Seek ye first the Republic of Heaven: Religion — Evolving, Revolving or Devolving
Keynote Speech at the annual Conference of The Sea of Faith Network (NZ) at Cambridge, New Zealand on 24 September 2004
[David did not speak from a prepared paper but he has provided us with the following edited text, derived from his notes.]
It is an honour and a pleasure to address this New Zealand SoF conference as warm-up man for the distinguished speakers who will follow. This is the first visit my wife Anthea and I have made to New Zealand/Aotearoa, though the landscape of your country is familiar to us in its digitalised form as Middle Earth, and we’ve had the benefit of some expert guides. A week before we left England we had Gandalf staying with us — or, I should say, Gandalf’s backside: an old friend, Michael Ellsworth, who doubled for Ian McKellan in all those scenes in the films where you only get to see a back-view of the old wizard! And just before that we had the pleasure of hosting SoFNZ’s very own Gandalf the Wise, Noel Cheer, who was in England to make his own inimitable contribution to our UK SoF conference. Add to these distinguished gentlemen the even more legendary Lloyd Geering, who proposed an itinerary which looked even more exciting, but also even longer, that the journey from Hobbiton to Mount Doom, and you’ll appreciate that we have not lacked expert advice on where to go and what to see in your fabulous country!
I am to speak on the theme “20 Years on: Faith Evolving”, and with my acclaimed gift for finding snappy titles I’m calling this talk Seek ye first the republic of heaven: Religion — evolving, revolving or devolving? Most of what I have to say broadly summarises the thesis of my book The Trouble with God, and I’ll begin, as I do in the book, by telling you a bit about myself.
From Gospel Hall to the White House
My mother and father were Brothers. If that strikes you as unusual, I should explain that they were members of a strict Bible-based sect called the Exclusive Brethren, which worshipped in Gospel Hall. Gospel Hall was where God lived when I was a little boy. It was a decidedly unpretentious home for a heavenly father. Sandwiched between two suburban houses in a quiet residential street in Ashford, Middlesex, fifteen miles south-west of London, it was built of wood and corrugated iron, resembling an army billet-hut left over from the first world war rather than a place of worship. Inside, the boards were half-covered in coconut matting. At one end, near the door, stood a stove in the middle of the floor, its black and stained cast-iron flue rising to a bare wooden roof. At the opposite end was the preacher’s platform, never referred to as a pulpit, since the word smacked of churchianity — an evil scarcely to be whispered. Between stove and platform were rows of plain wooden benches, never referred to as pews. There was no adornment: a cross, a stained-glass window, any hint of vestments, priestcraft or the beauty of holiness would have been anathematised as the distractions of the Devil.
The only wall decorations were faded posters with Bible texts: “For God so loved the world...”, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved”, “How sweet it is for brethren to dwell together in unity...”, and pictures of men in the desert in long colourful robes and long colourless faces, often surrounded by sheep. A large round clock ticked its smug, relentless way to Judgment Day. I remember best the smell: of damp wood, damp coconut matting, stacks of damp “Golden Bells” hymn-books, damp ashes in the stove. This was where we spent our Sundays: at the breaking-of-bread meeting (never referred to as communion) in the morning, at Sunday school with Mr Stone and Mrs Burr in the afternoon, and at the Gospel meeting in the evening, which was open to all-comers, though none but the saints (as the regulars called themselves) ever came. The Gospel was preached in obedience to Christ’s command to go into all the world, but the saints expected the world to come to Gospel Hall, and it showed some reluctance to make the trip.
In those wartime years when we were very young, God and Jesus were family friends, spoken to familiarly, and participants in our games no less than in our worship. We were aware, sometimes uncomfortably, that they could always see us, even though we couldn’t see them. I don’t remember that it worried me too much that they saw me when I was naughty, but I did hope they were not looking when I was in the lavatory. Small boys do worry about that kind of thing. Brian and I sometimes played God and Jesus, I, by virtue of seniority, taking the role of God, and Brian playing second fiddle as my Son. We squatted on the high back of our sitting-room sofa, imagined as our heavenly home, and looked down with fixed seraphic smiles on our humble creation below. Once, when God proposed sending Jesus down to earth to save poor sinners, Jesus refused to go and had to be pushed, falling with an undignified bump. Jesus wept, and God was given a smacked bottom. But generally speaking, mother was not shocked by these games. It was enough for her that her children were growing up in such intimacy with the Lord.
