Satyagraha

Cultural Psychology

The Genius of Christianity

with 4 comments

From time to time I experience the temptation to write something countering the many atheist invectives against religion that appear in print.  For the most part I’m able to resist,  reasoning that no argument will convince the atheists, and none is needed for theists.

This probably deserves  a little elaboration, however. It seems to me that religion is basically something natural to human beings. It is as much a natural mode of knowing certain things as vision is a natural sense, or humor is a natural emotional experience.  Someone who is blessed with sight, yet has shut their eyes and insists that vision is a superstition, hardly wants a serious reply; or, at least, not a reply that takes at face value their objection.  Rather, the real questions are what the motives are of such people, and whether they are being honest with themselves and their readers.

Perhaps the real concern here is a third category of persons besides atheists and theists:  namely people who do not currently practice any religion, but who are sympathetic to the message and principles of religion, and who will, eventually, either discover or rediscover it.  The danger, then, is that atheist writers may discourage the authentic religious investigations of people in this third group.  If an apology for Christianity is to be written, then, it should be for the sake of this ‘in between’ group.

Such considerations have often led me to imagine writing a book titled, “The Grandeur of Christianity“, which would enumerate  the many excellencies and benefits of Christianity.  Now it seems that Providence has supplied such a book ready-made — written in the 19th century by François-René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848).

Chateaubriand was a noted French novelist, part of the Romantic movement, and an influence on Victor Hugo, among others.  Living through the French Revolution, Chateaubriand experienced more than the usual amount of adventure and personal tragedy.   His most famous novels include Atala (1801) and René (1802).  (And yes, it is after him that Chateaubriand steak is named — his hobby was gourmet cooking.)

But another great production from the pen of this literary master is The Genius of Christianity (Génie du christianisme; 1802).  In beautiful prose, speaking from the heart to the heart, Chateaubriand explains to the rationalists of his day why Christianity is important and necessary.


Briefly we should note the historical context of the book, which parallels in important respects the situation today.  Chateaubriand was writing at the close of two centuries in which rationalist philosophy had dominated the intellectual scene.  Faced with the ponderous edifice of empiricism, rationalism, and skepticism – which left little room for traditional faith –  Romantic writers (e.g., Goethe, Coleridge, Wordsworth — and Chateaubriand), artists (e.g., William Blake), essayists (Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson) and philosophers (e.g., Kant, Hegel) mounted a response.  The Romantics, in short, pointed out that there are other forms of valid knowledge beyond that which is supplied by sense data, or by rational inferences made from sense data.  Aesthetic and moral experiences, in particular, are real – just as real to the awareness as sense data – and must be fully accounted for in any satisfactory model of the human being.

These writers, artists and philosophers were not mere fuzzy-headed dreamers, but extremely intelligent and incisive thinkers.  It’s no small matter that the atheists of today have neglected to counter, or even acknowledge the arguments of the Romantics.

In any case, I shall say no more – for, as already noted, good fortune has placed this brilliant work by Chateaubriand before us.  The work remains fresh and readable today.  Links are supplied below.  If there were one stylistic detail which modern readers might take slight exception to, it would perhaps be the author’s tendency to minimize the value of other religions – Judaism, Islam, Eastern religions, etc.  However this is easily overlooked, and in no way detracts from the principal arguments.

Links

For English-speakers, Stork (1858) is a small volume of selections, containing many choice excerpts from the full work:

de Chateaubriand, François-René; Emma Β. Stork (tr.). The Spirit and Beauty of the Christian Religion. (Selections from Chateaubriand’s Genius Of Christianity). Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1858.

A full English translation is also online:

de Chateaubriand, François-René; White, Charles I. (Charles Ignatius; tr.). The Genius Of Christianity; or, The Spirit and Beauty of the Christian Religion. Baltimore: Murphy, 1856.

Numerous editions in French are also online.

