Pete Enns https://www.peteenns.com The Bible For Normal People Mon, 21 Aug 2017 12:09:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.1 A Thought on Young People Dropping Out of Faith https://www.peteenns.com/thought-young-people-dropping-faith/ https://www.peteenns.com/thought-young-people-dropping-faith/#comments Mon, 21 Aug 2017 12:09:21 +0000 https://www.peteenns.com/?p=12758 They have lost interest in what amounts to a shallow, quasi-biblical expression of Christian faith, one that focuses far too much on the not yet. Ironically, in their critique they are putting their finger on something.

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I‘ve heard from more than a few young people who have left the faith of their youth that they did so because the answers they were hearing were not for the questions they were asking.

As an official old person (my benchmark is when you start getting AARP mailings), I was unprepared to hear that one of those questions is “What happens to us after we die?” As a 20-something put it, “My generation doesn’t think that way.”

“WHAAAAAT? Isn’t this the whole point?!”

I’ve pondered that for a while and I now my response would be “good for you.”

I see this shift as a corrective to the type of Christianity they were raised in—where the afterlife is the pressing question, the heart of the gospel message—and a move toward a more biblical-looking faith, where (you might want to be sitting down) afterlife seems to be, at best, of occasional interest.

Afterlife is mentioned in the Bible, of course, and perhaps for that reason the correction of this generation is more of a hyper-correction—swinging to the other extreme to balance things out. Such broad swings are needed from time to time as we flawed humans continue to try to come to terms with the mystery of faith.

Nevertheless, the idea that a core focus of the New Testament is on the afterlife is certainly an extreme position. The truer focus is on the salvation of God here and now, what difference all this Jesus and kingdom of God business makes now. [PSA: A study of how “save/salvation/savior” are used in the New Testament really drives this point home.]

I think the corrective is needed, and since it’s not coming from the institutional church, perhaps it needs to come from outside of it. These young “nones,” the formerly-Christian-and-now-somewhat-spiritual, have their finger on something. They are deeply concerned about justice, peace, and the value of all human life, regardless of labels we assign or walls we build.

They have lost interest in what amounts to a shallow, quasi-biblical expression of Christian faith, one that focuses far too much on the not yet. Ironically, in their critique they are putting their finger on something: what they are looking for and not finding in the faith of their youth is actually deeply rooted in the biblical story.

Maybe we should listen.

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11 Recurring Mistake Evangelicals Make in the Evolution Debate https://www.peteenns.com/11-recurring-mistake-evangelicals-make-evolution-debate/ https://www.peteenns.com/11-recurring-mistake-evangelicals-make-evolution-debate/#comments Wed, 16 Aug 2017 10:49:40 +0000 https://www.peteenns.com/?p=12755 The fact that evolution causes a theological problem does not mean evolution is wrong. It means we have a theological problem.

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TEAI began getting seriously involved in the Christianity/evolution “controversy” in 2009, which led to my 2012 book The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins. At that time and since, the debate in the evangelical world over the historical Adam continues in a predictable manner: the theological needs of evangelical theology lead to patterns of responses that are geared more toward protecting that theology rather than addressing the serious theological issues introduced by evolutionary science and modern biblical scholarship on Genesis.

Below are the 11 recurring mistakes I see in the discussion. They are in no particular order.

1. It’s all about the authority of the Bible.

I can understand why this claim might have rhetorical effect, but this issue is not about biblical authority. It’s about how the Bible is to be interpreted. It’s about hermeneutics.

It’s always about hermeneutics.

I know that in some circles “hermeneutics” is code for “let’s find a way to get out of the plain meaning of the text.” But even a so-called “plain” or “literal” reading of the Bible is a hermeneutic—an approach to interpretation.

Literalism is a hermeneutical decision (even if implicit) as much as any other approach, and so needs to be defended as much as any other. Literalism is not the default godly way to read the Bible that preserves biblical authority. It is not the “normal” way of reading the Bible that gets a free pass while all others must face the bar of judgment.

So, when someone says, “I don’t read Genesis 1-3 as historical events, and here are the reasons why,” that person is not “denying biblical authority.” That person may be wrong, but that would have to be judged on some basis other than the ultimate conversation-stopper, “You’re denying biblical authority.”

The Bible is not just “there.” It has to be interpreted. The issue is which interpretations are more defensible than others. Hence, appealing to biblical authority does not tell us how to interpret the Bible. That requires a lot more work. It always has.

“Biblical authority” is a predisposition to the text. It is not a hermeneutic.

2. You’re giving science more authority than the Bible.

This, too, may have some rhetorical effect, but it misses the point.

To say that science gives us a more accurate understanding of human origins than the Bible is not putting science “over” the Bible—unless we assume that the Bible is prepared to give us scientific information.

There are numerous compelling reasons to think that Genesis is not prepared to provide such information—namely the fact that Genesis was written at least 2500 years ago by and for people, who were not thinking in modern scientific terms.

One might respond, “But Genesis was inspired by God, and so needs to be true.”

That assertion assumes that “truth” is essentially synonymous with historical accuracy and that a text inspired by God in antiquity would, by virtue of its being the word of God, need to give scientific rather than ancient accounts of origins.

These assumptions would need to be vigorously defended, not merely asserted as unimpeachable fact.

Lying behind this error in thinking is the unstated assumption that the Bible, as the word of God, must predetermine the conclusions that scientific investigations can arrive at on any subject matter the Bible addresses.

To make this assumption is to run roughshod not only over commonsense, but over the very notion of the contextual and historically conditioned nature of Scripture.

If Scripture were truly given priority over science in matters open to scientific inquiry, the church would have never gotten past Galileo’s discovery that the earth revolves around the sun.

3. But the church has never questioned the historicity of Adam. 

This claim is largely true—though it obscures the symbolic value especially early interpreters found in the Garden story, but I digress.

