Wednesday, 25 October 2017

God the Invisible King (1917)


God the Invisible King is a very strange book. Its early chapters consist of amateur theological speculation, an interrogation of the nature of the deity unencumbered by the rich and lengthy traditions of thought on this topic by many many prior philosophers and theologians. William James (Wells's personal friends) aside, Wells just isn't interested in any of that. He is interested in God, though, and his assertions about the divine nature pivot, in the later chapters, into a scarily authoritarian vision of coming theocracy, a programme of such fundamentalist severity that I started to doubt that Wells could be being serious. Alas, I think he was. This was where his new-found faith in God took him.

Previously atheist and materialist, Wells's ‘turn to God’ was provoked in large part by the ongoing horrors of war. It is fictionalised, more or less, in the last portion of Mr Britling Sees It Through. But where that novel still has admirers and adherents, God the Invisible King is a book almost entirely without profile today. Critics and Wellsians have no kind words for it, and Wells himself later repudiated it. In the Experiment in Autobiography he belittled it as ‘a falling back of the mind towards immaturity under the stress of dismay and anxiety’:
Everywhere in those first years of disaster men were looking for some lodestar for their loyalty. I thought it was pitiful that they should pin their minds to ‘King and Country’ and suchlike claptrap, when they might live and die for greater ends, and I did my utmost to personify and animate a greater, remoter objective in God the Invisible King. So by a sort of coup d'état I turned my New Republic for a time into a divine monarchy ... In What Are We to Do with Our Lives? (1932) I make the most explicit renunciation and apology for this phase of terminological disingenuousness. [Experiment in Autobiography, 575-78]
Disingenuousness seems an unfair charge to level at himself, I must say. God the Invisible King comes across as a deeply ingenuous project: a wide-eyed and at times painfully naif exercise in seeing how far a notion of ‘God’ might be constructed given Wells more-or-less materialist and worldly conceptual constraints.

So what kind of God emerges? According to Wells ‘the leading idea of this book’ is that there are two ‘antagonistic’ conceptions of God: ‘God-as-Nature or the Creator’ and ‘God-as-Christ or the Redeemer’.
One is the great Outward God; the other is the Inmost God. The first idea was perhaps developed most highly and completely in the God of Spinoza. It is a conception of God tending to pantheism, to an idea of a comprehensive God as ruling with justice rather than affection, to a conception of aloofness and awestriking worshipfulness. The second idea, which is opposed to this idea of an absolute God, is the God of the human heart.
Wells lays his cards on the table in the preface:
The writer’s position here in this book is, firstly, complete Agnosticism in the matter of God the Creator, and secondly, entire faith in the matter of God the Redeemer. That, so to speak, is the key of his book. He cannot bring the two ideas under the same term God. He uses the word God therefore for the God in our hearts only, and he uses the term the Veiled Being for the ultimate mysteries of the universe
So there you have it. The remainder of this post consists of me reacting to specific bits and pieces from Wells's book itself, because these are questions that interest me. But they probably don't interest you, and in this opening summary you have the nub of the book. Which means you don't need to read any further. Nice for you, I think.


So, yes: most Wells' scholars treat Wells's later recantation as evidence that the whole of this book can be swept into the dustbin. For example: Lovat Dickson’s H G Wells: His Turbulent Life and Times (Macmillan, 1969) styles Wells’s life as a passage through a series of governing myths: the myth of evolutionary and scientific advance which informs his early SF, the ‘myth of sexual and social revaluation’ in The New MacchiavelliAnn Veronica and other novels of that period, and then the ‘myth of God the Leader’ of Mr Britling Sees It Through and God the Invisible King:
The world was passing through a phase when any goal seemed within reach of mankind. But myths dissolve in the face of harsh experience, and the world woke up to reality, leaving the mythmaker frustrated and angry, forced to turn to fresh sources for inspiration. The whole history of man as he saw it had been a series of false starts. Perhaps it was possible for God and man to make a fresh beginning that would not end again in frustration and catastrophe. But the religious myth failed him, as the scientific and sexual ones had done, and he was left unhappy at the end. [Dickson, Wells: Turbulent Life, 307]
This is a pretty convincing account, although there are obvious dangers in reading any author (as it were) teleologically in this way. We are not obliged to agree with Wells when, in moving from one stage of his life to another, he denies his earlier beliefs, something that says more about his desire for an interior sense of his own consistency than it does about the beliefs themselves. After all, people do not necessarily grow wiser as we grow older. Often, the reverse.

