Is It Really All About How You Feel?
Happy April Fool’s Day!
For the occasion, I picked up a copy of Peter Enn’s The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust more Than Our “Correct” Beliefs. I thought since it is April Fool’s Day, I would read something from the other side of the fence.
The so-called “Enns controversy” is some good and necessary background for the book. I read this book the same way a crash investigator looks at an accident--how did this happen? We can all find ourselves wrecked if we make our life all about how we feel.
Have you noticed Christians--today more than ever--explaining their actions by their feelings? We might ask, “So why did you do that?” The response is telling, “I felt that way.” It is as if we worship our emotions and that how we feel is the absolute lord of our life. Feeling a certain way is unassailable in postmodernism. You cannot argue with someone’s internal and subjective state because it is ultimate.
Being guided by your emotions can sound spiritual and even mystical. The only problem, and it is a major one, this is not the way God wants us to live. Postmodernism is all about objectifying the subjective. Which is exactly what we see happening in Enn’s book.
Enns relates his own journey from a fundamentalist Christian conservative seminary professor concerned for correct theology to a liberal Baptist university professor with a squishy amorphous theology. How did this happen?
Enns explains that his journey began by watching a Disney movie called The Bridge to Terabithia. In the movie the line “I seriously do not think God goes around damning people to hell. He’s too busy running all this” (page 3, emphasis his) was the trigger for him reconsider his biblical views. He believed the sound views he once held were like “antivirus software...working in the background to keep me from errors in thinking--until this stupid Disney movie snuck past and forced me to deal with it” (page 4-5). He describes these moments as “uh-oh” moments when our life experience does not seem to line up with our theology. In such moments he encourages us to trust our feelings rather than what we know to be true. Trust your experience of God, your conception, rather than how God is revealed in the Bible. For Enns, faith is not about certainty, even though Hebrews 11:1 and Luke 1:4 state the contrary.
Religious beliefs and systems are the problem for Enns. We create these systems and then worship the systems rather than trust the God who might not, or does not always, fit our system. When something in life happens that doesn’t fit our system, so-called “uh-oh” moments, Enns encourages readers to work through and compare the theology of experience with the theology of our doctrinal system and jettison the latter. “We let go of needing to be right and trust God regardless of what we feel we know or don’t know...The key to seeing this unsettling discomfort as a sacred rather than damning task is to decouple our faith in God from our thoughts about God. That way faith doesn’t rest on correct thinking” (page 16).
Fundamentalists are particular targets of Enns’ criticism since they discourage this kind of theological and experiential inquiry and often shame those who engage in it. (Don't ask, just believe!)
What is commendable in this book is the idea that we shouldn’t be more enamored with our theology than God himself. That we should trust God and not our “correct” theology. This is especially true in the highly precise theological environment that Enns left (that I am in). Here doctrinal correctness can shut the door of the church to skeptics and the inquisitive. Churches should be safe places to ask questions and receive substantive answers communicated in a loving and patient manner.
Since Enns is a professor at a liberal Baptist university, I would imagine students assigned to read this book would embrace it. It is written like a series of blog posts and very heavy on the singular personal pronoun. He is real, raw, and vulnerable in his sharing of his experience and struggles, which is enough to convince people more concerned about emotions than truth, logic, or evidence.
Those who have never been allowed to doubt God or question aspects of the Christian faith, will find support for what is considered verboten in some churches. In this book. Enns wants well-established doctrines questioned and skeptical behavior normalized. Doubters and dissenters are encouraged to question long-standing Christian orthodoxy especially if circumstances don’t make sense. Rather than a sincere inquiry, this is inquiry based on feelings.
As I reflected on the journey Enns has made, I couldn’t help but think he has been too sheltered. Too sheltered in his growing up in the church, too sheltered in not asking difficult questions, and too sheltered in perhaps not having really lost and suffered until later in life (page 174). It seems he is reacting against his disappointment in a kind of fundamentalist fairy tale version of Christianity he bought into that for many Christians (especially the persecuted) is totally foreign anyway.
Christianity is full of confounding moments when theology and life don’t seem to match up. “Seem” is the operative word, for we should not take perception for reality and feelings for truth. People heavily influenced by postmodernism may espouse experience as truth and their feelings as gospel, but reality is inescapable and freeing (John 8:32).
Angst in our moments of grief and trial can drive us “further up and further in” (to use C. S. Lewis’ phrase) to biblical Christianity rather than off the reservation. When we are confounded, we trust in what we know rather than, as Enns suggest, making what we known unknown.
Rather than causing us to question, life’s uh-oh moments can create certainty about what matters most. Certainty can be the leverage we need to travel the distance over the unknown and through the confounding. We will not do so unscathed, but at least our biblical faith will be intact.
If life is all about what we feel and if what we feel is ultimate, no wonder Enns now denies doctrines he used to espouse (for example: the veracity of Genesis 1-11 and the historicity of Adam and Eve). Leaving what used to be considered true is not forward moving, it is not sophisticated academically, and it is not nuanced. It is swinging hard, missing, and striking out on the opportunities God gives us to trust in what we know to be certain in the face of uncertainty. (photo credit: Amazon.com)