—and for me; I’ll just speak for myself because I really had to let go of that. And it was a difficult time.
I relate one story, sort of a “God moment” that I had in the midst of this where I was just so anxious because I couldn’t do anything to help her. And I had gone out to Phoenix, Arizona with my son’s baseball team. He was in college. They did spring training out there. And at that point, Liz already knew that something big was going to have to happen really soon. And she asked me to find a Livestrong bracelet for her.
HODGES: Those yellow rubber band—
ENNS: Those yellow things, right. Before Armstrong you know, all the doping thing. It was long before that.
HODGES: Before that, yeah. [laughs]
ENNS: [chuckles] Thankfully. Or else I would’ve said, “No, I’m not going to get you one of those.” But anyway, long story short is I couldn’t find one and I looked—I was very disappointed because she was asking for something that would help her get through the next stage and I just couldn’t find it. So I called her and said, “Liz, I’m going to keep looking but I don’t think I can find one right now.” Which is weird because it was the big thing.
HODGES: They seemed ubiquitous.
ENNS: It was all over the place and I can’t find a single one. I’m even calling stores and saying “do you have any of these?” So anyway, while I was in Phoenix, we went to a barbecue of an alumni of my son’s college. He went to Middlebury College in Vermont. And they always host a barbecue for the baseball team. So we went there and I got to know the host. His name was John. And he was flipping burgers out on the grill. And he reaches out and there’s a yellow Livestrong bracelet on his arm. And I remember thinking to myself, “He’s got a Livestrong bracelet. I bet he knows where I can get one.”
And then a thought entered my head that I wasn’t really planning on and I said, “I wonder if he has one that he can give me.” All this stuff is happening in my mind in a split second. But I didn’t ask that question. I asked the first one. I actually didn’t ask any question at all. I just said, “Hey, you got a Livestrong bracelet.” I noticed “hey you’ve got one.” And his answer to me was, “Oh, do you want one?” And he said, “Actually, I have a bag of them in my closet.”
ENNS: So it’s hard to reproduce this in a podcast or even in a book, the emotion. But this is years and years and years of just, nothing’s getting better and I’m a wreck and the family’s not doing well and Liz is suffering and all this stuff. And for me, that was just a little moment of experiencing how there is a presence of God in there for me that reassured me that I can’t control and don’t even need to control the situation.
All I did was say, “Hey, you’ve got a Livestrong bracelet.” And he answered a question I wasn’t asking. “Would you like one? I’ve got a bag full of them in my closet.” So I took five, one for each of us in the family. And that was, to me, one of these sort of lessons in needing to just—listen, you can’t run the universe. It just doesn’t work that way. You have to let go. You know, Pete, you’re not always going to be sure. You’re not always going to be certain about the next thing. What God is going to do and what’s going to happen in your life. You have to let go of all that stuff, and at some point just trust God.
Or not. [laughs] That’s the choice. The choice isn’t between “I think I’ll be certain or uncertain.” No, uncertainty always comes. The choice that we make is, how are we going to live. And again, I think Biblically, the emphasis is on trusting God with your very life. Even if your life ends, you still trust God.
HODGES: Or if you didn’t get a bracelet, I mean—
HODGES: —this is the hard part we talked a little bit earlier about, prayers, finding your car keys and things like this. So when these moments happen, and I’ve had these sort of moments, it’s easy to fall back into questioning them as happenstance or whatnot. But I feel like I’m falling back into the pattern of desiring certainty again if I do that.
ENNS: Or subjecting the workings of God to our analytical and rational abilities, right? Because I mean I can explain that away very easily. What I can’t explain away quite as easily is the fact that my knees actually weakened and I had to sit down in that moment. I felt submitted. “Well that’s a biochemical reaction.” Everything’s a biochemical reaction in life anyway. That doesn’t make it not a real experience. And I’ve chosen to accept that as an authentic experience of God and to just leave it there.
And this is now—I mean what year is this, 2016? This is nine years ago. And when I talk about it, I still have that sense of emotion. It’s that “Ebenezer” we raise up like the Old Testament says. That pile of rocks to remind us of where God was.
