H. G. Wells as Religious Thinker

Wells 03

The Public Intellectual

Those who might nowadays think of Herbert George Wells (1866 – 1946) – they run to fewer and fewer with the passing years – will rarely, or perhaps never, have thought of him in terms of his religion.  They would most probably assume on glancing acquaintance with him that of religion he had none.  Wells’ contemporary popular image, insofar as he retains one, invites people to admire him for his advocacy of science – in a manner, as it seems, strictly and materialistically defined; for his impatience with established institutions, and for his dedication to building a global utopian society on a basis of technocratic socialism far beyond the petty and doctrinal socialism of the Twentieth Century.  Those acquainted haphazardly with Wells’ biography might also possess vague awareness of his irritable late-in-life anti-Catholicism.  During World War II, for example, in a vitriolic pamphlet entitled Crux Ansata (1944), Wells urged the Allies to send an air fleet that would flatten the Eternal City and, by good luck, send Pope Pius XII and the Curia in an ignominious fugue to the afterlife.  As Wells saw it, the Roman Church had entwined itself so thoroughly and guiltily with Mussolini’s corporatist Italy, as a type of “Shinto Catholicism,” that its city-state and administrative capitol qualified as a prime target for high-explosive bombs along with the rest of the Eternal City.  In a newspaper interview in March, 1944, Wells referred to “this dying, corrupting octopus of the Roman Catholic Church.”  Rhetorical sallies like those, rising to the baroque in their extravagance, and others like them that had emerged spasmodically during Wells’ authorship, have no doubt contributed to the picture of Wells as bigoted and invidious in his regard of religion.  The picture generalizes too much, however, and for that reason guarantees its own falsehood.  Even the cranky Crux Ansata contains many mitigating passages, especially concerning the early Church, with the spirit of which Wells identified strongly.

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Wells on the Set of the Wells-Korda Film “Things to Come” (1936)

I. Religion ranks, in fact, as an important theme in the Wellsian oeuvre right from its beginning and unto to its end. Sometimes Wells waxes irritable, hotly so, but at other times he remarks religion sympathetically, eager to explain the essentially religious character of his own worldview. Despite his anti-Catholicism, Wells never exactly repudiates Christianity – rather he dissociates himself from the sects and seeks to reduce Christian lore to its essential ideas, eliminating what he sees as gross contradictions and absurdities.  A review of the religious theme in Wells’ novels and non-fiction books will necessarily also be a review, and likely a reconsideration, of the standard character-description of Wells as resolutely a materialist and a positivist, a representation that turns out not to be the case.  Wells’ reputation subsists, however, in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, not in his forgotten non-fiction of the 1920s and 30s and 40s but rather in the so-called scientific romances that he wrote, pioneering the genre, in the 1890s.  The scientific romances always reward visitation.  Basic elements of Wells’ religiosity, a better label than religion or religious view, appear already in the first of them, The Time Machine (1895), which, with the short story A Dream of Armageddon (1901), reveals its author as a remarkable eschatological thinker, in the line from John of Patmos and affiliated Christian authors of Late-Antique and medieval apocalyptic.

Thanks to The Time Machine’s several cinematic adaptations, the coin of its story of has circulated widely, but the screen versions of the novella leave out the eery denouement, when the Time Traveler, leaving the future world of the Eloi and the Morlocks, makes his way dazzled to the moribund phase of the earth during the sun’s senility, eons hence.  The Time Traveler witnesses the ultimate degeneracy of sentient life in lumbering, crab-like creatures that hunt their prey on the twilit beach of a wave-less sea.  Finally, in an even more remote era, “the huge red-hot dome of the sun had come to obscure nearly a tenth part of the darkling heavens.”  Life has devolved to a nadir of “livid green liverworts and lichens” that cover the rocks and “some black object flopping about… a round thing, the size of a football perhaps,” from which “tentacles trailed down.”  The meaning of these scenes in the story is their blank meaninglessness: “All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives – all that was over.”  The extinction of mind in the latter predominance of purely biological adaptation affronts the Time Traveler’s commitment to “the dream of the human intellect” considered as the one force that can overmaster brute processes, wresting order from entropy.  The Time Traveler’s ethics – and Wells’ ethics – have to do with the spirit of “intellectual versatility” in service to that “mutual tenderness” that alone redeems “the heart of man.”  The Time Traveler cannot remain passive, for that would be sinfully to forfeit his power of mind.  He must deliberate.  He must act.

