David Boulton, humanist, Quaker and former head of current affairs, arts and religion at Granada Television, wrote this 'Face to Faith' column for the 5 April issue of the Guardian newspaper
The idea of a republic of heaven, rather than the traditional kingdom, is in the air. It was Phillip Pullman who dropped it into popular consciousness with his fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials, and BBC Radio 4's recent serialisation carried the notion from readers to listeners. Now that the makers of the Lord of the Rings films are moving on to give Pullman's work the same treatment, "the republic of heaven" could come to rival "May the force be with you" as a popular catchprase.
For those who have just dropped in from a parallel universe, Pullman's three books tell the tale of two children, Lyra and Will, whose destiny it is to free their respective worlds (they each come from a different one) from the power of the Authority and his MagisteriumGod and the Church. The Authority has claimed humankind as his subjects, demanding obedience to his word. Lyra and Will are the instruments by which the Authority's kingdom will be dismantled and men and women become free citizens of the republic of heaven. Pullman originally planned to call the last book of the trilogy, the Booker prize-winning The Amber Spyglass, The Republic of Heaven when it was published in 2000.
As it happens, only the previous year I had published a very different book called Gerrard Winstanley and the Republic of Heaven, a study of the seventeenth century Digger, True Leveller and Quaker who agitated for an English republic based on common ownership of the land. Some readers thought the republic of heaven was Winstanley's own coinage. It was in fact my own term for his revolutionary notion of common wealth.
What Winstanley's and Pullman's visions have in common is the realisation that kingship is dead. Whether we chop off the monarch's head, or relegate him or her to powerless figurehead, in the modern democratic world we cease to be subjects and become free citizens. But where does that leave the King of kings and Lord of lords? Having abolished the divine right of kings, what do we do with the kingship of the divinity?
Get rid of that too, said Winstanley. At the political level he campaigned for abolition of what remained of kingly power after the execution of Charles I: the entire system of magistracy and church hierarchy which flowed from monarchy. At the religious level he dethroned God and substituted Reason: In the beginning... the great creator, Reason, made the earth to be a common treasury...
If earthly kingship itself was obsolete, how much more so was divine kingship on which the legitimacy of earthly monarchy had depended? What could it meanwhat can it mean todayto persist in imagining God in the feudal terms of kingship, lordship, He Who must be obeyed?
No king, no kingdom. So the kingdom of heaven itself becomes a republic, where the public is king: where we have to take responsibility for creating a better world, as it is in heaven, instead of leaving it all in the hands of the Authority.
In my new book, The Trouble with God: Religious Humanism and the Republic of Heaven, I try to grapple with the question of what a republic of heaven might look like. To my own surprise, and perhaps to that of my fellow religious humanists, I find it isn't very different from the kingdom of heaven as described by Jesus a couple of thousand years ago.
Basileia, the Greek word translated as 'kingdom', was a topic of intense religious debate in the first-century BC, throughout the whole of the Roman empire, including the world of Hellenised Judaism. In The Historical Jesus John Dominic Crossan writes that what was being debated was not particular kings or kingdoms but the problem of power: who rules, and how one should.
What Jesus seems to have done, in so far as we can make sense of the stories told by his followers a generation or two after his death, is to make his own distinctive contribution to the contemporary kingdom debate, not in scholarly exegesis, philosophical polemics or literary criticism but in parables, aphorisms and riddles. These reveal a notion of kingdom turned on its head: a kingdom of nobodies, in Crossan's phrase, where the hungry, the distressed, the ridiculed and the ridiculous come into their own.
But Jesus didn't lay down the law (as you might expect a proper king to do). His parables and aphorisms were tantalisingly ambiguous. He required his hearers to work at the problem of what on earth it all meant: he that hath ears to hear, let him hear. Like all the best storytellers, he challenged his listeners to share with him the task of carving a meaning out of his riddles. He was no provider of ready-made blueprints, fixed constitutions or paper utopias. If we want to be free citizens, we must accept the obligations and responsibilities of freedom, and work things out for ourselves.
Crossan emphasises the role of the powerless. Another much earlier commentator, Ernest Renan in The Life of Jesus (1863), suggests that the kingdom of God was made, first, for children, and those who resemble them. It is this emphasis on children that Phillip Pullman makes his own as he substitutes republic for kingdom. The imaginative world of the child, trailing clouds of glory, is the indispensable foundation of his republic of heaven.
So those religious commentators who have complained that Pullman's trilogy glorifies both regicide and deicide should perhaps wipe the sweat from their fevered brows and think again. The republic of heaven is not, after all, so very different from the kingdom. But it is a realm where Authority is democratised, so that what were once seen as the king's responsibilities become our own. The republic imports much from the kingdom. It takes in Isaiah's peaceable kingdom, Jesus' world where all tears are wiped away, John's New Jerusalem. But what it will not import is unquestioning obedience and uncritical subjection to a divine lord and king, for lordship and kingship belong to the past, in heaven as on earth.
Lyra and Will saw things through children's eyes and put their faith in the wholly human spirit. Of such is the republic of heaven.