So yeah, I mean it’s interesting how just, life happens to us as a family and it’s an opportunity to let go and trust God that I wished I had been prepared for and to do that act of trust in God many, many years earlier. I wish I had handled that better from the outset. But I wasn’t prepared to. I wasn’t raised to think that way, you know, whether it’s parents or church or whatever, that’s not the point. It’s just that I was not in that place and I had to go through a period of many years of just letting go of any illusion that I have that these things are actually under my control and I can give myself a certain, sure, comfortable, familiar outcome.
HODGES: How do you do that and continue to stay motivated to take initiative, to do other things? Because there’s a sense in which I feel like there needs to be this tension there. Can you err on the side of just saying, “Oh, I just don’t even need to do a thing.”
ENNS: Yeah. I guess you could. That’s never entered my mind you know [chuckles].
HODGES: [laughs] You haven’t had a problem with that.
ENNS: It’s sort of like “I’m going to sit on my couch and I’m going to trust God to bring an income so I can pay mortgage”— See, there is an element also of wisdom. Another Biblical aspect in here [laughs] where—You know, “don’t be stupid!” [chuckles] I mean that’s not the point of this. But it’s in, let’s say, crisis moments. It’s not just—I’m not going to live my life everyday like not getting dressed. Maybe angels will dress me each morning. Something stupid like that. Or God will tell me what cereal to eat in the morning. Things like that. To me, that’s ridiculous. But this is more when your life is actually rocked.
HODGES: Okay so again, you’d write a different book for someone who had that kind of a difficulty.
ENNS: Yeah. And I’d have a very different answer. I wouldn’t say, “Hey, you can’t be certain of anything, so just don’t do anything.” I would say something very different in a book like that. And I won’t write a book like that, so don’t worry.
HODGES: So as you have talked about this book—it’s just recently out—but you’ve had an opportunity to talk to different church groups and things. What kind of reactions are you getting from people as you’ve shared this with people?
ENNS: Honestly, it’s overwhelmingly positive. Maybe it’s just a small sample set and I need to get out and talk to other kinds of people.
I mean, there have been a couple of I would say negative reviews. I’m trying to think of them. One was from—I mean, I’m not knocking it, but like a doctoral student. So at some point I think you have to have lived a little bit to maybe get in touch with what I’m trying to say. I don’t expect a fifteen-year-old for example to be like, “oh yeah.” So that’s fine. But I mean generally speaking, just from comments on social media and emails—I have a file of emails from people—and going to churches, I mean they find it liberating to be out from under the pressure of having to be a perfect Christian, intellectually.
HODGES: It’s been a pleasure to have you here at Brigham Young University. You presented a paper today that will be published in Studies in the Bible and Antiquity, which is a journal that we publish at the Maxwell Institute. So people who are interested in thinking about what it’s like to engage the Bible critically and religiously can check out that when it comes out this fall. And then the book that we talked about today is The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our Correct Beliefs. There’s a previous Maxwell Institute Podcast episode with you where we talked about The Bible Tells Me So. Anything else you’re working on? Just teaching now and touring for this particular book?
ENNS: Yeah. I mean I wouldn’t say that I’m touring. I’ve spoken a few times and things kick up again in the fall. These is actually the first summer since 2008 when I haven’t been actively writing at least one book. Sometimes two at a time. And when this book came out in April, I had already made the decision, I don’t know what I want to say now, you know? I’m sort of like, tired. But I have some ideas percolating. It’s too early to say now, but I actually asked my newsletter subscribers to tell me what I should write about.
HODGES: Give you some ideas.
ENNS: Yeah. And there were actually some themes that came through about, “Okay, but what do we really do with the Bible now?” And okay, that’s a really good question, so it’s going to be something along those lines. And I’m starting to get some energy. I was sort of writing some notes to myself about what I think a book like that would look like. So I’m hoping maybe to start in the fall some time. But no promises when it’s going to come out. I don’t know.
HODGES: Is your website peteenns.com?
HODGES: Yeah. And then also people can follow you on Twitter, @peteens, you’re on there, pretty active on Twitter as well.
ENNS: And Facebook too. I think it’s Peter Enns or Pete? Anyway, just find me on Facebook. I’m up there.
HODGES: Cool. Thanks for taking the time to talk today.
ENNS: Thanks, Blair. Yeah. Good time.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)