In A Dream of Armageddon, the central character foresees in a series of oneiric vistas another stultification of intelligence and tenderness, this time in the perfection of mechanized warfare, as unleashed against the heedless civilization that spawns it.  Wells uses the exegetic device of having the narrator encounter the vision-seer, a haggard solicitor, in a London-bound rail carriage.  The vision-seer recounts his dreams of a future life.  In them he is a politician whose abdication from office enables a coup d’état “in the north,” where a militant ideology (“the Gang”) has swayed opinion and taken hold of the polity.  Plenipotentiaries come to petition the ex-official in Capri, where has domiciled himself with a mistress while he tries to recuperate his non-political humanity.  As the diplomats see it, the self-exile’s return might disestablish the demagogue and prevent a global conflict, but from a blend of egoism and erotic absorption the exile refuses.  The Biblical name Armageddon, to which the title refers, denominates a conflict that becomes total and universal, dragging in all parties no matter how reluctant and polarizing them in a demented “take-no-prisoners” rivalry.  In A Dream, the “take-no-prisoners” madness shows itself, even on the island-playground of Capri, in the sudden outburst of militant-totalitarian sympathy.  People, who were one day hedonistic celebrants of the island’s casino-culture, show up the next day in the grand ballroom wearing party-badges that signify their dehumanizing mobilization under the Dictator of the North.  The hemispherical war, as it breaks out, has an aerial-holocaustic aspect, with hosts of sky-dreadnoughts in a fiery clash, like some vision of Ezekiel.  In a final nightmarish sequence, barbarian armies capture the dreamer and his lover at the ancient temple-complex in Paestum, where they have fled.  Both fall victim in a widespread massacre of civilians.

A common religious theme assimilating The Time Machine to A Dream is prophecy, the vatic intuition that the impending morrow communicates with a moral causality of the present, such that intentions today exert a decisive influence on the character of what impends – which, of course, they do.  A common epistemological theme assimilating the two stories is literal-mindedness, which stems from egoism, dogmatism, and social complacency.  The religious and the epistemological themes intertwine tightly.  The erroneous notion of Wells as an anti-religious chauvinist indeed has its most probable source, partly because the non-fiction languishes unread, in his most-read novel The War of the Worlds (1897), in the figure of the Curate — consideration of whom might explain the error of ascribing to Wells any general hostility to religion.  The Curate, who holds the religious office of a Sunday-School teacher, embodies the debilitating close horizons of literal-mindedness.  The narrator-protagonist meets the Curate while fleeing the Martians.  Fatally deluded, the Curate interprets events as the Biblical Armageddon.  In a contingency that demands acknowledgment of hard facts, the Curate cannot surmount the superstition of phrases: “The smoke of her burning goeth up forever and ever!” and “The great and terrible day of the Lord!”  He cannot come to grips with actuality until finally – his lamentations threatening the common security – the narrator knocks him cold and lets the Martians snatch him.  Similar failures of mental adaptation occur in almost all Wellsian stories, so the Curate hardly ranks as unique.  Wells invites readers to experience annoyance and pity, not in respect of the Curate’s religious office, but in respect of his stultified cognition and narrow mentality.

Explicit pronouncements on religion occur frequently in Wells’ novels.  The planner of universal education for the World Republic that emerges from the chaos of an atomic war in The World Set Free (1913) compares the spirit of his technocratic enterprise with that of early Christianity.  In The Food of the Gods (1906) and again in the film Things to Come (1936), the concluding image is the transcendent heavenward gaze of the protagonist.  The educationist in The World Set Free speaks of “The common sense of mankind [that] has toiled through two thousand years of chastening experience to find at last how sound a meaning attaches to the familiar phrases of the Christian faith”; and he asks speculatively “whether the world [of the global state] is wholly Christian or not Christian at all.”  (He thinks it might fulfill early Christianity.)  The leader of the emergent race of giants in The Food of the Gods speaks at the novel’s climax of “the law of the spirit,” which commands “to grow according to the will of God… out of these shadows and darknesses, into greatness and the light!”  Wells gives a similar speech to the protagonist at the end of his screenplay for Things to Come, where Sir Arthur Bliss’ hymn-like underscoring makes it particularly homiletic.  It is, however, in the non-fiction, as copious as the fiction, that Wells addresses the matter of his personal religious beliefs most expressly and deliberately.  Readers are fortunate to have Wells’ self-explanations.  The Wellsian autoscopy encompasses four major titles: First and Last Things (1908; revised 1917 and 1929), in the title of which the author reveals once again his eschatological inclination; God the Invisible King (1917); the great Experiment in Autobiography (1934); and the somewhat oddly titled ’42 to ’44 (1944).

