I recently read The Sin of Certainty by Peter Enns, enjoying it quite a bit. He’s a deep thinker with a snarky sense of humor—sort of like a cross between N.T. Wright and David Sedaris. He’s fun to read. And he’s likely to make you ask, as he does, “What kind of universe is God running, anyway?”
The book, which was released in 2014, struck a particular chord with me because it outlines the conclusions he reached after a crisis of faith, as I went through such a crisis myself. (Actually, it wasn’t much of a crisis. I just said, “It doesn’t make sense to believe this anymore. I’ll stop.”)
Anyway, I give the book four stars.
The thesis of the book is that God doesn’t care what we believe as much as He cares whom we believe in.
God just wants our trust, Enns says, even when our last engine just crapped out in a puff of black smoke and we’re one short on parachutes. He wants our trust even when it makes no sense.
Says Enns: “The question many of faith are confronted with today is whether ancient biblical ways of understanding humanity really have all that much to add to the modern discussion. Does Jesus really make a difference, or are we better off with a health plan that covers therapy and prescription medications? These sorts of questions come up in a modern world awash in genuine, documented, therapeutic successes and pharmacological advances. We have every reason today to think differently about the universe and our place in it. This doesn’t disprove God, but it does challenge our thinking. For people of faith, bringing the ancient Bible and our lives together can be stressful and unnerving—which is a problem if faith and correct thinking are deemed inseparable. ‘What does it mean to be human?’ does not have as clear a biblical answer as it once had.”
Well, speaking as someone who was profoundly depressed for 10 years—coinciding with the first 10 years of my Walk With Christ—I think, yes, we are better off with prescription medicine than God. I had a shitload of Christian counseling (which my medical plan paid for),was prayed for, exorcized, had “inner healing prayer”—including a pre-birth session—prayed, prayed, prayed for God to heal me, etc. All to no avail. Then I took a little pill and—poof!—my problem (which, specifically, turned out to be Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) was gone.
Prescription medicines 1. God 0.
Is God in control?
Not that I’m bitter. Really. During those 10 years, I never really expected God to heal me. I, mean, theologically, I was sure he could. I had just lived enough life to know that—he usually didn’t. In fact, it wasn’t this experience—prescription medicine succeeding where God apparently couldn’t—that caused me to “lose my religion.” I went on as a zealous Christian for another 25 years before I gave up on Christianity.
Anyway, back to Enns’ book. Let me just say, as a qualifier, that Enns knows a million more times about the Bible than I do. Yes, I studied, memorized, prayed the Bible for 35 years. I read all sorts of books about the Bible. But Enns has read the Bible more, studied the Bible more and more deeply—probably in languages other than English—and not only has he read more books about the Bible than me, but he’s also read the books about the books about the Bible.
I say that to lead into this: I think Pete doesn’t go far enough. He gets close to the conclusions I reached through my “crisis” of faith. But he always stops short, pointing to the counsel of scripture.
Says Enns, “I believe that the Bible does not model a faith that depends on certainty for the simple fact that the Bible does not provide that kind of certainty. Rather, in all its messy diversity, the Bible models trust in God that does not rest on whether we are able to be clear and certain about what to believe.”
The flaw I see in Enns’ reasoning is that it makes sense to trust God only if He has some level of control over the universe. Enns spends a fair amount of time talking about how the world seems out of control—for example, the one in a million chance a tree limb would fall and kill a jogger. And he acknowledges that it sounds silly to say that God helps us find our car keys when religious extremists go from village to village killing, raping, and kidnapping, and He does nothing.
If life still doesn’t make sense with faith/trust in God—if the righteous are still as likely as the evil to have calamity befall them—then why trust God? It doesn’t get you anywhere. The believer trusting God is no better off than the ill-tempered atheist. Trust makes sense only in light of a personal sovereign God who intervenes on our behalf—and that’s not the God we find ourselves with, at least as I interpret the data.
How the hell do we know what God thinks?
Here’s the second problem I have with Enns’ conclusions in the book. If there is one thing that Enns does seem certain about it’s that God is worthy of our trust. But . . . how do we know that God is worthy of our trust? I say the only way we know that is that the Bible, special revelation, tells us so. You could build a very convincing argument from the natural world—that is, general revelation—that we’re subject to random forces and that God is disinterested.
If the Bible is so clearly the work of human hands, as Enns seems to go to pains to point out, why should we believe what it says about God’s loving kindness? How is that not just wishful thinking on the part of the biblical authors?
If the Bible is unreliable, then we have no grounds to trust God. And, in fact, God breaks his “promises” in scripture every single day. Children die of cancer. (How could any good that would come from that outweigh the pain that comes from it?) Prayer after prayer is unanswered—or at least answered in the negative. Good grief, for all we know, a meteor could slam into the earth tomorrow, destining us all to a long, painful death.
“Oh, that would never happen,” the stalwart Evangelical says.
“Oh yeah?” I say. “How do you know that? It’s happened before.”
“Because God loves us.”
“Well,” I say, “how do you know that?”
“It says so in the Bible.”
We’re on our own
I know that belief in God gives many people peace. But I think that peace is a placebo. Trust is God is misplaced and irrational. We could experience an unjust, gruesome demise 10 minutes from now—or, worse it could happen to our kids! How do you know that meteor’s not on its way?
Trust doesn’t do a damn thing for us.
Says Enns: “’I’m working this out like everyone else, but it seems to me that the way forward is not to ‘find the answer’ that will allow familiar ways of thinking of God and our world to somehow stay as they were. The way forward is to let go of that need to find the answers we crave and decide to continue along a path of faith anyway (as Qohelet would say). That kind of faith is not a crutch, but radical trust. Beyond that, I don’t have much to add, except perhaps to point humbly to one of the key pillars (and mysteries!) of the Christian faith, that God enters into human suffering and dies. I’ll just leave it at that. If I say more, I’m afraid it will look like I’m trying to explain it.”
But there is an explanation, the way I see it. We’re on our own. Not that there isn’t a God. He just doesn’t intervene. And that’s good news. Humans are capable of wonderful heights, and we’re amazingly clever. No doubt we can surmount—or at least survive—any misfortune that comes our way in this random universe, short of a meteor, if we trust in ourselves and trust in each other. We’re the ones that come up with all the solutions, like prescription medicines, not God.
Trust in God isn’t going to get us anywhere. The jury’s out as to whether God has our best interests at heart. But we do. We’re the ones who can make things better.
Don’t trust God. He’ll let you down—eventually.