A primary article of our family creed, and one not widely shared among the Brethren, was that our God had a sense of humour. He enjoyed a good laugh. Charlie Boulton, our father, drew much of his own playfulness directly from the Bible. The smallest man in the world? Bildad the Shuhite. Why Isaiah? Because one eye’s ’igher than the other. A favourite game of ours was challenging the grown-ups to find animals in hymns. They soon got through lambs and lions, and father tried “Oh what needless pain we bear”, but we trumped him with “God is walking his porpoise out”. Moving on from animals to items of clothing, obvious references to coats, shoes, armour were trumped with “As pants the hart for cooling streams” (which scored an animal too). We even risked body parts: feet, arms, hands, mouth, lips, heart came quickly, but we were puzzled by the embarrassed giggles which followed our contribution of “Here I raise my Ebenezer” (it was knees we had in mind) and we knew we had gone too far with “He is my ark and arsenal”... If this sounds a far cry from the popular understanding of an Exclusive Brethren upbringing as all po-faced piety and pain, that is because our experience was nothing like that of poor Edmund Gosse as recorded in his classic Father and Son. Ours was a happy childhood in the bosom of a happy and loving family.
But one day in 1945 Gospel Hall burnt to the ground. (Brother Roberts put it about that Brother Woolley, who had “a weakness”, had been smoking in the lavatory). God, it seemed, was now numbered among the homeless. Where, then, were we to find him? The parish church up the road was certainly not a suitable home: it was far too worldly, we were told, though what being worldly meant was never clear. As for the Roman Catholic church which we passed every day on the way to both day school and Sunday school, that was the Devil’s own territory, a place of fearsome incantations and holy smoke, presided over by the Whore of Babylon, whoever she might be. From my tenth birthday in 1945, God and Jesus would never be quite as uncomplicated or intimate, never quite as trouble free, as they had seemed when they ran the universe from our Gospel Hall.
Our speciality in the Brethren was our belief, indeed our certain knowledge, that Jesus was coming back, and coming back very soon. The Second Coming was the dominant feature of our lives. It was imminent. We were living in the Last Days. Every tick of the clock might be the last we ever heard. If he didn’t come tomorrow, it would probably be the day after; if not this week, the next. Every activity was organised on a “DV” basis: Deo Volente, God Willing. Next Sunday’s Gospel meeting would only take place “if He should tarry”. We did not doubt that, while in his mercy he might tarry a few weeks, even a few months, he would not be in a mood to tarry much longer. His return was promised in God’s Word, and it was known as the Rapture. At the sound of the Last Trump, Jesus would appear in the clouds. The graves would open, and the dead in Christ would rise to meet him. We, the living in Christ, would follow them to glory. So far, very much in line with the earliest surviving Christian document, Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians.
But the Brethren’s 19th century founder, John Nelson Darby, had elaborated Paul’s poetic fancy into a detailed doctrine of “dispensationalism”, prescribing precisely how, if not quite when, all this would happen. As he and his followers told it, we few would be taken, the many would be left. The train driver who believed would fly heavenwards from his cab, leaving his train and its unbelieving passengers to run on till it hit the last buffers. Driverless cars belonging to taken saints would career into lorries driven by the unregenerate. The unbelieving batsman at the cricket crease would face an empty space where a moment earlier there had been a believing bowler. The unbelieving lover in his bed, the unbelieving brother, sister, friend, would suddenly find themselves alone in a God-forsaken world. And it would serve them right for not believing. However, in his mercy, God would offer one last chance of repentance during “the Tribulation”, which would last seven years. That would end with the Third Coming and the start of the Rapture proper, when Jesus would return one last time to reign on earth as he did in heaven, and we would return with him to help run the place, co-partakers in his power and glory.
