keskiviikko 28. joulukuuta 2016

François-René de Chateaubriand: Genius of Christianity - Cult

The topic of the last book in Chateaubriand’s apology is supposed to concern the cult of Christianity. In essence, the book divides into two different strands of argument. Firstly, Chateaubriand continues the theme he touched already in the previous book, namely, the experiential side of religion. While in the last book he mentioned the ability of churches to provide human beings with a feeling of infinity, here he emphasizes burial rituals as a way to face the impending reality of death.

This part of Chateaubriand’s argument is probably the most important. Religions interest people, because they offer vivid emotions – the lure of hope, love and self-certainty is rather understandable. Even more interesting are the mystical experiences, like the inexplicable feeling of being filled with divinity. These experiences are certainly not felt by all members of a religious community, but they could be quite important for people who are most ardent followers of some religion.

Even if these strong experiences and emotions are the core of religion, one must still wonder why they should be coupled with any strict dogmas. Even if a religious mystic would describe her experiences through certain concepts that would seem to commit her to some clear dogmas – such as the existence of divinities – there literally would be no need to take these concepts as referring to anything. Chateaubriand’s strongest argument then leads at once to a quite different outcome from what he envisioned – to a notion of religion without any dogmas, that is, to a sort of embracing the mysterious without any need for explaining it with some theories.

Chateaubriand’s second argument concerns more the supposed benefits Christianity has provided in the development of society. One might be a bit skeptical about the beneficence of some of the things Chateaubriand mentions, such as the founding of militaristic religious orders, but some developments, such as the disapproval of infanticide and the abolition of slavery, are clearly positive (although Bible has also been used for justifying the enslavement of Africans). In a manner fitting to a romantic age, he even speculates of the possibility that the spiritual being of humanity would directly cause changes in the material state of both humanity itself and nature in general – barbaric paganism, with the massacre of innocent Christians, caused the destruction of Roman Empire and the spread of atheism might as well destroy Europe. This speculation is, of course, quite unbelievable, but also against the very dogmas of Catholic Christianity – no lesser authority than Augustine stated already that the coming and goings of earthly empires have nothing to do with the fate of the heavenly kingdom.

Chateaubriand’s laudations are probably far from impartial – he ignores all the havoc caused in the name of Christianity and is silent about any positive effects of other religions or Enlightenment. Still, it is true that religions might at least have the potential for good effects – religious experiences might e.g. make people more charitable toward one another. Yet again, we might well ask, firstly, why this religion need be Christianity in particular. Secondly, we might also question whether these beneficent effects should be connected with any religious dogmas at all. Indeed, a religion without dogmas could satisfy the need for more humane society a lot better than any religion with strict dogmas that might always leave out some human beings outside their influence.

keskiviikko 21. joulukuuta 2016

François-René de Chateaubriand: Genius of Christianity – Art and literature

When it comes to art, Chateaubriand's outlook is clearly literary – he has almost nothing to say about fine arts, when compared to his extensive take on poetry. Furthermore, even here we could as well repeat most of the criticism we launched against Chateaubriand's take on poetry. He is especially careful to point out that Christianity provides e.g. good topics for paintings. This appears rather pathetic defense of Christianity, because surely the worth of a painting lies in something else than merely their topic, even if a good topic does make it easier to make an aesthetic impression. Most original is probably Chateaubriand's take on architecture, where he points out how e.g. Gothic churches provide a more concrete experience of infinity than Greek temples.

Chateaubriand's take on literature is not that much better. He divides his topic intro three classes: history, rhetoric and philosophy or science. Of these, we might be quick with the rhetoric. Chateaubriand is especially keen to show that people like Church Fathers were good writers. This is again part of Chateaubriand's general strategy to show that Christianity is especially good religion for producing beauty.

History and science are a different matter. Chateaubriand does have a somewhat antiquated notion of history – it is more a literary effort of describing certain series of actual events in an aesthetic fashion than a research into past events. His defense of Christianity as a source of good histories is rather halfhearted. Chateaubriand merely states that Christian historians have been as proficient as Pagan historians and points out in a familiar manner how the Christian nations have had interesting fates worthy of a historian.

Chateaubriand's plea for the worth of Christianity in case of science and philosophy is the least convincing. In this case, religion either seems like a detriment to the work of scientists and philosophers or then at best apparently contributes nothing to their progress. Chateaubriand relies on name dropping, mentioning all the famous mathematicians, scientists, philosophers etc. who were clearly at least religious in general or even Christian in particular. In case of philosophy, he is especially keen to point out that times of heightened Christianity were those with great philosophers. One is somewhat perplexed that Chateaubriand has then nothing to say about the philosophy of Middle Ages, since that was the time with most Christian and even Catholic philosophers, but is satisfied with such modern names as Leibniz and Clarke. The basic problem is, of course, that Chateaubriand is already evaluating the worth of a philosophic work with lenses of a Catholic Christian.