On the whole, this statement is correct. It is also irrelevant.

Knowing what the history of the church has thought about Adam is not an argument for Adam’s historicity, as some seem to think, since the history of the church did not have evolution or any scientific discoveries to deal with until recently.

That’s the whole point of this debate—evolution and ancient texts that put the biblical story in its cultural context are new factors we have to address.

Appealing to periods in church history before these things were on the table as authoritative and determinative voices in the discussion simply makes no sense. What Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and the Puritans assumed about human origins is not relevant—and to say so is not a dismissal of the study of church history, historical theology, etc., but to put them in their place.

Calling upon church history does not solve the problem; it simply restates it. Appealing to church history does not end the discussion; it just reminds us why we need to have the discussion in the first place.

4. Both Paul and the writer of Genesis thought Adam was a real person, the first man. Denying the historicity of Adam means you think you know better than the biblical writers.

More rhetorical punch, but this assertion simply sidesteps a fundamental interpretive challenge all of us need to address on one level or another.

All biblical writers were limited by their culture and time in how they viewed the physical world around them. This is hardly a novel notion of inspiration, and premodern theologians from Augustine to Calvin were quite adamant about the point.

No responsible doctrine of inspiration can deny that the biblical authors were thoroughly encultured, ancient people, who spoke as ancient people. Inspiration does not cancel out their “historical particularity,” no matter how inconvenient.

Any notion of inspiration must embrace and engage the notion that God, by his Spirit, speaks within ancient categories.

We do indeed “know more” than the biblical writers about some things. That alone isn’t an alarming theological problem in principle. But that principle has become a problem because it now touches on an issue that some feel is of paramount theological importance—the historical Adam.

The stakes have been raised in ways no one expected, for now we understand that the ancient biblical authors’ understanding of human origins is also part of their ancient way of thinking. Should the principle be abandoned when it becomes theologically uncomfortable?

As I see it, the whole discussion is over how our “knowing more” about human origins can be in conversation with the biblical theological metanarrative. This is the pressing theological challenge before us and it needs to be addressed deliberately and without rancor, not avoided or obscured.

Acknowledging that we know more than biblical writers about certain things is not to disrespect Scripture. We are merely recognizing that the good and wise God had far less difficulty with ancient categories of thinking than some of us do.

5. Genesis as whole, including the Adam story, is a historical narrative and therefore demands to be taken as an historical account.

It is a common, but nevertheless erroneous, assumption that Genesis, as a “historical narrative,” narrates history.

Typically the argument is mounted on two related fronts:

(1) Genesis mentions by name people and places; we are told that people are doing things and going places. That sounds like a sequence of events, and therefore should be taken as “historical.”

(2) Genesis uses a particular Hebrew verbal form (waw consecutive plus imperfect, for you Hebrew nerds) that is used throughout Old Testament narratives to present a string of events—so-and-so did this, then this, then went there and said this, then went there and did that.

As the argument goes, we are bound to conclude that a story that presents people doing things in a sequence is an indication that we are dealing with history.

That may be the case, but the sequencing of events in a story alone does not in and of itself imply historicity. Every story, whether real or imagined, has people doing things in sequences of events.

This does not mean that Genesis can’t be a historical narrative. It only means that the fact that Genesis presents people doing things in sequence is not the reason for drawing that conclusion.

The Lord of the Rings masterfully records in great and vivid detail people (and others) doing things in sequence. But is it still pure fiction. A Tale of Two Cities does the same, but that doesn’t make it a reliable guide to historical events.

The connection between Genesis and history is a complicated, multifaceted issue that many have pondered in great depth. The issue certainly cannot be settled simply by reading the text of Genesis and observing that people do things in time.

6. Evolution is a different “religion” (i.e., “naturalism” or “Darwinism”) and therefore hostile to Christianity.

Certainly for some evolution functions as a different “religion,” hostile to Christianity or any believe in a world beyond the material and random chance.

But that does not mean that all those who hold to evolution as the true explanation of human origins think of evolution as a religion. Nor does it mean that evolutionary theory requires one to adopt an atheistic “naturalistic” or “Darwinistic” worldview.

Christian evolutionists do not see their work in evolutionary science as spiritual adultery. Christian evolutionists take it as a matter of deep faith that evolution is God’s way of creating, the intricacies of which we cannot (ever) be fully comprehend.

In other words, “evolution=naturalistic atheism,” although rhetorically appealing, does not describe Christians who hold to evolution. Their convictions should be taken at face value, rather than suggesting that they have been duped or are compromising their faith Christians.

7. Since Adam is necessary for the Christian faith, we know evolution can’t be true.

Evolution causes theological problems for Christianity. There is no question of that. We cannot simply graft evolution onto evangelical theology and claim that we have reconciled Christianity and evolution.

The theological and philosophical problems for the Christian faith that evolution brings to the table are hardly superficial. They require much thought and a multi-disciplinary effort to work through. For example:

  • Is death a natural part of life or unnatural, a punishment of God for disobedience?
  • What does it mean to be human and made in God’s image?
  • What kind of God creates a process where the fittest survive?
  • How can God hold people responsible for their sin if there was no first trespass by a first human couple?

A literal, historical, Adam answers these and other questions. Without an Adam, we are left to find other answers. Nothing is gained by papering over this dilemma.

But, here is my point: The fact that evolution causes a theological problem does not mean evolution is wrong. It means we have a theological problem.

Normally, we all know that we cannot judge if something is true on the basis of whether that truth is disruptive to us. We know it is wrong to assume one’s position and then evaluate data on the basis of that predetermined conclusion.

We are also normally very quick to point out this logical fallacy in others. If an atheist would defend his/her own belief system by saying, “I reject this datum because it does not fit my way of thinking,” we would be quick to pounce.

