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Why I Broke Up With God

Sarah Sentilles discusses how she went from almost becoming an Episcopal priest, to jettisoning her Christian identity.

The following is reprinted with permission from Religion Dispatches. You can sign up for their free daily newsletter here.

Editor's note: In the following interview author and former Episcopalian Sarah Sentilles discusses moving away from institutional religion and towards a worldview celebrating "what humanity might be able to do when we stop looking for someone else to save us." Sentilles chronicles her from journey from churchgoer to agnostic in her book, "Breaking Up With God."

 

Religion Dispatches: What inspired you to write it? What sparked your interest (person, event book)?

Sarah Sentilles: I started writing this book well before I realized I was writing it. I wrote parts of it when I was working on the book I wrote before this one, A Church of Her Own. My editor for that project made me take out all the parts of the story that were about me and focus instead on the ministers I had interviewed and their experiences of sexism in churches. I realized then that I had my own story to tell. I was almost an Episcopal priest, and now I don’t call myself a Christian. How did that happen? In the writing of the book I realized that the story I had been telling about what happened was not the whole story. I had been telling people that I left institutional Christianity because the church was sexist—which is true—but I also left institutional Christianity because my faith in God had changed dramatically. I no longer believed what I had once believed. I also told people that I lost faith in God, but I realized that isn’t exactly right either. I didn’t lose my faith. I left it. Writing this book I had to face deep parts of myself that were hard for me to look at, hard for me to admit.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

That there is more to God than most of us have been taught in church. That faith is an imaginative, constructive, ethical enterprise. That theology matters. That the way we think about God has a real effect on the earth and on other human beings. That we are the ones we have been waiting for. In the book I write, “This is my faith: a fragile hope in what humanity might be able to do when we stop looking for someone else to save us,” and I think that sentence sums up what the book is about.

I also think the book is an invitation, a way to let other people know that they don’t have to stay in faith communities just because they find themselves there by birth or by choice. It’s an invitation to come out as a seeker, an atheist, an agnostic, a dissatisfied believer, a questioner. Sometimes you know something doesn’t feel right, but you force yourself to stay—whether it’s in a relationship that isn’t working, in a job that is making you miserable, or in a faith community that is making you feel small and scared. That is part of why I figured my faith in God as a romantic relationship. Just like you wouldn’t tell your friend to stay with a partner who hits her, you shouldn’t tell someone to stay with a version of God that makes them sick or scared or impedes her ability to thrive and shine and be her biggest self in the world.

I was on a panel at a book fair once with a rabbi and a priest, and the rabbi started going after people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” He said that it was taking the easy way out to leave institutional religion, that faith is like a marriage—maybe there are parts of it you don’t like, but you have to stay and work through those parts. I was so annoyed when he said that, so furious that I couldn’t come up with a response. But I have a response now: It is not easy to leave institutional religion. It’s hard. It’s difficult to put yourself on the outside of other people’s versions of salvation. It’s a struggle to try to live an ethical, meaningful, loving, justice-seeking life. And it is difficult to find community. I wonder if the rabbi on the panel has ever sat through a service in which parts of himself are denigrated; his body, his gender, his sexual orientation, his race. Some relationships are so bad that the only thing you can do to save your life is leave. And that takes tremendous courage.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

I always have to leave stuff out when I write books. I have been lucky enough to have amazing editors, and they make me cut stuff I love all the time, and in the end, I am glad they did. Some of the best advice I ever received was that if there is a sentence that you wrote that you think is amazing, just go ahead and cut it because it probably sucks and is bad writing. It’s called “killing your darlings.”

The editorial experience for this book was brutal, in a good way. During my first meeting with my editor, she told me she had made a lot of cuts. Before I saw the cuts she’d made, I talked a big game about having been a doctoral student, about loving criticism, about being used to tough cuts. But then she started flipping through my manuscript, and page after page had diagonal lines through them, cutting the entire page. “I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care,” she said as she turned these pages. I was devastated, but she was right. She saved me from writing exactly the kind of memoir I hate. Just because you remember something doesn’t mean you need to write about it.

There is one story that got cut that I wish was still in the book, so I’ll tell it here. The founder of Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit that uses the resources of design to solve social problems, visited my brother’s class in architecture school and described one of the first design contests he held. He asked people to come up with the best design possible for a mobile AIDS clinic for a town in a country in Africa. He posted the deadline, and he waited. He didn’t think anyone would submit anything, but on the day of the contest’s deadline, a delivery man from Federal Express rang the doorbell to his tiny studio apartment in New York City. He was carrying a huge bag stuffed with envelopes. “Wow,” the founder said. “Are all those mine?” “No,” the delivery person said. He pointed to three giant Fed Ex trucks lined up on the street behind him, their hazard lights blinking. “All those are yours.” I really love that story. I think it reveals how human beings are waiting to make the world a better place. We just need to enter the contest.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

