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.