What about those ideas, then? Wells considers the notion that God is in any sense ‘infinite’ self-evidently ludicrous, and so the first tenet of his ‘Modern Religion’ concerns the finitude of God:
The fact that God is finite is one upon which those who think clearly among the new believers are very insistent. He is, above everything else, a personality, and to be a personality is to have characteristics, to be limited by characteristics; he is a Being, not us but dealing with us and through us, he has an aim and that means he has a past and future; he is within time and not outside it. And they point out that this is really what everyone who prays sincerely to God or gets help from God, feels and believes. Our practice with God is better than our theory. None of us really pray to that fantastic, unqualified danse a trois, the Trinity, which the wranglings and disputes of the worthies of Alexandria and Syria declared to be God. We pray to one single understanding person. [God the Invisible King, 1.2]
That God has a personality, then, is crucial to Wells's theology. That said, in the very next paragraph he mocks the traditional Biblical God for having, in effect, too much personality (‘his jealousy, his strange preferences, his vindictive Old Testament past ... do not even make a caricature of the True God; they compose an altogether different and antagonistic figure’) so I remain a little confused.

I don't mean to overstate my confusion. Of course it's true to say that people don't, on the whole, pray to an abstracted mathematical unsigned limit x → ∞; but perhaps the beef here is with terminology rather than ways of conceiving the divine. To make God finite is necessarily to make God an entity ‘in’ the world, and therefore liable to all the critiques of Dawkins and his hostile et al. We might want to think of God not as ‘in’ the word so much as the ground of the world. We might, as the old saw has it, consider religious faith not as a mode of believing that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden, so much as believing, in a crucial sense, that the garden is in the fairy. As to whether such a transfinity, or such predicate of finitude as such, could also possess the characteristics of personality is a question I leave up to the reader to answer for her- or himself.

Wells, though, is repelled by the radical unknowability of infinitude: ‘the veil of the unknown is set with the stars,’ he says, waxing uncharacteristically poetical: ‘its outer texture is ether and atom and crystal. The Veiled Being, enigmatical and incomprehensible, broods over the mirror upon which the busy shapes of life are moving. Our lives do not deal with it, and cannot deal with it. It may be that they may never be able to deal with it’ [1.3]. His God is not this infinity, but rather an inwardness, and therefore something vouched-for by individual experiential encounters with the divine.

Though Wells insists his God is a God of inwardness, this doesn't make Him a God of quiet contemplation. On the contrary: ‘the true God goes through the world like fifes and drums and flags,’ Wells says, ‘calling for recruits along the street. We must go out to him. We must accept his discipline and fight his battle.’ [2.5]  I start to imagine God leaning forward like Lord Kitchener in the recruiting poster, pointing His finger accusingly. But I shouldn't, for Wells insists that, though God is an individual, He is not bodily:
His nature is of the nature of thought and will. Not only has he, in his essence, nothing to do with matter, but nothing to do with space. He is not of matter nor of space. He comes into them. ... Our modern psychology is alive to the possibility of Being that has no extension in space at all, even as our speculative geometry can entertain the possibility of dimensions—fourth, fifth, Nth dimensions—outside the three-dimensional universe of our experience. And God being non-spatial is not thereby banished to an infinite remoteness, but brought nearer to us; he is everywhere immediately at hand, even as a fourth dimension would be everywhere immediately at hand. He is a Being of the minds and in the minds of men. He is in immediate contact with all who apprehend him. [God the Invisible King, 3.2]
The notion that thought might proceed without something (a brain, a hard-drive, whatever) to do the thinking strikes me precisely as nonsensical as the notion that speed might be measurable without some object travelling at velocity. And I honestly don't know what Wells means by saying ‘our modern psychology is alive to the possibility of Being that has no extension in space at all’: which psychologist is this? Does he have a particular name in mind? And the last part of this passage seems to suggest that God is, in a sense, parasitical upon the material processes of thought of people such as us, which seems a strange thing to argue.