First and Last Things

“I found Plato’s Republic… a very releasing book indeed for my mind”

II. In the opening chapter of First and Last Things, “The Necessity for Metaphysics,” Wells proposes to revive the “unhampered” free discussion of fundamental issues that characterized the Greek intellect “up to the disaster of the Macedonian Conquest.” Plato, subsuming the speculations of his precursors, brilliantly elucidated the topics “of truth, good and beauty,” plausibly mapped out “the relation of the Name to the Thing,” and formulated workable notions “of the relation of one Mind to another Mind.” With Hellenism, as Wells sees it, “the discussion was abruptly closed and not naturally concluded.”  The sudden stop coincided with “the career and lecturing of Aristotle,” in whose work philosophy lost its plasticity and became a scholastic doctrine.  Better the elenchic style of Plato.  Platonic thought nourished Wells from his adolescence.  Wells describes in the Experiment how in his fourteenth year he spent a summer at Up Park, an untenanted but actively maintained Eighteenth-Century manor house in Sussex where his mother worked as housekeeper, and where he had free range of the household library: “I improved my halting French with Voltaire’s lucid prose, I read such books as Vathek and Rasselas, I nibbled at Tom Paine, I devoured an unexpurgated Gulliver’s Travels and I found Plato’s Republic… a very releasing book indeed for my mind.”  Wells took from Plato not only the utopianism of The Republic, but also the notion that the human mind, in exercising itself, participates in a pervasive structuring cosmic mind.  In such participation, the sensitive intelligence finds a goal beyond itself, which discovery it conceives under the idea of awakening.  It is a typical experience of the Wellsian protagonist to experience this ecstatic reveille in his struggle to overcome fixed ideas and stultifying dogmas.

In First and Last Things, Wells puts himself in that eccentric but outstanding minority of modern thinkers – Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire belong in the same company – who refuse to endorse the logical-positivistic exclusion of analogy from the canon of legitimate argument and who look with a jaundiced eye on thinking that restricts itself solely to syllogism.  Wells would insist that from his first exposure to formal logic he “habitually distrusted [syllogism] as anything more than a test of consistency in statement”; otherwise, Wells writes, “I was constantly reasoning by analogy and applying verification.”  For Wells, analogy is the instrument by which the mind comes to terms with the infinitesimal shadings that meld the edges of one category of things-experienced into another similar category: “Every species waggles about its definition, every tool is a little loose in its handle, every scale has its individual error.”  Textbook logic serves well enough “so long as you are reasoning for practical purposes about the finite things of experience… but not when you make what are called philosophical and theological inquiries, when you turn your instrument towards the final absolute truth of things.”  Logical positivism identifies philosophy with propositional discourse; Wells distinguishes philosophy from propositional discourse.  For Wells, significantly, philosophy and theology belong together; it is natural then that they occur in the same critical sentence describing the limitations of logical positivism.  In sum: “The neat little circles that the logician uses to convey his idea of P or not P to the student are just pictures of the boundaries in his mind, exaggerations of a natural mental tendency.”

The logical-positivistic conception of knowledge fails most notably in its application to the human object.  For one thing, that object is a subject; because the knowledge that it gains of itself is necessarily intuitive and reflexive, the lore of the self will differ from the lore of phenomena.  As Wells writes in First and Last Things, in physics and chemistry the investigator addresses the “infinitude of units.”  In humanistic research by contrast the investigator addresses “only one unit,” namely humanity.  This “one single living specimen,” comprising “all history, all anthropology, and the fluctuating world of men,” knows of nothing moreover with which it can compare itself.  Other conditions limit human self-understanding.  “We cannot,” as Wells writes, “put Humanity into a museum or dry it for examination.”  Nor has humanity any save “the remotest ideas of its ‘life-cycle’ and a few relics of its origin and dreams of destiny.”  It follows, not quite logically but plausibly, that human self-understanding resembles faith more than it resembles science.  Some readers will have detected in the phrase, “only one unit,” a resemblance of Wellsian diction to mystic diction, as we encounter it in Platonism and in the Platonizing strands of Christian philosophy.  For Platonism, Man collectively is microcosm to the macrocosm; for the Platonizing strains of Christian philosophy, Man collectively is the Body of Christ in the context of created nature.  So too, for Wells, Man is one.  As soon as Wells disqualifies human self-knowledge from its status under logical positivism as quantifiable science, he returns that self-knowledge to the category of belief.  The chapter in First and Last Things that follows the one on “Metaphysics” is the one on “Belief.”