People assume I’m an atheist, but I’m not. I don’t know what I am, but if I had to choose a label I’d choose agnostic. When I say that people usually ask me if I think God exists, and I usually give them the answer that my teacher, Gordon Kaufman, used to give me: The question of God’s existence isn’t the right question because it won’t get you very far. It’s a question human beings can’t answer. If we take God’s mystery seriously, then we can never know. I think there are better questions that we can be answering: What does a particular vision of God do to those who submit to it and to those who won’t submit to it? What difference is my version of God making? Who is it harming? In one of his books, Kaufman writes, “The central question for theology... is a practical question. How are we to live? To what should we devote ourselves? To what causes give ourselves?” He argues that theology that does not contribute significantly to struggles against inhumanity and injustice has lost sight of its point of being.

I can’t know if God exists, but I do know the word God is operating in the world, running around doing all kinds of work, good and bad, and I think, as a theologian, I have a responsibility to think critically about the kinds of gods we make and worship and to try to come up with versions of god that might make the world a more just and life-giving place for everyone.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I had many different audiences in mind. First, of course, I had Oprah in mind. Then the New York Times Book Review critics. But that particular audience was not a good one for me to think about because I would write a sentence and then hear the book review folks critique it or call me whiny or stupid or annoying. I had to stop reading all book reviews while I was writing my book because it stifled my creative process. You can’t write with someone calling you names the whole time. You have to shut that censor up. I often write imagining my closest friends as my readers. I also write just for myself, which allows me to take risks with my writing. But the audience I most often had in mind while writing this book was the person who is trapped in a faith that is making her feel small and alone and frightened. I hope my book will help her give herself permission to leave, help her know she’s free to go, that she can claim a different kind of God.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

I am hoping to do all three. I hope to help people see the wide range of possible ways to think about God. There are so many more versions of God in the Christian theological tradition than most people know about. Why has our own tradition been kept from us? And I’m not just talking about feminist and liberation and black and womanist and queer theology, which I wish everyone would read. I’m also talking about the old white male theologians who wrote amazing stuff—like Freidrich Schleiermacher and Paul Tillich. These guys wrote powerful, revelatory, life- changing stuff about God, and I feel like most theology has been lost and forgotten, or just plain ignored. Communities need to reclaim their histories. I hope to help people expand their visions for God. And I hope that will be a pleasurable experience.

I am sure my book will piss people off. I seem to do that no matter how sweet I try to be. I’m trying to embrace that fact and let go of my “good girl” self who tries to please everyone all the time. My dad always says if they aren’t shooting at you, you probably aren’t doing anything worthwhile. Or, as James Cone says, “Now is not the time to be polite.”

What alternative title would you give the book?

I love the title of my book. It’s my best title yet, I think. I write in the preface about my hesitation to figure my relationship with God as a love relationship. It seemed simultaneously so medieval-mystic, so patriarchal, so oedipal that it made me cringe. Calling it a break-up also meant I had to come out: I had to admit to myself and to the rest of the world that the God I’d been dating was a man. I’m a feminist theologian. I was mortified.

I used “A Love Story” as the subtitle because at its heart the book is about love. I loved God because I wanted God to love me. Underneath my faith was a deep need to be unconditionally loved. How we think about God—the kind of relationship in which we imagine ourselves—influences how we approach our relationships with other people. Once I let go of my version of God that linked love with shame and anger and fear, I became better able to love myself and other people.

How do you feel about the cover?

I love the cover. And at the same time I am a little embarrassed as a feminist that I love the fact that my book has a super hot model on the cover. It is the most commercial cover any of my books has ever had, and I am excited about that. I sent my friend Amy Walsh the cover when I saw the first version of it to see what she

thought of it, and she reminded me how weird it was to have a model on the cover. She said she wished I was on the cover, which made me laugh, so my husband and I did a fake photo shoot, and remade a version of the cover with me on it. Instead of sitting next to a suitcase, I sat next to my own dirty laundry. And instead of looking beautiful, my hair was all greasy because I’d just gotten back from the gym and I hadn’t yet showered that day. We laughed for days. Amy later sent me an even funnier version of the cover that now hangs on my refrigerator and that is too brilliant to try to describe here.

One of my friends’ sons was visiting us, and when he saw the actual HarperOne cover he asked, “Why is she angry? Why is she leaving? And where is she going to go?” His questions confirmed for me that the book has the right cover. It tells the beginning of a story.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

Yes. I wish I’d written the Bible. If I could even rewrite just a few passages and stories, the world would look a whole lot different than it does now.

What’s your next book?

I am working on three books at the moment. I’m working on an edited volume with Karen King called Torture and Christianity. I’m working on a book about artists’ responses to torture. And I’m writing a novel based on the true story of a conscientious objector during World War II.

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