E.M. Forster, the Clapham Sect, and the Secular Public Sphere
Abstract

Abstract:

Critics have characterized E.M. Forster as an advocate of what Jürgen Habermas calls the “secular public sphere.” Yet Forster was critical of liberalism’s insistence that religious experiences should be translated into the language of secular rationality. The discussion of the Clapham Sect in “Henry Thornton” (1939) suggests that eighteenth-century evangelical Anglicanism set in motion a historical trajectory that led secular modern intellectuals to retreat into their own privacy, a position exemplified by Forster’s contemporaries in the Bloomsbury Group. One can thus look back to A Passage to India (1924) and understand how the novel’s spiritual themes articulate a politically relevant alternative both to Clapham’s rationalized religiosity and Bloomsbury’s secular insularity. Forster depicts the Hindu religious festival of Gokul Ashtami as promising an alternative form of social cohesion that resists translation into secular, rational language.