The Trouble with God: Religious Humanism and the Republic of Heaven by David Boulton
A review by Greg Spearritt
If God is dead, very few in my local community have heard the news. But then, Toowoomba is one of the studs on the Bible Belt of Queensland’s Darling Downs. A robust anti-intellectualism protects us from everything bar football, Sunday-paper prose and a taken-for-granted Sunday-School faith. Both Paul and Pauline have quite a following here.
What might it do if David Boulton’s latest book got a serious airing in our parts? I suspect the positive, life-affirming thrust of his book would be entirely lost in anger at an attempt to remove one of life’s few basic certainties.
There would, however, be plenty of folk who could identify with Boulton’s early life as one of the ‘saved’ hanging out for the Lord’s return. The first section of Trouble with God is autobiography, warm and entertaining. Spending Sundays with a bunch of exclusivist Brethrens in Middlesex, south of London, Boulton imbibed scripture and the certainty of the second coming, but through his family he retained a penchant for dissent as well as a deep-seated sense of humour. His sense of intimacy with God and Jesus meant they featured in play as well as in worship:
[My brother] 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. (21)
Good Queensland (former) Anglican, meek and mild, that I am, I find it hard to identify with the fervour and fundamentalism of Boulton’s childhood religion. Evangelical Protestantism is all the rage around here, though, and the choruses wafting out of the houses of God in my area still have much in common with the old Brethren hymns: “There was more blood in our hymnal”, says Boulton, “than in the local abattoir.”
Having given his heart to Jesus for the umpteenth time, and having lost a chance at University through the lack of scholarly application that waiting for the Rapture engendered, Boulton moved on to national service in the RAF and to writing and editing for groups as varied as the Liberal Party, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and a socialist weekly. Involvement in the CND in particular challenged many of his assumptions about Christianity and led him to the wish and wash of theological liberalism.
Being charged with writing a review for Bishop Robinson’s new book, Honest to God, was the next seminal moment: he began the review as “a sort of liberal Christian”, and by the final paragraphs had become “more of a humanist”.
Here I find myself on more familiar ground. Reading Don Cupitt gradually had much the same effect on me. Why bother with God-talk when God is all our own work? Why not acknowledge that the two great commandments are really just one? (What can “love the Lord your God” mean, after all, except “love your neighbour…”?)
Before Boulton addresses the question of whether and how religion and humanism should be related, he tells, in the second major section of The Trouble with God, the fascinating life-story of the Ancient of Days who is reputedly ‘the same yesterday, today and forever’.
Relying on respectable recent scholarship, but in very plain terms, Boulton traces the ancestry and subsequent development of the god we call ‘God’. In his infancy and reckless youth he was a warrior/monster-god, responsible, for example, for sparing only the 32000 virgins among the Midianites, and these for the pleasure of his male followers (see Numbers 31). In late adolescence, God discovered compassion for the lowly and the outcast and grew in his prime to be not only fatherly and self-sacrificial, but royally Triune. The slow decline into his autumn years was spurred by the Reformation and the Enlightenment as the likes of Strauss, Feuerbach and Darwin put in their 2 cents’ worth and radical Christian groups like the Ranters, Seekers, Quakers and Unitarians arose.
The once-Almighty Yahweh-Elohim was finally reduced, with the work of JAT Robinson and radicals such as Don Cupitt, to a toothless Cheshire-cat-like smile.
Yet, that’s not the end of the story. Even if God is just our human ideas of him/her/it,
[t]o get God out of human culture is like getting metre and rhyme out of poetry: you can do it, but at the cost of losing what you are trying to save. (72)
The final section of The Trouble with God makes the case for keeping the humanism we have arrived at ‘religious’. Boulton deals with issues of religious practice, morality and ‘spirituality’. With the help of Phillip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy, he argues persuasively for a ‘republic of heaven’ in which imagination, community, good will and human self-sufficiency are essential elements.
It won’t be enough for most Christians, nominal and otherwise, at least in my local area. Just (in the words of Pullman) “play together in the bright moonlight till we all fall asleep”? Too scary by half, and what of the heavenly treasures we’ve been laying up all these years? I suspect, given a choice between Boulton’s book and hard-earned cosmic superannuation, I know which would get the boot.
Rest assured, though: The Trouble with God will have a prominent place on the bookshelves in this no-longer-redeemed household.
Gregg Spearritt was Editor of the Sea of Faith in Australia “Bulletin”. This review came from the September 2003 issue.