I intended to write a review of Sarah Sentilles’ memoir, Breaking Up With God.
That was before I read it.
I admit, though I’d read some of Sentilles’ writing on the internet and liked it a lot I was a little nervous when I cracked the cover of Breaking Up With God. Romantic relationship metaphors for God make me nervous. They remind me too much of the "Jesus is my boyfriend" type songs and books I was surrounded by growing up, the masculine image of God I’ve worked so hard to leave behind. I suspended judgment though, trusting based on Sentilles’ other work (and her Harvard education) that she would employ the relationship metaphor well.
In the prologue, she writes:
I hesitate to call what happened to my faith a breakup. I’m not completely comfortable portraying it as a love affair gone wrong. Figuring it as a romance seemed simultaneously so medieval-mystic, so patriarchal, so oedipal that it makes me cringe. Even 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. I’m a feminist theologian. Saying out loud I believed in a male God is like a yoga teacher smoking a pack of cigarettes every day between classes behind the studio.
She had me at oedipal. In this paragraph Sentilles gets at the gap between the God I study -- the God I want to believe in -- and the God I can’t quite quit (though I’m working on it). And so, I don’t want to write a review. Instead I want to say thank you. I want to say that in the middle of chapter five I burst into tears and had to put the book down for a while and just weep. I want to say that I am grateful for the way Sentilles weaves theology into her narrative, as both a theologian and an artist. I want to say that the story of her own spiritual and theological development, and her ultimate decision not to become a priest, helped crystallize something I’ve long struggled to put words to in my own life.
I’m not now, nor have I ever been on an "ordination track," yet that has hovered in the background for nearly a decade. People ask me about it often enough that I know I’m not the only one to wonder whether I might be called down that path. I’ve insisted, for a while now, that I’m not -- or at least not right now.
When Sentilles’ describes the end of her journey toward the priesthood -- her breakup -- I found myself in tears because I think that is what I am afraid of. I am afraid that if I go down that path, my fragile relationship with God -- and with the church -- will break. I won’t be able to hold the tensions in balance anymore, I won’t be able to carry on this lover’s quarrel with the church, to continue loving her even though I experience much that breaks my heart and makes me want to leave. To keep with the metaphor, if I were to betrothed myself to the church, I wonder how long it would take before I broke it off completely.
Our stories are very different, but when Sentilles describes the gap between the God she fell in love with and the God she came to know in her studies at Harvard, I think I understand. Or, more accurately perhaps, she helps me understand something about myself. The God I grew up with has long since ceased to be God for me, yet even as I devote much of my life to studying and teaching about God in new ways I know how deeply all of my conceptions of God have been shaped by that image I try to distance myself from now. I try to pray not to that image, but to God, but am never quite sure what I am doing, or where those words I offer up are really going. I simply do not know what I am doing when I pray.
Throughout the book, as Sentilles traces the development of her faith and her theology, she inserts short reflections such as "A Sunday School’s God," or "James Cone’s God," or "Mary Daly’s God." As she wrestles with her own conception of God -- the one she ultimately breaks up with -- Sentilles’ words reminded me of the first time I picked up Rosemary Radford Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk. I often reference this experience when talking about my faith journey, as well as my theological development, because it was that book that shattered my existing image of God, and gave me the theological tools to begin wondering what God might actually look like, if the image I’d carried in my head for so long was wrong. So many different teachers, preachers, theologians try to tell me who and what God is -- and still, deep down, has the God I pray to really changed? I don’t know.
What I do know is that the presence of women theologians like Sentilles, and stories like this, give me strength for the journey. They tell me that I am not alone. That whether I break it off, or keep pressing forward, I am going to be okay. That there are spaces of safety, of love, where I will always be welcomed.
And maybe that kind of freedom is what enables me to keep this fragile relationship intact. Maybe it is an instance of God breaking in to let me know I am loved even when I struggle to love back. Maybe it's God's way of saying to me that I am simply called to stay.