David Swain, New South Wales Regional Meeting

The Trouble with God002This book by David Boulton is not new, being published in 2005. I don’t believe, however, it is as widely known as it should be, particularly among non-theist Quakers. It is a book of three parts, of varying levels of difficulty of comprehension, yet Boulton’s light, and at many times humorous, touch encourages the reader to persevere to find the kernels of wisdom.

The first section, “My Story”, is a brief autobiography. Boulton starts with a description of his childhood in a Plymouth Brethren family. After school he left the Brethren and went into journalism, working predominantly for leftist publications, and became increasingly involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

While working for Tribune in 1963 he was asked to review J.A.T. Robinson’s book Honest to God. His main response was that Robinson was using “God language” words in a completely unfamiliar sense. He wrote:

“‘God’ once meant something clear and definite. So did ‘heaven’ and ‘prayer’ and ‘worship’. Was there any point in my continuing to use the same words, but giving each of them a special, private meaning? . . .

“To put the questions is to imply answers. That is why I am no longer concerned to inject new meaning into the word ‘God’. That is why I found my own attempt to be honest-to-God made me cease to apply to myself the label ‘Christian’”.

From that point on David Boulton called himself a “religious humanist”, and, I suspect, has spent the rest of his life trying to find out what that means.

After five years in print journalism, Boulton moved into television current affairs, where he spent 40 years. He and his wife bought a farmhouse near Dent in Cumbria, where he became interested in the history of the area, a stronghold of Quakers ever since George Fox moved through in 1652. His researches brought him in contact with present-day Quakers, and he eventually joined a local meeting. He is now a prominent non-theist Quaker, and influential in the Sea of Faith movement.

The second section of the book is entitled “God’s Story”. Boulton outlines the development of the concept of God from before the pre-Hebrew Elohim and Yahweh through to the New Testament and early church. God became a little harder to define through the Reformation and the rise of the nonconformist Christian groups. Then through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, theologians and philosophers changed our God forever. God increasingly became less of a power “out there”, and more a subjective presence within us.

And what of the non-theist who wishes to remain part of the wider worshipping community? Boulton give his answer unashamedly as “make believe”. He argues that in the same way as we can share in the emotions and beliefs of the characters in novels and movies, non-theists can join in in church services and Meetings for Worship by a similar “willing suspension of disbelief”. They can share the ideals and moral values of the rest of the community without sharing their theology.

In the third part of the book, “Seeking the republic”, Boulton first discusses the history and beliefs of humanism. The movement was originally stridently anti-religious, but the late 20th Century saw the development of religious humanism. Religious humanists deny the existance of an external, supernatural God, but, as the theme of the Sea of Faith movement puts it, “explore and promote religious faith as a human creation.”

As humanists reject any world but this, the “Republic of Heaven” must be built on Earth. Thus the humanist, as well as the theist, must strive to bring about a peaceful world with equality for all people.

But in the end, Boulton has to revert to “God talk” to describe his ideal. He concludes:

“That’s the trouble with God: she can’t be written out of the script. So since she won’t go quietly, let us retain her in the capacity of an honorary consultant-adviser, to help us create the hallowed secularism that is the hallmark of the republic of heaven.”

The Trouble with God – Building the Republic of Heaven by David Boulton, 2005. Published by O Books. Australian distributors, Brumby Books: sales@brumbybooks.com. ISBN 978 1 905047 06 2

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