An Excerpt from Sarah Sentilles’s
BREAKING UP WITH GOD
June 6th, 2011 by admin
“A Theologian’s God”
“Whatever concerns you ultimately becomes god for you,” Paul Tillich writes. Everything is open to consecration.
There are several misconceptions about faith. The most ordinary is to think of faith as knowledge with little evidence, but this is “belief,” not “faith.” Another is to think of faith as believing something that someone with authority tells you. This, too, is a mistake. Faith isn’t about taking someone else’s word for something. Faith is about participating in the subject of your ultimate concern with your whole being.
Having faith in your ultimate concern is the greatest risk you can take. If it proves to be a failure, if you discover you have surrendered yourself to something that was not worth it, then the meaning of your life breaks down. You will find you have given away your center without a chance to regain it.
While I understood “God” to be the most powerful word in the English language—so powerful that using it felt like picking up a weapon, unwieldy, dangerous—people at church used the word casually, seemingly without careful attention, or else they didn’t use it at all. Each week we followed the liturgy set out in the Book of Common Prayer. We preached on the lectionary texts. We chose hymns out of the hymnal. We recited creeds and formulaic prayers. And that was that.
In our weekly staff meetings we barely talked about God. Theology, it seemed, was not the point of running a church. Being an institution was the point. Raising money, obeying the hierarchy, following rules, being right, counting the number of people in the pews, deciding whether or not to expand the building or get a new roof, caring for the community—that was church work. And I’m not sure many people in the congregation came to church to talk about God, either. They came to church because they wanted to be in a community with one another. They came to figure out how to live a life with meaning, how to do good work in the world, how to give back, how to be better people. They came to church to be fed, with bread and wine during Communion. They craved connection, and church seemed like a place where this might happen. God was almost incidental to the whole enterprise—background noise.
Although I focused a lot of energy on those who complained about my sermons, most people liked my sermons and the rest simply ignored them. If you had asked people in the congregation what they believed, I doubt their beliefs would have mapped onto the Nicene Creed any more closely than mine would have. And like me, they probably didn’t completely believe in the version of God described each week in the liturgy or in the prayers. They were very faithful people, but their faith had little to do with theology and much more to do with the other people sitting next to them in the pews and kneeling next to them at the Communion rail week after week. They came to church to be with each other, and they happened to come to that particular church because they’d been raised Episcopalian or their spouse had been raised Episcopalian or they had friends who also attended that church or the church was close to where they lived. I suspect most were willing to overlook sexist language or dangerous theology because they hadn’t expected to hear anything different.
But I couldn’t overlook it.
I was deeply disappointed. The distance between the theology I studied in school and the theology being practiced in the pews and preached from the pulpit by the priests on staff was enormous. Everything I took for granted—the difference between “God” and God, the wide range of theological possibilities, the need to think critically about the effects God-talk can have on the world, the existence of other holy texts besides those collected in the Bible, historical criticism—was absent, even heretical. I felt like I was going crazy. The God I had come to believe in was nowhere to be found—and in that God’s place was a different version of God I struggled to recognize. I felt as if there had been an invasion of the body snatchers, or as if I had traveled backward in time, before feminist or liberation or queer or black theology. The vision of God being worshipped in that place was so narrow. What is going on? I wanted to shout.
I sometimes wonder how doctors, having seen inside the human body, having dissected it, go about their daily lives interacting with the rest of us. When they look at people, do they see what is happening on the inside? The map of veins and arteries? The liver, the spleen, the stomach? Do they think of the skeleton? The skull? Do they think of the limbs they’ve cut off or the cancer they’ve cut out?
Divinity school had been like an autopsy of my faith. I had peeled back the layers of skin, of fat and muscle. I had looked inside to see how it worked, held its heart in my hand, touched its bones, its lungs. And it didn’t look the same anymore. Nothing looked the same.
I heard a story on the radio about a woman who came home from work and sat next to a man who was waiting for her on her front porch. He was wearing her husband’s clothes. “Who are you?” the woman asked.
“Who are you?” he said, laughing. “Come over here and give me a kiss.”
She gave him a kiss, but it felt wrong. His essence, his soul, isn’t in there, she thought. He’s an impostor.
Capgras syndrome—the feeling that the person you love has been replaced by an impostor.
Some scientists explain Capgras syndrome as a kind of denial—there are parts of the person you love that you don’t like, and when you see those negative parts you say, “He must be a different person.” People can show you fingerprints. They can show you photographs. They can map his genetic code. They can give you all kinds of proof, but you will not believe them. The only way to cope with the recognition that the person you love is not the person you thought he was, is to say, “This is not the person I know. This is an impostor.” The only thing to do is make a break.
Other scientists explain Capgras syndrome by looking at the brain: When you see the person you love, the visual parts of the brain recognize that person and send the message, “That is my husband” to the amygdala, the part of the brain that stores our emotional memories. Your husband is both a face you recognize and a set of feelings that goes with his face. But if you have a head injury, if there is something wrong with your brain, if the wire connecting the visual part of the brain to the emotional part of the brain has been cut, then he will look like your husband, but you won’t have the feelings you associate with your husband. No husband feelings: impostor.
Who are you? I ask God.
Who are you? God says. Come over here and give me a kiss.