December 1, 2020

Pete Enns: Honor Your Head. Don’t Live In It.

Honor Your Head. Don’t Live in It.
From Peter Enns…rethinking biblical christianity
Reprinted with the author’s permission

One of my favorite Biblical scholars writing today is Peter Enns. At his blog, Biologos, and in his books, he works through complex issues of biblical interpretation and the relationship of the Bible and Christian thinking to the broader culture. And he does so in a civil, and in my opinion, reasonable manner.

I also like that he occasionally gives us a glimpse into his own spiritual journey. Thanks to Pete, he allowed me to reprint this post, which I know will resonate with our iMonk community. Enjoy.

• • •

I think I am a Protestant.

I’ve spent my entire Christian life, since childhood, as a Protestant, but I got tired of it. I tried being nothing for a while, but that didn’t work. I tried being anything else, too, but that didn’t work either.

So, I think I am a Protestant.

It seems to me that the root reason is that I have a personality defect. I like to live in my head.

Protestants tend to focus on having better arguments than the next person—after all, claiming to be more right about God is how it all got started, a legacy that is downloaded from the Reformation onto all Protestant offspring.

Protestantism allows me to stay in the Comfortable Place—my head; a refuge, a rock, an ever-present help in time of trouble.

In fact, Protestantism positively encourages me to stay put in the fantasy world of my brain.

From there I control my life, my surroundings, the universe—God himself. Which is ironic, since Jesus has a few things to say about letting go of control, dying in fact, so that you can gain true life.

I have tried to take this to heart in recent years, the reason being that I came up against a number of experiences that I (wait for it) could not control—namely my life.

Of course, that control was illusory to begin with, but God in his mercy doesn’t leave us there for long. Without pressure points, without the messiness of life invading the command center of my brain, I was free to continue thinking I was moving the pieces of my life when and where they need to be moved.

So, I have been pushed into places where I am learning to honor my head without living there.

For the past ten months I have attend a liturgically minded church—15 minute (at most) sermon and 45 minutes of a lot of sitting, standing, and kneeling, plus a lot of reading of prayers out of books.

All that makes me uncomfortable and annoyed—which means it’s working. It means my monkey brain is jumping up and down, “Look at me, look at me!” but is given no branch on which to land.

Call me a slow learner, but maybe God is not a Protestant. Maybe God does not enter only or even primarily through our heads. In fact, our heads are sometimes the last parts of us to catch on. The head is where we are most alert to any threat to our control,

to any threat to our need to be right,

to any threat to our need to divide the world into those like us and those different from us.

Which is to say,

to any threat to our need to create God in our own image.

My control center is not happy now because it is having a harder time finding things to criticize, new lands to conquer, new things to be right about, new arguments to win.

So the point of all this seems to be to help the head learn its place. To honor the head but not to live there.

So, I think I’m a Protestant, but maybe the edges are being rounded out a bit.

Comments

  1. As I mentioned on Enns’ blog, this post reminds me of what Dan Wallace once wrote:

    “I’m questioning some of the tenets of Protestantism and evangelicalism. That doesn’t mean that I’m questioning the whole thing; I still believe that the evangelical faith is the best expression of genuine Christianity today. But I also believe that it is flawed and that we can learn from Catholics and Orthodox. And just as it is possible for someone to be saved and be an evangelical, I think it’s possible for someone to be saved and be a Catholic or eastern Orthodox. So, I’m still at least 51% Protestant (and Luther is still a hero of mine), but I have no qualms criticizing my own tradition and exploring what we can learn from others.”

  2. I like what he says a lot. People who want to go farther with this idea might want to take a look at a book Called “Bread and Water, Wine and Oil,” by Meletios Weber. Like Enns, he does an excellent job tracking down that chattering voice, that “monkey brain,” that wants to be in control and in the center of everything.

    • Indeed, Damaris.
      Enns’s comments reminded me of Christian Smith’s “How to Go From Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in 95 Difficult Steps.”

