Sense and Nonsense: Keeping the Old Religion

James Boswell was in Wittenberg, in Saxony, on 0 30 September 1764, on his “Grand Tour” in Germany and Switzerland. He visited there the tombs of Luther and Melanchthon. The convent which housed the remains of these famous Protestant divines had, unfortunately, been “miserably shattered by the bombardments,” but the tombs were still intact. Boswell liked Melanchthon, but Luther not much. Boswell occupied himself there by borrowing pen and ink from the woman who showed him the chapel.

Somewhat to the astonishment of the locals (which Boswell was not above deliberately provoking), he proceeded to stretch himself out prone on the Tomb of Melanchthon. There he calmly wrote a letter to Samuel Johnson, who did not like Luther either. Boswell suspected the selection of this outlandish writing desk rather than that of Luther would please Johnson. Boswell, in fact, thought that Melanchthon was “the worthiest of all the reformers, with no private resentment to gratify.” Boswell recalled of Melanchthon, “so mild was he that when his aged mother consulted him with anxiety on the perplexing disputes of the times, he advised her to keep the old religion.”

To “keep the old religion,” of course, is no mean feat, as I am sure even Melanchthon’s mother found out. Part of the reason keeping the faith is difficult, I suppose, is because we do not pray about what we believe, about the substance of the doctrines themselves. On Laetare Sunday, March 19, 1939, in Paris, Raïssa Maritain had been to a Mass celebrated by Pere Bruno. In her Journals, she reflected:

During Mass, I understood certain things about predestination. And that, at one moment or another of our life, we have to make a choice for the world or for Christ insofar as the latter is head of the world of grace, as opposed to this world of which Lucifer is the prince.

She understood, in other words, that the knowledge of God does not free us from the choice of God in the context of our lives. In asking us to love Him, God does not, in other words, ask us to cease taking the risk of being free, of being human.

In addition to praying about “keeping the old religion,” we also must recognize that there are, including the case of predestination, many conflicting ideas and faiths and temptations striving for our attention. In Woody Allen’s book Side Effects there is a posthumous account of one Sandor Needleman’s life. Needleman, in Allen’s recollection, was a sort of modern philosopher. “Human freedom for Needleman consisted of being aware of the absurdity of life. ‘God is silent,’ he was fond of saying, ‘now if we can only get the man to shut up.’ ” The doctrines of faith are our primary reasons for holding that we are free and life is not absurd, and no doubt, man will not shut up the subject. We can sympathize with Melanchthon’s mother’s perplexities even yet.

In the Third Part of the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas asked “Whether Christ, After the Resurrection, Had a True Body?” Too few of us, I suppose, also pray over this very truth of our faith, and the opinions of the philosophers are noteworthy for only one thing on this topic: none of them is as shockingly wondrous as the faith itself. Thomas had no doubt about the topic and gave his reasons. He simply concluded, “If [Christ’s) body was some sort of phantasm, there was not really a resurrection, but only an apparent one.” And if the latter is so, why bother? St. Paul had said about the same thing.

At sometime in our lives we have to choose for or against the world of grace of which Christ is the head. Christianity does not hold, ultimately, that our external circumstances will obviate this decision. Whether we are in the gulags, in which Solzhenitsyn ironically holds that faith turns out to be stronger than in free societies, or at a Mass with Pere Bruno and Raïssa Maritain, or prone on the Tomb of Melanchthon writing to Samuel Johnson, we need to realize what our faith teaches us about the ultimate choice we have to make. The Resurrection involves precisely us, not an apparent us, as St. Thomas taught us. This is why God took the risk of putting us here in the first place, in this world of grace, which we can accept or reject.

God is silent, now if we can only get the man to shut up. At one moment or another of our lives we have to make a choice for the world or for Christ insofar as the latter is the head of the world of grace. Si autem eius [Christi] corpus fuisset phantasticum, non fuisset vera resurrection, sed apparens. If, with Melanchthon’s good mother, we want to keep the old religion, we must pray about, think about the truth that the Resurrection of Christ was not just a phantasm or phantasy but a reality, one that makes our choice for or against Christ central in our lives. In the end, I think, not even Sandor Needleman would be content with a corpus phantasticum, however absurd it might sound to the philosophers or to the men who will not shut up.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    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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