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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.

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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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