In chapter 3 Wells lists a number of attributes of his God: ‘God is Courage’, ‘God is a Person’ and ‘God is Youth’. On this latter we're told:
The third thing to be told of the true God is that God is youth. God, we hold, began and is always beginning. He looks forever into the future.

Most of the old religions derive from a patriarchal phase. God is in those systems the Ancient of Days. I know of no Christian attempt to represent or symbolise God the Father which is not a bearded, aged man. White hair, beard, bearing, wrinkles, a hundred such symptoms of senile decay are there. These marks of senility do not astonish our modern minds in the picture of God, only because tradition and usage have blinded our eyes to the absurdity of a time-worn immortal. Jove too and Wotan are figures far past the prime of their vigour. These are gods after the ancient habit of the human mind, that turned perpetually backward for causes and reasons and saw all things to come as no more than the working out of Fate,—
Of Man’s first disobedience and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world and all our woe.”
But the God of this new age, we repeat, looks not to our past but our future, and if a figure may represent him it must be the figure of a beautiful youth, already brave and wise, but hardly come to his strength. [God the Invisible King, 3.3]
This seems solidly wrongheaded to me. Spend any time with children and you realise they have only the most foreshortened and nebulous sense of the future: they live in the present and the recent past. It's the old who look to the future, make plans, write wills and so on; and as against the Biblical fascination with past origins we might set the equally weighted Biblical fascination with prophesy and the Revelation of Saint John. What Wells means is that it is Youth that fights wars, and his theology is of heroic combat (I mean, it's old men who actually fight wars, using young men as their tools: like the Judge says in Blood Meridian, war endures because young men love it and old men love it in them. But you see what Wells is getting at).

This in turn leads so some rather odd assertions about God's love of humankind.
The love God bears for man in the individual believer. Now this is not an indulgent, instinctive, and sacrificing love like the love of a woman for her baby. It is the love of the captain for his men; God must love his followers as a great captain loves his men, who are so foolish, so helpless in themselves, so confiding, and yet whose faith alone makes him possible. It is an austere love. The spirit of God will not hesitate to send us to torment and bodily death. [God the Invisible King, 4.1]
Once again, a very World War One sentiment. Perhaps a military captain ‘loves’ his men for who they are, but over and above that he must love them primarily for what they can do: as a resource which, whilst not to be foolishly squandered, is to be spent in the achievement of certain battlefield goals. Is that really how God loves us? I find it hard to get my head around the notion. Over the top of which trench, and towards which enemy, is this Captain leading us? Wells is not clear:
What can this “religion of the future” be but that devotion to the racial adventure under the captaincy of God which we have already found, like gold in the bottom of the vessel, when we have washed away the confusions and impurities of dogmatic religion? ... This altar to the Future of his, we can claim as an altar to our God—an altar rather indistinctly inscribed. [God the Invisible King, 4.2]
Wait ... racial adventure? What?
Those whose acquiescence in the idea of God is merely intellectual are in no better case than those who deny God altogether. [God the Invisible King, 4.3]
An affective, and not a rational, deity then. A global faith that harnesses our passions, joys and fears, and does not admit of rational or intellectual critique. What could possibly go wrong?

