I broke up with God. The breakup was devastating. It was like a divorce when all the friends you had as a couple are forced to choose sides and end up not choosing yours. It was like waking up in an empty bed in an empty house. It was like someone I loved died. It was like when Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome arrive at Jesus’s tomb with spices to anoint his dead body, and they find the stone rolled back, and they look inside the cave, and he’s gone.
“God loves you,” church signs announce when I drive by. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, Jesus says when he’s asked which commandment is the greatest, and in the river, when he’s baptized, God claims Jesus as beloved. It’s the best love story ever told: God chooses you, sacrifices for you, kills for you, knows you, sees you, saves you. No wonder losing my religion felt like heartbreak.
Still, 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 seems 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 that I believed in a male God is like a yoga teacher smoking a pack of cigarettes every day between classes behind the studio. So let’s get that part out of the way: I believed in a male God. I loved him. I needed him. Sometimes he was gentle and kind. Sometimes he frightened me.
You could say God and I lived together, which made it hard for me to admit the relationship was over. Staying was easier than looking for a new place to live. God might have been invisible, but he took up a lot of space, and I had never been alone. Sure, the passion had gone out of our relationship, and he wasn’t who I thought he was anymore, but we were still comfortable together. Habits, routines, rituals. If you’d gone out to dinner with us, you wouldn’t have noticed that anything was wrong, but we definitely didn’t run home to tear each other’s clothes off. Sometimes we stay with what we know—even if it makes us miserable, even if it makes us feel small—because it’s familiar. It’s not that misery loves company, it’s that we’re willing to be miserable if it means we’ll have company. I was afraid of being by myself. A dead relationship seemed better than coming home to an empty house.
My relationship with God was never casual. When it began to unravel, I was going through the ordination process to become an Episcopal priest. I was the youth minister at a church in a suburb of Boston and a doctoral student in theology at Harvard. You might say God and I were engaged and the wedding was planned—church reserved, menu chosen, flowers arranged. Calling it off would be awkward.
Breaking up with God meant letting go of someone I had believed in, loved, and built my life around, so I hung on for a long time because I was scared of what would happen if I let go. My relationship with God was connected to everything—my family, my friends, my sense of justice, my vocation, my way of being in the world. I lost more than belief. I couldn’t go to the places we used to go anymore. I couldn’t use our special language. I couldn’t celebrate the same holidays. I even had to trade red wine for beer. People say you can use a simple mathematical formula to figure out how long you will feel like shit after a breakup: one month of pain for every year you were together. God and I were together for my entire life. Thirty-four years. Which translates into thirty-four months of post-breakup misery.
Almost three years.
Excerpted from BREAKING UP WITH GOD by Sarah Sentilles. Copyright © 2011 by Sarah Sentilles. Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.