The truth of a historical Adam is not judged by how necessary such an Adam appears to be for theology. The proper response to evolution is to work through the theological challenges it presents (as many theologians and philosophers are doing), not dismiss the challenge itself.

8. Science is changing, therefore it’s all up for grabs.

Science is a self-critical entity, and so it should not surprise us to see developments, even paradigm shifts, in the near and distant future.

Is the universe expanding or oscillating? Are there multiple universes? How many dimensions are there? What about dark matter and dark energy? How many hominids constituted the gene pool from which all alive today have descended? And so forth.

But the fact that science is a changing discipline does not mean that all evolutionary theory is hanging on by a thread, ready to be dismissed at the next turn.

Also, the fact that science is self-correcting doesn’t mean that, if we hold on long enough, sooner or later, the changing nature of science will eventually disprove evolution and vindicate a literal view of Genesis.

Change, development, even paradigm shifts in scientific work, are sure to come, and to point that out is hardly a penetrating insight: that is how science works. But further discoveries will take us forward, not backward.

9. There are scientists who question evolution, and this establishes the credibility of the biblical view of human origins.

Individual, creative, innovative thinking often leads to true advances in the human intellectual drama. I would say that without these pioneering voices pushing the boundaries of knowledge, there would be no progress.

However, the presence of minority voices in and of itself does not constitute a counterargument to evolution.

Particularly in the age of the Internet, it is not hard at all to find someone with a Ph.D. in a relevant field who lends a countervoice to mainstream thinking. This is true in the sciences, in biblical studies, and in any academic field.

One can always find someone out there who thinks he or she has cracked the code, hidden to most others, and disproved the majority. And, in my experience, too often the promotion of minority voices is laced with a fair dose of conspiracy theory, where the claim is made that one’s view has been ostracized simply because it challenges the establishment.

Those without training in the relevant fields are particularly susceptible to following a minority voice if it confirms their own thinking. But simply having a Ph.D., having research experience, or even having written papers on minority positions, does not establish the credibility of minority positions.

The truthfulness of minority claims must be tested over time by a body of peers, not simply accepted because those claims exist and affirm our own positions.

10. Evidence for and against evolution is open to all and can be assessed by anyone.

Since evolutionary theory is the product of scientific investigation, it follows that those best suited to evaluate the scientific data and arguments are those trained in the relevant sciences—or better those who are practicing scientists and therefore are keeping up with developments.

The years of training and experience required of those who work in fields that touch on evolution rules out of bounds the views of those who lack such training.

This is certainly the case with those who have no scientific training whatsoever beyond basic high school and college courses. I certainly fall into that category, which is why I don’t feel I can enter into scientific discussions, let alone critique them.

Engaging scientific issues requires serious scientific training—which only a fraction of the earth’s population can claim to have.

My point is that most of us do not have a place at the table where the assessment of evidence is the topic of discussion. I include here philosophers of science, historians of science, and sociologists of science. These disciplines look at the human and historical conditions within which scientific work takes place, this giving us the big picture of what is happening behind the scenes intellectually and culturally.

Science is not a “neutral” endeavor, and these fields are invaluable of putting science into a broader intellectual context. I am all for it.

But I have often seen practitioners of these disciplines, without any high-level scientific training, overstep their boundaries by passing judgment on evolution on the basis of the big-picture context these disciplines provide.

Evolution cannot be judged from 30,000 feet. You still have to deal with the scientific data in detail.

I think I stand on very solid ground when I say that these various disciples need to be in conversation with each other, not one standing in judgment over the other.

Simply put, you have to know what you are talking about if you want to debunk evolution. If you want to take on the scientific consensus, you have to argue better science that stands the test of peer review, not better ideology.

11. Believing in evolution means giving up your evangelical identity.

Many arguments I have heard against evolution come down to this: my evangelical ecclesiastical group has never accepted it, and so, to remain in this group, I am bound to reject it too.

It is rarely stated quite this bluntly, but that’s the bottom line.

But, as is well known, in recent decades the term “evangelical” has become a moving target. Is evangelicalism a stable, unchanging movement, or is it flexible enough to be open to substantive change?

Or an even more fundamental consideration: should maintaining evangelical identity at all costs even be the primary concern?

These may be the most important questions for evangelicals to consider when entering into the discussion over the historical Adam.

[A version of this post has appeared now and then beginning in 2011 and most recently June 2016. Interested readers can find more on my take on all this in the Bible and evolution on this website and in The Evolution of Adam (2012)]

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B4NP Podcast Episode 17: “The Bible, Evolution, and Christian Faith” with Denis Lamoureux https://www.peteenns.com/b4np-podcast-episode-17-bible-evolution-christian-faith-denis-lamoureux/ https://www.peteenns.com/b4np-podcast-episode-17-bible-evolution-christian-faith-denis-lamoureux/#comments Mon, 14 Aug 2017 11:00:47 +0000 https://www.peteenns.com/?p=12750 Today our guest is Denis Lamoureux and our topic is one that never seems to stay away for very long, evolution and Christian faith. Lamoureux holds three earned doctoral degrees (dentistry, theology, and biology) and is associate professor of science and religion at St. Joseph’s College in the University of Alberta. His books include Evolutionary Creation: A […]

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Today our guest is Denis Lamoureux and our topic is one that never seems to stay away for very long, evolution and Christian faith. Lamoureux holds three earned doctoral degrees (dentistry, theology, and biology) and is associate professor of science and religion at St. Joseph’s College in the University of Alberta. His books include Evolutionary Creation: A Christian Approach to Evolution, I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution, and most recently Evolution: Scripture and Nature Say Yes.