Wells pooh-poohs those who may think his ‘new religion’ is just the old religion decanted into new bottles: that ‘he, who is called in this book God, they would call God-the-Son or Christ, or the Logos; and what is here called the Darkness or the Veiled Being, they would call God-the-Father’. He's not having that:
We do not recognise any consistent sympathetic possibilities between these outer beings and our God. Our God is, we feel, like Prometheus, a rebel. He is unfilial. And the accepted figure of Jesus, instinct with meek submission, is not in the tone of our worship. It is not by suffering that God conquers death, but by fighting. Incidentally our God dies a million deaths, but the thing that matters is not the deaths but the immortality. It may be he cannot escape in this person or that person being nailed to a cross or chained to be torn by vultures on a rock. These may be necessary sufferings, like hunger and thirst in a campaign; they do not in themselves bring victory. They may be necessary, but they are not glorious. The symbol of the crucifixion, the drooping, pain-drenched figure of Christ, the sorrowful cry to his Father, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” these things jar with our spirit. We little men may well fail and repent, but it is our faith that our God does not fail us nor himself. We cannot accept the Christian’s crucifix, or pray to a pitiful God. We cannot accept the Resurrection as though it were an after-thought to a bitterly felt death. Our crucifix, if you must have a crucifix, would show God with a hand or a foot already torn away from its nail, and with eyes not downcast but resolute against the sky. [God the Invisible King, 4.3]
We can't call this a fundamental misprison of Christianity, since Wells isn't setting out to interpret Christianity so much as to supersede it. But of course there are people who call themselves Christians whose faith runs along these lines. In North America there are, I suspect, quite a few such people.

It's hardly the place of an infidel to suggest that this kind of thing entirely misses the point both of the passion of Christ and of the logic of Christianity as such. That's how it seems to me, though; and it also seems to me that clothing Christ's willing sacrifice in this brittle armour of aggression and domination leads us, in short order, to some very unsavoury political places. ‘We of the new faith repudiate the teaching of non-resistance,’ brays Wells. ‘We are the militant followers of and participators in a militant God ... submission is the remotest quality of all from our God, and a moribund figure is the completest inversion of his likeness as we know him. A Christianity which shows, for its daily symbol, Christ risen and trampling victoriously upon a broken cross, would be far more in the spirit of our worship’. From here it's a short step to Wells calling for an actual theocracy:
This transfiguration of the world into a theocracy may seem a merely fantastic idea to anyone who comes to it freshly without such general theological preparation as the preceding pages have made. But to anyone who has been at the pains to clear his mind even a little from the obsession of existing but transitory things, it ceases to be a mere suggestion and becomes more and more manifestly the real future of mankind. From the phase of “so things should be,” the mind will pass very rapidly to the realisation that “so things will be.” Towards this the directive wills among men have been drifting more and more steadily and perceptibly and with fewer eddyings and retardations, for many centuries. The purpose of mankind will not be always thus confused and fragmentary. This dissemination of will-power is a phase. The age of the warring tribes and kingdoms and empires that began a hundred centuries or so ago, draws to its close. The kingdom of God on earth is not a metaphor, not a mere spiritual state, not a dream, not an uncertain project; it is the thing before us, it is the close and inevitable destiny of mankind. [God the Invisible King, 4.3]
This divinely sanctioned hostility to diversity strikes so illiberal, so caliphatic a note, you almost start to wonder if Wells is being satirical. But I don't think so: his enthusiasm for service to God as the way to leverage diversity into unity, and thus achieve his longed-for World State, is perfectly genuine. Bogglingly naïve, but genuine.

In Wells's vision, every aspect of social praxis and order will be subordinated to this new order: the entire legal system, for instance, will give up petty bickering over torts and rights and become a branch of the church: ‘when the world is openly and confessedly the kingdom of God, the law court will exist only to adjust the differing views of men as to the manner of their service to God’ [4.9]. What about the existing churches? Wells is clear that all such priests, vicars, rabbis and mullahs must stand up before their congregations and speak the new truth of his religion, the coming of which ‘will impose the renunciation of his temporalities and a complete cessation of services upon every ordained priest and minister as his first act of faith.’
Once that he has truly realised God, it becomes impossible for him ever to repeat his creed again. His course seems plain and clear. It becomes him to stand up before the flock he has led in error, and to proclaim the being and nature of the one true God. He must be explicit to the utmost of his powers. Then he may await his expulsion. [4.10]
Right. That'll happen.

