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The theology of Howard's End

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 20 March 2018

After watching the first episode of the latest miniseries of E M Forster's Howard's End on the ABC I realised that I had completely forgotten the story line. I found, on re-reading the novel, that I not only have forgotten the story line but either had forgotten, or missed, the underlying theological premise; a dualism between the seen and the unseen.

Forster borrowed the idea of the seen and the unseen from Whitman's Leaves of Grass:

Clear and sweet is my soul . . . . and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul. Lack one lacks both . . . . and the unseen is proved by the seen, Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.


Forster interprets the above in a diary entry in 1908:

That the unseen is justified by the seen; which in turn becomes unseen and is justified by another…. That the spiritual life might be robust.

Forster thus indicates a hermeneutical circle in which the seen and the unseen rely on each other. Margaret writes to her sister Helen in the novel:

"Don't brood too much," she wrote to Helen, "on the superiority of the unseen to the seen. It's true, but to brood on it is medieval. Our business is not to contrast the two, but to reconcile them."

It may be helpful to remember that the first sentence of the Nicene creed refers to the creation of all things, seen and unseen. This confirms that they both play a part in the "good" creation.

Forster divides his novel between two families that represent a bias between the seen and the unseen. The men in the Wilcox family are business people and their lives are based on money and power. They are involved in sports, scoff at the artistic, the poetic and the life of the soul, being practical to their core. Theirs is the world of telegrams and anger. The other side, the unseen, are represented by two sisters Margaret and Helen who have independent incomes, do not need to work and spend their time at concerts, exhibitions and debate about social issues. While the Wilcox's see only the surface of things, there is a tendency, particularly in Helen, to float free from practicalities. This is her romantic disposition. The two families demonstrate a lack in integration between the practical and the ideal and both suffer for it. Helen takes up the cause of the poor and produces damage in them instead of good.


There are a few references to the seen and the unseen but one that is particularly striking. It occurs in a discussion about presents at Christmas:

"We always give the servants money." "Yes, do you, yes, much easier," replied Margaret but felt the grotesque impact of the unseen upon the seen, and saw issuing from a forgotten manger at Bethlehem this torrent of coins and toys."

The reference is to the incarnation in which the unseen, the Word of God, is born into the seen of the humble manger. I would rather have had Forster reference the cross as befitting the "grotesque impact on the unseen upon the seen." For it is here, in the destitution of the Son, that the dualism is most sharp.

The temptation for the religious and poets is to damn materialism and exalt the immaterial, the unseen. But this is a mistake because it promotes a disengagement from the world of practical matters. There is a division between the two sisters, Helen cannot countenance Henry or Charles Wilcox but Margaret accepts a proposal from the widowed Henry. This sets up the tension in the novel. How are these two to become a married couple? This is indeed an example of the impact of the unseen upon the seen.

Indeed, the marriage comes to the very brink of disaster with Margaret determined to leave. Tragedy intervenes and Henry is finally confronted by his chaotic inner life that has depended so much on principle and the right thing.

Earlier in the novel Mrs Wilcox, who dies, writes to her husband in pencil, unsigned and undated her desire for the family home in the country, Howard's End, in which she was born, to go to Margaret. They had formed a friendship while she was ill.

The family were scandalised at the request and ignored it. Forster comments:

The desire for a more inward light had found expression at last, the unseen had impacted on the seen, and all that they could say was "Treachery."

The incomprehensible unseen arose in a simple desire, that her friend have Howards End. She had asked her family for something and they had refused. They were already on the path to forgetting her.

The novel poses a theological framework that sees true humanity being born from an integration of the inner and outer life. The arts and the humanities are the key to the inner life but unless it is integrated with the outer life then chaos is the only fruit. This is essentially a psychological theory of human wholeness and there is no doubt much truth in it.

We may hear the exhortation to "know thyself" and the saying "The unexamined life is not worth living" and proceed on the inward journey to much profit. This, after all, is the assumption of the talking therapy and Christian self-examination. But is this enough? Do we become self-obsessed naval gazers? What releases us from the cage of the self?

This brings me to the other aspect of the novel that is printed on the title page: "Only connect…" The tragedy of the Wilcox men is that they can never have an intimate relationship with another human being because not seeing depth within themselves they do not see depth in the other. It is this lack that marks them off as being less than human, both men are capable of brutish behaviour. Their relationship with others will be defined by ownership, power and protocol.

The tension in the novel is resolved when tragedy strikes and the world of the Wilcox men is destroyed in the process. It is only this destruction that allows the marriage between opposites to resolve and the couple to settle in peace at Howards End, the spiritual home of the former Mrs Wilcox.

Forster could rely on the arts and humanities to reveal the unseen because he was writing before two world wars that were initiated by perhaps the most cultured nation in Europe: Germany. This is close to the bone because the sisters have German ancestry and they worship the German composers. But the tragedy of the two world wars begs the question as to whether high culture is enough. Forster is not unaware of Christianity, there is the reference to the incarnation and a scattering of biblical quotations in the text. But this is all at arm's length and I can see him fitting into the broad stretch of nineteenth century romanticism for which the Christianity was a tamed part of culture whose sting had been carefully drawn.

Perhaps there is a reason that the incarnation was mentioned as the clash between the seen and the unseen, to point to the crucifixion would have been bad taste. But it is exactly here that the power of the seen, the temple buildings and the Roman power find their match and final dissolution. It is also here that the pride of the individual and his reliance on power and protocol find their match and are brought to dust.

Howard's End is a great book with much to enjoy and think about. However, the road to attaining the human, its soteriology, if you will, does not get to the root of our problem; that we do not know who we are. Great culture may illuminate our minds and furnish our conversations but does it really convict us? Does it hold the face of God to our own so that we are transformed? I think not.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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