The Sin of Certainty
I just finished Pete Enns’ quick read from 2017 Sin of Certainty. Here’s my review on Good Reads, and also this week Daily Prayer Water is featuring it. You can read the book yourself or just follow along this week on the Daily Prayer. But for this post, I want to zero in on a particularly relevant part of the text. I really loved the book because it focuses on how polarizing our certainty about our ideas about God and the world can be. We can quickly create enemies when we are certain about our beliefs, and our ability to love them drastically reduces.
Pete directly cites the Sermon on the Mount to show us another way.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”—Matthew 5:43-45
“Jesus started right into this ‘us vs. them’ mindset and told the crowd that they should love their enemies, too. In fact, they should pray for them, even when those enemies were persecuting them (which happened now and then with the Roman government in charge).
When ‘us vs. them’ is your way of life, loving a ‘them’ is hard enough. Praying for a ‘them is harder still. We want to pray down God’s blood-curdling war cry of wrath and pestilence—or at least price and wound them with our sharp words while making photocopies. Bust Jesus says enough of that. To be like God means to be perfect in love (verse 48). To love as God loves means loving not just others like us, but those who are not. And in my case, that meant simply keeping my mouth shut when every part of me wanted to speak.
Two thousand years after Jesus spoke these words, the ‘us vs them’ mindset is still quite common among Christians. It takes hard work and vigilance to see how we can put Jesus’s words into practice in different ways and places That’s what Christians do: we read the Bible, written at a different time for reasons that were relevant back then, and ask ourselves, ‘What does it look like for us to follow Jesus like that right here and now?’
At that moment, love meant letting go of something dear to me—being right and winning an argument—even though my brain, like an unruly preschooler, was jumping up and down demanding to be heard.
We’re not always too happy about letting go of our egos and telling our overactive thought world to take a seat over there and be quitted. ‘Knowing’ has bene in charge for so long, we forget all the other stuff we read in the Bible about how we are to act toward each other.”
And here is the risk of love. When we love as Jesus describes, we are changed because we are letting go a little bit of what we are holding to so dearly—in my case, being right and saying so. We relax our grip, step out of ourselves, and truly see things from the perspective of someone else, which is a genuinely selfless act” Pete Enns, Sin of Certainty, HarperCollins, 2016, p. 148-149).
Christians sadly lead the polarization
It is such a needed message for Christians, who are so often so certain about our beliefs that we consider one another our enemies. That’s why Jerry Falwell Jr., and Charlie Newkirk opened the Fallkirk Center at Liberty. Certain of their worldview, which is transparently political, they are seeking to reeducate Americans to become Trumpists. It’s also why white Baptist theologians are condemning the late James Cone as not Christian.
I experienced it recently as I read David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved, which is a visceral polemic against eternal conscious torment. It’s amazing because even though I generally appreciate DBH’s arguments, his writing style is distancing and his verbosity feels a little desperate. He’s not a particularly profound or eloquent writer (he is a great thinker, though), and I think his vocabulary is an attempt to disguise that. He is preaching to the choir, but I think his choir is so insecure that even though they already agree with him, they feel converted because a big word guy is in their corner.
That’s what can happen in our polarized world. We end up just talking to people who already agree with us. Not only does that bode poorly for community, it’s bad for our faith and relationships too.
Enns is talking about theological or doctrinal certainty, but I think that sort of thinking transcends theology and doctrine and religion, and hits us personally as well as politically.
In the Democratic Primary, the discourse is dead
If you want a political example, go to Twitter and observe the Democratic Primary. I was amazed when Hillary Clinton told the world how much everyone doesn’t like her 2016 primary opponent, Bernie Sanders. She’s not wrong about Bernie’s record, but the hostility is still there, isn’t it? I entered the dialogue and tried to reason: Hillary isn’t wrong, but I don’t know how helpful her comments about Bernie are in this moment. It might worsen tribalism, and the Democrats, as a coalition party, really don’t need deeper trenches. And so now there’s a flame war between Clinton and Sanders.
And that was just before Warren and Sanders were arguing over what actually happened in a conversation that recently surfaced in December 2018; and then there was a scuffle between Sanders and Biden over Biden’s record on social security. And that’s not even all of it. The outrage cycle profits the media. And it’s not really the media’s “fault” or a conspiratorial plot—it’s largely just service to their audience.
Politics aside, I just don’t think we need to deepen our trenches in the country. Trump has already done that by turning all of his political opponents into enemies. Now we see our rivals as enemies (see “While we were still problematic, Christ was cancelled for us”), and while that’s wrong, I recently wrote that the Christian response of “politeness” is hardly an answer to that problem.
I don’t know if this is always how politics has been, but it seems to me like stuff has gotten way worse in the last four years. And our leaders aren’t making it better. Mitch McConnell and Trump met privately in order to stifle the dialogue around the impeachment recently. We can’t even agree that liberal democracy, which is supposedly the governing principle in the United States, is a good way to do things. Some people actually think that oppressive tactics are the best approach (see David French vs. Sohrab Ahamri).
That’s the world we live in. And unfortunately, I think discourse online makes it even worse because it’s so easy to cut someone off, to brigade someone else, to feel justified in our sarcasm or wrath because we just get enough likes and retweets.
Enemy love is our rule, and Jesus is the author of that love
It can leak into our personal relationships. All of a sudden, we’re drawing lines in the sand, naming our enemies, and cutting them off. The reactions that we create in others worsen. And it just gets worse and worse.
I think the temptation that can follow is that we cease to consider that we have enemies at all, or we reduce the importance of our disagreements down to nothing (like the disagreements about theology or politics are unimportant). Or to elevate a moderate position as the best one because it is the easiest one. That sort of dismissal doesn’t do us a service. The answer to not hating our enemies isn’t just ignoring what they are doing or relativizing their actions as neither right nor wrong.
When Jesus offers the invitation to love our enemies, he is not suggesting that we don’t have enemies, but he is teaching us how to love them.
If we don’t consider anyone’s actions immoral, we are subjecting ourselves to manipulation. At best, that can hurt relationships, and at worst can make us complicit in evil. We can be “gaslit” if we aren’t willing to see someone who is acting as a bad-faith actor, or someone who has intentions that are. So the answer is not just seeing “both sides.”
At the same time, our polarized arena can make it seem like anyone who is not explicitly on our side is our enemy. Most people aren’t. Most people are just trying to work out their lives as best as they can. They need help and love, not condemnation and rebuking. Most people don’t know what they are talking about (and that includes us). So grace and love must abound.
That’s really the heart of Christ’s teaching on the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is naming the fact that he has real enemies, but he allows love to the blur the lines between enemies and neighbors. We’re called to love both.
Jesus is the author of that love. So in our polarized era, I hope we stand on Jesus’ side; one that is both truthful and loving. It’s important to stand up for truth and justice against evildoers and against the Evil One. But I think it’s equally important to not assume that we are right, but in humility be open to correction.
Let’s keep listening to each other as we discern the truth of God together. In Circle of Hope, we say a dialogue of love holds us together. We all see through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:17), so let’s discern and dialogue together. Our commitment to love is what holds us united. I think that Christians should be united on that project, but the impulse is woven into us from creation. It’s not just Christians that are committed to it, it’s all of creation. Let’s then use that as invitation for cooperation and collaboration. Let’s love each other into our fullness, instead of condemning one another.
If you must stan for someone, stan for Jesus—who stans for all of us.