  3. Very thought-provoking. This reminds me of something C. S. Lewis once wrote: “If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it that seem puzzling or repellant, for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellant which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know.”

    • Thanks for that, Kate.

      This reminds me of a saying by the 19th-century Anglican F. D. Maurice often quoted by blogger Father Dwight Longenecker, who spent years as an Anglican priest in the course of his journey from American fundamentalist Christianity to the Catholic Church. Maurice wrote, “A man is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies.”

      As for me, there’s nothing like a whiff of incense to draw me away from the whirr of all I go over daily in my mind.

  4. I think that ‘otherwordliness’ found in traditional forms of worship is a good thing to get us out of our own heads, and our ideas about what want and what is right.

    That said, the message remains central. What comes out of the preacher’s mouth is of utmost importance, whether it is in a Baptist pulpit, or Catholic.

    If Christ and His forgiveness for the ungodly does not remain central (but we move ourselves there), then we are in a great danger of just playing church.

  5. I have a monkey brain also that must go (in terms of frenetic and largely wasted, energy) maybe 400lbs or so. I loved and hated this post, this guy has been living my life.

    Thanks Chap Mike, you have interesting and helpful friends.

    GregR

  6. WOW!!!!!!! WOW!!!!!!!!!! WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 😯

    (Eagle is going to step bacl and reflect on this for awhile….)

    😯

    • Pattie is going to join him, for completely different reasons….

      BUT…with Eagle and his struggle in her heart of hearts.

      • I’ll be over there with Eagle and Pattie, because – ouch.

        Yes, I love living in my nice, neat head-space where everything is laid out in orderly fashion and none of the messiness of real life problems intervenes; I have all the solutions for dealing with hard cases and exceptions, only I don’t see the faces of the people – like Simon the Pharisee, I have a neat label for that woman there which means I don’t have to deal with her throwing herself on the floor and crying messily and slopping oil about all over the place.

        I don’t have to learn her name and find out where she comes from and hear her complaints about the lousy hand life has dealt her and embrace her as a sister who is no more or no less a sinner than I am.

        Much easier to live up in my head.

  7. David Cornwell says

    For a long time one of the things that has annoyed me about Protestantism and it’s theology is the attempt to have an explanation for every thing. So we spend hours and hours debating this and that fine point of something that in the end makes very little difference. We may never learn the answers to some of those questions. God may continue to annoy us even when we arrive over there, and just let us wonder at the mystery.

    • I don’t think this a uniquely protestant problem, but a western one. Summa Theologica and the sheer size of the Catholic Catechism, the works of Augustine, and the impact of Anselm is proof that some elements in Rome suffer from the same insufferable disease.

      • Randy Thompson says

        Fair enough. But, remember that Aquinas has an experience of God towards the end of his life that caused him to stop writing. (Maybe somebody else can fill in the details here, as I can’t remember them and don’t have time to look this up.)

        • Saint Thomas was at Mass and had a profound spiritual experience where he saw the beatific vision. Afterward he said, “All that I have written is straw.”

          He died less than a year later.

      • How many Angels CAN dance on the head of pin???

        • Hey Pattie, I think it was Peppermint Pattie in Peanuts who had an answer for that on an exam: “Two if they’re fat and three if they”re skinny.”

        • An infinite number, because angels being spirit not matter, the “two elements cannot share the same space” limitation does not apply 🙂

          I’ve read that this was not a serious Scholastic quibble back in the late Middle Ages but was more of a jeer in the Enlightenment about the kinds of questions the intelligensia of the time imagined Scholastic theologians wasted time over, but it’s become the kind of “Columbus set out to prove the world was round” (no, he didn’t) fact that ‘everyone knows’.

          • Jack Heron says

            A common feature of medieval universities was a thing called the ‘quodlibet’ which was basically a debate about any question, no matter how absurd. The idea was to sharpen people’s debating skills – after all, if you can produce a reasoned argument about something so intangible as angelic choreography, you must surely be able to argue law. If the maximal size of an ethereal hoedown ever was discussed, it was in a quodlibet.