That I might not be one of the elect, the lucky few, the happy band of Brothers who would rise to meet Christ in the clouds, did not occur to me. I had Blessed Assurance, a foretaste of glory divine. I sang,
Each happy morning Thou dost give,
I have one morning less to live.
Then help me so this day to spend
To make me fitter for my end.
I took the Rapture very seriously. Since Jesus was coming for me any moment, probably before the weekend, there was clearly no point in school work, no point in homework, no point in education, qualifications, career. Like Peter Pan, I would never grow up. The Rapture would get me first. In vain, my mother and father tried to convince me that, although there was no doubt whatever that he would come, he really would, I would be prudent to take on board the thin possibility that he might choose to tarry longer than we all expected, if only to give the unbelievers one more chance. But I thought he’d given them all the chances they needed, especially the school bully, and I was confident that Jesus wouldn’t see much point in delaying a moment longer than necessary.
There were times, admittedly, when I felt somewhat let down by the postponement of paradise: for instance, when I was punished for not getting my homework done, or caught out in some misdemeanor which I had supposed would not be discovered till after the Rapture. There were also times when I fervently hoped the tarrying would last a little longer: before a birthday, a Christmas or summer holidays. And when I first found the courage to invite a rather attractive young Sister to come out with me I prayed hard that Jesus would hold back till I had at least brushed my hand against hers... “Even so, come quickly, Lord” — but not too quickly!
Well, I grew up. I left the Brethren behind me, and the Rapture became a quaint childhood memory — till I woke up to discover that John Nelson Darby’s “dispensationalism”, far from disappearing into sectarian obscurity, was capturing the imagination of millions. Today, no fewer than 20 million Americans, and 33% of the Republican Party, describe themselves as “born again” believers, looking to the Rapture. Rapture theology had spread from my little Gospel Hall to George W Bush’s White House, and today God’s mighty army of telly-evangelists are beaming it wholesale into Africa, Latin America and the former communist bloc.
Incidentally, I’ve just been reading in one of your Auckland papers an account of a new post-Rapture course organised by something called the Destiny Church. Apparently it instructs those “left behind” after the Second Coming on what to believe in order to get saved before opportunity ceases to knock with the Third and Final Coming. Rapture religion is alive and well and very close to home.
And with Rapture theology comes rupture politics. A cardinal conviction of dispensationalist fundamentalism is that in “the last days” the Jews will be restored to all their ancient lands and will then convert to Christianity. Hence the impassioned Christian Zionism which piles up the votes to ensure unswerving American support for the state terrorism of the current Israeli regime, which in turn creates the despair which fuels a counter-terrorism of suicide bombing and the sado-fundamentalism which cuts off the heads of the innocent, in God’s name, after making sure the execution is properly framed for the video camera. Post 9/11, the Rapture isn’t funny any more.
So as I grew up I exchanged the Rapture for the mushroom cloud. Treading the familiar path from conservative to liberal to radical theology, I became a peace activist as a founder-member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disamement and editor of its newspaper. After a spell on the socialist weekly Tribune I moved into television, where I edited an international weekly current affairs programme, World in Action, with the motto “To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. I was now a happy godless humanist and a left social-democrat flavoured with a dash of anarchism. The Rapture and its associated fantasies, dreamt up by Paul and fleshed out by Darby, were behind me.
