The Genius of Christianity

By Rene Francis Augustus, Viscount de Chateaubriand, 1802.

The Enlightenment actually produced very little in the way of arguments against Christian truth claims.  Its main accomplishment was to convince its readers that Christians themselves are stupid, unimaginative, boorish, and cruel.  The Genius of Christianity is an important refutation of the Enlightenment, one which made a sensation in Napoleonic France.  Like his adversaries, Chateaubriand chooses not to focus on arguing the reality of things like Hell, the Trinity, or the Resurrection.  Instead, he argues that we recognize the beauty of Christianity:  its doctrines, its mores, its ideals, and its general sensibility.  One might say that Chateaubriand treats Christianity as a particularly excellent species of paganism.  The Bible contains the truths of the world’s mythologies, but without the philandering gods and other nonsense.  The Bible has its own literary style which bears comparison to Homer’s.  (Chateaubriand spends a great deal of space comparing Homer and Virgil to Milton and Racine.  This does little to advance his thesis, but it is a pleasure to read because of his admiration for all four.)  The Christian moral sense adds seriousness and poetry to life; its expectation of conflict between duty and desire and its promises of eternal rewards and punishments provide great material for the dramatist.  The code of chivalry is superior to the martial virtues of antiquity, and the Mass is morally superior to pagan sacrifices.  The mixture of joy and solemnity in the Christian marriage rite, the simple pleasures of the family together for Christmas, the sight of churches and their graveyards, and the sound of bells—all of these things have something so poetically right about them.  These things should be taken into account when judging Christianity; they’re not as simple as they appear.  Chateaubriand and de Maistre loved to mock the revolutionaries by saying that they could never establish feast days embraced by the people like the Church has.  Chateaubriand even defends the popular superstitions of uneducated country folk.  There are distinctly Christian superstitions which carry spiritual and moral truths, and he worries that, if the peasants should ever lose these beliefs, they would only replace them with immoral superstitions.  Anticipating Chesterton, he says, “He who believes nothing is not far from believing everything.”

In perhaps the strongest part of the book, Chateaubriand argues that Christianity has created a new kind of hero—the missionary.  In reviewing the exploits of the missionaries in China, Paraguay, Canada, and elsewhere, one is reminded how really remarkable the missionaries of the Counter-Reformation era were.  How often has any endeavor succeeded in calling forth so much courage, ingenuity, and generosity as did this drive to save souls for Christ?  One suspects that, if these men had been Oriental pagans rather than Catholics, the philosophes would have praised them to the skies.  Of course, other religions and cultures have had their own remarkable heroes and public benefactors.  However, the Christian missionaries combined courage and charity in a way which I think we may follow Chateaubriand in saying was unique.  Christianity has a unique style or, to quote the title, a unique genius.

In the end, this line of apologetics has the same weakness as the attack it is answering.  Just because Christians are dumb doesn’t mean Christianity is false.  Conversely, just because Christianity is beautiful doesn’t mean it’s true.  On the other hand, I think The Genius of Christianity has value apart from this argument.  It is valuable as a description of Christianity, seeing this religion in terms of the way of life it fosters rather than its formal tenets.

2 Responses

  1. The relation between beauty and truth might not be so detached depending on the tradition Chateaubriand hails from. There is a Platonic strand in philosophy and theology that says that truth is necessarily beautiful and that beauty is necessarily truthful. Today this strand is most evident in mathematics and the philosophy of mathematics, where the clear expectation is that a solution will be equally beautiful as true.


  2. […] It is also reviewed in the NYTimes and its title is a deliberate conceit bouncing off the title of Chateaubriand’s “The Genius of Christianity.”  The Jewish Review used this to finish up their review,  ‘he recalls the lesson an old, rich, […]

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