        • David Cornwell says

          Maybe it depends on what music they are dancing to.

      • David Cornwell says

        “I don’t think this a uniquely protestant problem, but a western one.”

        You are right about it being a western problem. I don’t know enough about Catholicism to become a critic. In fact they sometimes remain somewhat a mystery– which is good.

    • Randy Thompson says

      Yes.

      I used to hear Catholics refer to something being a “mystery” and thought it was a cop-out, intellectually. Now I believe they’re right. The more you discover how big God is, the more mystery makes sense. (Boy, there’s a paradox!)

      A Scripture passage I like: “The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the think darkness where God was.” (Exodus 20:21).

      • It usually is a cop out when used the way many Catholic parents use it.

        • That’s a pretty broad brush to paint with. THIS Catholic parent used the truth of that phrase and concept to let my sons know that we DO not and CAN NOT have the answer to the workings of God’s mind and will, anymore that our (well loved) dogs and cats can understand for a second the reasons we humans behave as we behave. In both cases, the capacity to fully grasp the mind of the vastly superior “Other” doesn’t exist…..and thus remains a mystery.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          It usually is a cop out when used the way many Catholic parents use it.

          I think there’s even a George Carlin monologue on the subject.

    • I am a lawyer by trade and I study evangelical theology by night. Sometimes it feels like I am lawyering 24/7 as many of the theologians are lawyers in disguise, arguing the finest points as you say. I just wish that evangelicalism could lighten up a bit and go with the Holy Spirit a bit more, versus trying to convince me that I need to be a pre-millenialist just to join my church.

      • Libby! There’s another one. Actually I am a lawyer and I read theology/biblical studies. Actually I read church history and have lately become interested in textual criticism. I always think Bart Ehrman would have made a really good litigator.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Other blogs speak of arrogance and abuse by “Calvinistas”, endlessly parsing theoretical Theology (and flinging Anathemas) while pastors’ widows eat out of dumpsters.

      • Another Libby says

        Honest, pastor! It’s a different lawyer named Libby! 🙂

    • Then be Lutheran, the denomination for those who relish paradox. Law and Gospel; sheep are predestined to heaven but goats choose their own path to hell; Body and bread; blood and wine; water and spirit; true God and true man; missional and confessional; praise bands and organs…

  8. The tendency to live in one’s head is what drove me out of Reformed-land. It seemed like the main concern of its prominent leaders was to draw ever shrinking circles around who was really orthodox. Worshiping in a liturgical setting has helped me too to stop living in my head and to have reverence for God himself rather than my well-developed theses ABOUT him.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      It seemed like the main concern of its prominent leaders was to draw ever shrinking circles around who was really orthodox.

      The original Internet Monk used to cite someone named A.W.Pink as a type example of this. He’d apparently parsed his theology so precisely and his “ever-shrinking circle” had shrunk so much that he ended up worshipping alone in his home every Sunday because every church — EVERY one — was In Error and Apostate under his precisely-parsed theology.

      The theoretical end state of Protestantism is millions of One True Churches with only one member, but few actually approach that theoretical end state like this A.W.Pink apparently did.

      • Unicorn:
        Personally I think that you and I are the only ones who are saved around here….

        and I am beginning to wonder about you!

        lol

        • Isn’t that the old Quaker man to his equally elderly wife……

          “Sarah, I do believe the whole world is queer* save thee and me, and some days I worry about thee.”

          (*in the old-fashioned use of the term)

    • David Cornwell says

      When they arrive in Heaven those same Reformed people will probably be arguing about just how the circle became so large. But I have a feeling it won’t be important anymore.

  9. Randy Thompson says

    “So the point of all this seems to be to help the head learn its place. To honor the head but not to live there.”
    As one who spent way too much of my Christian life living in my head, I very much appreciate these wise words. Thanks for sharing them.