Then something happened. Not a Damascus Road blinding light, just a change of home. We bought a seventeenth century farmhouse in Dent, a remote corner of the Yorkshire Dales. Researching its history, I found that our house and its neighbours were at the heart of “the Quaker Gallilee”, where George Fox’s Quakerism rocked Cromwell’s republican England in the 1650s. Reading the old records, I discovered a Christianity which had rejected creeds, priests, clerics, hierarchies and an infallible book in favour of an inward light of conscience and a gospel of radical social action. (Sea of Faith has some way to go to catch up on that!). I started attending Quaker meetings — without ever relinquishing my humanism. I had found a way to live a modern twentieth century life, understanding religion to be a wholly human, cultural creation, but learning to value a community of faith drawing its inspiration from stories and traditions which, though they had originated in a pre-modern past, still spoke to the condition of the present. I had found a way of keeping my eyes on the skies and my feet on the ground (which, incidentally, makes the cover-illustration for The Trouble with God).
So that was my evolution. But what about the evolution of faith itself, which is supposed to be my theme?
Religious evolution — and how we got it so wrong!
There was a time, beginning around the 1850s and culminating perhaps twenty years ago at the time of Don Cupitt’s celebrated Sea of Faith TV series, when it really did seem that the jig was up for organised religion, at least in the “developed” world. We are all familiar with the way Matthew Arnold caught a whiff of its death in 1859 with Dover Beach, where he mourned “the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith, “retreating, to the breath of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world”. Whether they mourned or celebrated the twilight of gods, devils and things that go bump in the night, educated folk who had never heard of the Rapture shared a sense that religion was on its way out.
In Europe, church-going began to decline, slowly at first, but with gathering pace. Morality began to be defined in humanist and secular terms, a process which had begun among the intelligentsia in the Enlightenment but now spread remorselessly through the whole of society. A new concern for human rights edged out the old imperative of blind obedience to an implacable divine will. And from 1917 on, tens of thousands of churches in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were turned into museums and warehouses as religion was commanded to wither away — helped, when it failed to wither fast enough, by a dose of the gulags.
Old-time religion, it seemed, was dying on its feet, a relic of superstitious pre-modernity which looked increasingly out of place in modernity, and quite irrelevant in post-modernity. It was on its way out, along with all the other grand narratives and overarching systems which, in Tennyson’s words, had “had their day and ceased to be”. As one of the more creative graffiti artists of the 1980s scrawled on the churchyard wall (and I use it as the screensaver on my PC), “God is dead, Marx is dead, and I’m not feeling so well myself!” To many of us who had read our John Robinson and our Don Cupitt, it seemed that faith was in terminal decline, lingering on in dark and unsavoury corners, its appeal now limited to the very young, the very old, the very gullible, and the shamelessly nostalgic. Reason and plain common sense had sapped it of its appeal, its power and its purpose. The very force which had once claimed to rob death of its sting was itself in its death throes. Or so it seemed to many of us. And now, twenty years on, we look back...
And we see just how wrong we were!
Or, at the very least, how staggeringly insular! Twenty years after Don’s Taking Leave of God we can see that faith was in retreat only on the beaches of northern Europe and some of its far-flung former colonies. Over much of the rest of the world the tide of faith has swept back in with the force of a tsunami. Far from fading, religion has become once again a matter of life and death: especially death. Today, barely half way through the first decade of the 21st century and the third Christian millennium, we are living through a mighty revival of religion in its crudest, most bigoted, most pernicious forms. Our oh-so-modern world remains awash with superstition, supernaturalism, and stubborn belief in good and evil spirits, gods and devils, extra-terrestrials and disembodied authorities who demand our obedience and command our lives.
The United States of America has embraced the shadow-side of its puritan past, where faith overcomes facts. George W Bush as firmly believes that God commanded him to invade Iraq as Bin Laden believes the same God commanded him to organise 9/11. Millions agree. Hollywood finds the flagellation of Jesus a bigger turn-on than viagra. The Rapture books in the Left Behind series (you’ll be left behind unless you get washed in the blood of the lamb) outsell Harry Potter.
