The Trouble with God: Religious Humanism and the Republic of Heaven (Book Review)

The Trouble with God: Religious Humanism and the Republic of Heaven, by David Boulton. John Hunt Publishing Ltd, Hants, 2002, pp 219, pb. £7.99, ISBN 1-903816-19-X. Reviewed by Anne Ashworth, poet, author and member of the Northwest SoF group.

Three for the price of one? That is what you get for that very modest £7.99, for this volume is really three short books in one. In good Sea of Faith mode, it is three stories—the authorís story, Godís story and finally the tale of the Republic of Heaven. Also in good Sea of Faith mode, it is full of scholarship; but if you know anything about David Boulton you will know how lightly he wears his erudition, and with what wit. Whether the three parts cohere into one whole may be debatable, but all are in their different ways decidedly reader-friendly.

Part one, My Story, will grab you at once, by the immediacy of its opening on 11th September 2001, and the way that event is related to the fundamentalism in which David Boulton was brought up. His story of life in a Plymouth Brethren household is wonderfully funny. David uses his skill with words to recreate the whole atmosphere of Gospel Hall, where God lived. It smelt of "damp wood, damp coconut matting, stacks of damp ĎGolden Bellsí hymn books." "The gospel was preached in obedience to Christís 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." All expectations were centred upon the Second Coming, not to mention the Tribulation, the Third Coming, and the Rapture.

The Boulton story traces Davidís emergence from this hothouse atmosphere, where at every yearís evangelical summer camp he "returned home re-renewed and re-redeemed, and sometimes it lasted a whole week", to a gradual loosening of his Christian ideas. As he grew up, the boyís commitment changed to the political sphere. He became a Christian Socialist, then a left-wing political journalist. It was when his editor asked him to review John Robinsonís Honest to God that David Boulton finally Ďcame outí, to himself, as a no-nonsense humanist.

But it was not so simple. This is the book of a self-confessed God-haunted man. So much of our culture and history is infused with God that he remains a background presence. In the Quaker history of the Dales where the Boultons live, God was inescapable. So the project of part two, Godís Story, is to trace how that God has changed and evolved over the centuries, and what the notion of God might mean today. Here is your chance to bypass Karen Armstrongís wonderful but lengthy 500-page A History of God and let David Boultonís masterly summary do the work for you in 80 pages. He examines some of the theories about how the idea of gods arose, asking what he calls "the big question, perhaps the biggest theological question that can be asked"—does the sense of the numinous have a real referent? Moving on to the ever-changing biblical God, David even makes biblical scholarship fascinating and occasionally funny. We are taken through Godís "laddish youth" as he lies to Adam and Eve or encourages the Israelites to ethnic cleansing, to a maturing deity who repents of some of this, learns mercy and develops a social conscience. (Epigraph to the chapter on God as Trinity, an oil advert: "Three in one! Eases, lubricates, protects working parts!") Then comes the more modern part of Godís biography, and here David Boulton makes good use of his particular researches in 17th century history, as well as tracing the familiar 19th and 20th century path through Strauss and Feuerbach to Robinson and Cupitt.

So, David asks, "Did man make gods or gods make man? Language and culture surely made both." Itís a Cupittian, postmodern answer. Is it a fudge or a freedom? For this God-haunted man, it has been enough to confirm him in his chosen third way between religion and atheistic humanism. So part three is the story of humanism. Non-religious humanism has, he claims, cut itself off from a vital and main stream of human consciousness, the religious content of so much art, music and literature.

Don Cupitt claimed that we no longer have a Grand Narrative. David Boulton would substitute a Grand Fiction. We no longer need to do all that careful, liberal demythologising. "Reclaim it all," he argues; re-interpret the religious stories and use them to promote the subversive Republic of Heaven, where human beings are equal and heaven is in this world.