Sense and Nonsense: Schall’s Very Own Religion

On finishing my annual eight-day retreat at lovely Georgetown Preparatory School on Rockville Pike, I returned to my room. Checking over e-mail, I noticed an unfamiliar source. It was entitled, “Possible Useful Information.” I am rather a sucker for possible useless information. This particular citation was about natural law. Its Web site address was www. geocities.com/natlaw. But the clincher that caught my undying attention was this simple notice: “There is a natural law template for those who wish to create their own religion.” “A template?” I thought. “A natural law template to create my own religion?” Just what I have always wanted!

Whether the Website owner, knowing I was on retreat, had me figured for someone about to form his own religion, I am not clear. Needless to say, I immediately sent back a return e-mail: “If I wanted to create my own religion, who would I have to be?” But I have to admit that starting my own religion, especially under the aegis of “natural law,” never quite occurred to me. The thought, however, opened up numerous possibilities. “What would Schall’s Very Own Religion look like?” I wondered. Does everyone have a “natural right” to formulate his own religion? Why had this noble idea never occurred to me before?

The only precedent that I had for such an enterprise was that of Chesterton who, after having read all the “heretics,” as he called them, decided that if anything so sane as Christianity, which the heretics opposed, did not already exist, he would have to invent it himself. Of course, he was grateful that it was already invented by someone else. Somehow I felt that this Web site was not designed for me to reinvent Christianity as natural law.

The problem became more complex. Natural law, after all, was intended in one sense to provide not what was unique to each of us but what was common. We would go to a natural law Web site not to found our own religion but to find what all religions had in common. The Web site seemed to be confusing divine positive law and natural law. On the other hand, natural law did in general propose that some religious service was due to the gods but that its particular formalities could vary widely. And I suppose the invitation to found Schall’s Very Own Religion implies (a) that a true religion has not yet been founded and (b) that Schall is just the man to remedy the situation. This hypothesis would work out just fine were it not for the fact that no one else but me has any need for or interest in Schall’s Very Own Religion if anyone can, in turn, found his own.

 

Yet, something very modern, very “Supreme-Courtish,” inheres in this proposal. In the Casey decision, for instance, it was postulated that everyone had the natural right to form his own worldview. In the highest things, no one is bound by anything other than himself. We can, on this basis, conceive a different religion for each person. Just as there are billions of human beings, so there would be billions of religions. This is the ultimate liberty: No one has to believe in anything.

The plot thickens. Could I patent or register my new religion to keep others from stealing my own personal god? Would my religion be tax-exempt? If I wanted to include cannibalism in my personal religion, pace natural law, who, besides the victim, could object? A young student told me the other day that the Ten Commandments were not commandments at all but merely statements. Could I eliminate the commandments, install their opposites? Would it make any difference?

The whole process reminds me of the Supreme Court but also the Fall in the Book of Genesis. Both want to set up their own laws in such a way that whatever is is right, is OK. Let us suppose that I do set up my own religion. I pass out cards announcing my pitch. All anyone could say to my idea of religion is, “Isn’t that nice?” or “Isn’t that odd?” No disagreement would be possible since everyone’s own religion is just what he says it is. And even he can change his mind. Each person can, on successive days, have a hundred religions.

Thus, after serious consideration, I think I will give up this idea to found my very own religion. I know many will be bitterly disappointed. After all, if I do not have my own worldview, my own religion, how is the Supreme Court to know who I really am? So don’t call up www.geocities.com/natlaw expecting Schall and his religion to be there. He knows who he has to be to found his own religion. He knows he is not He.

Fr. James V. Schall

By

The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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