Wells articulates his “Primary Act of Faith” in a deliberately undogmatic way.  Given his punctiliousness, no one could possibly accuse him of him of the Gnostic certitude typical of the post-Enlightenment ideologue.  Wells writes, “Now my most comprehensive belief about the external and the internal and myself is that they make one universe in which I and every part are ultimately important.”  It might be “quite possible,” as Wells continues, “to maintain that everything is a chaotic assembly, that any part might be destroyed without affecting any other part.”  While confessing his indisposition “to argue against that” he adds that he finds such a thesis “ineffectual.”  It violates his intuition of a “scheme.”  As to any details of the “scheme,” Wells refers humbly to “the limited mind.”  He calls himself a “Mystic” and likens himself to “a child who has not learnt to read” who nevertheless assents to the thesis that the printed page intends a meaning.  Does the “scheme” imply something beyond itself?  Here too Wells couches his belief in carefully chosen minimal terms.  Common sense tempts him who intuits the “scheme” also to intuit a “Schemer.”  Wells proceeds cautiously.  Terms like “scheme” and “importance” appear in his discourse, as he writes, “only in a spirit of analogy,” his refusal to insist on them preventing in advance any literal-minded misappropriation.  Wells lets on that despite his hesitancy he is “greatly attracted to such fine phrases as the Will of God, the Hand of God, [and] the Great Commander.”  Sometimes indeed the sense of “the universal scheme” becomes for Wells “the effect of a sympathetic person,” deserving of “fearless worship.”  These moments constitute “the supreme fact in my religious life.”  Because personification belongs to the habits of “the limited mind,” however, Wells prefers to downplay figures of speech that “the limited mind” will inevitably misunderstand.

The Platonic inspiration of Wellsian religiosity emerges again when First and Last Things comes to its discussion of how the subject’s intuition of the “scheme” influences his exercise of his free will.  The “scheme,” though seen only as through glass darkly, beckons a man to add his labor to the increase of orderliness in the world and to the increase of his communion with his fellow men.  A man need not resolve the details of the “scheme” to justify his commitment to it.  As for himself Wells writes, “I can see nothing of these possibilities except that they will be in the nature of those indefinable and overpowering gleams of promise in our world that we call Beauty.”  The quest for “oneness” converges with the quest for “Beauty.”  They are practically speaking the same goal, to aim at which helps greatly in overcoming the apparent confusion attendant on being a contingent person who lives in a seemingly unwilled here at a seemingly unwilled now and about whom a bewildering welter of unsolicited influences and opinions throng.  When Wells begins to discuss “Beauty,” his words resemble those of Diotima at the climax of Plato’s Symposium.  Wells writes: “I will not even attempt to define Beauty.  I will not because I cannot.  To me it is a final, quite indefinable thing.”  When Wells invokes the “true artist” he translates Diotima’s phrase, lover of beauty.  The sensitive soul kens the indefinable thing “that shows suddenly – it may be in music, it may be in painting, it may be in the sunlight on a glacier or a shadow cast by a furnace or the scent of a flower.”  Never mind the accidentals: “It is right, it is commanding, it is – to use the theological language – the revelation of God.”

An educated reader will suspect the metaphors of Plato’s Parable of the Cave of inhabiting the Wellsian topic of the beautiful.  In Last and First Things, Wells equates “Beauty” with “light… elucidation… the vision of reality.”  Habit, complacency, and literal mindedness occlude perception and confound thinking.  “It seems to me, “ Wells writes, “that the whole living creation may be regarded as walking in its sleep, as walking in the sleep of instinct and individualised illusion, and that now out of it all rises man, beginning to perceive his larger self, his universal brotherhood and collective synthetic purpose to realise power and beauty.”  Such is “the form of my belief” and “beauty is the light that falls upon that form.”  The phrase, “walking in… sleep,” hearkens back, of course, to Heraclitus.  The Ephesian wrote of the psychic relation to the Logos that some few communed with it, standing in its light, while most others went about oblivious to it, like sleepwalkers.  Heraclitus again likened the sleepwalkers to dwellers in the hermetic privacy of dream, who, in effect, never really made any connection to the cosmic world – never truly awakened.  The Heraclitean Logos certainly informs the Platonic Form of the Good, which includes the True and the Beautiful.  In the Experiment, Wells puts Plato, especially the Republic, in the foundations of his literacy.  The Wellsian metaphor boasts also, however, a Nietzschean meaning although Wells could both praise and condemn Nietzsche: It points to the Superman, whose figure Wells often borrowed, and who in Nietzsche substitutes for God; but it likewise points to the wholesale rejection of metaphysics, which rejection Wells more or less consistently rejected.  He retains a metaphysics, a metaphysics with an aesthetic basis.

