Hazel McHaffie

The Sin of Certainty

The Sin of Certainty

I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood lately in my reflections on my sister’s life.  One important element in that upbringing was faith. We were brought up to espouse a fairly narrow set of doctrines, and to live within pretty rigid boundaries. This gave us a very firm set of moral values but, I now think, shrank God to a size our finite minds could comprehend.

In my adult life I’ve unravelled all this and now have a very different understanding of what’s important, and what holds up in the face of the challenges and tragedies that come our way in our day to day existence. And perhaps it’s this journey that inclined me towards a book by Peter Enns called The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires our Trust more than our ‘Correct’ Beliefs.

Peter Enns is an American Biblical scholar and theologian, and he has a delightfully readable, self-deprecating style of writing. He, too, grew up within a narrow set of beliefs, and indeed, was so wedded to his particular brand of Christianity that he studied theology and taught it with absolute confidence for decades. But gradually life knocked holes in his certainty about what was right, and this book explains why his outlook is now much changed.

You need to read the book to appreciate the evolution of this thinking, but suffice to say he asks how we can reconcile belief with the absurd reality of life? He doesn’t shy away from the big fundamental issues like:
– the collision of the Bible and science
– the portrayal of God as violent, vengeful, blood-thirsty, immoral, mean, and petty in the Bible
– the problem of injustice and suffering
– the issue of many faiths and denominations
– the problem of Christians treating each other badly
… and so on.
Questions that will resonate with many of us, I think.

And Enns concludes that there is no way our human minds can come up with all the answers. Far from being encapsulated in a creed, God is shrouded in mystery. Rather than relying on our own intellectual capacity to explain and believe, he concludes, we need to learn to trust. Trust in a God who is infinitely bigger and more awesome and more loving than anything our finite minds can conceive of. And trust regardless of what  challenges come our way. Trust anyway.  What’s more, he discovers, letting go of certainty can lead to us being much nicer people! And hey, I’m all for moving towards a world populated by nicer people.

Maybe my purpose on earth isn’t to be the thought police first and love others after all their ideas line up as they should. Maybe my first order of business is to risk my own sense of certainty about God and love others where and how they are no matter how they do on my theology exam.

I’ve hopefully learned (feel free to keep me honest here, people) that being right and winning isn’t the endgame here. Loving as God loves is.

He has replaced the old arrogant way of buttoning everything up, with a different way of re-imagining thinking about God and faith. A seven point plan:
1. Embrace modern understanding.
2. Accept we can’t get our minds around God.
3. Let go of certainty.
4. Adjust our expectations about what the Bible can deliver.
5. Be aware of God-moments.
6. Realise God is not a crutch.
7. Accept that struggling with faith is normal.

Right book, right place, right time.

Curiously, it’s one of the few books I’ve read twice!



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