- A Silent Echo of Hope:An Evangelical Lection of E. M. Forster's A Passage to India
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.Robert Frost
Theological reflection on unbaptized but divine longings in literature can bear a twofold yield: an original reading of the text and a personal occasion for thanksgiving. Here, such a reading is called an "evangelical lection."
The subject of this article is E. M. Forster's last novel, A Passage to India (1924). When approached through an evangelical lection, Passage's mysterious melancholy echoes with the Christian resonance of divine hope.
In order to substantiate this approach and claim, we must first answer two questions: What defines and justifies an "evangelical lection" of non-Christian literature? And what will serve as the critical point of contact between theological insight and literary art? [End Page 91]
A. Evangelical Lection
1. A Passage to India and the Ratio of Evangelical Lection
An evangelical understanding of secular culture depends on the axiom that "grace does not destroy but builds on nature." Even artistic works that proffer themselves against Christian orthodoxy can manifest authentic, transcendent desires. By their very nature, these human desires are potentially ordered toward the reception of supernatural grace. Accordingly, the "Catechism of the Catholic Church" teaches, "the [theological] virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men's activities."1 Because, then, the supernatural life is intrinsically confluent with the most "fundamental attitudes" of the human person, the Christian does well to hearken to that which is evangelically fertile in significant works of art.2
Many readers of E. M. Forster's last novel find it stifled by pessimism, not brimming with hope. All of Passage's major characters suffer eventual disillusionment, and those who do not are dumbly safe in Anglo-centric chauvinism or, for an Indian professor, mystical aloofness. The dramatic crux of the novel—an alleged crime in a mysterious cave—is a haunted vacuum of unknowing. What actually happens in the cave remains unknown to the characters, to the reader, and even—uncannily—to the author.3 As a philosophical drama, the work queries whether or not "emotional communion" is attainable—only to answer an impotently optimistic, "Not yet."4 For many Christian readers, then, such metaphysical, epistemological, and interpersonal pessimism impinges on the novel's critical worth and aesthetic effect.5
All this being said, however, one cannot conclusively convict Forster. "Although there have been many attempts at defining this elusive novel, it survives a wide variety of incomplete accounts."6 Passage has always been critically frustrating. "Forster's work has appeared to some critics insufficiently immersed in the destructive element. . . . To others, A Passage to India (as the typifying example) [End Page 92] is a work of despair."7 Another critic goes so far as to suggest that Forster's art summons forth a "melancholy reader." Empowered by the text, such a reader would (ingeniously) perceive the formal inability of fictional realism to portray the enigmatic contingency of existence.8
The major argument against the success of Passage is that the realism with which Forster portrays social and spiritual alienation (primarily through character) does not cohere with the symbolism through which he expresses cosmic meta-unity (primarily through setting and poetic narrative). Recent studies of Passage must apply various hermeneutics in order to yield a coherent reading—post-colonial criticism, queer theory, and studies of eastern religions figure most prominently.9 It therefore seems that the "failure to grasp as total and integrated experiences such works as . . . E. M. Forster's A Passage to India results from our not having succeeded as yet in bringing to these works the proper controlling cosmos."10
The approach I take in the article follows the example of Pope John Paul II's notion of a "Christian way of philosophizing" in Fides et Ratio.11 I will offer a Christian way of reading, "conceived in dynamic union with faith." An evangelical lection uses "Christian philosophy" for its "controlling...