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Breaking Up With God by Sarah Sentilles

March 18, 2012

The other day I decided to organize all our books by color. It was a ridiculous task that didn’t really turn out that well but it did lead me to discover all sorts of books on the shelves that I haven’t read. By the end of the project, I had a pile of books that were all next on my to-read list, and a shelf full of books that just looked jumbled and weird. Oh well.

I picked up Breaking up with God by Sarah Sentilles when I was still working at Borders, during the “final days” sale when every book was super cheap and had to go. I’m fascinated by religion, I think mostly, because religion plays no part in my life and I find it so interesting that it plays a huge role in other people’s lives.

Sarah grows up in a Catholic family and then becomes Episcopalian. Immediately after graduating from Yale she enters the Teach for America program where she is stationed in Compton, outside of LA. She sees terrible poverty and under-funded schools, all while making friends and trying to fit in. She finds an Episcopal Church called All Saints and says she “fell in love with God” there. She loves the people, loves being a part of the community, loves feeling loved, wanted and accepted. She continues to drive to All Saints even after she moves further away, making her frequent trips to church hour-long drives. It’s at All Saints that Sarah begins to think that she is called to be a minister. Everyone there tells her that she has a special gift and a special relationship with God. They encourage her to pursue the ministry, and she does.

Sarah loves being the person who is “going to be a priest.” She revels in the awe and interest it inspires in others; she feels special and priviledged. She soon heads to Harvard Divinity School, but it’s there that her faith actually begins to waver. She takes a class with much-loved professor Gordon Kaufman, who challenges conventional thoughts of religion. He says that theology doesn’t move from God to humans; it moves from humans to God. Sarah hears him saying:

There is no such thing as revelation. There is only what we make. God is not shooting arrows down at us. We are shooting arrows up at God, trying to reach God even as well know our arrows will never hit the mark. Theology is not about getting God right…It’s about looking around at the world and seeing what it needs. About confronting injustice and environmental degradation and poverty and racism and sexism and the possibility of nuclear annihilation and saying, ‘I can create a version of God that can respond to this.’ 

At Harvard she begins to love theology and really thinking about religion and its role in the world. She agrees with Professor Kaufman that “theology that does not contribute significantly to struggles against humanity and injustice has lost sight of its point of being.” And it is here at Harvard Divinity School that her faith breaks down. She sees the political, sexist, angry, and greedy side of religion and realizes that  she cannot be a part of it. Her journey is heartbreaking but enlightening for Sarah, and is sad and inspiring for the reader.

Sarah travels a long road in this memoir, but in the end she comes through strong and happy, with a better understanding of the world around her and how she would like to fit into it.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2012 2:50 pm

    I loved your post. Theology; just like other deterrents of societal modernity like racism, sexism, gender discrimination, etc., theology seeks to bombard the mind with ecclesiastical irrelevancy with the true human struggles of today that matter.

    Some people are so spiritual they are no earthly good to anyone around them.

  2. Jen permalink
    October 30, 2012 4:59 pm

    This made me think of a discussion we had during a religious studies class in college. Someone asked the professor which religion he practiced. He sort of chuckled and said he is asked that in almost every class. His response was that he doesn’t practice any religion. He told us that, in his experience, people who really begin to STUDY religion, from a scholarly perspective, usually end up as non-believers.

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