In Britain, and no less in New Zealand, so I’m told, the churches continue to empty, but the “mind/body/spirit” shelves in our bookshops groan under the weight of tomes recommending a thousand varieties of bottled spiritualities — three for the price of two. One in ten men and one in four women tell pollsters they think there’s something in reincarnation. One in three women say they believe in angels, particularly the guardian variety. Churches, both Orthodox and those planted by western telly-evangelists, flourish in the new Russia. Africa is awash with mission-planted supernaturalism in the form of happy-clappy churchianity. God is invoked by all sides in what is sometimes still called, with apparently unconscious irony, “the Holy Land”. And above all, a century after free-thinkers thought they’d thought God into his grave, two monstrous, murderous religious fundamentalisms square up to each other, for God’s sake and in his name, to devour our world’s precarious stability.
In one corner, we find a distorted Islamic fundamentalism: the product of despair, humiliation and ignorance. The fastest growing world religion, Islam has doubled the number of its adherents since 1970, and much of the increase has been at the most conservative, irrational end of its spectrum of beliefs and practices. In the other corner crouches a perverted Christian fundamentalism, the product of pride, greed and ignorance. It is estimated that 680 million people — 11 per cent of the world’s population — describe themselves as “born again” or “saved”. When the roll is called up yonder it will take one hell of a time to read out. Pentecostalist churches are growing at a rate of 8.1% per year. Evangelical churches, distinguished by their barbaric emphasis on salvation by blood sacrifice, have a growth rate of 5.4%. Russian television is now substantially funded by American telly-evangelist corporations. In Latin-America, the fastest growth is in the charismatic churches sponsored by the religious right in the United States specifically to counter the threat of radical liberation theology. Add to these the Zionist fundamentalism which asserts the right to occupy lands given to a chosen people by their own tribal divinity three thousand years ago, and throw in the Hindu fundamentalism which has ripped open ancient wounds in supposedly secular India, and we see just how wrong we were when, in building our humanist sand-castles on Dover beach, we allowed ourselves to believe that religion in it ugliest and most violent forms would be swept away on the ebb tide and replaced by the sweet reason of a Cupitt or a Geering.
Am I talking too much gloom and doom? Well, of course it is possible to find good religion as well as bad, just as there is good politics and bad politics, good and bad sex. Religious motivation played a key part in the anti-slavery movement, the black civil rights movement, the Jubilee 2000 “Drop the Debt” campaign, Peace and Reconciliation in South Africa, Ghandian non-violence in India, the Islamic practice of zakat or alms tax whereby 2.5% of income is donated for those in need, and in the twentieth century creation of a global network of humanitarian agencies for famine relief, fair trade and the release of prisoners of conscience. Some religious traditions, such as Unitarianism, have placed a high value on reason. Some, like Quakerism, have put active non-violence, reconciliation and peace-making at the heart of their faith and practice. Local churches of many different persuasions have offered friendship and community in a world where friendship and community can be hard to find. We cannot value these too highly — but we can’t allow them to blind us to the damage being done by the flood-tide of resurgent religion in its most pathological forms.
So when we address the question of the future of religion, we cannot any longer seriously persuade ourselves, let alone anyone else, that religion as a whole is evolving into enlightened rationalism and moral humanism. It is patently refusing to follow any such script. Indeed, it seems that evolution, understood as a gradual progression into something better, just doesn’t figure on religion’s agenda. Christianity must change or die, says Jack Spong. But I see little sign of it doing either.
What then of revolution? It may have been the intention of Jesus and the great religious sages to turn the world upside down, but organised religion seems to spend much of its time in last-ditch attempts to preserve the status quo: keep women in their place, keep gays out of the pulpit, maintain the old superstitions of pre-modernity (life after death, divine interventions), leave the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. Mary’s vision of a time when the mighty would be put down from their seats and the rich sent empty away looks as distant and utopian as ever. You’ve all heard it said that Jesus promised the kingdom, and those who claimed to speak in his name ensured that what we got was the church.