 

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Teaching Bible to College Students (It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time) https://www.peteenns.com/teaching-bible-college-students-seemed-like-good-idea-time/ https://www.peteenns.com/teaching-bible-college-students-seemed-like-good-idea-time/#comments Fri, 11 Aug 2017 12:25:56 +0000 https://www.peteenns.com/?p=12742 I've had to think very intentionally about what I am trying to do in these intro classes, and it boils down to this: respect the students where they are while at the same time embracing my responsibility to not leave them there.

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“Your job, Enns, should you choose to accept it, is to face 35 18-year-olds twice a week and say something meaningful and not boring about the Bible, challenging them while and the same time not destroying them. As always, should you blow it, we will make believe we do not know you. Good luck. This tape will self-destruct in 5 seconds.”

After teaching seminary and doctoral students for 18 years, I’ve been teaching Bible courses to college students for the last 6. So, of course, this makes me an expert: I know enough to know it’s a tough gig. I love it, but it’s tough.

I’ve had to do a lot of thinking about how to pull this off—usually on the fly. Teaching Bible in a Christian college can be tricky, especially introductory courses (I teach both OT and NT Intro), because the students are in so many different places.

Some arrive with little or no knowledge at all of the Bible. Others have been around the biblical block a few times and walk in bored silly–little do they know, but still, they’ve heard the Bible stories.

Others are eagerly awaiting the chance to study the Bible on a deeper level. A few are already conversant with some aspects of the academic study of the Bible (authorship issues, historical problems, etc.) and are now looking to explore these issues more deeply.

Add to this the psychological/spiritual factor. Some students are in searching mode concerning their faith, while others have thus far in their lives not been encouraged to make the faith of their parents their own.

Some are a bit nervous about leaving familiar territory, which causes stress, while others are on autopilot and just want to pass the course and get on with things. And I don’t need to mention all the other predictable factors of college life that pull and stretch first year students beyond what they thought was possible.

All this diversity in the same class of about 35 students.

Teaching these students is the most challenging teaching experience I have ever had—but also abundantly rewarding.

I have the privilege and responsibility of being in on the ground level, trying to bridge the gap between where they are now (collectively and individually) and where I think they need to be at the end of the semester—not to mention modeling a path of lifelong study of Scripture and walking with God.

I’ve had to think very intentionally about what I am trying to do in these intro classes, and it boils down to this: respect the students where they are while at the same time embracing my responsibility to not leave them there.

My ultimate goal is spiritual formation, which means finding a regular, rhythmic, balance between affirming and challenging the students in their present state of biblical understanding and spiritual development—don’t blow them way with concepts they are not ready for but don’t baby them either.

In other words, treat them like adults in the process of becoming—35 students from different backgrounds, emotional states, and spiritual experiences.

It also means being available—in class and out of class—to help them work through potential crises of faith that invariably come up when intellectual and spiritual growth happens, as well as leading further onward those who are more ready and so inclined to proceed into the unfamiliar.

That’s a good thing for parents to remember, too. A deeply challenged faith is inevitable in life, and regardless of where your children go to college, it is likely to happen there. Let it be at a Christian college that gets it.

Perhaps as important as anything, I try to give students permission to sit with their questions, that their faith doesn’t depend on arriving quickly at firm conclusions about matters that have captured the imagination and energy of brilliant minds for two and a half millennia.

Rather, I want model for my students what most have already experienced on some level, that a maturing faith never free of questions, uncertainty, and doubt—and God understands and loves them just as they are.

This, as much as anything, is a huge relief to young men and women trying to figure out the big questions of meaning and faith that come up at this stage in their lives.

TSOCPulling this off is tricky and I am by no means successful day in and day out. And it certainly can’t be scripted. You have to wing it and just sort of know when it is happening, and if you ask the students they will tell you, believe me.

Sometimes they don’t even need to be asked. Which leads me to my last point:

Intellectual and spiritual growth at a Christian college means creating a culture of transparency, vulnerability, and commitment to community.

I’m still working on all this.

***I post a similar reflection I explore in more detail the nature of the Bible and what it means to understand it in Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker, 2005/2015) and The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014). I look at the spiritually formative role of uncertainty in The Sin of Certainty, (HarperOne, 2016).***

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8 Thoughts on Staying Christian Anyway https://www.peteenns.com/8-thoughts-staying-christian-anyway/ https://www.peteenns.com/8-thoughts-staying-christian-anyway/#comments Mon, 07 Aug 2017 11:42:06 +0000 https://www.peteenns.com/?p=12716 I have begun to see that those who cry out to God may be perched at the very point where true communion with God begins, because they are in the unique position of surrendering fully from self to God.

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In my last post, we looked at your 5 biggest challenges to staying Christian from a survey I took a few years ago.

Now let’s move on and talk about moving forward amid those challenges.

I’m a little nervous about using language of “moving on” and “moving forward,” since that could imply minimizing the challenges“Oh that’s not really a problem. Here’s the answer, now move on.” I avoid that common pattern like mold on bread.

To get us started, below are my present thoughts on addressing and living with the challenges to staying Christian. In the comments section you can interact with them or add your own.

To be extra clear, I am not in any way, shape, or form suggesting that what I think is mandate for the rest of you, an attempt at an iron-clad defense of Christianity, or an etched-in-stone “here I stand” statement. But this is where I am. You are, of course, free to accept, ignore, modify, be bored, whatever.

I number them as separate items (because I’m German), but these thoughts overlap.

1. I don’t think the life of Christian faith is fundamentally “rational,” by which I mean it cannot be captured fully by our rational faculties. I have long felt that a God who can be comfortably captured in our minds is no God at all. I see our sense of what is rational as often more the problem than the solution. I am not for one minute saying “reason doesn’t matter.” I am using reason as I write this. I read and write books. I mean only that the life of the mind has its place as an aspect of the life of faith, not its dominant component. 

