Once in a very great while I find a book that I simply can’t put down. It is a rare windfall when that book feels like it was written especially for me. I was instantly engrossed in Sarah Sentilles’ Breaking Up With God. Like Susan Campbell’s Dating Jesus, this book reinforced the fact that women experience a side of God’s character generally closed to men—the idea that God might be a lover. In our distorted, still patriarchal culture we have yet to grow beyond the idea that God is male. This simple, persistent teaching ensures that a gender-divide will always remain in effect when it comes to monotheistic religions. What truly spoke to me from Sentilles’ book, however, was not the theology, but the heart. Although the gender view from which I approach concepts of divinity must necessarily be different, here I found someone with a journey in many ways similar to mine. The honesty with which the author lays open her experience is beautiful and terrifying.
One of the recurring questions on this blog is whence the concept of God arose. Anthropologists, psychologists, and theologians come up with varying answers but the fact is the real impact is felt in very human minds. We have, perhaps unwittingly, devised a punishing image of the creator of the universe. A God who causes, allows, or at least condones arbitrary human suffering. A God who permits atrocities daily to be committed in his name (for this is a masculine god). A God who has left a burning ruin in his wake. Those of us who’ve attended seminary, as Sentilles makes vividly clear, are taught perceptions of the divine that can never be translated into the pulpit. Those of us who go on to graduate school are permitted a rare glimpse behind the veil to see something that it frightens us to contemplate, let alone write or speak about. It is a burden best worn like a hairshirt—beneath other clothes so that people don’t know it’s there. Many of us are then cast into the career outer darkness with nothing but our highly educated, disturbing thoughts for comfort.
Sarah Sentilles has given the world a gift with her revealing, sensible, and very human story. Having grown up with the image of God as a father, it was a shock when a seminary professor once revealed to me that God could never really fill that role. Nor, he added, could the church. While it cannot be the same as breaking up with God, the realization that what you were taught as a child was merely a metaphor forces a grand reevaluation of perceptions. My professor was, of course, correct. Carrying around a faulty image of God will lead only to intractable complications further down the road. Although Sentilles started down the path some years later than I did, it seems we have wound up in the same neighborhood. Her book deserves to be read widely, thought over carefully, and pondered for a time. We need to consider: what hath man wrought?