If religion isn’t into progressive evolution, and has no revolutionary agenda, perhaps the one sign of change is its tendency to devolution. That’s one way of describing the variety of “new age” spiritualities which, for many, have filled the hole once occupied by church-based religion. But are these spiritualities any improvement on what went before? They tend to be less hierarchical, less dogmatic, less judgmental, less damaged by sexual repression, less violent. But they also tend to be self-absorbed, narcisistic, obsessed with self-fulfilment, contemptuous of rationality, and intellectually empty. They have little significant ethical content, no social programme, no hunger for a better world. They prefer making love to making war, and I won’t argue with that, but they have no taste for “speaking truth to power”, for the hard grind involved in creating conditions for beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks. I find new age spiritualities pretty dispiriting. I don’t buy the suggestion that they are the devolved religion of the future — and if they are, please stop the world, I want to get off.
Let’s face it. In ten, twenty, fifty, one hundred years time, the whole religious scene is unlikely to be significantly different from the way it looks today. The fears and insecurities which feed irrational supernaturalism and breed the superstitions of conservative religion, fundamentalism and a vapid spirituality show no sign of fading away. What future for religion? I’m afraid the most likely answer is: much the same as the past and the present. Bad religion will always be with us as the disease rather than the cure.
So I’m going to address a much more limited question:
Where to with our faith?
By “our faith” I mean the open-minded, open-ended, undogmatic reflection on what our diverse religious traditions can mean to us today when we have abandoned absolutes, ultimates and an external God: our on-going search for the precious core of wisdom and insight which is at once both ancient and bang up-to-date. Isn’t that the essence of the Sea of Faith quest? Where to, then, with that?
It is our responsibility in Sea of Faith and the growing networks promoting a humanistic understanding of religion to nurture it, to grow it on, to see that it is not entirely swamped by the tidal waves of irrational supernaturalist religion. It is our responsibility to see that a questioning faith, a critical faith, a rational faith survives, if only on the margins of an overwhelmingly negative religious culture. We have to speak up for that in our churches and meeting-houses and Sea of Faith groups. We have to be prepared to stick our heads above the parapet, to open our mouths, to “come out” as men and women who have taken leave of God for God’s sake, who value religion not as magic and mystery but as a poetry to live by, speaking a language which reaches the parts that everyday secular language can’t penetrate. We must keep our flame alive, “like a little candle burning in the night”.
Yes, I’m talking about a humanist understanding of religion, where “no Saviour from on high delivers”, where we know we can no longer look to the sky for help, “for It / Rolls impotently on as Thou and I”. I’m talking about a way of looking at religion whereby, in community, we work out our own salve-ation — the salving, or healing, of our shared wounds, and find our own way to atonement — at-one-ment — with ourselves, our fellow-creatures and with the world of which we are a material and a living part. (I emphasis that we do this in community, together: not as isolated individuals absorbed in private notions of self-fulfilment). In this very human world God is not an external reality but our very own idea, our concept, our creation, our projection, our dream — though, paradoxically, we discover that it’s true, after all, that God is our creator, since it is the gods we make for ourselves which make us what we are!
A vision of God as the embodiment of what makes us most human has never been better expressed than by William Blake two hundred years ago. The italics are mine, but the poetry is his:
To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
All pray in their distress,
And to these virtues of delight
Give forth their thankfulness.
For Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
Is God, our Father dear;
And Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
Is man, his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity a human face,
And Love the human form divine,
And Peace a human dress...
Don gave us Sea of Faith, and William Blake gave us Sea of Faith’s religious humanist anthem!
But I need to make one thing clear. A God-symbol who is the incarnation of our highest human values is not an easy option. A theology which simply equates God with human values and supposes that’s the end of the matter is a pretty shallow theology unless it moves on to spell out the difficulty and cost of affirming and living out those values. Love isn’t easy. Loving your neighbour is hard enough sometimes, when your neighbour won’t follow the soap jingle about neighbours “being there for one another... that’s when good neighbours become good friends”! But loving your enemy is something else. Loving the fundamentalist who would drive you from his church? Loving the suicide bomber? Loving Donald Rumsfeld? Positive peace-making, particularly when it involves a determination to find alternatives to violence, demands more than most of us feel capable of giving. How we do it is almost impossible to imagine. But unless we imagine it, it won’t happen. Religion is not concerned simply to utter the platitudes of a certain ethical idealism. Instead, it invites us to enter a drama, in which we discover that we are as vulnerable as the values we wish to affirm, and it is precisely in that vulnerability that those values are tested and achieved. To pledge allegiance to the God who is the symbolic embodiment of “mercy, pity, peace and love” is no soft option. It to chose to serve a symbolic God who really does demand my soul, my life, my all.