In other words, I believe that faith in a true God is necessarily trans-rational (not anti-rational) and mystical. I try to remember that as I work through intellectual challenges—and I mean “work through,” not avoid.

2. Related to #1, I see the two pillars of the Christian faith as expressing the mystery of faith: incarnation and resurrection. Though conscious of reductionism, I see these two elements as making Christianity what it is, and both dodge our powers of thought, speech, and “rational” defense. I don’t mind saying I find it strangely comforting that walking the path of Christian faith means being confronted moment by moment with what is counterintuitive and ultimately beyond my comprehension to understand or articulate.

3. In dealing with the various challenges of reading Scripture—especially as a biblical scholar—I try to keep #s 1 and 2 before me. Over the years, I have expressed this myself in terms of an “incarnational analogy” between the Bible and Christ: just as Christ was a fully human participant in 1st century culture, so too does the Bible bear the marks of full and unfettered participation in the ancient cultures in which it was produced. I am thus reminded to expect Scripture to reflect an ancient, other-worldly, mindset rather than my own categories of thought.

4. I have had my share of “God moments” in my life. I’d like to have more—maybe I’m just not paying attention. I know that any alleged subjective experience of God can be explained otherwise, but I have had some experiences that lead me to question those alternate explanations.

5. “The things I want to do, I don’t do, and the things I don’t want to do, I end up doing.” I feel there is something deeply wrong with this picture, and the Gospel story explains me. Let me stress here especially that this is no “proof” of Christianity. In fact, it is my Christianized self that even leads me to phrase my internal struggles by co-opting Paul’s language from Romans. But for me, this is a piece of the puzzle that becomes more evident the older I get.

6. Embedded in some of these points is my growing conviction that “journey” and “pilgrimage” are powerful metaphors for the Christian life. Hence, I expect at times to be unsettled, uncertain, fearful, and other sorts of things that help remind me that who I am, where I am, and what I think do not define the nature of reality. Ironically, I feel exploring my own realities more deeply are a means by which I can learn to relativize them.

7. I have come to believe that periods of struggling and doubt are such common experiences of faith, including in the Bible (see Lament Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes), that there is something to be learned from such periods, however long in duration they might be. I feel it is part of the mystery of faith that things normally do not line up entirely, and so when they don’t, it is not a signal to me that the journey has ended but that I am on it.

8. This final thought only occurred to me recently, and I am not sure if I am gaining some insight in the second half of life or if I am missing something. As a brain-oriented person, I have tended in my life to look down on those who say things like, “If I didn’t have my faith, I couldn’t make it through this,” or “If God isn’t real, I don’t know if I can hold it together.” These sorts of sentiments always struck me as irrational, for the weak-minded, those who “needed” a crutch. If Christianity is true it has to be for reasons other than “I need it to be true.”

In recent years, however, I have begun to see this from a different angle—and this ties in very much with #1. I have begun to see that those who cry out to God may be perched at the very point where true communion with God begins, because they are in the unique position of surrendering fully from self to God.

Those who truly suffer have no where else to go, which means they have fully surrendered—including giving up anything under their control, any “reasons” for holding on. Perhaps it is only in suffering that we can die to ourselves and put our (overactive, western, rationalistic) life of the mind in its proper place. We just cry for help, free of what we have constructed of God.

I know I keep returning to the idea of mystery, but that is where I am (and where I am is what this post is about).

Anyway, this is how I am at present living with the genuine challenges to the Christian faith.  Take all this for what you feel it’s worth. Now it’s your turn—just try not to be as longwinded as me.

[Comments are moderated and may take 24 hours to appear. Since the original post, I developed these ideas more in The Sin of Certainty See also Inspiration and Incarnation.]

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5 Challenges to Staying Christian https://www.peteenns.com/5-challenges-staying-christian/ https://www.peteenns.com/5-challenges-staying-christian/#comments Thu, 03 Aug 2017 10:51:36 +0000 https://www.peteenns.com/?p=12701 To utter one's deepest fears about their faith is for some only slightly less risky that buying heroin on a street corner, and such fear is too common a phenomenon in the various iterations of conservative Protestantism, i.e., for traditions rooted in the importance of detailed and absolute knowledge on a wide range of topics.

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A few years ago on this blog I conducted a survey of sorts. I asked my readers to tell me their one or two biggest challenges to staying Christian. Including private emails, I got about 300 responses, many of them heartfelt and moving. I honor your courage and honesty!

My intention for writing the post was to give people the space to express themselves in a spirit of trust and group support for the ultimate purpose of encouraging a continued walk of faith, however that might be configured in each person’s experience, community, or theological tradition.

Since that original post, I continue to get a lot of emails from people who want to express their faith struggles, and so I thought I’d repost the results and give a new batch of readers a chance to chime in.

To utter one’s deepest doubts fears about their faith is for some only slightly less risky that buying heroin on a street corner, and such fear is too common a phenomenon in the various iterations of conservative Protestantism, i.e., for traditions that value intellectual certitude as a foundation for faith. For a variety of reasons (which need not detain us here), this approach to the life of faith is not viable for a considerable element of the Christian population.

Talking about it should be encouraged, not squelched, for it unloads a burden, which is a first step to at least getting some perspective.

To be clear, in your comments, if you want them to get posted, I am asking you to focus on what you see as challenges and how you navigate them (or don’t), and not on what you think others should do or not do about them. Don’t solve the issue, don’t defend the faith—they’ve probably heard all the solutions, anyway. Respect the journey.

Neither is this the place for former Christians to flex their muscles and inform the rest of us that these challenges lead to one and only one “logical” conclusion. Quick and easy answers in either direction dishonor the experience.

As you can see below, I collated the responses under 5 categories, though these should not be seen as rankings  (except for the first, I suppose, which seems to be the overarching stressor). I am simply summarizing what I saw as the themes that came up.

