What Brideshead Revisited Taught Me About Religion

Religion is the major theme running throughout Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Here, the writer focuses on the grace of God seen through the interactions between Charles Ryder and the aristocratic Anglo-Catholic Flyte family ; and that there is ‘an unseen hook and an invisible line’ which will bring people back to God with a twitch upon the thread. Through a keen and appetent indulgence in the literary work, one is able to derive lessons on religion, specifically; that religion is a key basic good, that true religion involves both form and spirit, that true happiness in religion can only be achieved at the midpoint of overzealousness and spiritual languor and finally, that it is possible to arrive at religion or at the understanding of the need to relate with God in an objective manner and without having a prior tradition of religion.

The nature of religion as a basic good is apparent. Human beings have always been in search for knowledge and understanding of the meaning of life and on their purpose on earth and in the universe. In order to find this, man has sought out the source of everything- the rationale being that if there is in existence a transcendent origin of the universal order of things and of human actions then purpose can only be achieved if one acts in harmony with this order. [1] This origin can be taken to be God and religion the pursuit of being in harmony with him. John Finnis therefore defines religion as the establishment and maintenance of a proper relationship between oneself and the divine.  [1] Different characters in Brideshead including Sebastian, Julia and Charles are seen as struggling to find truth and purpose in life. Religion however is not only depicted as a basic good but as a good higher, if not the highest. Those who strayed from their faith all try to fulfil their thirst for communion with the divine by indulging in worldly pleasures such as alcohol for Sebastian, lust for both Julia and Lord Marchmain and love for Charles. At the end of it all however, all other goods seem temporary and insufficient and they cannot fill the void left by faithlessness. The characters return to faith, and seek to be made right with God. Julia comments to Charles, right before she leaves him that their relationship is ‘insufficient and improper’. The disappearance of her misery and sadness when she fell in love with Charles was brief; soon after, the sadness in her returned. One can also see this characteristic of religion as a higher good in Charles’ search for love and purpose. Charles seeks love from Sebastian, then from Julia and eventually from God, in whom he finds satisfaction.

Religion in Brideshead Revisited is seen as being constituted by both form and spirit. The religious form is the manner in which the religion is carried out- that is, the specific rules on worship, and other various formal practices required in the exercise of the religion whereas the spirit of a religion is its metaphysical truth. [2] True religion involves ones involvement in both the form and the spirit. The relationship between the two is however, complex. It is possible to have form without spirit. Lord Marchmain and Rex Mortram went through catechism and converted to Catholics for the sake of marriage. They engaged in the practices required of the catholic faith but did not embrace the underlying truth or doctrine, hence rejected or ignored the spirit of the religion. As such, they cannot be said to be practicing Catholicism; form without spirit is not religion. Charles also genuflects on entering the chapel with Sebastian; he performs a ‘catholic practice’ and yet remains agnostic. The opposite is however not true. It is impossible to have spirit without form. This is because the spirit of a religion is expressed through form hence once one embraces the spirit, they shall automatically embrace and partake in its form. In this manner, form and sprit are inextricable. Though an argument is put forward by some, in real life [3] and in Brideshead,  (as seen in Bishop Charles’ belief that religion cannot be carried out as before in the new age and that the form of religion may be abandoned but the spirit can remain.) that it is possible for non-religious people to have the spirit of religion yet lack its form, Waugh seeks to and rightly so, refute this notion.

Closely woven with the above point is the lesson that true happiness in religion can only be achieved when religion is treated as a virtue; a midpoint between two extremes. One extreme found in a religion is overzealous piety as portrayed by Lady Marchmain whose piety and religious fanaticism made her into a domineering termagant, resulting in her husband’s and son’s hatred for her and in the weak family bonds characterising the Flyte family. The other extreme is cramped by religious folk who practise religion conveniently. Examples of such are demonstrated in Sebastian and Julia who are ‘half-heathens’, complying with the form of religion; attending mass, and speaking ‘Christian language’ while carrying out actions which the religion would otherwise be considered wrong such as fornication in Julia’s case. In both extremes, individuals were unhappy: the over pious are unable to relate with people while the half-heathens feel confined by their religion. There is however a midpoint that one may strive towards. Cordelia may be seen as a perfect example of one who has attained true happiness in religion. She is described as ‘joyful… and generous of spirit’. She is in neither extremes and participates in the form of her religion, seen mostly in her charity while believing and adhering to the truth and doctrines therein, evident in the conversations she had with Charles on her faith.

Finally, on reading the book, a conclusion can be made that religion, or faith in God and the establishment of a relationship with him, can be arrived at in an objective, non-emotional manner. One also need not have a tradition of faith to arrive at faith. This is illustrated in the characters and in the perspective from which the story is written. The story is narrated from the point of view of Charles, an agnostic, who has not grown up adhering to any religious beliefs or practices. His relationship with the Flyte family however brings him to God as he begins to explore the faith through their interactions and finally reaches out to God as he makes a small prayer kneeling besides Lord Marchmain’s death bed. He has been a logical thinker throughout hence it would be reasonable to assume that logic also played an important role in his conversion. Julia after abandoning her faith finally embraces true religion. She sees that she has been miserable without God and decides to seek happiness in God by being made right with him. It may be necessary however to point out that though faith can be arrived at objectively it cannot be purely arrived at objectively; belief requires something more than reason or logic, that is revelation.

Ultimately, Charles and the members of the Flyte family find peace in their faith, demonstrating God’s unmerited favour and patience as he brings wondering souls back to himself.  Waugh demonstrates that man without God, or religion in this case, is incomplete and unsatisfied but if he seeks him out, despite the suffering he may have to endure, he will find him at the end.

Eunice Njoroge (22)


[1] J. Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, Oxford: Oxford Ubiversity Press, 2011.
[2] B. Cowan, “the inextricable nature of religious form and spirit in Evelyn Waugh’s Briedshade revisited,” The Pulse, vol. 4, no. Fall Issue, p. 1, 2006.
[3] D. Bonhoeffer, “Letters & Papers from Prison,”  Edited By Eberhard Bethge, New York, Touchstone, 1953.