Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Breaking Up With God, Part 2

I spent the afternoon finishing Sarah Sentilles, Breaking Up With God: A Love Story. It is well-crafted, funny, sad, and beautiful. She tells her story of her breakup with God:

I broke up with God that night. I broke up with the priesthood. I broke up with the river and the sky opening and the dove calling me beloved. I broke up with chosenness and salvation and belonging. And I imagined God held me when I cried.
I can't do this anymore, I said. I'm not happy.
I know, I heard him say. I know. p. 170
She broke up with the Creator of Universe just when she was about to be ordained as a priest in The Episcopal Church. She had her M. Div. from Harvard and was working toward her doctorate in theology when she decided that she could no longer be in love with God. It is a love story. After she lets go of God she is able to love herself. She is able to leave the cage.

I enjoyed the snippets of theological wisdom she includes in the book from a wide variety of theologians including James Cone, Mary Daly, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Paul Tillich, Sallie McFague, Ludwig Feurbach, Karen King, and especially the late Gordon Kaufman. She addresses him in the acknowledgements:

Thanks to Gordon Kaufman--please know this book is a love letter to you, a thank you note.
Through her story I heard echoes of my own. My guess is that many clergy will find their stories reflected in hers. I heard in her story the disconnect between a great Harvard education and the reality of a church that has no interest. It wasn't just the people as much as the language of the liturgy and the tradition itself that proved too small and too inadequate to converse with the faith she was deconstructing and developing.
God is gone--but not completely. When I close my eyes I still see a bearded white man. A decade of study can't wipe him out. I feel him there, hovering. But that version of God has become ethically untenable for me. Too many terrible things done in his name. Too much suffering in the world. Too much violence. Too many disasters. I let go of a personal God. I let go of all of it. p. 214

I found her story compelling and important for our culture, for churches, and for all of us. Whether we are part of the church, are rebelling against it, have left it, or are indifferent, we are all God-haunted. This book can help open up discussion and allow folks to take on what may have been taboo, to open the door that has been locked and labelled "blasphemy" and see what is really behind it.

What is behind that door is a mirror. Near the end of the book, she mixes her words with those of Ludwig Feurbach:

Ludwig Feurbach called his book The Essence of Christianity, but he wanted to call it Know Thyself. In that book he writes, you imagine the best version of yourself, but then you pretend it doesn't belong to you, and you name it God. Christianity alienated human beings from what is theirs. All that's good it gave away.

But what you think of as united, you unite. What you think of as distinct, you separate. What you think of as destroyed, you destroy. What you think of as loved, you love.

Can you see? You can save your life. You can save others' lives.

Imagine a screen. Project goodness. Project strength. Project holiness. Kindness. Mercy. Love. Watch the screen. Long for what it shows. Bow down. Worship.

Now imagine a mirror. See goodness. See strength. See holiness. Kindness. Mercy. Love. See they belong to us. pp. 221-2.
Whether that is enough to retain the label "God" is an individual choice I suppose.

I posted a couple of longer quotes
here and here. I am interested in your thoughts.


  1. Thoughts? I have to give her much credit for honesty. As I understand the Episcopal liturgy, the sermon is followed by "We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heavan and earth...." It would be a corrosive thing to start out so double-minded, if those affirmations are so much in doubt.

    But I hope she isn't too hasty.

    Our medieval forebears gave the name of "melancholy" to a condition often brought about by too much study, too much reflection, too much introspection. Many of us have seen how life can be thrown out of balance this way.

    Many medical students, in the course of their studies, become cynical about life; many law students become utterly cynical about justice. I have known graduate students in literature whose graduate studies have almost made them hate what they wanted to pursue out of love.

    San Juan de la Cruz talks much about the "noche oscura," a phenomenon not uncommon when the things of God become dry, tasteless, meaningless. Perhaps those things which have left only the faintest trace will return. I would hope so; others, of course, would see this "breaking up" as liberation.

    It is always difficult to know when the time has come to write one's spiritual autobiography. But I have friends who have been married for over thirty years--and I can still remember when they "broke up" in high school. Her life is still beginning.

  2. You make some good observations, Rick, esp. melancholy.

    Yet from the book she doesn't think it is her melancholy or loss of faith that is causing the breakup. It is that God is no longer a good match. I find this more and more with younger and younger people. For them God is less and less credible and inhibits growth.

    Some redefine God as is the case with the theologians she mentioned, but she seemed to have absorbed God into life.

  3. You have to break up with your image of God if you ever hope to get to know God for who God is.

    And there is an overwhelming amount of image making these days. It's like trying to hear a humming bird chirp when there is a 747 landing on your head.

    Better to have no image at all.

    I think that is what Jesus meant about little children and the Kingdom of God. They have no pre-conceived notion, no standard, no image. They just accept what is for what it is. And if it's love, they thrive.

    Just today a friend was telling me how a mutual friend was moving back from Texas. He is reported to be fed up with Evangelical Christianity Texas style. "They are so full of hate" he said.

    And he can't get far enough away from it.

  4. You have to break up with your image of God if you ever hope to get to know God for who God is.

    I am discovering that "God" means many different things to different people and touches many deep emotions, ideas, and images. Most of this touches us in the realm of the unconscious.

    I don't think where people end up coming down on the 'God-thing' is as important as going through the process and being willing to be open and honest with where ever you are going or need to go.

    As point 5 of the 8 points says:

    Find grace in the search for understanding.

    Some people need to break up and others need to make up.

  5. John,

    I don't know if I want to be pigeonholed as a Progressive.

    But, trying to follow Paul's more perfect way (I Cor 12:31 - I Cor 14:1),and prayer, have left me much more at peace with the ways of the Progressives than the ways of the Fundamentalists.

    I know the hound of heaven. I know that wherever I boldly (or cowardly) go, that hound will sniff me out and find me ("where can I hide from your spirit? Even if I make my bed in Hell, You are there"). I can count on it.

    I DO count on it.

    And it's THAT fact, for me, that has allowed taking those exploratory deconstructive chances with impunity. Even encouraged it. So yeah, break up, make up, stir it up... It's a dynamic relationship.

  6. I don't know if I want to be pigeonholed as a Progressive.

    I hear you about the pigeonholing. Labels while at times can help bring clarity often end up being used to divide and dismiss.

    One of my favorite hymns is "Love that wilt not let me go" because, for me, it validates (graces, blesses) the search, the deconstruction, partial reconstructions, all of it. We are never outside of what is. So we have the "permission" to be honest about who and where we are.