Why I Broke Up With God
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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.