God the Invisible King

“Men [who] sit at little desks remote from God or life… rack their brains to meet fancied difficulties and state unnecessary perfections”

III. In assessing the compatibility of his personal faith with Christianity, Wells first defends Christianity against its Enlightenment detractors: “To assume as the Atheist and Deist seem to do, that Christianity is a sort of disease that came upon civilisation… is to deny [the] conception of a progressive scheme and rightness” inherent in the Pauline formulation.  Indeed, “A religious system so many-faced and so enduring as Christianity must necessarily be saturated with truth even if it be not wholly true.”  Wells admits as a common feature of Christianity and his own faith “the idea of a process of sorrow and atonement.”  If Wells rejected “the fable… of the offended creator and the sacrificial son,” which he does, he would nevertheless validate that “essential feature” of the New Testament, “a relationship of the individual believer to a mystical being at once human and divine, the Risen Christ.”  Significantly Wells sees in the Nazarene “a familiar and beautiful figure” (emphasis added).  Here a contradiction arises, which Wells disdains to reconcile.  Whereas Wells “admit[s] the splendid imaginative appeal in the idea of a divine-human friend and mediator,” and whereas he accepts a need for salvation, he nevertheless finds himself unable, as he writes, “to associate Him in any way with the emotion of Salvation.”  At moments, even, Christ appears to Wells, as he did to Ibsen’s Emperor-Apostate, as (in Wells’ words) “this terrible and incomprehensible Galilean.”  Elsewhere Wells writes, “I do not understand the Agony in the Garden” and “the Christian’s Christ is too fine for me, not incarnate enough, not flesh enough, not earth enough, not failure enough.”  Therefore, writes the man, “If systematically I called myself a Christian… I should imply too much and so tell a lie.”  Wells’ ambiguous relation with the Christ-figure is still noticeable in The Happy Turning (1943), his penultimate work.

The decade between the original version of First and Last Things and the first edition of God the Invisible King saw a sharpening of Wells’ religious ideas, most especially in his theology, as strictly construed.  In Experiment, Wells places God the Invisible King in the context of the Great War and links it to his novel Mr. Britling Sees It Through (1916).  The novel takes the war for its topic, representing it as the apocalypse of a sick civilization – for discussion of which religious terms best serve.  The eponymous Britling, whose son has perished on the front, finds partial solace in working out a theodicy.  God is the “King” who is “coming into his own” in reaction to the horrific vanity of trench-warfare.  Britling, very much the stand-in for his author, thinks of God as “the Captain of the World Republic [who fights] his way to freedom” by provoking in the human collective a reveille of consciousness, to be the instrument of his “empire.”  In the Experiment, however, Wells criticizes his earlier conception.  Britling “was trying to project his own innate courage so as to feel it external to himself, independent of himself and eternal.”  God the Invisible King followed and to some extent corrected Mr. Britling, as did three novels of the late teens, The Soul of a Bishop (1917), Joan and Peter (1918), and The Undying Fire (1919).  In the early 1920s, as the Experiment reports, Wells restricted his religious references severely, falling back for a time into the vocabulary of “sturdy atheism.”

In God the Invisible King Wells begins by attempting to sort out the relation of two fundamental views of deity whose noncompossibility, in his analysis, steadily reduced the already hybrid Christian doctrine to “inextricable confusions” while inviting the skepticism of clear thinkers and promoting the multiplication of sects.  “These two antagonistic typical conceptions of God may be best contrasted,” Wells writes, “by speaking of one of them as God-as-Nature or the Creator, and of the other as God-as-Christ or the Redeemer.”  The first conception is “the great Outward God… tending to pantheism” and “developed most highly and completely in the God of Spinoza.”  The second conception, “which is opposed to the idea of an absolute God,” is “the God of the human heart,” whose supreme manifestation is in love and courage.  Wells believes that these two ideas could only ever have been put together by an act of “violent ultimate crystallization,” which he locates, perhaps erroneously, in the Council of Nicaea (325 AD), presided over by Emperor Constantine.  Wells argues that the Trinity, particularly in its third element the Holy Spirit, is a desperate improvisation whereby to link the “Infinite God” with the “Comforter.”  He supposes that Athanasius found the model for the Triune God in “the Egyptian Trinity that was then being worshipped at the Serapeum, and which [had] saturated the thought of Alexandria with the conception of a trinity in unity.”  It should be pointed out that Wells’ hostility to the Trinitarian idea, which he attacks relentlessly in the first chapter of God the Invisible King, leaves him open to an accusation of hypocrisy.  Wells’ own religious formulations tend, in their spontaneity, to assume a tripartite iteration.  Take, for example, the statement from First and Last Things in which Wells analyses “the one universe in which I and every part are ultimately important” into its components – “the external and the internal and myself”; those components lend themselves to an account as neither more nor less than three, among which the third presumably mediates the other two.

