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.

 

Many reviewers have described Breaking Up with God as “brutally honest.” Do you wish you had been less forthright (or even fibbed some) when writing your memoir?

I am a terrible liar. I can’t lie to save my life, so it would have been impossible for me to write a memoir that wasn’t true. I have asked reviewers what they meant when they called my book “honest,” and most responded by pointing out that it is unusual for people to make themselves look bad in their own writing, which made me realize that being called honest is not necessarily a compliment. I didn’t write the book to create a flattering version of myself (I hope the author photo does that work for me). I wrote the book to try to understand how I went from almost being a priest to not calling myself a Christian anymore. That said, I understand that memoirs—like identities, like theologies—are constructions.

 

What do your parents think about your breakup with God?

It doesn’t bother them at all that I no longer call myself a Christian. They raised me with a healthy dose of suspicion and taught me to be a critical thinker who asks questions. They understand that the book is about breaking up with a particular version of God—the man in the sky who watched over me and protected me when I was good and punished me when I was bad—not about breaking up with all versions of God. My parents have always cared more about what I do with my life than about what I believe, a sentiment that is mirrored in the sorts of theologies to which I tend to be attracted. I sent them a draft of my book before it was published. I thought that was a fair thing to do given they both make appearances in the book. My mother was not upset at all about my journey out of institutional Christianity. She was, however, mortified that “everyone in the world” was going to read about me having sex in the back seat of a car.

 

Do you think you’re going to hell?

I don’t believe in hell. I also don’t believe in a God who would send someone to hell based on whether or not they believed in God or that Jesus was the son of God. That seems very narcissistic to me. I can’t stake my life—or my afterlife—on a God who would peer inside my mind and look only for himself. Enough about me, I imagine this God saying. What do you think of me? I also don’t understand why we need to invent an afterlife when there are already so many people suffering in various forms of hell on earth. I am much more concerned with trying to end suffering now.

 

What if you’re wrong?

I think “What if I’m wrong?” is the most important question we can ask ourselves. I call myself an agnostic. Although “agnostic” is a philosophical term, I claim it for primarily ethical reasons. My mentor at Harvard, the theologian Gordon Kaufman, taught me that the question of God’s existence is not a question human beings can answer. As a result, it’s time to start asking different theological questions: How are we to live? To what causes should we devote ourselves? How will we make the world a more just and life-giving place for everyone? It seems to me that we get in the most trouble and do the most violent things to other people, animals, and the environment when we forget that our ideas about God might be wrong. This is one of the biggest dangers that can come with religious belief—instead of recognizing that God is a mystery and that no human being can speak for God, some believers put their own words in God’s mouth. They use God as a way to justify mistreating others.

 

You’re a theologian who doesn’t believe in God. How does that work?

You don’t have to believe in God to be a theologian—just like you don’t have to be a politician to study political science or a bird to study ornithology. The word “God” is out in the world doing all kinds of work, good and bad, liberating and oppressive, and I understand my role as a theologian to be evaluating the effects of people’s beliefs. My theological project is both critical and constructive. I don’t really care what we believe; I care how our beliefs influence the way we live in the world.

 

You’re a scholar of religion. Do you have any marketable skills?

I am really good at reading. Is that marketable?

 

No. Reading is not a marketable skill. Name three things you are good at doing.

Reading, grammar, and predicting how much my groceries will cost in the checkout line.

 

Name three things you are not good at doing.

Skeet shooting, orienteering, and acting.

 

What does your writing practice look like?

I do my best writing early in the morning. It is imperative that I start writing before my critical brain is awake, before my censor starts telling me my writing sucks, my book is stupid and makes no sense, and I should just give it up and stop pretending to be a writer. So much of writing—so much of any creative activity—is about cutting through self-doubt and self-sabotage to make your way to the page. I have to work hard to get out of my own way. I have to work hard to trust myself.

 

What are you writing now?

I am writing a novel about a conscientious objector during World War II. I am also working on two edited volumes—one about Christianity and torture and one about artists’ responses to torture.

 

You spend a lot of time writing about torture. You must be fun to hang out with.

Is that a question?

 

Are you fun to hang out with?

It depends.

 

Do you think you and God will ever get back together?

It’s possible, I guess, but unlikely. Right now we’re seeing other people.