    When you live in your head . . .

    you have faith, but don’t trust God

    you have theories about the second coming, but have limited expectations of what God will do before then

    you know a lot about God, but don’t get worship–the loving God stuff

    you know the Bible, but what you know is stuff to tell other people; you hear the reflection of your own voice
    in it, rather than God’s

    you go to church, but don’t quite know why

    you have wisdom, but are upset because God doesn’t consult you for your opinions

    you have opinions, and you’re closer to your opinions than you are to the Lord

  10. Follows well on the heels of Merton and the monks – centering prayer, cloud of unknowing; breathing and feeling.

  11. As someone who is in danger of living in his head WAY too often- the end result is never joy/love but burnout. Intellectual, emotional, and spiritual fizzle. I think God deliberately installed this “circuit breaker” in me so that wouldn’t kill myself with intellectual wheel-spinning. Ever so gradually, he’s teaching me to notice beautiful things. To go about my day with nothing particularly “deep” on my mind, just the task at hand. To see the people in front of me instead of reducing them to piles of carbon molecules that are right/wrong about such-and-such.

    • Very well said, Nate. Sounds like wisdom/Bro. lawrence to me.

      GregR

    • cosign! i hear you , especially the part about noticing beautiful things. Once i slow down my intellectual-wheel , i have much much better/meaningful experiences with the people around me. Keeping my head caught up in my head (awful sentence) causes life to pass me by.

    • I suffer from this too. Try to analyze everything. Sometimes I’m dwelling on all the things wrong in the church. I confessed it last Sunday and to my amazement, everything seemed so much happier and alive. It’s good to ask forgiveness for living inside our little me brains sometimes. I know being analytical is a gift, however, sometimes it is good to, as you said, just live in the moment and notice the beauty.

  12. Living in one’s head is a problem with apologetics too. There must be logical proofs for EVERYTHING relating to God.

    1) they sound just like the people they are “debating”.
    2) causes many to never admit they have weak arguments
    3) And sometimes it can put God in a box.

    I decided to drop all my ideas about God. 1) if i kept developing them my head would explode 2) simply stepping bkac , letting God be God , and living day-to-day life in light of Micah 6:8 is waaaay better.

  13. I appreciate your honesty here, Chaplain Mike. I can relate as well.

  14. I think religious beliefs are not formed so much by reason, but by identity–the group you belong to. So even if you hate your group, or think that it’s beliefs are stupid, you’ll still be a part of it in some way. Reason has nothing to do with it–it’s more about group politics–who determines what the group stands for. You can try to change to another group, but the new identity usually ends up being more superficial. People here often notice that Evangelicalism has lost much of the depth of historic Christianity, partly because the priority of each group is bringing in outsiders. It works the same with other religions too. White Buddhists are not as authentic as Asians. Jewish converts are put in a special category for three generations. New Catholics or Orthodox lack much of the old world culture. Eastern Germany still has Communist ceremonies, because atheists there feel they need stuff like that in their lives.

    • “People here often notice that Evangelicalism has lost much of the depth of historic Christianity, partly because the priority of each group is bringing in outsiders.”

      Ah,yes of course “wretched urgency”. when human souls are reduced to “souls that need to be saved”.

    • “So even if you hate your group, or think that it’s beliefs are stupid, you’ll still be a part of it in some way.”

      As a friend once observed, if representatives of a group still make you feel angry or embarrassed, you are still a part of that group.

  15. Randy Thompson says

    Although he wasn’t specifically talking about “living in your head,” Leander Keck , a former Dean of Yale Divinity School, once said, “If you can explain the resurrection, it isn’t the resurrection.” It seems to me that this nicely captures the spirit of this discussion (and yes, good things do indeed come out of Yale Divinity School!!)

  16. An abandonment of intellect is what results in life being lived in ones head, because one becomes addicted to the sound of voices up there. One cannot blame intellect for gnosticism nor manichaeism. That is the power of St. Thomas: if God speaks to us through the intellect and senses, then the material world matters. If God only speaks directly to our heart or soul, then the material world is unnecessary,or at worse a is mere illusion. Intellect breaks us free from ourselves and launches us into the larger world; pietism locks us inside, wrapping ourselves up inside ourselves.