Mercy, pity, peace and love only come alive in action, in public expression. So I want to put this to you: In a faith, or a spirituality, which privileges mercy and pity (or compassion), can there be any room for excluding political and social issues from our religious discourse, since it is the political and social which govern our relationship with others?
In a spirituality which privileges peace-making and reconciliation, can there be any room for resolving our conflicts, personal, local, national or global, by violence? And by violence I mean not just the scandal of the Iraq war and the Middle East quagmire but the social violence of unjust trade agreements, the greed which causes us to poison our planet and threaten the survival of life itself, the imperialism of the strongest nations, the economic exploitation of the weakest, the oppression or marginalisation of women.
And in a spirituality which privileges love, which even makes the breath-taking demand that we love our enemies, for God’s sake! — can there be any room for demonising those who see us as the devils, or for blinding ourselves to our own complicity in the oppression which has fed their fanaticism?
It’s our job in Sea of Faith not just to talk about these things but to demonstrate that a Christian or religious humanism is better equipped, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually, to help us begin to live out the demands of mercy, pity, peace and love, the virtues which, says Blake, are what we mean by “God”? How can we put our religious humanism, our faith in the wholly human spirit, into practice? Where are our guides?
The republic of heaven
Well, we could do worse than go back to a Mediterranean peasant-teacher called Jesus. Never mind whether he was historical or mythological, the Jesus of the Jesus stories offered us glimpses of a possible alternative reality which he called “the kingdom of heaven”. In this new society, it was the poor who would be blessed, the peace-makers who would survive, the powerless who would inherit the land. Liberation theology? Certainly a liberating vision, an enabling dream. Here’s a spirituality with a kick in it, a revolutionary dynamic. It’s a social spirituality, a political spirituality. It’s an action spirituality.
I’m not talking about cut-and-dried blueprints, party programmes, power trips. I’m not suggesting Sea of Faith adopts its own social or political programme. God forbid (and if he doesn’t, Noel Cheer will!). But I am saying that a spirituality which shies away from exploring the social and political implications of a radical religious humanist faith is a half-cock spirituality. And half-cock isn’t half good enough!
Jesus’ challenge is still with us. My own modest proposal is that we start by bringing ourselves up to date and dropping the “kingdom” bit in favour of the republic of heaven. I did this when I published a book four years ago on the 17th century radical Gerrard Winstanley, which I called Gerrard Winstanley and the Republic of Heaven. Some readers thought the term was Winstanley’s. Since then, it has been popularised by Philip Pullman in his marvellous trilogy His Dark Materials, based on Paradise Lost, where God, “the Authority”, and his church, “the Magisterium”, are dethroned and replaced by the republic of heaven. When Philip spoke at our UK SoF conference a couple of years ago he told me he had wanted to call the last book in his trilogy The Republic of Heaven, but his publishers had politely opined that it wasn’t a title that would sell! No doubt I’d have done better if my publishers had had the same commercial acumen!
I don’t want to suggest that the republic of heaven is nothing more than the kingdom with a new brand name, but continuity demands that the kingdom is at least our starting point. The kingdom is the inescapable foundation for the republic. The republic is post-kingdom, as our western culture is post-Christian, where the present is not a denial of the past but is shaped and changed by it.