So here are the 5 main challenges I saw in your comments.

1. The Bible, namely inerrancy. This was the most commonly cited challenge, whether implicitly or explicitly, and it lay behind most of the others mentioned.  The pressure many of you expressed was the expectation of holding specifically to an inerrant Bible in the face of such things as biblical criticism, contradictions, implausibilities in the biblical story, irrelevance for life (its ancient context), and the fact that the Bible is just plain confusing.

2. The conflict between the biblical view of the world and scientific models. In addition to biological evolution, mentioned were psychology, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology. What seems to fuel this concern is not simply the notion that Scripture and science offer incompatible models for cosmic, geological, and human origins, but that scientific models are verifiable, widely accepted, and likely correct, thus consigning the Bible to something other than a reliable description of reality.

3. Where is God?  A number of you, largely in emails, wrote of personal experiences that would tax to the breaking point anyone’s faith in a living God who is just, attentive, and loving. Mentioned were many forms of random/senseless suffering and God’s absence or “random” presence (can’t count on God being there).

4. How Christians behave. Tribalism, insider-outsider thinking; hypocrisy, power; feeling misled, sheltered, lied to by leaders; a history of immoral and unChristian behavior towards others (e.g., Crusades, Jewish pogroms). In short, practically speaking, commenters experienced that Christians too often exhibit the same behaviors as everyone else, which is more than simply an unfortunate situation but is interpreted as evidence that Christianity is not true—more a tool to gain power than a present spiritual reality.

5. The exclusivism of Christianity. Given 1-4 above, and in our ever shrinking world, can Christians claim that their way is the only way?

These issues aren’t new. We all know that. They keep coming up, which is sort of the point. I understand that some may feel they have found final and universally applicable answers to these issues, but the fact that these issues don’t go suggests that the answers aren’t all that persuasive.

Whatever the reason, in my opinion, opening up and talking about these things with others on the Christian path should not be the exception but the rule.

[Comments are moderated and may take 24 hours to appear. Since the original post, I developed these ideas more in The Bible Tells Me So and The Sin of Certainty.]

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What the Old Testament Has that the New Testament Doesn’t https://www.peteenns.com/old-testament-new-testament-doesnt/ https://www.peteenns.com/old-testament-new-testament-doesnt/#comments Tue, 01 Aug 2017 11:23:29 +0000 https://www.peteenns.com/?p=12696 If all we read is the NT and we are also living though a period of God's absence, abandonment, a period of doubt, a dark night of the soul, we may likely conclude that there is something very wrong with us for feeling this way.

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The OT has something of core spiritual value that the NT doesn’t—the repeated observation and lamentation over God’s absence, the sense of God’s abandonment.

The OT, as we all know, has a dark side—what Walter Brueggemann calls Israel’s “counter testimony.”

In Israel’s “main testimony,” the story from Genesis through 2 Kings (from creation to exile), Israel’s plan for what it means to be the people God is laid out (albeit with all sorts of interesting and unexpected bumps and grooves): obedience to God leads to life in the land while disobedience leads to divine punishment and eventually exile.

The blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience are laid out clearly, if not graphically, in Deuteronomy 27-30, and the same general idea in poetic form can be seen in Psalm 1.

But a key dimension of Israel’s tradition is the observation that the “rules of the game” that God insists on can’t be counted on.

Psalm 73, for example, notices that—contrary to God’s promise—the wicked prosper uncomfortably often while the righteous endure long days of suffering. Psalm 88 is a cry for help to God, but God is a no-show—darkness is the psalmist’s only companion (see the last verse). Right next door is Psalm 89, which in effect calls God a liar for failing to keep his promise that David’s line will continue forever (v. 36). The throne is empty now that Israel is in exile. God is, therefore, a promise-breaker.

And don’t get me started on Ecclesiastes and Job. Qohelet, the main character in Ecclesiastes, is seriously depressed and not a little ticked off at how God has set up the world. We go about our work day after day, it’s all the same, and we never actually have anything to show for it, because, at the end of the day, you can’t take it with you. Death cancels out all our achievements. “This is how God has set up the world, so don’t talk to me about blessing and curses, rewards and punishments.”

And nowhere in the book is there any attempt to correct Qohelet’s theology. In fact, the end of the book pronounces Qohelet as “wise” precisely because his words are painful, like spiked sticks used for driving sheep and cattle.

And poor Job. “Suffering” is too shallow a word to describe how his life utterly obliterated the neat world of “actions have consequences” that we see in Israel’s main testimony. Job’s friends try again and again to help Job see the light: “You’re suffering Job. Read your Bible. You suffer because there is some sin in your life. There must be. Actions have consequences.”

But throughout Job responds, “I don’t care what you say. I didn’t do anything to deserve this.” Even though Job’s friends merely repeated the “actions have consequences” idea that is hammered home elsewhere in the OT, at the end of the book God himself turns to Eliphaz, one of Job’s friends, and says, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7). Even God isn’t held to the “biblical teaching” of the main testimony.

My point is that this sort of honest and even unnerving grappling with “what in the world God is up to and why should any of us bother with this God who lays out a plan that doesn’t seem to work in the day to day world” is all over the OT.

But you don’t find it in the NT.

In a word, the OT deals with exile. The NT doesn’t. The NT has a more triumphalist tone. In Christ, God has shown up definitively, finally. The NT writers tell us that in the gospel

The NT no doubt grapples with the question of suffering—no happy clappy world does the NT present—but we do not see the same anguish over the sense of God’s prolonged absence and abandonment that we see in the OT.

The exception is Jesus’s own cry of God’s abandonment in the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” which is a citation of Psalm 22:1, one of those “Where are you when we actually need you, God?” psalms uttered by the ancient Israelites—the crucified Jew’s abandonment by God sums up and embodies Israel’s experience throughout much of its own history.

