“The Trouble with God: Building the Republic of Heaven”* A Review

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

I’ve been trying to lose my religion for years now, but it refuses to go away. Just when I think I’ve shaken it — put it firmly behind me, a piece of my obscurantist past no longer suited to the faithless life I now lead — it turns up again, dogging me. You’d think it would be easy . . . . But as the world becomes a more bewildering place almost by the week, I find myself longing for what I thought I’d never long for again: a sense of community in the midst of the impersonal vastness, a tribe to call my own . . . .

– Daphne Merkin, the New Yorker, September 11, 2000

Merkin’s very American and very Jewish, comment kept coming back to me as I read David Boulton’s very interesting, and very post-Christian book. He too has been trying to lose his religion, or at least his theology, and he thought he’d done quite a thorough job of it – “God had to go,” he writes. But, as it turned out, “his absence was almost as problematical as his presence.” (p. 222)

Certainly, Boulton has shaken off his original religion, that of the Plymouth Brethren, a British sect that was strict, fundamentalist, and more than a little loopy; it had some Quaker connections at its genesis too. He begins by telling us his own story of growing up in this group, and growing out of it to become an intrepid investigative reporter, traveling the world’s hot spots for Britain’s Independent Television equivalent of our “60 Minutes.” (Though one must say his work sounds much more daring than the usual fare on the venerable CBS warhorse.)

This is a fascinating tale, but as he assures us, it is not really about him, David Boulton; it is about God and the “trouble” that Boulton and numerous other more or less like-minded non-theists have had, and evidently keep having, with the divinity.

As a result, where Boulton has ended up is among Friends, and in the camp of something he calls “radical religious humanism.” To oversimplify for purposes of brevity, this movement’s position is something like this: gods and religions are human-made myths, stories that help us organize the world and our lives in it. Indeed, just about everything “human” about us is a story, or a narrative, a “fiction” created by language.

None of this fictional stuff is “real” out there, especially the god bits. As a result, many once concluded that we can’t, mustn’t believe in this fictional “God” (or gods) as people used to do. As Boulton puts it, ” . . .we decided to manage without him. We pronounced him dead. Deceased. De trop. The late. The new hymns we sang . . .simply left him out.” (P. 70)

However, Boulton has found that neither he nor, he thinks, societies can get along without such stories and myths. Including, dash it all, the story-myth of God; he admits that ” . . . we had trouble with this God too – this absent God, this no-God. He wouldn’t stay dead. He continued to haunt us, a holy ghost who wouldn’t let us alone.” (Ibid.) Yes, even many of the radical religious humanists among whom Boulton moves. As a result, somewhat to his amazement, chagrin, and relief, God has despite all, been “born again” (p. 71).

How so? It goes back to language and stories. Boulton notes how humans have the capacity to get very involved in stories: we care, often deeply, about (pick your fictional preference) whether Harry Potter will survive the final encounter with Voldemort, Frodo will ever get back to the shire – or if Jane Austen’s heroines will make the proper and satisfying match. Anyone who has ever dabbed at an eye in a movie, or been unable to put down a novel, knows what Boulton is getting at. In this experience, “fictional” characters and stories become somehow “real” to us, even as we still “know” they are wholly imaginary, that they only “exist” on the page or the screen.

So it shall be with Boulton’s new-old God. In the unfolding saga of the construction of the “Republic of Heaven” (Boulton, it turns out, coined the term before it was used by novelist Philip Pullman for the popular fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials), this born-again God will be the protagonist of a fictional, yet–Boulton is confident–compelling story enacted not only in theatres but in our communal life. “God is a fiction,” he affirms, “but a necessary, instrumental fiction.” (P. 159) This is God as

our incarnation of mercy, pity, peace, and love, as the sum of our values embodied as a being with whom we can have a relationship–that God tosses away his crown and joins us in the messiness and absurdities of our human lives. Nor is this some domesticated caricature of a God in heaven who would be of no earthly use to anyone. This is the God who plants his footstep in the sea and rides upon the storm, the ancient of days, no less: the most powerful of all the symbols ever created by the symbol-making species called humans. (P. 250)

Moreover, Boulton believes he has found a paradigm and paragon of this republic-building enterprise, in the very real and historical figure of Gerrard Winstanley. Winstanley was the more radical contemporary of George Fox, and a key figure among the Levellers and Diggers during England’s revolutionary years (and he ended his life as a Quaker).

