Monday, June 06, 2011

Breaking Up with God -- Review

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.

12 comments:

LisaMM said...

Thank you so much for the very thorough and thoughtful review of Breaking Up With God. We really appreciate it! Thanks for being on the tour.

Jody said...

As a former Catholic, I sympathize with the author. I, too, grew up with a romanticized view of what it meant to be the Bride of Christ. The sisters who taught me in school wore wedding rings! I left the church because no one would answer my questions like: Why can't I read the Bible for myself? How can the Pope tell me about birth control & where does it say "no" to birth control in the Bible? It took me 20 years of trying it on my own(& not working!) to choose Jesus, pick up a Bible, get plugged into a study group, and allow GOD to tell me the truth about Himself. I hope this author will give God a chance, too.

Brian said...

What if her whininess is suffering? In the course of reading your posts I've seen a bias against self-reflection. It comes through in your critique of mourning.

The founder of CPE called humans "living human documents" meaning that we learn at least as much about theology, ourselves, and the world by exegeting a human being's feelings and experiences.

This is important because I think pastors can hurt good people by labeling courageous self-reflection as self-absorption. I was thinking of you as I was driving to my therapy session yesterday.

Brian said...

Clarification: The founder of CPE compared the study of "living human documents" to the study of literature. He found that most ministry training was literature oriented instead of human oriented. The results are easy to predict.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Jody, thanks for your reflectons.

Brian, I hope I don't come across as anti-self-reflection. In my reading of the book, I can't say that there is much here that speaks of suffering, but of a poor self-image. She complains regularly that she's unlovable. As one who struggled with a poor self-image through adolescence and having seen folks truly suffer, she comes off whiny.

John said...

I find your accusation of whininess to be uncharacteristically uncharitable.

Admittedly we are both 50 something white males and have very different images of God, and what we seek from God. But that does not render our perspective any more or less correct, or any more or less laudable.

Sentilles' perspective is, I think, a common one for alietnated Christian women, and I think one against which feminists and many other thinking women have to work hard to overcome: God is not a knight in shining armor.

But God is not a king or a father either. I have to overcome the paradigms I was raised up with, and I think all of us have to journey from the image of God as imaginary hero, to the God which defies all image-making.

And, having listened to Sentilles Youtube.com speak on her last book, I see that she is struggling mightily not only against the internalized paradigm but the paradigms which the Church promotes, paradigms which across the board and across the millennia have conspired to diminish women and render them compliant to a male dominant culture. To suggest that "she seems to have a rather poor sense of herself" is to deny the value of her ongoing struggle, as well as the immensity of it. To suggest that she just "get over it" fails to appreciate the difficulty of merely grasping the issue let alone overcoming it.

By the way, Sentilles' conceptualization of her relationship with God as 'dis-engagement' is suggestive of the biblical narrative of Hosea and the seductive poetry of the Song of Solomon, seems to me a fair and proper literary device for a prophet.

And what do we know about prophets?

They whine.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John, thanks for the critique. I'm not sure I'm ready to give up my critique of what I perceive to be her whining -- that said, I do think she is right in challenging our tendency to project on to God that which is good about humanity so as to absolve ourselves of responsibility. I just think that her "memoir" would have more credibility if she'd faced greater odds than she describes in the book. I know a lot of women who have faced greater odds than has she.

John said...

I think it is difficult to gauge how much she has endured without gauging how profoundly she engaged that which she has endured, emotionally and intellectually.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John, this is true. I'm gauging it on the basis of what I read, and except for an eating disorder as a teen, she lived a pretty normal life. Reading a couple of reviews of the previous book apparently she describes rather bitterly her experience of entering the priesthood. In this book she goes to seminary without any real sense of wanting to be a priest and seems to resent having to serve a congregation. But again, I can only speak from what I read not from knowing her.

Seals Island Theology said...

Hmm it does sound a bit sad. But then so does Karen Armstrong to me.

Jessica Rae said...

As A.W. Tozer so eloquently said years ago in Knowledge of the Holy, so many problems start with a plain wrong view of who God is. I will quote him liberally here. First, he posed the hypothetical,

"Were we able to extract from any man a COMPLETE answer to the question, “What comes into your mind when you think about God?” we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man." (emphasis added)

The author clearly has an immature, incomplete view of the God of the Bible - and each view she throws out is incomplete, focusing on one or a few attributes of God and ignoring the others. It is quite frankly not surprising then that she took a disastrous detour in her "spiritual future".

As God Himself says in scripture - "I am". Created beings simply do not have the option of creating their own view of the Creator based on their own preferences - the Smorgasbord approach to theology.

Not only does this demanding that God fit into one's own box the ultimate in human arrogance, but it is also a textbook example of idolatry. "The idolater simply imagines things about God and acts as if they were true."

Self reflection is vital. "Only after an ordeal of painful self-probing are we likely to discover what we actually believe about God." But the aim of self reflection is to ask questions to gauge whether what is in our hearts is in line with what God has revealed about Himself. If our previously inadequate view of God blows up in our faces in this process, the appropriate response is to renew our efforts to figure out exactly who God is - not surrender all efforts and accept anyone's view as valid.

This is not at all an easy process, and we must all go through it, but truth will only be found if one seeks to sacrifice self to relate to the living God, as opposed to "seeking" a God who fits into our carefully contructed view of who we want Him to be.

Jessica Rae said...

As A.W. Tozer so eloquently said years ago in Knowledge of the Holy, so many problems start with a plain wrong view of who God is. I will quote him liberally here. First, he posed the hypothetical,

"Were we able to extract from any man a COMPLETE answer to the question, “What comes into your mind when you think about God?” we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man." (emphasis added)

The author clearly has an immature, incomplete view of the God of the Bible - and each view she throws out is incomplete, focusing on one or a few attributes of God and ignoring the others. It is quite frankly not surprising then that she took a disastrous detour in her "spiritual future".

So first bottom line is: Our view of God matters, and is of primary importance, as we seek the truth. Some views of God are inferior to others. Were this not the case, God would not have taken the effort to reveal who He is to us.

As God Himself says in scripture - "I am". Created beings simply do not have the option of creating their own view of the Creator based on their own preferences - the Smorgasbord approach to theology.

Not only does this demanding that God fit into one's own box the ultimate in human arrogance, but it is also a textbook example of idolatry. "The idolater simply imagines things about God and acts as if they were true."

Self reflection is vital. None of this is to discourage self reflection, but we must ask what this process should look like. "Only after an ordeal of painful self-probing are we likely to discover what we actually believe about God." The aim of self reflection should be to ask questions to gauge whether what is in our hearts is in line with what God has revealed about Himself - whether we have the most complete view of the truth.

If our previously inadequate view of God blows up in our faces in this process, the appropriate response is to renew our efforts to figure out exactly who God is - not surrender all efforts and accept anyone's view as valid, as a response to our own struggles.

Just because I don't have it all figured out, does not mean that I cannot say that you clearly don't have it figured out. I may be struggling to find my way at the moment, but I can tell you that your map is wrong. I will then spend my efforts on finding the right map, and not on drafting a version of what I think the map should look like. These are two very different things, but we often view them as one and the same, lazily calling it "seeking".

This is not at all an easy process, and we must all go through it, but truth will only be found if one seeks to sacrifice self to relate to the living God, as opposed to "seeking" a God who fits into our carefully contructed view of who we want Him to be.