Be that as it may, God the Invisible King devotes a chapter to heresies, a topic related to that of the basic “confusion” concerning the nature of deity.  Wells is not writing of the historical heresies – Arianism, Sabellianism, Gnosticism, and what not; he is writing of what is heretical or unnatural from the point of view concerning the “modern religion” that his book elaborates.  Wells might also as his chapter-title suggests be responding to G. K. Chesterton’s book Heretics (1905), which takes specific issue with many of Wells’ utopian ideas and which lays the explicit charge against Wells that he misunderstands the Trinity.  The subheadings of Wells’ chapter in God the Invisible King enumerate eight species of heresy, each of which constitutes a misapprehension of deity.  These are “Heresies of Speculation,” “God is not Magic,” “God is not Providence,” “The Heresy of Quietism,” “God does not Punish,” “God and the Nursery-Maid,” “The Children’s God,” and “God is not Sexual.”  In the subsequent chapter Wells deals with atheism, a notion that deserves inclusion among the heresies, as a ninth instance.

The “Heresies of Speculation,” which come first, fall under the description of logically contorted and overly intellectualized discourses of the divine.  Wells writes of “men [who] sit at little desks remote from God or life, and rack their brains to meet fancied difficulties and state unnecessary perfections.”  Such men “seek God by logic, ignoring the marginal error that creeps into every syllogism.”  Alexandria, a hothouse of decadent intellectual system-building, gave birth to the species.  Wells claims that “no one who really seeks God thinks of the Trinity… any more than one thinks of those theories made stone, those gods with three heads and seven hands, who sit on lotus leaves and lingams and what not, in the temples of India.”  The magical and providential deities self-annihilate on inspection because they involve preposterous contradictions of reality, such as the denial of free will, without which morality is meaningless.  Wells sees Quietism as a kind of moral neutrality, which ultimately benefits immorality, and which must therefore share in the wickedness of immorality.  As for Wells’ denial of the claim that God wreaks vengeance or punishes – Wells sees in this position a regrettable survival of the most ancient, taboo-oriented deities of the prehistoric tribes, a vision incompatible with his “Risen Christ.”  The God of the nursery-maid is simply the nursery-maid’s self-projection, an Auntie-Griselda-like bogey to frighten the children into remaining quiet, and the children’s god is simply Daddy writ large.  Now, for God the sexual policeman, Wells reserves his highest dudgeon.  The kernel of Wells’ argument – which it is difficult for one knowing his biography not to see as self-exculpating – is that: “We should free men and women from exact and superstitious rules and observances, not to make them less the instruments of God but more wholly his.”  Wells shows himself a successor, in this position, of William Blake, who once petitioned his wife to admit their scullery maid to the marriage bed.

Simply by quoting the opening sentence of the relevant chapter, one gives a good account of Wells’ argument about atheism.  “It is a curious thing,” as Wells writes, “that while most organized religions seem to drape about and conceal and smother the statement of the true God, the honest Atheist, with his passionate impulse to strip the truth bare, is constantly and unwittingly reproducing the divine likeness.”  Two characteristics differentiate the atheist from the fideist of “modern religion.”  Trying to prove a negative thesis, the atheist-logician becomes tangled in syllogisms that, beginning with bad premises, end in ridiculous conclusions; the atheist also falls prone to the blight of “self-righteousness,” which the subscriber to “modern religion” escapes.  Even “the benevolent atheist,” as Wells puts it, “stands alone upon his own good will, without a reference, without a standard, trusting to his own impulse to goodness, relying upon his moral strength.”  He remains “self-centered” and in danger of becoming mired in his own “priggishness.”  Any number of contemporary atheists, whom Wells never lived to know and whose benevolence one might doubt, must partake in this indictment.  It is quite unnecessary to name names.  The remainder of God the Invisible King expands on the propositions of its early chapters.  Curious readers may investigate the details, never less than provocative, on their own.  After the Experiment in Autobiography, something of a lull in Wells’ religious discourse sets in, but the religious theme emerges again at the end of Wells’ life in Crux Ansata, The Happy Turning, and The Mind at the End of its Tether (1946).