Back to my main point: the sense of God’s absence, that anyone who has been a Christian for more than 45 minutes can attest to, finds its biblical echo in the OT, not in the NT.

The NT, after all, tells the “end” of Israel’s story—in the sense that “this is where the story of Israel winds up.” The purpose of the NT is not to raise the specter of God’s abandonment but the trumpet call of God’s triumph for Israel and all the world.

But in my experience, this is precisely the challenge for those who don’t feel triumphant.

If all we read is the NT, we are left with a sense that, however difficult things may be at the moment, stick with it: Jesus has come and he is coming back very soon.

There is no articulation on the part of NT writers of the deep sense of God’s absence that we find among the OT writers, who are there over the long haul, day in and day out, waiting for God to show up and stick to his own plan.

If all we read is the NT and we are also living though a period of God’s absence, abandonment, a period of doubt, a dark night of the soul, we may likely conclude that there is something very wrong with us for feeling this way.

If we don’t walk around in more or less a state of perpetual triumph and spiritual “victory” we will think we are some lower form of life, further down the ladder of spiritual maturity.

This is why we need to hear the experiences of the ancient Israelites to relieve us of our spiritual shame.

Their experiences are very much like ours today: life is hard, and life of faith does not automatically make it easier. It may actually make it harder at times.

Spiritual struggles are normal for Christians. They are not to be sought after, but they are normal. They are not to be romanticized, but they are normal. They are not to be shown off and bragged over, but they are normal.

To speak otherwise is to ignore the counter testimony. The Bible tells me so—and I’m glad it does.

[I take a closer look at this issue in The Sin of Certainty, The Bible Tells Me So, and my commentary on Ecclesiastes. Comments are moderated and may take me 24 hours to get to. Trolls are not fed here, nor those who can’t seem to let it go.]

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B4NP Podcast Episode 16: “What Is the Practical Value of the Old Testament?” with Ellen Davis https://www.peteenns.com/b4np-podcast-episode-16-practical-value-old-testament/ https://www.peteenns.com/b4np-podcast-episode-16-practical-value-old-testament/#comments Mon, 31 Jul 2017 12:08:03 +0000 https://www.peteenns.com/?p=12687 The latest episode of B4NP features Ellen F. Davis, Amos Ragan Kearns Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School. Our topic is the practical value of the Old Testament (and no, smarty pants, it’s not a shorter episode than usual). Davis’s books include Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament and Biblical […]

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The latest episode of B4NP features Ellen F. Davis, Amos Ragan Kearns Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke Divinity School. Our topic is the practical value of the Old Testament (and no, smarty pants, it’s not a shorter episode than usual).

Davis’s books include Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament and Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives for Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry.

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My Answer to a Student’s Question about whether Doubt Makes God Angry https://www.peteenns.com/answer-students-question-whether-doubt-makes-god-angry/ https://www.peteenns.com/answer-students-question-whether-doubt-makes-god-angry/#comments Wed, 26 Jul 2017 12:03:09 +0000 https://www.peteenns.com/?p=12671 Sooner or later, doubt happens, and when it does, there is plenty in the Bible to identify with.

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lamentI get a lot of great, honest questions from my students. Here’s one:

“How do you read James 1:6-7, particularly as it concerns doubting? It seems as though James is saying that those who doubt God’s power are like waves and what not. Is this a specific theology of the time, or is it really saying TO ME that I should never doubt?”

I’m guessing he’s not the only person in the world with a question like this, especially those who have been taught that struggling with faith is a sign of weakness—in part because of James 1:6-7:

But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

Well that seems clear as crystal: doubt = bad. So I told my student, “Get with the program, pal. You can read the Bible just as well as I can and you know that any shred of doubt makes God very, very, very angry. I hope you can live with yourself.”

Yes, I’m hilarious.

I didn’t say that, of course, largely because I wrote this book The Sin of Certainty where I argue that doubt is normal, biblical, and spiritually beneficial. So here’s what I actually said.

First, different biblical authors have different perspectives. I don’t think we should read one author as cancelling out another—like James cancelling out the spiritual struggles of, say, Job, some Psalms, or Ecclesiastes.

As tempting as it might be to take James 1:6-7 as a clear command for all time and every situation, it is more responsible to try and understand why James says what he says in this particular letter, and then see how it might apply to one’s own situation. Which brings us to . . .

Second, James is speaking in the context of “trials” and the “testing of your faith” (James 1:2-3) in what was thought to be the end of the age. Like other New Testament authors, James likely thought of Jesus’s resurrection as stage one of a two-stage process that would come to completion soon. 

In that context of urgency, of “suffering, though the time is near,” a tone of warning and “pull yourself together, man!” is the expected rhetoric.

That context, however, is not one which I or my student share. We have, rather, more in common in this sense with Old Testament authors for whom no end was in sight, which afforded plenty of opportunity to struggle with their faith (again, Lament Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations).

So, James is valuable (of course) but not as the crowing once-for-all view a Christian should have when struggling with their faith. I don’t believe James simply trumps Qoheleth, Job, or a psalmist. Scripture is diverse and multivalent (which loops us back to the first point).

Third, the Greek word there translated as “doubt” does not mean what it might appear to mean at first blush, especially filtered through our western rationalist society, namely “intellectual uncertainty”—sin-of-certainty-peter-ennsintellectual struggling/questioning brought on by life experiences, bouts with depression, personal tragedies, etc.

The Greek word is diakrinō and connotes (don’t worry, I looked this up) a “divided loyalty” (aka “being double-minded”), which, as we saw in #2, is a particularly pressing concern in James’s context.

