Peter Enns Doesn’t Believe in God Anymore?

nogodEven though my last post was also a critique of Peter Enns, I promise that this blog will be more than just an avenue through which I can critique Enns. However, I would like to say a few words about a post he wrote earlier this month, “Why I Don’t Believe in God Anymore.” I should start by saying that we shouldn’t be worried about the title of that post. Even though Enns says he doesn’t believe in God anymore, it’s clear that he does. He just doesn’t recognize that his trust in God requires believing in God. But we’re getting slightly ahead of ourselves. Before we get to what’s wrong with the ideas he expresses, let’s take a look at them first.

To start, Enns explains what he means by ‘belief in God’. He writes, “‘Belief’ in God connotes–at least as I see it–a set of ideas about God that may, if time allows, eventually make their way to other parts of my being.” This—at least as I see it—is pretty much right, but Enns is unhappy with such a claim because he sees “the Bible focusing a lot more on something far more demanding [than having correct beliefs about God]: trust.” Now with this I completely agree. After all, “Even the demons believe [that God is one]—and shudder” (James 2:19). I’m even in agreement with him when he says there is a “huge difference between I believe in a God who cares for me and I trust God at this particular moment.”

So what, then, is the problem with Enns’s post? The main problem I see with it is that it rests on the mistaken assumption that belief in God and trusting God are mutually exclusive. If that were not his view, then it’s not clear why he’d need to title his post “Why I Don’t Believe in God Anymore.” It’s as if he must stop believing in God so that he can now trust him. This is clearly mistaken and it’s easy to see why. First, to “trust God” you must at least “believe that God exists.” If you say to someone, “I trust God at this particular moment” and he responds by saying, “Why are you bothering with trusting in something that doesn’t even exist?” how could you respond without advancing your beliefs about God? It’s not clear that you can.

But there’s more to it than that. Even if the person above responded with a simple, “Why?” you’re going to have to resort to expressing your beliefs in God. That is, you’re going to have to respond by not only noting that you believe God exists, but also that you believe certain things about God—namely that he is trustworthy. Let’s borrow one of Enns’s examples to illustrate this. Consider the leadership-retreat favorite—trust falls. It’s true that these aren’t called “belief falls,” but who is going to participate in a trust fall without having reasons (i.e., beliefs) to trust those that are supposed to catch them?

Here one might object by making a distinction between “believing in God” (what Enns rejects) and “beliefs about God” (which, presumably, Enns would still want to employ). The problem is that such a distinction seems to be something Enns would have to reject given his understanding of “belief in God.” Recall that he takes that phrase to include, “a set of ideas about God that may eventually make their way to other parts of my being.” Presumably included in one’s set of ideas about God will be something like, “God exists” and “God is trustworthy.” If you reject belief in God, which includes a rejection of these sorts of idea about God, then you’ve rejected all reasons to trust God in the first place.

So, Enns is right that God cares more about trust than he does about mere belief. But embracing that truth simply doesn’t require one to reject belief altogether. Keeping this idea in mind is important given the historical problem the American church (at least) has had with anti-intellectualism. It’s ironic, given that he’s a well known academic, that Enns’s post could be used to justify that continued commitment to anti-intellectualism about one’s faith. When you throw out “belief”, you through out the need for careful Christian philosophy, theology, biblical studies, etc. Because I doubt Enns would want to discourage the church from such careful reflection, it seems likely he’s not all that serious about giving up belief in God. Let’s hope so.

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6 comments on “Peter Enns Doesn’t Believe in God Anymore?

  1. […] Enns seems to be saying more than this. Prof Franks tackles the problem made by Enns implicit assertion – that one can trust God without worrying about what one believes about […]

  2. Thanks Paul! I think you’re right, and I appreciate your insights and taking the time to respond. =)

  3. Rich Davis says:

    Great post! And I love the response to the Turing machine example. Very clever. I can’t figure out whether Enns is saying that as we get older, we can dispense with belief systems, supplanting them with an attitude of trust. It seems to me that all of his claims along these lines are part of his own “intellectual construction of what sorts of things are right to think and not think about God.”

  4. Paul Franks says:

    Hi Tim,

    This is an interesting thought experiment. For now, I have two general comments about it. First, notice that when he *began* to trust her he had no reason to think she did not exist—in fact, given that he was engaged in conversation with her (absent any information regarding turing machines), we would probably say he had positive reasons to think she did exist. The very fact that they were carrying on conversations (even online) suggests he believed there was a conversation partner—and it’s that partner that he fell in love with.

    Second, if Jones begins to believe she is actually a turing machine, I think I’d just say it’s false that he continues to trust *her*. Instead, I think it’d be more appropriate to say that he trusts the turing machine while at the same time hopes that his (new) belief that he’s conversing with a turing machine is false.

    Here’s another way to make the point in my original post using your scenario. Even if Jones’s brother started the initial conversation with Julie and knew full well that it’s likely that ‘Julie’ is really a turing machine, he’d still have to believe *something* exists in order to trust it. ‘Julie’ could be a turing machine or an actual person, it doesn’t really matter. This is because ‘trust’ is a two-place predicate. X trusts Y. (However, I do believe that there is such a thing as self-trust—X trusts X—but that’s clearly not what Enns has in mind.) When Enns says he doesn’t believe God exists, but trusts him anyways, he’s essentially saying X trusts __ (where the blank indicates the lack of a second term). That, to me, seems to be nonsense.

  5. Sorry, Jones should say at the end “even before I believed she existed.”

  6. You say this: to “trust God” you must at least “believe that God exists.”

    What do you think about this counter example from Andrew Cullison (I’ve modified it a bit to match your claim)?

    There is a man, Jones, who is lonely and begins a chat room relationship with Julie. He talks to her and really cares for her. She, too, is lonely, and they encourage each other and tell each other how they feel. Jones has a relationship with her. Part of that relationship includes trust. He has told Julie how he feels and that he is lonely and possibly other things he struggles with.

    Smith, Jones’ brother, though, informs Jones that there are sophisticated turing machines that replicate real human interaction in chat rooms. He provides good evidence that Julie could be one of these simulations. Jones, then, stops believing that she exists, however he maintains communication with her and continues to trust her.

    As it turns out, Jones and Julie meet one day, fall more in love, and get married. If someone asks Jones when he began to trust her, he would be right, it seems, to say “even before I knew she existed.”

    Do think this is a plausible counterexample?

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