Breaking up with God

My friend and former student at Harvard, Sarah Sentilles, has just published a book about her experience of Breaking up with God. Most of the book is about the relationship that precedes the breakup and how intimate it is. Sentilles tells a story that lets you know how hard the rupture will be.

In vivid accounts of her childhood, teen years, and young adulthood, Sentilles describes how deeply her idea about God as a personal Being who is omnipotent and Other wove its way through her every sense and sensibility. Her God is the companion of her inner life, framing what she perceives and how she responds. Her desire to please God finds expression in how she feels about her body (fat), her desires (untrustworthy), her family (in danger), and her task in life (to become a priest). In the name of this God, with and through this God, because of this God, she experiences great love and great judgment, great pleasure and great pain.

Eventually, she can no longer tolerate the pain. In the name of the love she wants, she breaks up with God. Or rather, she breaks up with this idea of God as a personal, all-powerful Beloved that has so thoroughly infused her sensory awareness. 

What happens next? The book offers a few tantalizing clues. She finds a partner and affirms human love. She insists that all talk of God–including her description of “Him” as a partner–is metaphorical. She condemns violence inflicted by Christians on each other, as well as on non-Christian, non-human others. She claims to believe in Mystery. Agency. Creativity. Justice. Accountability. Love.

Yet the question remains: How will Sentilles invest her metaphor-making skills in creating a more just, healthy, sane world?

There are several possible moves to make here.

1. Create a better metaphor. Sentilles’ mentor at Harvard, as she admits, takes this tack. As Gordon Kaufman affirms, metaphors for God are all we have. All talk about God is imaginative construction. Yet once we acknowledge this fact, we can and must construct symbols for God that address the challenges of our time. Kaufman isolates criteria that such symbols of God must meet, including the ability to relativize and humanize our human concerns.

While Sentilles agrees that all talk about God is metaphorical, she sticks like glue to the metaphor she nonetheless rejects. “God” remains a personal, beloved Being, just one to which she is no longer committed. However, she and He are still very much attached by the distance she maintains between them. The notions of Mystery and Love don’t quite fill the gap. Might she find a better metaphor?

2. Embrace all metaphors as valid. Another option would be to conclude that, since any idea we have of God or the divine is (only) a metaphor, then there is no basis for asserting that one is better than any other. This position lends itself to an all-embracing pluralism.

However, Sentilles does not want to make this move either. She refuses to relinquish her right to denounce ideas of a personal, willful God for enabling if not condoning violence. For her, the idea that God could intervene but doesn’t in cases of suffering and oppression is itself intolerable. She cannot be in relationship with such a God.

3. Replace theology with ethics. In the place of God, Sentilles holds firmly to an ethic of justice, and to a “fragile hope” that humans can wake up and help one another, rather than wait for God to do it for them. Still, given her account of growing up with God, it is clear that her notions of love and justice are indebted to experiences she has had as a member of Christian communities. Some shade of “God” seems to hover between the lines of her text, a silent and enabling presence, causing readers to wonder: Who is there?
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It isn’t easy to break up with God–or with an idea of God–even when it seems necessary. As Sentilles’s tale illustrates, our ideas of God become us; they become our bodily selves; they become the patterns of sensation and response that shape how we think and feel and act. As a result, it is impossible to un-think God.

Rather than un-think God, then, we need to un-do God. That is, we need to reconnect with the sensory awareness–the movement of our bodily selves–that allowed us to come to know God in one way and not another in the first place. We need to tap in to the somatic sources of our freedom and our creativity.

Sentilles does. Increasingly aware of her own distress, she starts to paint, practice yoga, and finally, write. Such actions, to me, are as important if not more so in her break up than her evolving thoughts about God, history, and the Bible. For it is these actions that open her up to new spaces of pleasure in herself–new realms of love and understanding and attention. These actions allow her to find in her own sensory self a place from which to identify and reject ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that did not support her well being or the well being of others.

Sentilles could think other thoughts about God, new thoughts about God, her own thoughts about God, because she was making movements in her life that exercised the rhythms of her own bodily becoming. She was creating and becoming patterns of sensation and response that supported her in unfolding what she had to give. The process will continue.

In this way, Sentilles’ tale and its open ending illustrate what I know to be true. The way to healthy, life-affirming ideas about God, ourselves, and the earth lies through our bodily selves–through making movements with our bodies that cultivate in us a sensory awareness of how the movements we are making as we think, feel, and act are making us. What are we creating? What kind of self? What kind of relationships? What kind of world?

Said otherwise, if we are relational, bodily selves, responsible for creating and becoming our highest ideals, how do we learn to love?

It is the question that inspires Family Planting.

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