I just finished reading Brideshead Revisited. The novel gives a good sketch of my grievances with religion. Religion drives apart family, friends, and lovers, without hint of preventing or punishing the evils – adultery, alcoholism, homosexuality, divorce – it supposedly condemns. It destroys the happiness of believers and unbelievers alike – and then celebrates their self-inflicted suffering.
Brideshead Revisited is a ringing indictment of religion. Or so I thought, and perhaps I merely reveal my cynical lack of religion. It turns out that the author, Evelyn Waugh, was a committed Catholic and intended the book to be a celebration of “the operation of Grace”. I wonder, can a religious person read Brideshead and really celebrate the “Grace” of a god content to tend his flock through the destruction of his follower’s lives? It appalls to think that a Catholic could be excited to watch Sebastian, in the final stages of delirious alcoholism, crawl into the embrace of another comforting narcotic – monastic orders. Or that they would be relieved, and not heartbroken, to see Julia and Charles part, childless, loveless, and alone for the rest of their lives. Or that they would cheer the priest as he attempts repeatedly, against the advice of the doctor, to deliver the last rights to an apparently unwilling and apostate Lord Marchmain.
Religion, in its own portrayal, is the enemy of life in this world. It is so not by accident, but by necessity. It could have no power over us if it did not claim the irrelevance of happiness in the material world. It must hold that the deepest misery and tragedy here is merely a backdrop against its own imperceptible supreme good. It must hold that good and bad are something unknowable (yet taught) rather than instinctively known. To be religious is to read Brideshead Revisited as a sweet story of redemption, rather than what is so plainly is – a tragedy.