Peter Enns is the author of several books including The Bible Tells Me So, Inspiration and Incarnation, and The Evolution of Adam. In addition to speaking across the country, and writing, he is a professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. I caught up with Pete to talk about his latest book, released earlier this year.
Cara Strickland: Hi Pete. Could you tell me a little bit about your book?
Peter Enns: The name of the book is The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs. It came out a few months ago, back in April. Basically, it’s about this: everybody I know, every person of faith, goes through periods of struggling with what they believe. Things used to be clear. We all go through periods where that sort of stops. We don’t feel as confident, we don’t really know what we believe anymore, we struggle with our faith. The main point of the book is that when that happens, there’s nothing wrong with you, that’s a normal part of the life of faith. You’re not broken, in need of fixing. You’re not some sub-form of Christian because you used to be so strong in your faith, and now you’re weak in your faith. Doubt or struggle is equated with weakness and I think that’s very debilitating and even intimidating for people because they can’t talk about it. If they talk about these things they might feel ostracized in church or in work, if they’re working in a Christian setting. I wanted to write a book about that, to sort of show the normalcy of it by looking at a bunch of things in the Bible, and in my own experience, and also in the experiences of other people throughout history.
CS: You make a distinction between letting go of certainty and letting go of thinking. How do you know when you’re releasing the right thing?
PE: Welcome to Christianity. That’s just the way it is, how do you know? But I do make a distinction between being certain, and thinking, because we are thinking people, animals. I think we were created that way. I think it’s part of the reflection of being created in God’s image. We’re capable of things like abstract thought. There’s no other creature that I know of that is capable of abstract thought. We all engage it. Thinking is just what makes us human.
I love to think about ‘hey what does this book of the Bible mean?’ or ‘what does this article of faith mean? or ‘does God exist?’ “is Christianity true?’ I like thinking about those things, and pondering those things, but sometimes answers, conclusions that we come to, we hold on to them with such a tight fist, and then life happens and those conclusions become less certain. I think those are times to sort of let go of the need to feel certain. That’s really the issue, it’s almost a psychological need to feel certain because if you don’t feel certain, you don’t really have strong faith. So it’s not that you can’t think about things, and it’s not even that you can’t come to conclusions, it’s just realizing when some of those conclusions hit really hard times, that shouldn’t be understood as your faith has now completely been stripped away from you and ‘I used to know what I believed, now I don’t know what I believe, therefore I’m not a Christian anymore,’ and that sort of thing. I think that’s a dangerous place to go, because what you’re doing at that point, you’re actually trusting your thinking, you’re trusting your conclusions rather than sort of this naked trust of God which is, I think, what we’re all called to do on a regular basis, and these difficult moments maybe even remind us of that.
CS: I’m sure that many of our readers have experienced the damaging consequences of certainty used as a weapon, both in churches and in relationships. What would you say to those people as they grapple with their ideas of God, in light of the church and people of faith?
PE: That’s really difficult. It can be anything from as radical—I don’t want to encourage people to do this—but sometimes people just have to leave their church. And that’s very difficult to do because you have social ties which are very important, community is important, kids know each other, and things like that. So I’m not looking down on that at all, but sometimes it’s necessary for people to find a faith community where they can be as honest with them as they’re trying to be with God. And that’s hard to do.
Maybe less radical is finding people within that community that you really deeply trust and who you know have your best interests in mind, who are not going to judge you. Because that’s the problem, we tend to want to judge and fix others when they don’t think as we do. But finding people there who aren’t like that, and if need be, you might stay in the church, but you might need to find communities outside of that who can help you through it. Even, for example, a spiritual director.
But the problem there is that the community that helps define who you are, that really means a lot to you, and for good reason, that can sometimes be a barrier to you, and I appreciate the difficulty of trying to work through that. I don’t think it’s easy. No quick answers there.
CS: You talk a bit about the dark night of the soul and the unexpected goodness of being in that place. What would you say to those who are experiencing that darkness now?
PE: There’s nothing I could say that’s going to…’ there there,’ ‘it’s all okay,’ that’s not what you say in a situation like that. But I think it’s simply acknowledging the fact that as absent as God feels from you at that moment, you’re not the first one, and very wise, experienced, deeply spiritual Christians throughout history have talked about this. In fact, read the Psalms. The absence of God is all over the place. So you’re in good company, and at least hold on to this notion that you’re not unusual for having this experience. It might actually, in fact I’m going to say this more definitively, I think it will eventually result in a deepening of your relationship with God. See here’s the thing, people think ‘God is absent from me,’ that might not be the case. You might not be losing God and leaving God behind, you might actually be trained by God at that moment by the Spirit of God to leave your thinking about God behind. And that’s the problem, we equate those two things. We equate our limited thinking of God with the real thing, and for a while that limited thinking is very important to us, it carries us forward, but then at times it’s inadequate and we feel that sense of loss. But what we’re really mourning is the loss of the comfort of our own ideas. And we might have to take that step of, dare I say it, faith, trusting God like a child trusts a parent. To say ‘okay, I give this darkness to you, and I trust you even though I don’t feel like it, even though I don’t want to. I trust you enough to care for me to eventually want to be able to trust you again,’ and let that process wash over you, not as an enemy of faith, but as a common occurrence for people of faith. That’s a lot of words and it doesn’t mean anything until you’re there, and what’s really difficult for people who are working through this is that very often, I might even say typically, they are part of church communities that doesn’t value the dark night of the soul. It’s an enemy, it’s not a friend. It’s not something of God, it’s a thing anti-God. And that’s the hard part, too. Our culture is almost set up to create this kind of crisis and I just think that’s a shame.