James seems to be saying something like, “Stay resolute in this time of great urgency. Trust in God. Do not get carried away by your circumstances. Nothing good will come of that.”

My student’s question boiled down to whether James 1:6-7 means it is always wrong to struggle with faith and whether his current struggles (which I am honored he trusted me enough to allow me to glimpse) invokes God’s anger or displeasure. My answer is no.

That doesn’t mean you celebrate doubt or force it to appear. But sooner or later, doubt happens, and when it does, there is plenty in the Bible to identify with.

[Comments are moderated and may take as long as a day to appear. Of that you can have no doubt. I do my best to respond as I can, but I do read every comment posted.]

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Why It’s Important that Jesus Didn’t Know Everything https://www.peteenns.com/important-jesus-didnt-know-everything/ https://www.peteenns.com/important-jesus-didnt-know-everything/#comments Mon, 24 Jul 2017 10:42:11 +0000 https://www.peteenns.com/?p=12661 Much is at stake theologically for Jesus not knowing everything. It means grappling with the implications of the incarnation, no matter how challenging those implications may be to our own theology.

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A couple of years ago I read a little book by Roman Catholic New Testament scholar Raymond E. Brown (d. 1998) Jesus: God and ManIt’s a short little book, 2 chapters in fact, each of which first appeared in journals in the mid-1960s, about the time I was going to first grade with my Monkees lunch box.

In the first chapter, Brown looks at whether the New Testament calls Jesus God, and what that even means. I’d like to to get back to that when things slow down a bit (aka, don’t hold your breath).

In the second chapter, Brown addresses the question, “How much did Jesus know?” I found what he had to say very clear and helpful—and a reminder that reading old books may not be a bad idea.

The issue lurking in the background for Brown is the common Christian assertion that Jesus, being divine, “knew everything”—at least everything of religious importance.

Brown goes through every relevant text in the Gospels and shows how the biblical evidence is a lot more—wait for it—diverse than can be captured in sweeping assertions.

Brown looks at Jesus’s knowledge with respect to several categories: about ordinary affairs of life, religious matters, the future, and his own self-knowledge and of his mission.

In working through these categories, Brown shows where Jesus is at times ignorant and at times displays superhuman/extraordinary knowledge, at times clear and at times uncertain, and at times expressing himself in terms of common expectations of the day.

For example, the Gospels include scenes where Jesus knows what is happening elsewhere or what others are thinking (e.g., Mark 2:6-8; Mark 11:2; John 1:48-49).

This may seem to support the “Jesus is God and therefore knows everything” idea, but even in these passages (and others Brown gives) we need to be careful, Brown writes, “about any theological assumption that would trace such knowledge to the hypostatic union…” (i.e., the Christian belief that the human Jesus was also fully divine, p. 49). The Old Testament attributes the same kind of knowledge to Old Testament prophets, like “Ezekiel living in Babylon [who] has visions of events occurring in Jerusalem” (p. 49).

In other words, extraordinary knowledge like this is not an argument for Jesus’s divinity, especially since he also displays ignorance of things as well. And those two features—extraordinary knowledge and ignorance—are not mutually incompatible, since we see them both in the Old Testament prophets.

In his conclusion, Brown reminds us that his evaluation of the Gospel evidence “does nothing to detract from the dignity of Jesus,” by which he means:

If in the Gospel reports his knowledge seems to have been limited, such limitation would simply show to what depths divine condescension went in the incarnation—it would show just how human was the humanity of Jesus (p. 100).

Here again we are reminded of the offense and humiliation, indeed the mystery, of the incarnation—perhaps even our discomfort, if we’re honest, with a Jesus who was fully human and therefore participated in the limitations of being human.

Here is Brown’s conclusion to the book, where he addresses a reaction to all this that I’ve heard many times myself, that Jesus can’t be limited in his knowledge like other humans, because, despite that humanity, “Jesus is God”

But when all is said and done, the great objection that will be hurled again and again against any exegete (or theologian) who finds evidence that Jesus’ knowledge was limited is the objection that in Jesus Christ there is only one person, a divine person.

And so, even though the divine person acted through a completely human nature, any theory that Jesus had limited knowledge seems to imply a limitation of the divine person.

Perhaps the best answer to this objection is to call upon Cyril of Alexandria, that Doctor of the Church to whom, more than to any other, we are indebted for the great truth of the oneness of the person in Christ. It was that ultra-orthodox archfoe of Nestorianism (two persons or powers in Christ) who said of Christ, 

“We have admired his goodness in that for love of us he has not refused to descend to such a low position as to bear all that belongs to our nature, INCLUDED IN WHICH IS IGNORANCE.” (my formatting; emphasis original; pp. 101-2).

And then in his epilogue, Brown writes:

A Jesus who walked through the world knowing exactly what the morrow would bring, knowing with certainty that three days after his death his Father would raise him up, is a Jesus who can arouse our admiration, but still a Jesus far from us.

He is a Jesus far from mankind that can only hope in the future and believe in God’s goodness, far from a mankind that must face the supreme uncertainty of death with faith but without knowledge of what is beyond.

On the other hand, a Jesus for whom the future was as such a mystery, a dread, and a hope as it is for us and yet, at the same time a Jesus who would say, “Not my will but yours”–this is a Jesus who could effectively teach us how to live, for this is a Jesus who would have gone through life’s real trials.

Then we would know the full truth of the saying: “No man can have greater love than this: to lay down his life for those he loves” (Jn 15:13), for we would know that he laid down his life with all the agony with which we lay it down.

We would know that for him the loss of life was, as it is for us, the loss of a great possession, a possession that is outranked only by love.” (my formatting; pp. 104-5).

For Brown, much is at stake theologically for Jesus not knowing everything. It means grappling with the implications of the incarnation, no matter how challenging those implications may be to our own theology. I’m with Brown on this.

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