There’s a lot that I would be happy to import into the republic straight from the kingdom. The republic of heaven proposes an overturning of the old order which puts down the mighty from their seats, privileges the hitherto unprivileged, sees the hungry fed, gives the unhappy cause to laugh. Membership is offered to those who don’t lead respectable lives and are no better than they should be. The religious who say “Lord, Lord” will have their membership suspended till they stop talking their religion and start living it. Foreigners, minorities, asylum seekers, economic migrants, those who think different thoughts and do things differently, will be welcome. Children, whether naughty or nice, are honorary members already. Respectable middle-class people who go to church or temple or synagogue, pop the odd coin in the collection plate, take out standing orders for Greenpeace or Save the Whale, and read all the Sea of Faith newsletters, will be excluded if they suppose these attributes and dispositions give them an automatic right to citizenship, as those who imagine they deserve it thereby demonstrate that they don’t. (Incidentally, as a journalist I’ve got a fighting chance of scraping in as one of the despised and rejected!)
What the republic will not import from the kingdom is the notion of blind obedience and passive subjection to an external divine lord, master and king, for lordship, mastership and kingship belong to the past. The republic is to be built, stone by stone, by the free citizens of the republic of heaven, fully aware that they alone are responsible for what they are building and how they build it. The republic is to be the masterwork of the wholly human spirit, and the fruits of the human spirit are the religious virtues of mercy, pity, peace and love. But there are also religious values and impulses which can have no place in the republic. As Rabbi Sara Blumenthal puts it in E L Doctorow’s novel City of God , “the impulse to excommunicate, to satanize, to eradicate, to ethnically cleanse, is a religious impulse. In the practice and politics of religion, God has always been a licence to kill”. So the republic must embrace virtues which traditionally have been considered non-religious or anti-religious: independent-mindedness; freedom of thought, speech and action; liberty, equality, brotherhood and sisterhood; romance, laughter, generosity and tolerance; common decency and common welfare; creative imagination and reason — each valued for itself, and not because a sovereign lord so decrees.
I want to call it a republic because I want us to be citizens, not subjects. And I want us to acknowledge that building the republic of heaven is our responsibility, not one we can leave to a heavenly king.
The republic is within us when we make the effort to commit ourselves to mercy, pity, peace and love; it is among us in the communities and networks which work selflessly to mend our wounded world; and it is a future, better world, that alternative reality which could be ours if we would only make it!
And who can doubt we need the vision! Two thousand years after the Jesus stories, millions live in a world which might reasonably be considered closer to a republic of hell than of heaven. The long sigh and shriek of misery, grief, pain, anguish, sickness and despair threatens to tear the world apart. By the middle of this century, when our grandchildren are in their prime, if the demographers are right ten billion people will inhabit the earth, most of them in vast mega-cities where life is consumed by the struggle to control the planet’s diminishing resources.
Even today, if the earth’s present population were envisaged as a village of one hundred people, 80 of us would live in houses unfit for human habitation, 70 would be illiterate, 50 would be seriously malnourished, and six would own 60% of the village’s land and wealth. 30 would be white but would consider the other 70 ethnic minorities. Ten of these thirty would be actively polluting the village on which the remaining 90 depend for their living.
Where among them, where among us, are the rebels, agitators and outsiders, the partisan recruits to the underground army of subversion whose loyalty is pledged to the republic of heaven, the City of God?
Yes, the City of God. For here’s a paradox for the religious humanist. God does, after all, have a place in the republic of heaven! God, the most powerful of all the potent symbols ever created by the symbol-making species called humans, God understood as our incarnation of mercy, pity, peace and love, tosses away his crown and joins us in the messiness and absurdities of our human lives. And that’s the trouble with God: he can’t be written out of the script. So since he won’t go quietly, let us retain him, as our story of him, in the capacity of honorary consultant-adviser helping us create the hallowed secularism which is the hallmark of the republic of heaven.
David Boulton’s most recent books, The Trouble with God: Religious Humanism and the Republic of Heaven, Real Like the Daisies...: Essays in Radical Quakerism and Gerrard Winstanley and the Republic of Heaven are available from Unity Books, Auckland ( email@example.com) and Wellington (firstname.lastname@example.org — phone 04 499 4245)