The most convincing part of the third book of the Genius of Christianity is then the one not mentioned in the title of the book. This part has as its topic what Chateaubriand calls harmonies. In practice, these include, on the one hand, harmonies between religious buildings and nature, and secondly, between religious feasts and human life. The first continues Chateaubriand's interest on architecture. Places of Christian worship are not just capable of connecting us to divinity, he says, but they also exist in harmony with the surrounding nature, and even when they are becoming ruins, they show the power of divinity over the nature. The second topic opens up the discussion to the fourth book, which covers the cult of Christianity. Together, they contains ingredients of most importance in Chateaubriand's book – it is the practice and personal experience that has the greatest ability to make people Christian. This is a topic that I shall deal in more detail in the next post.

tiistai 13. joulukuuta 2016

François-René de Chateaubriand: Genius of Christianity – Christian poetry

In the second part of Genius of Christianity Chateaubriand begins the tactic that will have most repercussions in the history of ideas. Ironically, this inheritance has little to do with philosophy of religion and more with aesthetics, which is in line with the topic of the second part – poetry. While attempting to uphold Christianity, Chateaubriand influenced the romantic movement of literature.

Chateaubriand's tactic plays on many levels, but his main line of offence is simple – Christian poetry simply is better than pagan poetry. Of course, this strategy also fails on many levels. For instance, Chateaubriand fails to take into account all poetry that falls outside either Greek or Jewish influence – there's no mention of e.g. Indian or Chinese poetry.

Chateaubriand suggests, firstly, that Bible itself is somehow deeper and more beautiful poetry than anything produced by Greeks – for instance, Chateaubriand praises the simplicity of the beginning of Genesis story of creation, which with few phrases creates a fantastic image of a world coming into being. One might answer that Homer has his beautiful phrases as well, but the most telling objection to Chateaubriand's tactic is irrelevance – who cares if Bible is more beautiful than Iliad, if we want to know which is truer?

The worth of Chateaubriand's suggestion lies more in his general opinion that all Christian poetry is beautiful. Here he is emphasising especially the usefulness of Christianity – Christian religion has the characteristic of bringing forth more beauty in the world. This is, undoubtedly, more of a pragmatic justification of the practice of believing its tenets, but quite in line with the general stance of Chateaubriand's book.

One might really question the selection of poetic works Chateaubriand takes to be representative of Christian poetry. It is surprising that Dante's Divine Comedy is barely mentioned, while Milton's Paradise Lost is given ample attention. Equally mysterious from modern viewpoint seems the negligence of Shakespeare's literary work and the inclusion of so many French tragedies from authors barely remembered today.

A more interesting line of criticism lies in Chateaubriand's peculiar reason for upholding the greatness of Christian poetry. Chateaubriand appears to say that Christian poetry has a better mixture of characters and topics to use. For instance, Chateaubriand sets the Homeric heros against the knights of the chivalric poetry. While the former are merely self-serving barbarians, the latter fight for a greater cause, namely, the honour of God. Similarly, the Paradise is according to Chateaubriand a mythologically more moral place than Elysian Fields, since getting to former lies not so much in heroics, but in living a good life.

Chateaubriand's argumentation seems here equally shaky. Sure, one could say that Christian poetry deals with more moral topics and has morally better characters. Still, this is no guarantee that a work dealing with such moral matters would itself be aesthetically more worthwhile. We'll see if Chateaubriand's case is more convincing with other arts and literature.

keskiviikko 7. joulukuuta 2016

François-René de Chateaubriand: The Genius of Christianity (1802)

Chateaubriand’s Génie de Christianisme falls into a genre of apologies or defenses of the worth of Christianity, with which the history of Christian philosophy began and which was popular throughout the Middle Ages. But the supposed enemy, from which Chateaubriand tries to defend Christianity, is not the pagan culture of imperial Rome nor is it the competing might of Islam, but a completely new force, namely, the Enlightenment and its criticism of religion. Thus, Chateaubriand appears to think, a completely new kind of apology is required.

Chateaubriand’s apology falls into four books with distinct themes, which I will deal with separately. The first book most resembles a traditional apologetic work in that it tries to defend the dogmas of Christianity. Yet, even here Chateaubriand has more of a pragmatic take on the question, for instance, when he tries to show that compared with other religions, only Christianity has ever had a truly working moral doctrine in Decalogue, or when he speaks in somewhat Kantian tone of a moral necessity of the belief in afterlife.

The true essence of Christianity lies, according to Chateaubriand, in its mysteries, such as Trinity and the story of fall and redemption. These mysteries reveal some deep truths about God and human beings. A common attack against these mystical doctrines had been that they were actually just influences from other religions – for instance, other religions had examples of Trinities, thus, they were not a unique element in Christianity. Chateaubriand’s tactic appears to be in a sense accept these accusations – Trinities occur all around religions, thus, there must be something important in the idea. Then again, he is also quick to point out that these other examples lack some important details which occur only in Christianity and which truly explain the importance of these doctrines.

Chateaubriand does also try his hand with traditional argumentation for the existence of God. Yet, he is quick to dismiss overtly theoretical proofs, or at least he gives one only in end notes. His main line of offence is traditional teleology – Chateaubriand points out the orderliness of the universe and especially the wondrous nature of living beings, which do things that apparently should require the aid of divine forethought (a favourite example of Chateaubriand appears to be the migration of birds and other animals). We know that Chateaubriand is here fighting a loosing battle, since these wonders of nature do have natural explanations. A similar losing battle is going on, when Chateaubriand tries to show that the chronology of the Bible is the most accurate representation of time and that the Biblical events are far more ancient than events in any other holy text.

While this lackluster start wouldn't really make the work into a classic, same cannot really be said about the next book, in which Chateaubriand tries a new tactic.