BREAKING UP WITH GOD: A Love Story. By Sarah Sentilles. San Francisco: Harper One, 2011. 242 pages.
It is increasingly clear that traditional renditions of faith and theology are not connecting to growing numbers of persons. It’s not that there haven’t been challenges to religion before, but it’s becoming more and more mainstream. Being spiritual without the typical religious accoutrements is also becoming increasingly popular. Thus, in many ways Sarah Sentilles’ book is simply another exemplar of this trend. Although this book has the appearance of being a bit of pop spirituality, something I’m not all that attracted to, it is nonetheless written by a religious academic with a Ph.D. in theology from Harvard and a professor of religion at a California university.
The premise of the book is that Sentilles grew up with a romanticized vision of God, a sort of divine Prince Charming, or at least that was the vision she cultivated from her Roman Catholic Sunday School upbringing. The analogy that she uses to describe her break with her religious identity is that of a breakup with a boy friend, and God is that boy friend. It’s an analogy that I can’t really identify with, being that I’m a 50+ heterosexual male. I’ve simply never conceived of God in these terms – a domineering father maybe, but . . . . Still this is the imagery chosen by a feminist theologian who grew up with the sense that God was a man, and it tells of her spiritual journey from a Roman Catholic background to an increasingly complicated
relationship with God and then her eventual breakup with God. Thus, in the prologue to the book she writes:
My relationship with God was never casual. When it began to unravel, I was in the ordination process to become an Episcopal priest. I was the youth minister at a church in a suburb of Boston and a doctoral student in theology at Harvard. You might say God and I were engaged and the wedding was planned – church reserved, menu chosen, flowers arranged. Calling it off would be awkward (p. 3).
One could respond to this story in a way that I was inclined to do at several points, and that is to tell her that this romantic imagery of God that she apparently had bought into simply doesn’t describe the nature of God as I understand it. I wanted to say – grow up and let go of the fairy tale. I might try to sympathize with her unfortunate religious education. But to do so would betray my impatience with the story line, but then as I said – I’m a 50+ years old male.
The book is part spiritual memoir and part theological treatise, and it’s too that part of the story to which I want to attend, for that is where the meat of the book is to be found. Throughout the book there are what appear to be side bars (I was using an uncorrected proof for this review), in which she summarizes various visions of God, starting with “A Sunday School’s God.” This is an overly simplistic vision of God, one that many Christians embrace, but one that is an immature vision. From there she introduces the reader to the God(s) of the Mystic, the Liberationist, and the Philosophers, to name a few.
These various versions of God are discussed in the context of her own life story that includes moving from the Catholic to the Episcopal church, deciding to study for the priesthood – though seemingly having no real desire to serve the church, engaging in a series of romantic/sexual relationships – none of which end up well since she seems to have a rather poor sense of herself. Thus, in her search for love she turns to God, upon whom she projects this need to be loved, but God disappoints also, and so she has to break up with God.
That plotline – the romanticized vision of God – provides the basic story-line, but it’s the issue of projection that defines the core of the book. The idea of projection emerges as she begins to discern a chasm opening up between the God she had “fallen in love with” and the God she was learning about as she studied theology. Her theology teacher, Gordon Kaufman, provided her with a paradigm to understand this changing situation. From him she learned that theology is “imaginative construction,” and that it involves finding a way to live a moral life – that is, theology is ultimately practical in nature. The real question isn’t whether God exists, but the nature of the God one imagines. As a Mennonite, Kaufman’s worldview was formed by Jesus’ teachings on loving neighbor, loving one’s enemies, and living without violence. With this as the background, the question then is – what kind of God does one believe in. In the course of her studies, she began to discover the kind of God that she had imagined and thus constructed. She had created a God to serve her needs – to be loved by a man, a sort of imaginary friend. As she studies theology, especially as she is involved in her Ph.D. program, she decides to give up the idea of the priesthood, but she also “breaks up with God.” Her reasons are familiar. She is unable to intellectually bridge the chasm between what she had once believed and what she now knew from her study of the Christian faith as well as her inability to resolve the problem of suffering in a way that would allow her to continue her embrace of God. The theodicies, whatever they might be no longer sufficed.
But she doesn’t want us to think she lost her faith. No, she left it. She writes:
It’s all still there. I know right where it is. I can see it through that window stained with story – see the pews and altar, see the vestments, see the books, see the kneeling, praying, eating, breaking, loving, blessing, forgiving, bleeding, redeeming. But I can’t make myself go inside. (p. 211).
What was once the focus of her life no longer worked and so she walked away from it.
Again the issue here is one of projection. She had created an image of God, or at least bought into an image of God, that she hoped would resolve her own sense of being unlovable. In time that image no longer worked so she walked away from it. With this idea of projection in mind – an idea that is developed by Ludwig Feuerbach, she suggests that the problem with religion is that we’re looking for someone else to save us. What we do is project on God “everything that is good about humanity” (p. 217). God then becomes little more than a superhero who does what humans seemingly can’t do for ourselves. In the end, though she has left the church and faith, she says she’s not “post-God,” she’s just stopped thinking about God as a personal being. On matters divine – she’s agnostic, but she does believe in mystery, agency, creativity, justice, accountability and love. Thus, her faith is this: “a fragile hope in what humanity might be able to do when we stop looking for someone else to save us” (p. 220). This part of the book is probably the most helpful since we do have a tendency to create God in our own image.
So, what should we make of this book? It sort of depends on your vantage point. As a memoir it really doesn’t do much for me – so maybe I’m not the primary audience. It is, however, well written and creative. It also asks some good questions about the ways in which we create gods to meet our needs. Am I convinced by her reconstructions? Not really, but then my starting point has been very different from hers. In the end, while I can’t give it a big thumbs up – especially since I find her own construction of God to be more fancy than something she would have learned in church – even Sunday School. There is a certain whininess to the narrative that is off putting. However, Sentilles raises just enough good questions to make it worth giving the book a try.
Review offered as part of the TLC Blog Tour, which provided this review copy.