Winstanley was also, it turns out, the archetypal (and perhaps first) non-theist Friend: “For Winstanley, both God and the devil were internalized,” (p.128) and he preferred to call God “the power of reason” (p.129). Boulton has embarked on a long-term project to bring Winstanley’s several books back from historical obscurity into print, as key resources for the larger rehabilitation of theology as necessary fiction.

Boulton’s presentation moves deftly from autobiography to religious history, lucidly through the twists of theology since the Enlightenment, and amusingly to the quirky debates among religious humanists, writing with flair throughout. His account was clear enough, indeed, that I could see just where I parted company with him. It’s when he gets into the matter of God, fiction, and story:

If [God] is a fiction, we are his author as well as reader. Human communities fashioned him, imagined him into being by story telling . . . .We said, “let us now make God in our own image and likeness,” and we breathed into his nostrils the breath of story telling, and God became a living fiction. . . . But it is a story, and God is no more, but no less, than what we have made him.” (P. 164)

Now, this model doubtless works to explain many stories; but not all. Nor does it explain the testimonies of many authors, old and new, that their stories in large measure wrote themselves. They are written down or told by their human “authors,” but not created by them.

One of the oldest such testimonies comes from perhaps 2500 years ago, and was recorded by a man who did not want to begin telling stories, or once begun, to continue. But, lamented the prophet Jeremiah: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9)

And one of the newest such testimonies comes from this writer, even if I tremble to mention myself in the same paragraph with Jeremiah. I have written many stories. Some were indeed constructed fictions, pieces of craft which fit Boulton’s description quite well. But not all: others were given to me, not created by me, and I merely wrote them down and polished them a bit. Of course, I don’t claim these stories are grand prophecies such as Jeremiah delivered; only that I did not create them.

But if I did not make those stories, who did? And if (again, the trembling) Jeremiah refused to tell stories until he literally could not do otherwise, where was that fire in his bones coming from?

So, not to put too fine a point on it, there are stories we write, and stories which write us. Boulton comes within shouting distance of this notion when he says that

. . . just as we are what we eat, so too are we what we read . . . .Every one of the stories we read, hear, see, changes us a little . . . .but the stories that most clearly make us what we are are the great foundation stories of our culture: the origin myths, redemption stories and epic tales of love and death. . . . .Every Arab has been shaped by the Koran, every Jew by the Torah. . . . These are our very foundations, their themes, their inflections and their nuances forming the bedrock of the culture–both “high” and popular–in which we live and move and have our being.” (P. 200)

For him, all this is still a human construct. But Jeremiah’s experience points to another option: if some stories write themselves, and write us, maybe there’s a Story Teller, shaping the world thereby, who is not a human invention, but is really “out there” in some ineffably mysterious fashion.

That may not be much of a theology, but it is what the drift of my own experience leads me to affirm, even in the midst of acknowledging the truth of much of Boulton’s account of the changing god-images and stories.

I don’t state this alternative to argue or to insist Boulton is mistaken; our own stories simply come to different conclusions. For some–even alas, some among Friends–such differences are the mandate for heresy hunts. But those stories in my reading (and experience) all have unhappy endings, and are unnecessary to boot. Instead, I see the difference as the basis for some very fruitful conversations.

Or to put it another way, my Story Teller must be content to have many different storylines in play; else why make so many of them? Including the ones so memorably described in The Trouble with God.


*The Trouble with God: Building the Republic of Heaven. David Boulton. O Books, Winchester UK & New York. 270 pages, paperback.

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