Brideshead Revisited portrays many themes, but the one that recurs most is that of religion. Every character had their battle with religion, from the pious Lady Marchmain to Charles, who was an agnostic. Throughout the miniseries, I got to see and understand religion and religious belief from the points of view of the various characters. As Charles struggles to understand religion, Sebastian expressed his thoughts on his family being a mixed religious family, with Bridey and Cordelia being Catholics, his father being ex-communicated, his mother a saint while Julia and himself were semi-heathens. We come to see this statement as an expression of the truth throughout the series. The common thing between them was that they all eventually found peace in their belief in God. It is also seen through Lord Marchmain and Rex Mortram that there are individuals who become religious purely as a matter of convenience, with both of them converting to Catholicism for marriage.
“Religion was a hobby which some people professed and others did not.” This is perhaps one of the statements by Charles that led me into deep thought about religion. Charles, being an agnostic, sought to understand religion and religious belief logically after meeting the Flyte family. After meeting Sebastian and seeing him drown his sorrows in alcoholism over the years, he expresses the fact that without religion, Sebastian would be a happy and healthy man. This raises the question of whether religion leads to happiness. He also believes that the concepts of wrong and moral obligation are religious concepts. Is this really true? The aspect of freedom from religion can also be seen when he expresses concern to the absolution of Lord Marchmain who did not practice Catholicism, saying that it should not be imposed on him just because the rest of the family want to satisfy their needs. However, at the point of Lord Marchmain’s absolution, we see Charles joining Julia and Cara in prayer and asking for a sign, which he received when Lord Marchmain, who had been antipathetic to religion, accepted the sacrament. This shows that there exists something greater than man, whose understanding we can only have if we accept that existence.
Sebastian, though he was a believer, sought happiness through worldly pleasures such as alcohol, only being happy when he was drunk. At one point, Charles inquires whether Sebastian is struggling against temptation as he did not seem to be much more virtuous than Charles was. This brings the question as to whether there is a relationship between religion and virtue. However, he was very unhappy, leading to his depression and eventual estrangement from his family. Religion also played a role in this estrangement as his family would constantly remind him of the fact that he was not as religious as they were. In the end, we learn through Cordelia that he was at a monastery in Tunis and was very religious.
Julia, much like Sebastian, sought happiness in life, not necessarily through religion. Her engagement, and eventually marriage to Rex did not make her happy. She had not been in touch with her religion, saying that she lived in sin year in, year out. When she talks about the child she was to have with Rex, she says that religion was the one thing she could give her child even though it had not done her much good. In the end, she went back to her religious way of life, saying that “The worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from his mercy. That’s what it would mean starting a life with you, without him.” She also acknowledges that it was a bad thing for her to want to set up a good that was rival to God’s. This can be seen to be her realization of the importance of religion in human life, to achieve the ultimate end which is true happiness.
Another aspect of religious belief that is brought out is that of extremism. Lord Marchmain says, while refusing the Father from absolving him that “I am not an extremist and I have not been a practicing member of your church for 25 years.” Extremism can be seen through Lady Marchmain, being a religious fanatic and the statement may as well have been in reference to her, seeing as she was extremely pious and she did not tolerate anything that was not in her purview of what she thought religion should be like, always attempting to impose those beliefs on her children. This imposition can be an example of how one can exercise their religion in a manner that does not recognize others freedom of religion and how they choose to exercise it.
To answer some of the questions raised above, I believe that religion is a means to an end, with that end being true happiness. This true happiness, I would suggest, is the good that comes from religion. On the issue of wrong and moral obligation being religious concepts, I would not agree with that. This is because these are concepts that are perceptible to man even without religion, because of natural law and also because man is a rational being. I would however say that religion could offer an understanding of what is right or wrong and of the moral obligation that could arise in different scenarios. As to whether there is a relationship between religion and virtue, I would say that this would dependent on how one exercises their religious belief. One can therefore exercise their religion either in a way that promotes virtue or, one that promotes vice, which is not the purpose of religion.
In my opinion, religion is inherent to the nature of man. However, in as much as it is inherent, since man is a rational being, they can make the choice as to whether or not they want to be religious and how they exercise their religious belief.