Last Books

“The Divine Timelessness of Beautiful Things”

IV. The Happy Turning refers in its title to a serene felicity of Wells’ late-in-life dreams. In actuality he took a daily walk in the ways near Regent’s Park where he lived. In his dreams he repeatedly comes on a “happy turning” into new undiscovered regions of the familiar neighborhood that in atmosphere correspond to the Elysian Fields of myth and poetry.  Among other quiet adventures, Wells has two conversations with Jesus.  The Platonic dialogues come to mind as models, but Lucian’s Dialogues among the Dead might offer a better prototype.  Wells conjures in his Jesus of Nazareth (“the companion I find most congenial in the Beyond”) a figure rather tired and irritable.  “Gods,” Wells writes, “how he hated priests, and how he hates them now!”  Concerning the Apostles and their accounts of the Christ’s ministry in the New Testament, and concerning especially Paul, Jesus tells his interlocutor: “Fathering all this nonsense about being ‘The Christ’ on me of all people!”  Jesus says to Wells, “Never have disciples,” adding a few lines later in the text: “They would misunderstand the simplest metaphors… They always got it wrong.”  Jesus confides to Wells that he never died on the cross, but that the women mistook him for dead when they fetched him down.  Thus Jesus’ resurrection too entered legend from misunderstanding, but he took advantage of happenstance to flee Jerusalem and live out his life as an anonymous seeker of truth.  In addition to featuring Jesus in two dialogues, The Happy Turning devotes a chapter to “The Divine Timelessness of Beautiful Things,” the last, nostalgic outburst of the Wellsian Platonism.  The Jesus of metaphors and the prose-paean to Beauty go together, in fact, revealing that Wells has something in common with that rather un-Greek Platonist Saint Augustine, whose path to Christian conversion began with a glimpse of the philosophical Absolute and whose writings warn against a literal-minded reading of Scripture.

In its chapter on beauty, The Happy Turning praises William Wordsworth for his “discovery of the mystical loveliness beneath reality” but the book condemns T. S. Eliot as belonging to “a crew of disinherited mourners at a bankrupt’s funeral on a wet day” and his work as “jingling vulgarities… void of the mysterious exaltation of Beauty.”  Yet the mood of Wells’ last book, Mind at the End of its Tether, strongly resembles the mood of Eliot’s “Waste Land,” a poem written before its author’s conversion during his agnostic period.  It is fitting in a tragic way that Wells’ final authorial sally should revert to apocalyptic – and a bleaker apocalypse could hardly be imagined.  The terrible possibility against which the Time Traveler in Wells’ first scientific romance pits himself is that brute matter should at last prevail over the light of mind, mankind therein to succumb to adaptive devolution and become a flailing tentacled thing on a twilit beach.  Given the existence of a “Scheme,” the Time Traveler’s determination to forestall that possibility acquires its justification; he assumes that the universe is on his side.  Every utopian forecast in Wells’ oeuvre, presupposing the “Scheme,” assumes that the universe is on its side.  Yet in Mind at the End of its Tether, Wells states adamantly that, “There is no ‘Pattern of Things to Come.’”  In the experience of a new war, culminating in the liberation of atomic explosives, Wells has concluded that “the cosmic movement of events is increasingly adverse to the mental make-up of our everyday life.”  Elsewhere, as he writes, “A frightful queerness has come into life.”  Whereas, “for long periods, in our time-space system, a sort of balance of life between various species has existed,” and whereas that “balance” bespoke “the Order of Nature”; now a “new harsh implacable hostility,” suddenly intrinsic to the universe, has “set its face against us.”

God the Invisible King had posited two deities – “the Veiled Being” or “God of Nature” and “the God of the Heart.”  In Mind at the End of its Tether, the latter has vanished entirely and “the Veiled Being,” formerly characterized by mere “aloofness and inhumanity,” has now become “the Antagonism” who, having “endured life for so long by our reckoning… has now turned against it… to wipe it out.”  As Eliot in “The Waste Land” invokes images of the parched desert, so too Wells in Mind at the End of its Tether invokes the image of “a desiccated world of tundras and steppes” as the likeliest outcome of “this strange new phase of existence into which our universe is passing.”  Human perversity exacerbates the prospect.  Most men live in a “world of self-delusion,” as Wells writes; therefore, “our doomed formicary is helpless as the implacable Antagonist kicks or tramples our world to pieces.”  The crisis deepening, men will concoct “evasion systems”; they will give “blind obedience to egotistical leaders, fanatical persecutions, panics, hysterical violence and cruelty.”  In Mind at the End of its Tether, Wells appears to have reverted to primordial Indo-European pessimism, as in Hesiod’s lamentations over the “Iron Age” to which Fate had consigned him or the Icelander’s Ragnarök, that fusky, fiery, and total End-of-the-World.