The thing is, Wells seems to think it really will. There's a passage when he considers the kind of people likely to deny the truth of his New Religion. There are the stubbornly base, he says, ‘and besides these base people there are the stupid people and the people with minds so poor in texture that they cannot even grasp the few broad and simple ideas that seem necessary to the salvation we experience’. But otherwise he takes the view that the Wellsian God is so self-evidently true that everybody will fall into line behind Him. How will Wells ensure that his theocracy doesn't become a mere ecclesiocracy? Well, frankly, he doesn't: the book's last chapter suggests that there will be no need for churches and priests and the paraphernalia of organised religion in the new dispensation, since everyone will have individual access to God, and, organisationally speaking, ‘the State is God's instrument’. He does walk this back a little, noting that some people may want to gather together to praise God after the old rites. ‘Let them express all that they desire to express in their own fashion by themselves or grouped with their friends as they will,’ he says, condescendingly, adding that his new religion ‘does not preclude infinite possibilities of organisation and collective action under God and within the compass of religion ... the objection lies not against subsidiary organisations for service but against organisations that may claim to be comprehensive.’ For example? ‘Many people feel the need of prayer to resist the evil in themselves and to keep them in mind of divine emotion. And many want not merely prayer but formal prayer and the support of others, praying in unison. The writer does not understand this desire or need for collective prayer very well, but there are people who appear to do so and there is no reason why they should not assemble for that purpose ... I do not see why there should not be, under God, associations for building cathedrals and suchlike great still places urgent with beauty.’ And the book closes with the metaphor of Wells's new faith as a gigantic crystal forming spontaneously:
This metaphor of crystallisation is perhaps the best symbol of the advent and growth of the new understanding. It has no church, no authorities, no teachers, no orthodoxy. It does not even thrust and struggle among the other things; simply it grows clear. There will be no putting an end to it. It arrives inevitably, and it will continue to separate itself out from confusing ideas. It becomes, as it were the Koh-i-noor; it is a Mountain of Light, growing and increasing. It is an all-pervading lucidity, a brightness and clearness. It has no head to smite, no body you can destroy; it overleaps all barriers; it breaks out in despite of every enclosure. It will compel all things to orient themselves to it. [God the Invisible King, ‘Envoy’]
There will be no putting an end to it. It will compel all things to orient themselves to it. [Shudder]


One oddity struck me in reading this book: the way little sideways repudiations of the penis keep creeping into it. Rather (as one might, perhaps, think, knowing as we do Wells's fondness for the old in-out, in-out) than finding something Lawrentian or holy in the sexual act, this book several times brackets it away from the divine. In 2.1 Wells attacks ‘errors of emotion’, arguing that ‘fear and feebleness go straight to the Heresies that God is Magic or that God is Providence’ and deploring that ‘the stormy emotions of sex gave mankind the Phallic God’. A little later he critiques the notion of the Trinity in these terms:
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 flourish lingams and what not, in the temples of India. [God the Invisible King, 2.2]
Did Wells know what lingam means? Was he deliberately putting-in this image of the old gods waggling their willies at us? Because, having read God the Invisible King, with all its martial posturing, its God-the-Recruiting-Sergeant and theocratic certainties, I can't quite shake the sense that this is what Wells is doing: sitting on his lotus-leaf in Essex and waving his willy at us.


