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My line of work brings me into contact with all sorts of Christian pilgrims on different stages of their journey. The fact that I’m not exactly sure what my line of work is is beside the point, still, for me there is something holy and at the same time deeply human when people feel the freedom to dump their god on me. Recovering or recently-having-recovered Fundamentalists especially seem to find their way to me.

Just the other day, I spent a couple of hours with an old friend at the local pub–and, if you will permit me an aside, I’ve heard it said that theology should never be discussed without a pint in one’s hand, as this is as certain as things get in this life. People are honest and afterwards they just want to hug. Discussing theology and life in sterile rooms with stiff chairs tends to encourage grandstanding, and nothing gets accomplished other than protection of turf and deeper entrenchment of one’s own views.

So, like I was saying, we are in the local pub, and my friend, who’s been around the block once or twice in his life, and also has a strong scientific training, is having one heck of a time holding on to his faith.

His work in the sciences makes sense. He knows what will happen when he mixes certain chemicals together, or that gravity takes things down, or that the earth moves around the sun. He has a sure foundation to come back to that keeps many aspects of his life ordered and predictable.

His life, as the theologians say, has epistemological certainty–he can actually know certain things are true.

His crisis is that, now, after years of pushing it down into the lower back quadrant of his brain, he is seeing that theology doesn’t work that way. He does not have “epistemological certainty” about God.

God, unlike the other sectors of his life, doesn’t make sense.

He was raised to think that the Bible is the foundation, the go-to source for absolute certainty about God. But the problem now–and stop me if you’ve heard this one–is that he is reading the Bible closely, and his honest scientific mind won’t allow him to pass over those parts that make you go uh…yeah…that’s weird–and there’s no need to go into specifics here, but one of his issues is the contradictory histories of Israel in the Old Testament (Kings vs. Chronicles) and of Jesus in the Gospels, not to mention serious issues with that old bugaboo “science and faith.”

With epistemological certainty about virtually every area of life, it is hard for him to adjust that his faith–the center of his life–lacks that same certainty, that his faith requires faith.

So we talked about how, maybe, God isn’t a “thing” out there about which we have certainty–a topic of intellectual inquiry–but, as they say, he is “closer than your next breath,” a “person” (metaphorically speaking) with whom we are in a relationship, and relationships tend not to have epistemological certainty.

Maybe the whole God thing doesn’t work like these other dimensions of our lives. What if faith requires a letting go of our “knowing” and instead trusting, not because we are “certain” but whether or not we know as we are used to knowing?

What if God actually doesn’t put up with being treated like the back end of a logical argument or a calculus equation? What if epistemological certainty, which objectifies what is known, is precisely the very thing that needs to be repented of and surrendered?

What if this rationalist, modernist, Enlightenment driven view of what faith is–and which American Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism seem to hold to like a mother bear protecting her cubs–gets God wrong?

What if God, whom we believe is responsible for an expanding universe and also subatomic particles, can’t be “known” the way we are used to wanting to know? (A pleasant irony for me is that scientific knowledge is actually driving us to see the inadequacies of a “scientific” model of theology, but that’s another post, or 12.)

What if union with God in Christ is more than a theological proposition about which we can have epistemological certainty, but demands to be a lived reality that is more–if I may use the word–mystical, experiential, and immediate (e.g., John 17:20-24; Gal 2:20; 2 Pet 1:4 for you prooftexters out there) than an idea that has to be filtered through our heads first in order to be true?

Maybe, as Brazos author David G. Benner says, “If we listen with our heart and spirit, not simply with our mind, we might sense a longing to live in these larger places that lie beyond our present horizons.”

Maybe. At least I hope so. The other way doesn’t seem to be working all that well. I


Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.