Title: The Sin of Certainty
Author: Peter Enns
Year Published: 2016
Number of Pages: 230
Reviewed by Douglas Christensen for the Association for Mormon Letters
Peter Enns holds an M. Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. These credentials, along with an impressive list of publications do not quite prepare the reader for his latest book, *The Sin of Certainty* because one might expect something abstract or intellectually rigorous. Instead, Enns provides a surprisingly familiar, readerly text that solicits all readers with interest in religious questions about the intersection between faith and reason. Readers will benefit from knowing what to expect from this book in terms of style and genre. This is a serious text whose author does not take himself too seriously. Some may even find his ethos bordering on irreverent or silly when he uses words like “abso-posi-lutely” and expressions like, “its all good.” However, as the title suggests, Enns effectively interrogates the value that devoted Christians place on certainty about their beliefs.
Enns never uses the term fallibalism, but his revised approach to religious belief matches this philosophy which advocates, according to the latest Wikipedia definition, “the philosophical principle that human beings could be wrong about their beliefs, expectations, or their understanding of the world, and yet still be justified in holding their incorrect beliefs.” Enns prefers the term “transrational” to describe his relationship to certainty. Transrationalism as described by Swedish philosopher Alexander Bard “can be understood as a rationalism undertaken with the explicit advance knowledge that rationalism on its own is limited—as the post-structuralists following Nietzsche later pointed out too—and that a wider understanding of the world has to take in information which can not be viewed as explictly ‘rational.’ I would add that taking a transrational stance is an act of intellectual modesty.”
Peter Enns teaches his readers about intellectual modesty, but also about spiritual modesty. His short chapters move quickly through his personal spiritual awakening, but also through a transrational reading of scripture, with particular interest in scripture that insists upon reflexive, modest responses to life’s mysteries and seemingly random cruelty, scripture like the Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Job. He refers to much of this scripture as “Parts of the Bible We Don’t Read in Church (but should)” (56).
Once adjusted to his style, I began underlining passage after passage of particular wisdom and insight. For example, he begins by acknowledging his earliest “uh oh” moments, where his faith paradigm founded on certainty began to crumble, but he then observes that these moments “serve a holy purpose” (8). His entire project shuttles between these two events, water tight faith paradigms that begin leaking, dribbling, and sometimes bursting and then figuring out how these disruptions can become holy and sacred as we recalculate our bearings. He also understands perfectly well that “Church is too often the most risky place to be spiritually honest,” that many who experience these disruptions have at stake their most intimate and important relationships, their jobs, and sometimes their very core identities (9).
His thesis is simply this: dogmatic religious certainty is a false god that cannot withstand the vicissitudes of a thoughtful, if turbulent, life. Enns contends that by “aligning faith in God with certainty about what we believe and needing to be right in order to maintain healthy faith . . . is what [he] means by the sin of certainty.” He continues: “It is a sin because this pattern of thinking sells God short by keeping the Creator captive to what we are able to comprehend—which is the very same problem the Israelites had when they were tempted to make images of God (aka idols) out of stone, metal, or wood” (18-19).
For Enns, the resolution to our misplaced worship of our own interpretations, our certainties that are limited by our own thought structures, comes from a revision of words like “faith” and “belief.” He suggests that these are not “what” or “that” words, “believing is not a thinking word . . . believing doesn’t focus on what someone believes in, but in whom one places his or her trust—namely God. Believing is a ‘who’ word” (93). This point carries the rest of his argument. Enns encourages his readers to turn away from placing faith in their own ideas about God and to trust Him inexplicably. He doesn’t see this re-vision of the fragile believer’s relationship to God as something we only rely on in our crises, yet it seems clear that our most purposeful leaning upon God will happen when we are in trouble. Enns describes this paradigm shift away from certainty about God as an “all in” kind of trust, it is an attitude and way of being in the world.
As I try to suggest in this review, there is some dissonance between the casual prose, the devotional style of writing and this very serious event so many believers experience. Enns pinpoints his faith implosion as a reaction to something said by the protagonist of “The Bridge to Terabithia.” My close friend once made the brilliant comparison of this moment to the one where Buzz Lightyear realizes he is a toy: out of the mouths of babes (or children’s movies), I guess.
I do not see Enns’ conversational language and personal anecdotes running any interference with his very serious argument. He does not soft-pedal the significance of our religious growing pains; in fact he validates them at every turn. His conversational style works nicely because it feels like a protest against the density of academic prose, and this complements his impatience for dogmatic certitude. Transrationalism presupposes a space for trusting something that was never strictly rational.
I see Enns’ text as a beautiful reminder and clarification to the religiously perplexed to go all in trusting God—whatever that means for these religiously perplexed brothers and sisters. Enns ends his book with the story of the woman caught in adultery. I like how he compares trusting correct thinking about God to adultery. it might remind us of the way Israel is compared to a harlot in the book of Hosea.
After reading *The Sin of Certainty,* I am motivated to go and sin no more.