CS: You talk about an inclination to trust our beliefs rather than God, and to make them a part of our identity. What have been some practical ways you’ve found for combating that way of thinking?
PE: Getting my head handed to me by life. I think it’s very difficult, even too much to ask of anybody, including of myself, to say ‘okay, I’m going to wake up this morning, I’m going to pick an area of my belief system that I’m relying on rather than God, and I’m going to start working on that.’ I think it only comes through pain. I think it only comes through experiencing things, which can be very little, tiny things, that just catch you unaware, or very big things that put you into positions, force you, of having to rethink things in some sense. So I don’t think there’s a strategy, I don’t think there’s a formula. I think there’s just a life that is turned toward openness to God and not simply closing in on our own thinking. And that posture of openness to God is, I think, something that is a good preparation for going through those difficult times.
CS: Your book is very grounded in the Bible and depends upon it, really. Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship to the Bible?
PE: I don’t have a relationship to the Bible, because the Bible’s not a person, not to get snarky. I know what you’re saying, but I think I see the Bible as, let’s put it this way, a means of grace to be in community and relationship with God, and the Bible does that in all sorts of different ways. With respect to the Sin of Certainty, and some other things I’ve written, I think the way the Bible does that is by modeling for us those experiences that we all have. The biblical writers are not on cloud nine, for the most part. I mean, occasionally you get that blip, but for the most part something’s wrong, in fact something’s deeply wrong. The Psalms, and books like Ecclesiastes, or the book of Job, or the book of Lamentations, which nobody ever reads, or a lot of the prophetic literature, the laments of the prophets, they’re dealing with really difficult spiritual things, one of which is either God’s absence or the fact that God doesn’t come through the way God said he would come through. That’s just a very common element in the Bible, it’s not on every page but it’s there. It’s what Walter Brueggemann, who’s an Old Testament theologian, what he calls Israel’s counter-testimony. You’ve got Israel’s main testimony: ‘this is what God is like’ and you pretty much get that in Genesis and the first five books of the Pentateuch and in other places of Israel’s story, like ‘hey, if you obey God things will go well, if you disobey God there’ll be ramifications, and punishments, and consequences, right? That’s Israel’s sort of core narrative, its core testimony. But then you’ve got this other literature that you see in Psalms and Job etcetera, that are Israel’s counter-testimony. Israelites saying ‘hold on a minute, I don’t see that happening,’ right? So what you have in the Bible is really a dialogue, even a debate, about what is God like. What can we expect from God? Is God always on our side and against our enemies, or is God for our enemies? Well, read Jonah. Jonah is perplexed that God has any concern for the Assyrians. They’re horrible, but yet there you have it. In other parts of the Bible the Assyrians are unqualifiedly God’s enemies. So you have this wonderful internal, vibrant, dynamic, living, breathing engagement of the primary topic of all theology which is: what is God like? And for me, I get sort of excited talking about the Bible that way because it means something to me. It’s a liberating idea because I can connect very easily to certain biblical writers in certain times of my life, so it’s more than just proof texts. it’s more than just ‘believe this or believe that.’ It’s actually showing us what the life of faith looks like, and I think it’s fantastic.
CS: What is it that you’re hoping for your readers through this book, and also, what’s the reader that you think needs it? Who did you write it for?
PE: Well maybe the second question first. I wrote it for people who are very much struggling with their faith because they’re not sure anymore. They may have been raised in a Christian home, or not. But let’s say that youth group certainty about what you believe begins getting complicated in college and then in your twenties and thirties, and before you know it, in your forties, and you just don’t think the way you did as a child, but you don’t know what to do about it. So it’s people sort of coming from a Christian setting who are deeply struggling with their faith and have nobody to talk with, and also people who have left the faith in one reason or another. And you know, I do get emails from people occasionally, from people saying ‘I wish I had read this book 20 years ago, I’d still be a Christian,’ because they left because they had this idea of certainty as a hallmark of faith. So I’m trying to speak into what is a real need, I think, in the church, which is this equating of faith with ‘I have intellectual certainty about something.’ Sometimes we feel that way. That’s great, don’t knock it. But when you don’t, you’re not abnormal. There’s nothing wrong with you. So I think what I’m trying to do in the book, to get to the first question, is really I’m trying to be an encouragement to people who are in that state and to tell them it’s okay. And then they say ‘you don’t understand, I’ve lost everything.’ I do understand, because I’ve been there, and here are the people in the Bible who have been there, too. So there’s nothing that you’re experiencing that you can’t hear echoed back to you within the Bible itself, and within the history of the Christian church. Nothing, not a word. So let’s just start with that, you’re actually pretty much mainstream right now. You’re not weird and broken in need of fixing, you’re not a crumbling wall that has to be patched back up again, you’re just a person. At some point you have to believe, you know, what if God actually loves you? What difference does that make? And how would you treat one of your own children if he or she were really struggling with XY and Z? Would you just reject them as children, or are you going to be there no matter what? Is God fundamentally easily perturbed and can’t wait to turn his back on you? Or do you think God is always looking out for your well-being and is an ever-present help to you even when God feels absent? I mean it really gets down to what kind of a God are we talking about? I think that’s really what the book gets down to. And the kind of God is one who I think understands and encourages and is not going to give you a failing grade for not doing well on a theology exam that day because life’s gotten complicated and you’re just not sure right now.