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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

Yeah, But Where Are the Boundaries?

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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.

Here’s a question I get a lot.

“Pete, thanks for ruining my life, my relationships, and everything I ever held dear about God, Jesus, and the Bible. Without you I would not be feeling this exquisite pain.”

So that’s wonderful, but they always ruin it with a “but.”

“But where are the boundaries?”

The more we talk about the Bible—Old and New Testaments—as ancient documents, with ancient contexts, and meanings, and purposes, the less special and unique it feels. It begins to get hard to distinguish what is different, or if I may say, better, about Christianity and the biblical story vis-a-vis any other religion, or even no religion at all.

Let me say from the bottom of my soul that this is a very, very good question. I would even say enormously important, all the more so as our world continues to shrink and we face global threats of climate instability and utterly insane world leaders, who, despite the lessons of the 20th century, continue to think of this earth as their private playpen.

But I digress.

“Where are the boundaries?” is a question that occupies many of us, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t on my mind quite a bit, too—like pretty much all the time.

Having said that, I’m not interested in answering that question at this point in my life. So sue me.

I feel I need to let go of building those boundaries because my entire Christian life has been about doing that very thing—creating and holding tightly to categories, behaviors, and associations that kept my boundaries neat and clear.

Only to find, as I lived more and experienced things I never would have scripted, that all those things can’t quite square with my reality.

Don’t worry too much about what those categories, behaviors, and associations are for me. Worry about yourself. Plus that’s not the point. The point is that I spent my “first half of life” building structures that now seem inadequate for me—not altogether wrong but more “not up for the task.”

I understand the energy behind the question, and I feel it myself. And the time to explore more intently (rather than just now and then) answers to that question will likely happen, if I know my personality well enough.

But for now I think it’s too soon. I have a lot more pondering and living to do before I can get to that.

So let me say this. If you are someone who has the same question about where the boundaries are now that the landscape looks different, perhaps answering that question should not be priority one.

Once the unfamiliar reshaping of faith begins, our tendency is to want to snap back to that place of comfort as soon as possible—even if that comfort is of a new and strange sort. Whereas the boundaries were once drawn too narrowly (and we know that now), we still want boundaries drawn, if only a bit further out. Even if those boundaries are now beyond the horizon, we want to know that they are at least there and that we will see them if we walk just a bit further.

What I’m saying is that’s what I feel I need to keep letting go of—that need to see, if even dimly, how it all comes together.

That’s what I mean by “The Sin of Certainty.” Not that feeling a sense of certainty and “fit” is sin. Rather once the familiar begins to feel strange and inadequate, sin is seeking to stay put or venture out a short few steps only to turn back quickly.

Sometimes we just need to say, ”Well things have changed. I don’t know where the boundaries are, and that’s OK.” Keeping those boundaries tight or seeking to find new ones too quickly, though it may look like an act of faith, may very well be an act of fear instead.

True faith is letting go once you sense you need to.

At least that’s where I am at the moment.

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