Chapters in Stork’s ‘Selections’  edition of 1858:

  • The Bible
  • The Existence of God
  • The Character of the True God
  • General Spectacle of the Universe
  • Mystery
  • Paradise
  • Physical Man
  • Adam and Eve
  • Marriage
  • The Father — Priam
  • The Mother — Andromache
  • The Son — Gusman
  • The Daughter — Iphigenia
  • “Virtues and Moral Laws
  • Our Saviour
  • The Passions
  • Dido, or Passionate Love
  • The Christian Religion as a Passion
  • Undisciplined Passions
  • Faith
  • Hope and Charity
  • Desire of Happiness
  • Redemption
  • Christianity a great Blessing to Mankind — Services rendered to Society by the Clergy, and the Christian
  • Religion in general
  • Missions—General Idea of Missions
  • Defence of Christianity
  • The Sabbath
  • Singing and Prayer
  • Christian Festivals
  • Christian Tombs
  • Country Churchyards
  • The Influence of Christianity upon History
  • Beauties of History
  • Christian Eloquence
  • Moral Harmonies
  • The Influence of Christianity upon Music
  • The Influence of Christianity upon Painting
  • Songs of Birds — For Man they are Created
  • Language of Animals — Laws appertaining thereto
  • Birds’ Nests
  • The Infidel and Christian Mother
  • Remorse of Conscience..
  • The Christian’s Death-bed
  • Two Views of Nature — Ocean; Niagara Falls
  • Youth and Old Age of the Earth
  • The World without Christianity — Conjectures

Related:  Christianity for Agnostics — my own brief apologia for Christianity, written just before reading Chateaubriand’s work.

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Written by John Uebersax

February 7, 2012 at 2:59 am

4 Responses

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  1. I’m an agnostic (actually, a bit of a pantheist) who detests a lot of the anti-religious sentiment I see nowadays. I agree that religion is natural, and books like The Evolution of God give that theory scientific support.

    Dandelion Head

    February 7, 2012 at 3:52 am

  2. Just because something is “natural” does not make it right or good. That is the naturalistic fallacy. My Christian faith felt quite natural for a while and indeed faith and religion are natural phenomena. But, for me there were eventually too many inconsistencies in doctrine, behavior, and knowledge.

    When one of the main doctrines of your religion is eternal damnation or eternal separation (or whatever politically correct version is currently in vogue) for non-believers, there are serious psychological consequences. When inevitable religious disagreements ensue it can tear families apart.

    Religious teaching did not help to diagnose or effectively treat the mental illnesses that have caused so much pain and suffering in my family. Manic depression, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, clinical depression. The evidence shows that these brain disorders were heavily influenced by genetics and were effectively treated by pharmaceutical drugs like lithium and sertraline.

    Organized religion is not all bad, of course, but it does have a dark side. I’ve experienced that dark side first-hand and it forced me to question everything. I think most religious people are well-intentioned but also incredibly naive about how the world works and how their own brain processes information. Most of the “valid knowledge” these days is coming from fields like cognitive psychology and the many branches of neuroscience.

    SciAwakening

    February 7, 2012 at 5:18 am

  3. Ironically, many well educated and intelligent people zoom past great philosophers as they follow the current fad of atheism and de-evolution in American culture.

    Great post! I look forward to reading more!

    wayne

    Wayne

    February 7, 2012 at 4:36 pm

  4. I don’t think religions are “natural” in quite the way you mean. I think what is natural is for humans to use inductive reasoning to generalize facts about the world and pass that information along the generations in some structured form like a story. Unfortunately, this method of information transmission is messy and with telephone-game-like effects, can become wildly mutated—even wrong and harmful for those who aren’t vigilant about finding confirming evidence.

    I was struck by a documentary on a “witch doctor” among some tribal people in Africa. A woman in the village came to the old man because she had termites and wanted to get rid of them. He took two young boys with him to an ant hill and explained to the boys that the Ant Gods were enemies of the Termite Gods and that they should collect up the ants and bring them to the house. Sure enough, the ants devoured the termites and eventually left to go back to their colony, leaving the house pest-free. So, obviously, it’s useful information. The story helps one contextualize and remember the information, but does this mean there are ant and termites gods? It’s not proof or disproof either way. But it does seem superfulous.

    I think all religions “evolve”—ha, ha, yeah, I said religions evolve—in this way. Some useful knowledge about the environment (when the sun sets the longest in the winter) becomes tied in with stories (this is when the sun dies) and gets passed along and embellished. I don’t know then, that I believe the Romantics when it comes to the existence of “other valid forms of knowledge.” Taking religious stories (of any religion) at their literal word has lead to heinous crimes. Without a good sense of skepticism when looking at religious stories it becomes easy to treat our very complex world over simplistically.

    ruzel

    February 10, 2012 at 6:36 pm


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