    • Intellect has nothing to do with this morbid need to make sense out of everything. Part of intellect is mystery – pondering of the imponderables. Once the answer has been reduced to a mechanical formula or principle, intellect has been excluded.

  17. One of the things about my own Church that I love, is that I can go there and light a candle, pray, and sit down for while . . . and just BE there. And it’s okay, just for a while, just to peacefully BE.

  18. I’m right there with you.
    …If I can fathom all mysteries and possessed all knowledge but have not love I am nothing.

  19. “Call me a slow learner, but maybe God is not a Protestant. Maybe God does not enter only or even primarily through our heads…”

    Thanks to Peter for this!

  20. Piggybacking on some of the confessions above…

    Before my most recent move, my husband and I were attending a certain mainline church. I was deep in the throes of being post-evangelical (as I still am, in part), and not knowing exactly where to take myself. I had so many unanswered questions. And I had amassed so much data, but I had no obvious conclusions — just better questions. This had essentially prevented me from joining any church since high school.

    I was considering joining our current church, because it was where we already were–and it seemed better to commit to something, without answers, than to commit to nothing. But when I thought about it and pushed to a point, immediately all my questions and anxieties came rushing back, full-force. Anxious and depressed, I fessed up to my pastor.

    She said something then that got my attention. She said, you keep trying to go forward into unknown territory, and you know that God wants you to go forward and to serve. But you are uncertain, and you are running straight back to the place you feel most secure: your intellect. And you are retreating to the same questions and dilemmas, even though they make you miserable, because it is familiar. You have no idea what is in the dessert, so you turn around and go back to Egypt.

    The more I think about this, the more I think this is correct. Back to the old dilemmas and debates, anything to keep from just trusting & doing. The ironic thing, of course, is that trusting and doing is an important path to right-thinking!

  21. We truly are fractionated souls.

    T

  22. The part about living in one’s head makes sense, but I don’t understand the the association of that with protestantism, or the association of a more balanced spirituality with a liturgical church service.

    • Developing … I do understand it somewhat, now that I think of it, but I am not convinced that the associations are fair or reflect a broad knowledge of religious cultures. I don’t have this broad knowledge either, which is why I hedge in saying “not convinced.”

  23. John Bandow says

    What a meaningful and personal article and discussion! I identify with so many here. Grew up in ultradispensationalism and have been to “every” church since. Have a 2000 volume theological library, and prize the writings of the first 2-3 centuries the most.

    Being rooted there has caused me to be excluded in most churches. The Calvinists beat me over the head with their deadly mechanical TULIP. The Lutherans are also so exclusive that I am denied communion (which they treat as a magical method of forgiveness) and still think that the pope holds the seat of the antichrist (WELS). Only they are going to “heaven”. The Wesleyan churches do much better but lack depth. They are much more accepting.

    So I am currently in RCIA (Roman Catholic Instruction for Adults) classes. They are more “big tent”. I struggle with the Marionology and the Saints bit but am at home with their eschatology, moral issues, the presense of Christ in the Eucharist (thought not entirely as the Catechism states), etc.

    I have to cast the theology aside and fellowship with the man (mankind) whose heart is in the right place. “By their works you will know them” not their theology. Man looketh on the theology while God looks on the heart. Give me the man who is in love with Jesus Christ. Stick the theological divisiveness. Life is too short.

    Luther’s “Two Kingdoms” and dispensationalism’s “Rapture” has isolated the church from the world and created a parallel society that ceases to be the salt of the earth. Save souls and abandon the world. We have forgotten that “Culture is religion externalized”. Our culture has crashed because we have abandoned our God and live in our heads.

    Cling to the living Christ and not our theology. Thank you all for the many comments that have hit me at the deepest level and that I identify with so heavily. Thank you all.

    JB