  1. One footnote: as I say at the top, Wells doesn't engage with the broader traditions of theological thought, with the single exception of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). There's a great deal in common between Wells's conception of God and James's ideas, something contemporary reviewers pointed out. For example here's The Monist in 1918, noting the ‘similarity between Wells and James’

    "James was insistent that the Absolute of the philosophers could not be the God of religion, and Wells is equally insistent upon this point .... Wells, like James, insists that God must be genuinely personal, existing within a temporal environment, aiding mankind in its upward struggle, and accessible to man through what James calls ‘prayerful communion’. In Wells's view, as in James's, evidence for God's existence is found in so-called religious experiences, mystical in nature. James expresses it as follows: ‘There are religious experiences of a specific nature. They point with reasonable probability to the continuity of our consciousness with a wider spiritual environment ... Personal religious experience has its root and center in mystical states of consciousness.’ And Wells says similarly: ‘Modern religion bases its knowledge of God and its account of God entirely upon experience ... This cardinal experience is an undoubting, immediate sense of God. It is the attainment of an absolute certainty that one is not alone in oneself.... The moment may come while we are alone in the darkness, under the stars, or while we walk by ourselves or in a crowd, or while we sit and muse. It may come upon the sinking ship or in the tumult of battle.... After it has come our lives are changed, God is with us and there is no more doubt of God. Thereafter one goes about the world like one who was lonely and has found a lover. One is assured that there is a Power that fights with us against the confusion and evil within us and with out.’ In accepting the mystical experience as the basis of religious belief, Wells agrees completely with James. As Wells himself says, ‘So far as its psychological phases go the new account of personal salvation.... has little to tell that is not already familiar to the reader of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience." [Wesley Raymond Wells, ‘The Fallacy in Mr H. G. Wells's “New Religion”’, The Monist, 28:4 (Oct 1918), 605]

    The main doctrinal (as it were) difference between James and Wells was the former's sympathy with ideas of personal immortality and the latter's dismissal of personal immortality as an irrelevance. Otherwise, God the Invisible King is really quite a William-Jamesian book.

  2. I wonder if there’s not also an admixture of Shaw’s cod-Bergsonianism — your description of Wells’s book, which I freely admit I am not inclined to read, sounds like Shaw’s “New Theology” adapted for conditions of war.

    1. Interesting! I hadn't previously read that Shavian sermon, but having done so I'm not sure I see a connection with Wells, at least not one as strong as the link with William James.

      You disinclination to read this book is perfectly understandable. The fact that you've read the whole of this over-lengthy post is credit enough.

    2. It's perfectly possible that my own sense of Shavian influence might evaporate ... if I actually read Wells's book.

  3. [Punting this down from the post to a comment, where it interrupts the flow, so as not to lose the passage]

    Wells is sometimes witty, although the points he scores are a little on the snarky side. For example, he mocks the account given by an Anglican writer, one “Landseer Mackenzie, Esq.”

    "of the views of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Obadiah upon the Kaiser William. They are distinctly hostile views. Mr. Landseer Mackenzie discourses not only upon these anticipatory condemnations but also upon the relations of the weather to this war. He is convinced quite simply and honestly that God has been persistently rigging the weather against the Germans. He points out that the absence of mist on the North Sea was of great help to the British in the autumn of 1914, and declares that it was the wet state of the country that really held up the Germans in Flanders in the winter of 1914-15. He ignores the part played by the weather in delaying the relief of Kut-el-Amara, and he has not thought of the difficult question why the Deity, having once decided upon intervention, did not, instead of this comparatively trivial meteorological assistance, adopt the more effective course of, for example, exploding or spoiling the German stores of ammunition by some simple atomic miracle, or misdirecting their gunfire by a sudden local modification of the laws of refraction or gravitation." [God the Invisible King, 2.3]

    This is quite amusing, but runs rather counter to Wells's broader thesis I think. After all, once one discounts the notion that God is ‘literally’ swirling His finger in amongst the clouds to alter the weather we're left with Landseer Mackenzie expressing in metaphorical language his experiential sense of God being ‘on his side’. Of course, God exploding German ammunition would be exactly as trivial, in the sense Wells means, as God dispersing the North Sea fog, and God favouring England over German or vice versa would be straightforwardly nonsensical, except insofar as ‘God’ is a necessarily individual-experiential manifestation, in which case He is bound to refract the particularities of the individual, living under the weather, caught up in one side or the other in the war.