Wells’ biographers record the illnesses of his last years, the increasing severity and proliferating symptoms of his diabetes, episodes of humiliating dementia, and the pervasive fatigue of old age.  Perhaps Mind at the End of its Tether – about which it is worth saying that whatever it is, it is not an attack on religion – belongs to all that.  Yet in relation to each other the phases of Wells’ character appear out of place: The Dark Night of the Soul comes not, as it did for Dante, in the middle of life, but rather at the very end, to be followed only by the author’s demise; the convictions of faith dominate the vital periods of middle age and primacy.  Can a structure so disjoint be set right?  If not, can any of its elements be salvaged?  The answer to the first question is, “No.”  The reason is that Wells’ cranky antipathy to Roman Catholicism blinded him to the rationality of Trinitarian theology, in which one of the three functions of the Godhead is to mediate between the close-up, incarnated Man-God and the remoter, harder-to-understand Creator-God.  It was on that basis that science, which Wells so admired, could finally develop in a Christian context, as it did in no other context.  In mocking the Holy Spirit as a pseudo-philosophical improvisation or a relic of Egyptian magic, Wells left Jesus stranded on Earth and mankind stranded there with Him.  The “modern religion” in which Wells placed so much hope lacked a transcendent telos and could not therefore, in a manner of speaking, build cathedrals.  Had Wells better integrated the philosophical Absolute into his creed, he might have made up in some degree for lack of a transcendent telos so that the cathedral he wanted to build would have come within the realm of possibility.

As for the second question – many elements of Wellsian religious thought remain distinctly valuable, and indeed they increase in value in a world passing through ever lower circles of philosophical and spiritual bankruptcy.  Foremost among these merits are the critique of atheism in God the Invisible King and after that the advocacy of analogical thinking in First and Last Things.  The forthright appreciation of beauty also invites an accolade, the present age being given over to frightful aschemiolatry.   A useful college syllabus for a senior seminar would ask students to read those modern atheists whose names need not be named and then read God the Invisible King and then compare them.  Whatever one thinks of this or that particular of Wellsian theology, the man’s lifelong, mainly positive engagement with religious ideas is itself remarkable and admirable.  Wells was never arrogant or priggish, as Bertrand Russell was in his treatise, Why I am not a Christian (1927).  Contemporary thinkers must be baffled by such a sustained interest in a realm of thought deemed identical with superstition by the prevailing consensus.  Wells was a bigger, more perceptive man than they.

7 thoughts on “H. G. Wells as Religious Thinker

  1. Pingback: H. G. Wells as Religious Thinker | Reaction Times

    • Thank you, PBW. I read obsessively and I write obsessively. What I read strikes me as fascinating and I would like to convey that fascination to others.

  2. I would put Wells’ wartime sentiments down more to the homicidal vindictiveness of the Allies than to his atheism. One could never imagine Gibbon, for example, campaigning for the destruction of Rome (nor even pre-WWII H. G. Wells), but it is easily imagined in an Allied population drunk on dehumanizing propaganda against “fascists” and having made such a constant habit of incinerating helpless civilian populations. If he had known, Wells could have comforted himself knowing that the Americans would soon, just for the hell of it, annihilate the center of Japanese Catholicism in Nagasaki, accomplishing in seconds what centuries of persecution had failed to achieve. Or he could have taken satisfaction in the communist-led terror that would soon befall “liberated” France. If he had, he would have been no worse than most others of that time.

    • Wells is an anguishing combination of insight and prejudice. His anti-Germanism goes back to WWI. (See Mr. Britling Sees it Through.) His hostility to Italy goes back to Mussolini’s insurgence. Wells wrote a novel, Meanwhile, in 1923, where the antagonists are the Italian “Fascists.” At the same time, Wells critiques English society for its orientation to what he calls “a nose.” (I.e., Jews and Armenians.) You are right that Wells, to be consistent, must have danced over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And yet in his 1913 novel The World Set Free, he made an atomic war the worst crime that humanity had ever inflicted against itself. Is inconsistency bad or good? Maybe Wells — infinitely more creative than I — and yours truly are equally and grossly inconsistent. In our inconsistency, are we bad or good?

      I have come a long way to deciding that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were immoral perpetrations, as were Dresden and Hamburg.

      Maybe, as great as his creativity was, Wells was simply, and forgivably or unforgivably, human. That is how I would classify myself.


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