Any Good Books, December 2011
Breaking up with God: A Love Story
Sarah Sentilles (HarperCollins, 2011)
In her memoir Breaking up with God, Sarah Sentilles uses the extended metaphor of a love affair. She has some reservations, though: “Figuring it as a romance seems simultaneously so medieval-mystic, so patriarchal, so oedipal that it makes me cringe. Ever worse, calling it a breakup means I have to come out: I have to admit to myself and to the rest of the world the kind of God I loved–namely, a man.” Yes, a man: loving, tender, and wise, but also jealous and moody, and sometimes a little scary.
Of course, he’s an old family friend, someone she’s known all her life. Sentilles was raised in Catholic schools and churches, though her mother brought an Episcopalian sensibility to her parenting. “Her ongoing critical commentary gave me an early theological education: People tell a lot of stories about God, but only some of them are true.” The prevailing story in the church where she was confirmed included a God who took attendance in church, but when Sentilles got to Yale, she was ready to leave that behind. She majored in literature, with a side helping of philosophy.
After college, she moved to southern California, working in Compton with Teach for America. She discovered a much warmer and more welcoming God at All Saints, Pasadena, where she became so enraptured that she decided to become a priest. “By the time I arrived at All Saints, I had lived most of my life trying to be the person I thought other people wanted me to be because I believed that was the only way I would ever be loved. ... All Saints offered me a way out of this. God loves you God loves you God loves you, I heard every single Sunday. The priests promised God loved me exactly as I was, with all my flaws and failings and shortcomings.” But, at twenty-three, Sentilles was far from free of the urge to be what others wanted her to be, and becoming a priest was a very good way to feel special.
The master of divinity program at Harvard can lead to the Episcopal priesthood, but the way is hardly straight. It leads through “Martin Luther’s belief that to fulfill the law you had to love the law, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s ‘ditch,’ Martin Buber’s I and Thou, Paul Tillich’s ‘ultimate concern,’ and Gordon Kaufman’s ‘serendipitous creativity.’” In the course of all this theologizing, Sentilles found that “a canyon began to open between the God I was in love with and the God I was studying.”
If God is fundamentally beyond our comprehension, Gordon Kaufman suggests, then everything we say about him is a construction of the human imagination. This is both a profoundly liberating idea and a dangerously disorienting one, which deepened the chasm between Sentilles’s head and her heart. If God is a fundamentally unknowable mystery, then what was the God who loves her so much but her own wish fulfilled?
The conceivable attributes and constructions of God multiplied on every hand. Feminist theology, liberation theology, and the Nag Hammadi texts all opened up worlds of conjecture and contention, and Sentilles was intoxicated by the possibilities. “I wanted to share what I had learned with a community–to show the kind of expansive thinking about God that was possible, to illustrate how God language could change the world, to work together to do good.”
Meanwhile, ominously (from the standpoint of the priesthood project) she had never found a church to worship with on Sundays. No church she visited held a candle to her beloved All Saints, and because she was not yet in the ordination process, she had nobody in a counseling role to force the issue. So it was something of a shock when Sentilles, after earning her degree, went to work in a suburban Boston church. “Theology, it seemed, was not the point of running a church. Being an institution was the point. Raising money, obeying the hierarchy, following rules, being right, counting the number of people in the pews, ... –that was church work.”
The congregation also disappointed her: “They came to figure out how to live a life with meaning, how to do go work in the world, how to give back, how to be better people. They came to church to be fed, with bread and wine during Communion. They craved connection, and church seemed like a place where this might happen. God was almost incidental to the whole enterprise–background noise.”
She sounds so young, doesn’t she? Those don’t sound like such terrible reasons for going to church, particularly since her own craving for connection had drawn her in at All Saints. Though she had a discernment committee at last, through the church she was working in, the fracture between what she had learned about God and what the church was prepared to entertain had widened beyond healing.
Her sense of fracture and confusion led her to be madly honest with the discernment committee, in the secret hope that they would turn down her application and let her off the hook, which is how it turned out. “I broke up with God that night. I broke up with the priesthood. I broke up with the river and the sky opening and the dove calling me beloved. I broke up with chosenness and salvation and belonging. And I imagined God held me while I cried.”
Her anguish notwithstanding, I see it as good news that Sentilles was not permitted to become a priest. And it’s not terribly surprising that her faith was also a casualty, though I can’t call that good news; it’s just the way of things, a natural consequence of misguided expectations and hopes. Her metaphor is apt: she was like a bride who was so taken with the role of bride that she never spared any thought for what being a wife would be like. Standing up at the bridal shower and calling the whole thing off was the hardest thing to do, except for going through with it. It was a healthy crisis.
Sentilles landed on her feet, partly by becoming attached to a flesh-and-blood man, and learning how not to give away all her power to him. She finished a doctorate in theology at Harvard, and then became a teacher and a (very good) writer. She moved on to engage with the world in a new way; I wonder if God is still waiting for her.
Email column, December 2012